Monday, August 1, 2022

The Loves of Lulu - the First American Lulu (not Louise Brooks) part 3

This post is a brief follow-up to the two previous posts about Margot Kelly, the first American actress to play Lulu. Kelly played Wedekind's famed character in The Loves of Lulu in New York in May, 1925 at the time Louise Brooks, who would play Lulu in the 1929 film, Pandora's Box, was performing in the Ziegfeld Follies and taking on a bit part in her first film, The Street of Forgotten Men

Margot Kelly in 1913

Camille Scaysbrook, a longtime member of the Louise Brooks Society noted on Facebook, she searched in vain for a positive review of the provocative play. "I tried in vain to find a positive review, given that everyone from Alexander Woolcott down seems to have considered it the stinker of the year. Amazingly, the only one who liked it was the great George Jean Nathan. His might have been the sole positive review, as it's quoted in advertisements. He also wrote positively (and insightfully) of it in Arts and Decoration."

Inspired by Camille, I went looking for more commentary on the play, and can confirm her findings - everyone hated The Loves of Lulu. Not only did Alexander Woolcott dislike the play, so did another famous critic of the time, Edmund Wilson. And so did John Mason Brown, who, writing in Theater Arts Monthly, called it an "unpardonably bad production." Critic Philip Hale stated, " The audience on the first night of The Loves of Lulu (Wedekind's Erdgeist) laughed ironically and coarsely, guying the whole performance." The New Yorker said it was "played for farce value, perhaps unintentionally."

Writing in The New Republic, Wilson said the play "failed so completely." In Vanity Fair, Woolcott said it lacked "perversion." Ouch! Even Picture Play magazine, which generally focused on films, got in on the massacre. Before noting The Loves of Lulu "played about a week to all but empty houses," Picture Play stated, "It was adapted from a German play called Erdgeist, by Wedekind, which in the original is a morbidly interesting work of real force and coherence. But the translation was so garbled and the acting so bad that it landed in the same heap with its almost illiterate neighbors."

In fact, many of the bad reviews the play received criticized the translation, which was by Samuel Eliot. His translation was the only translation into English at the time. And, according to Peter Bauland's 1968 book, The Hooded Eagle: Modern German Drama on the New York Stage, Margot Kelly's The Loves of Lulu was something rare -- the only professional production of a Wedekind play in New York for many years. Bauland writes, "Between the closing of The Awakening of Spring in 1917 and the off-Broadway performance of Erdgeist as Earth Spirit in 1950, the only professional production in New York of a play by Frank Wedekind came on May 11, 1925. This was Samuel A. Eliot, Jr.’s translation of Erdgeist known as The Loves of Lulu. The German play, written in 1894, was first produced in Leipzig in 1898; its first successful staging was Max Reinhardts 1902 presentation in Berlin. It was Erdgeist and its sequel, Die Biichse der Pandora (Pandora s Box), not granted a permit to be performed in Germany until 1919, that earned for Wedekind his notorious reputation: that of being nothing more than the prophet of a cult which maintained that all human action was the product of tyrannical sex drives, and that in the face of this pressure, man cannot have both happiness and dignity. The reputation was undeserved, for despite Wedekind’s insistence on the power of glandular forces, this is certainly an oversimplification of his motives, and he seldom dealt with sex naturalistically."

All of this got me to wondering, how familiar with Wedekind's original German play could all of these critical critics have been? About the only middling review the play received was in The New Leader, a socialist weekly newspaper. Here is their review.

As I mentioned in the last blog, all this is interesting to me as background on the way Louise Brooks role as Lulu was received in the United States just four years later.

This blog is authored by Thomas Gladysz, Director of the Louise Brooks Society ( Original contents copyright © 2022. Further use prohibited.

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