Region: North America
Subject: Explicit Sexuality
Artist: Clyde Fitch, Olga Nethersole
Confronting Bodies: New York City's political machine, New York's "yellow press"
Dates of Action: 1900
Location: New York, NY
Description of Artwork: Sapho is a play adapted from the 1884 French novel by Alphonse Daudet. The novel is about a young man, Jean Gaussin, who loses his position in society after being seduced by Fanny Legrand, or Sapho. Clyde Fitch changed the play for the actress Olga Nethersole by shifting the focus of the play to Sapho, whom she played. The tragedy of the play is that Sapho must leave her love, Gaussin, in order to raise a child she had given birth to in her more promiscuous days.
The Incident: Before Sapho got to New York it toured in many other cities across the country. Newspapers in some of the cities where the play had appeared called Sapho offensive. It turns out that a press agent for the play actually paid a clergyman to call Sapho the "most immoral play of modern times" in order to get the play in the papers. This is what got the play so much attention when it arrived in New York. The New York City police chief made it public before the play even arrived that the show would be investigated. On February 5, 1900 the play opened on Broadway. After two weeks, Robert Mackay, a yellow journalist for the paper "World" filed an affidavit with the police saying that the play violated public decency. The city's district attorney then filed an official complaint with a magistrate who issued arrest warrants for Olga Nethersole, her co-star, her manager, and the owner of the theater. They were all charged with offending public decency and therefore being a public nuisance. Most people who saw the play, however, found very little indecent about it. Even the critic for the "World" said that the production was harmless. Yet, it was these sensationalist newspapers that led the crusade to shut the play down. The papers launched the crusade in an effort to generate sales by uncovering a scandal with a popular star such as Nethersole. The politicians did their part in trying to shut down the play because they didn't want to look ineffective. The Tammany Hall political machine which controlled the city at the time was known for letting brothels and prostitutes conduct business. They were corrupt and would pretend to do "sweeps" and arrest brothel owners and prostitutes and then a few days later would let them go back to business.
The papers were catching on however and the city made a big deal out of Sapho in order to try to regain the confidence of the people and the papers. The city magistrate issued warrants for the lead actress, Olga Nethersole, her co-star, Hamilton Revelle, her manager and the manager of Wallack's Theater. All were charged with offending public decency, a misdemeanour. The play closed on March 5; it held 29 performances in the month that it was opened. Despite this there was no doubt that Nethersole was going to win her case. She was actually so confident that she told her lawyers to rest the case before calling any witnesses or making any arguments. The jury deliberated for only twelve minutes and on April 6 they were all acquitted.
Results of Incident: The play reopened the day after the trial and had an extended run. The theater printed souvenirs saying that Nathersole had won "freedom for art and literature". Newspaper cartoons mocked the politicians for going after a harmless play like Sapho while they made their money off prostitution. The play was also very successful in London, where the theater censors found no problem with it.
Source: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia