Interview: Salomania's Mark Jackson on Maud Allan, Media Sensationalism, and Lesbian Scapegoats
When playwright and director Mark Jackson was directing Oscar Wilde's play Salome at the Aurora Theatre, he discovered the story of dancer Maud Allan, a San Francisco native who took Europe by storm in the early 1900s with her version of the "Dance of the Seven Veils." British M.P. Noel Pemberton-Billing, wanting a platform to promote his decidedly odd conspiracy theory that Germany was making the British into homosexuals to undermine the country's strength of will, wrote that Allan was a lesbian and a German sympathizer. When Allan sued Pemberton-Billing for libel, as he had hoped she would, the trial gave him a public forum for his theories. Jackson saw social issues raised during Allan's trial that are relevant today, such as media sensationalism, gay rights, freedom of expression, hysteria, and fear of change. He wrote and directed Salomania, which opened last week and continues through July 22, for the Aurora. He talked with us about looking for scapegoats, the appeal of messy stories and characters, and our need for distractions in times of stress.What was it about Maud Allan's story that made you want to make it a theatrical piece?
It's an inherently theatrical situation and I think what I responded to was what a potent situation it was -- it's just full of so much stuff. There's a war going on and gender equality going on and gay politics and issues of freedom of expression and artistic freedom, and there's just so much wrapped into it. And it's true! A lot of things that were said in court, it's kind of shocking what they were willing to say in public out loud. It's the best dialogue ever written and nobody wrote it -- people actually said these things.What exactly happened?
It's a confusing situation. Allan sued Noel Pemberton-Billing for libel because in his newspaper he accused her of being a lesbian, a sadist, and a German sympathizer. At the time, it was the thing to sue people for libel if they slandered your name. And just as Oscar Wilde's friends told him not to do it, her friends told her it wouldn't be good, but she was very proud and she did it. She was the plaintiff, and he was the defendant. However, in the courtroom it feels very much as though she is the defendant and hhe is the plaintiff. He really goes after her. He wanted to be sued for libel. He wanted to have a platform outside of Parliament where he could make his case for this conspiracy theory no one was buying. He knew the press would be there -- he knew if he targeted an artist, it would be sensational and get in the papers, and he might be able to make some progress.How did World War l affect the trial?
It was the entire reason for it. By 1918, they didn't know it was near the end, but they were certainly feeling deeply -- weary is too light a word -- but the weight of the war was tremendous, and society was kind of at a breaking point. People were very anxious and hysterical, and Pemberton-Billings fed into that. His timing was prefect -- people wanted the war to end, they wanted to win, they wanted escape and a distraction.What are the issues in this piece that are relevant now?
Sadly, it's always contemporary that in a time of anxiety, we look for someone to blame. For Pemberton-Billing, he got it in his head that the reason the British were failing in the war was because their strength was being undermined by homosexuality. You know, the gays are responsible for Great Britain's problems during the war. More recently, if you're a Muslim, you're a terrorist in some people's minds. Our view of a group of people becomes very limited and simplistic and quite dumb. It's ludicrous to say, "If you're a Muslim, you're a terrorist." Only people who are hysterical will believe in this. It's something that seems to be human nature to, in a time of stress, find someone to blame and go after them.
It's difficult not to try and make a situation better when writing about it, to keep it messy. Particularly with Maud Allan -- she was not an easy personality. She is not a hero, by any means. I don't think we'd be talking about Maud Allan had it not been for the trial. She was not the most spectacular dancer. She was a huge celebrity, but it had a lot to do with her force of personality. She was a decent dancer, extremely musical, and a force of nature. Then this trial happened and therefore, books have been written about her. No trial, no page in history. She was really used as a scapegoat. She was a pawn in a very complicated series of political machinations. I can't remember exactly, but there's that famous quote by Hermann Goering where he basically says, if you want to get people to do what you want, find an enemy and blame all your problems on that enemy.Is there something you're always looking for in plays you do?
Very generally, a story that needs to be told live on a stage. I'm very interested in complicated characters who are difficult and who contradict themselves. I think there's not much to be learned from heroes and villains, but there's something to be learned from people who fall somewhere in between. So I'm interested in those kinds of people and the stories that come up around them.Salomania runs through July 22 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Admission is $34-$48.