La Femme Fatale
by Wendy Buonaventura
posted August 31, 2009
The art critic, Sir Herbert Read, remarked about the dancer: “Maud Allan was the Marilyn Monroe of my youth.” Now, that intrigued me! Here was a woman enormously famous in her time, yet, unlike Monroe, Maud Allan has been almost entirely forgotten today, outside of dance circles. Indeed, so forgotten is she that, when I decided to write a book based on her life, most publishers I approached wrote back with the comment that nobody had heard of her, and nobody would be interested in her story.
While researching her life, I grew more and more intrigued by this dancer who effortlessly attracted one dramatic event after another. She had been attacked with ferocity, and I began to glimpse the possible creative triggers behind her enactment of the most feared female archetype of her age: namely, “La Femme Fatale”.
Allan was a contemporary of the famous Isadora Duncan. They both performed as soloists and achieved extraordinary celebrity in the opening years of the 20th century. Canadian by birth, Allan grew up in San Francisco, and found fame in Europe—much like Duncan. At the height of her career, picture postcards and little statuettes of Maud Allan sold by the thousand. Both dancers performed in filmy costumes, and whereas many reviews of Allan’s work praised her, some lampooned her as being “kitsch and tasteless”. Duncan disliked Allan intensely and claimed Allan copied her. Unlike Duncan, Allan’s fame may have owed more to her notoriety than her artistry, yet there is no doubt that she was a serious artist, and a film fragment of her performing in India with her troupe reveals Allan as a graceful—and surprisingly modern—dancer.
Allan owed her fame almost entirely to her “Vision of Salome”. At the time of her greatest fame, the first decade of the 20th century, both the amateur and professional stages in Europe and America were in the grip of Salome-mania.
On makeshift platforms, and in the drawing rooms of society, women hostesses played out the fantasy of the Bible’s best-known dancing temptress, Salome, largely for the entertainment of other women. Who knows whether they were using this archetypal figure to express their frustration at the limitations imposed on them by society? At the same time, Can-can dancers in Paris had their own gesture of defiance; they were kicking the hats off the heads of wealthy men who went to ogle them in the dancehalls of Paris. However, the Salomes went one better: they demanded not just men’s hats but their heads—on a plate!
In those days, dance was not yet a respectable profession for women. Yet, female entertainers in the West were staking out a place for themselves on the public stage as never before, and there was considerable fear of these bold women and what was regarded as their emasculating power among the men of the era. Taking on the role of Salome played into such fears and, as Allan’s contemporary, Mata Hari, was to discover, it could be a dangerous role to play!
Figuratively speaking, Allan was knocked to the ground many times in her career—either because of her unconventional private life—or because of her dancing. Every time, though, she got back on her feet, put up her fists, and came out fighting. Over the years, she endured criticism and slanderous comments in the press, and she learned that suing her detractors for libel was an effective method of disarming her opponents. Only once did she become unglued, and that was in the notorious libel case, which she bought against a right-wing member of the English Parliament (a trial that forms the centrepiece of my book about her, which I titled "Midnight Rose”).
It happened in 1918, long after the furore over her “Vision of Salome” had died down, and Allan was appearing in Oscar Wilde’s play on the same theme. Under the guise of advertising the performance, the MP (member of parliament), Noel Billing made a thinly veiled attack on Allan in his private newspaper. He hinted that she was lesbian, and Allan sued for libel. Unlike male homosexuality, lesbianism was not against the law in England. Nevertheless, it was discreetly practised, rather than flaunted.
Men overtly abhorred Lesbianism, and viewed it as a threat to the human race. If enough women came to prefer their own sex, they reasoned, then the race would die out altogether! Given that Allan was bisexual, it was foolish of her to sue, but sue she did—only this time with disastrous consequences.
By then, Allan was long past the days of her greatest fame, but the case (dubbed “the Libel Trial of the Century”) was covered extensively in the popular press and attracted crowds of onlookers from all sections of society. It threw a searchlight on the social hypocrisies and sexual ignorance of the age, as self-confessed guardians of public morality came forward to attack Allan. To modern ears, some of the court exchanges are, frankly, hilarious. When the word “orgasm” was uttered, the Judge asked, “Is this some unnatural vice?” Then, discussing the term “clitoris”—whose meaning no respectable woman was thought to understand, although, indeed, few of either sex did understand the word at the time—a prosecution witness declared that this part of the body, when unduly excited, could have the most dreadful effect on a woman. “An exaggerated clitoris might even drive a woman to have sexual congress with an elephant,” the witness claimed. Even if the court exchanges make us smile, something darker lay behind them.
For, as the trial progressed, in effect, it became a trial of female sexuality. No respectable woman, it was claimed, could possibly take on the sadistic role of Salome unless she was a sadist in real life, and sadism was regarded at the time as a practice verging on the criminal.
Worse was to come for Allan. During the court case, a highly damaging skeleton in her family cupboard was dragged out to shame the dancer even further. Her brother, Theo, had been hanged for the murder and violation of a young woman in what was described as San Francisco’s most sensational murder trial. In those days, criminality was thought to be hereditary; hence, Allan was thought by some to be capable of crimes, which, at the time, were compared to those of Jack the Ripper. After Theo’s execution, Allan’s mother was reported to kiss his lifeless lips; it was a telling precursor to Maud’s kissing the papier maché mouth of the dead John the Baptist, in what was considered the most tasteless and shocking aspect of her Salome.
Her brother’s crime haunted the dancer all her life. Indeed, she changed her name, in order not to be associated with Theo. She was known as being secretive; her memoirs tell us little about her, and it’s true Allan had a lot to hide. It is interesting to speculate on her subconscious motives for taking on the role of the vengeful Salome. Of course, one can only speculate, but the more one researches her life, the more intriguing Allan becomes. She may not have been as outstanding a dancer as Isadora Duncan, but she was a true fighter, and I think her story deserves to be brought out into the light.
The few books about Allan’s life are, I think, somewhat dismissive and superior in their attitude toward the dancer’s behaviour and artistic ambitions. Like many, she was a complex character, and perhaps not always likeable, but I liked her bravery, determination and boldness, and ended up writing a work of fiction that is based on her life. No one can know what were her real thoughts, dreams and nightmares, nor what she felt about her fame and the problems it brought with it. However, I hope that my book recreates the flavour of this feisty dancer, and that it will help bring her back from obscurity.
Autographed copies of Wendy Buonaventura’s book “Midnight Rose” are available from www.cinnabarbooks.co.uk
Ed note–A review of this book will also appear shortly on Gilded Serpent.
Wendy’s Books through Amazon are not autographed. Autographed copies of Midnight Rose can be obtained through Cinnabar Books for around $15
through Cinnabar Books for around $15
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