Closing out the 20th annual season at Berkeley's Aurora Theater is a new play by Mark Jackson, and it's the theater's first new play commission under artistic director Tom Ross. It's called Salomania, and it's a world premiere, with previews starting tonight. It tells the story of San Francisco-born dancer Maud Allan, who became a sensation in the early 20th century around Europe and England for her “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which she called "The Vision of Salomé." Allen's story is a fascinating one, involving a libel trial not unlike Oscar Wilde's in which Allen was exposed as a lesbian, and accused of being under the thumb of "homosexual German agents" who were trying to destroy England in World War I.
To wit, from the theater:
In 1895, Maud Durrant left San Francisco to study music in Germany. Soon after, her brother killed two girls in a church on Bartlett and 22nd Street in the Mission District; the murder was instantly dubbed a “crime of the century.” Maud’s ambitious mother advised her to change her name and not come home. Going by Maud Allan, she went on to a career not in music but dance. In 1906, Allan saw Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, which is famous for its “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Known in particular for her signature dance, “The Vision of Salomé,” Maud became a megastar and toured the world. By 1918, though she remained a known celebrity and social personality, her career was on the wane. She agreed to play the title role in a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s banned Salome, and was accused by British M.P. Noel Pemberton-Billing of being a lesbian, a sadist, and a German sympathizer. Allan sued Billing for libel, exactly what he hoped she would do. Billing then used the trial as a platform to promote his absurd conspiracy theory that 47,000 British citizens were being held under the thumb of homosexual German agents bent on undermining Great Britain’s strength of will, and that these traitors’ names were collected in a secret black book held by a German prince in Albania. The trial took over the front pages from WWI itself and created a major, international scandal. Billing was eventually acquitted. Within a few months, WWI ended and Maud Allan slipped into obscurity. Exhausted by a relentless onslaught of economic and social change brought about by an overwhelming war, Great Britain in 1918 stood precariously on the edge of a national meltdown. Maud Allan’s libel case provided a welcomed, deliciously salacious diversion that threw politics, art, celebrity, nationalism, the battle of the sexes, and freedom of expression together into one spectacular extravaganza.
SALOMANIA is a local story, and it’s an international story. It’s about any place that has faced or is experiencing significant social, technological, material, and moral change. It’s also a tragedy about the death of good sense. Ultimately, SALOMANIA is less about its individual characters than it is about the anxious society that shaped them.
In honor of Gay Pride Month, maybe you should think about seeing it.
Tickets are available at auroratheatre.org. Prices: Previews $34; Regular Performances $30-48; Limited Opening Night Seating $55. Half-price tickets for students or anyone under age 30 are available by phone at 510-843-4822.