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Days Past: Cleopatra on stage in 1896 Prescott: a stout sorceress

Lillian Lewis as Cleopatra (The Wasp, December 1895).

Lillian Lewis as Cleopatra (The Wasp, December 1895).

Prescott’s theatregoers gobbled up the pompous press puffs that heralded the arrival on Jan. 3, 1896, of Lillian Lewis’ lavish production of Sardou’s Cleopatra at Patton’s Opera House on Gurley Street.

Known in New York City as a modern drama queen, Lewis was proclaimed (by her husband and manager Lawrence Marston) as “the foremost American actress” and superior, in this role, to Sarah Bernhardt herself! Her leading man, Edmund Collier, was “the successor to that great classical actor, John McCullough.” (Miner, Jan. 1, 1896). The scenery and special effects dazzled, but the discerning might have cringed at the acting.

photo

Yavapai Club Showing Patton Opera House on Gurley Street, C.1900. Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum, call number BU-B-8030PE.

Victorien Sardou’s story of the Egyptian queen and her Roman conqueror, Antony, differed from history and from Shakespeare’s version. It included a full staging of the first meeting of the famous lovers. The Egyptian temptress sailed on stage in a golden barge, attended by musicians, cupids, ladies, and fan-wielding servants: a scene only described in narrative by Shakespeare. Sardou added a scene of agonized jealousy in which Cleopatra witnesses Antony caressing his new bride, Octavia. Even more original was the scene where Antony accuses Kephren, one of Cleopatra’s officers, of being her lover and demands that she prove her innocence by slaying him. She calls Kephren into her presence, crushes the poison pearl of her ring into a goblet of wine, and commands him to drink. Kephren bows reverently and raises the goblet to his lips, but Antony seizes it and says, “Go, faithful servant, go and sleep in peace.”

In a dramatic new temple scene, Cleopatra invokes the aid of the goddess Isis in defeating her enemies. She actually becomes the sorceress she is reputed to be. The storm comes on gradually, with thunder and lightning, as the temple trembles, trees fall, the earth quakes and the attendants cower in terror. At the end of the scene everyone lies prostrate before Cleopatra. Antony commits suicide in Shakespeare’s play, but Sardou has him murdered by Thyrseus, a spy who serves Octavius Caesar.

Lawrence Marston took a butcher knife to Sardou’s text, tightening and pruning in such a way as to make his wife shine and to diminish the supporting roles. The Miner’s one-paragraph review on Jan. 8 raved that the production was “all that was claimed for it. It was probably the grandest production ever placed on a stage in Prescott. The scenery was magnificent, while Miss Lewis’ impersonation of Cleopatra was simply perfect.”

Willa Cather, the novelist and critic, wrote a more bluntly caustic review when Lewis played in Nebraska. After the fortune-telling scene, “a barge drew up and from it descended a large, limp, lachrymose ‘Kleo-paw-tra,’ with an Iowa accent, a St. Louis air and the robust physique of a West England farmer’s wife. This ponderous personage descended from the barge and perching upon the back of a stuffed tiger somewhat moth-eaten she began gleefully coquetting with Mark Antony, … whom she occasionally called ‘Me Anthony.’ ... not a movement or gesture was dignified, much less regal.

“She draped and heaped her ample form about over chairs and couches, to imitate oriental luxury. She slapped her messenger upon the back; she tickled Antony under the chin. She fainted slouchily upon every possible pretext and upon every part of the stage. And it was no ordinary faint either, it was a landslide.” Edmund Collier’s Antony “was the only piece of legitimate acting in the whole production.” (Nebraska State Journal, Oct. 23, 1895)

The San Francisco Call (Dec. 15, 1895) agreed: “Miss Lillian Lewis’ name will never be handed down to posterity as an ideal Cleopatra.” Not all of her sumptuous costumes could give her the “the temperament to play Egypt’s black-browed Queen. She was altogether too banal, too jovial, too modern.”

“When she heard of Antony’s victory, the way in which she thumped him on ‘his manly breast’ and cried ‘good’ suggested that she might be saying, ‘Bet yer boots, old pard, you’re no slouch in a fight.’”

Lewis was no Claudette Colbert or Elizabeth Taylor, but her sensational production remains one of the highlights of the theatre in Territorial Prescott.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.