Monday, October 3, 2011

October 3, 1864 --- The Adorable Menken

Amid unprecedented hype, the American actress Adah Menken - infamously billed as "The Naked Lady" - opens at Astley's Amphitheatre in London's West End. She stars in Mazeppa, a melodrama based on one of Lord Byron's lesser known poems. In the spectacular climax, a "naked" rider is lashed to the back of Byron's "fiery untamed steed of Tartary" which then gallops around the arena.

Menken-mania had swept the States and she made a much-publicized arrival in London two months before opening night. The city was plastered with life-sized posters of a naked woman on horseback; Miss Menken (fully clad!) rode daily in Hyde Park, where "her equipage was much admired."

Advance sales were no doubt increased when a prominent critic publicly lectured Astley's management that "the public morals are not yet so sunk as to tolerate a performance which would be hooted everywhere, save in a Yankee audience." An offended Menken answered, defending her own "classicality," while at the same time admitting, "My success created a host of imitators, and some of these ladies, I hear, have adopted a style of drapery inconsistent with delicacy or good taste."

Opening night is sold out with more than a few fashionable swells in the front stalls. It is a triumph. Not naked at all but clad in a skintight pink silk body-suit, "the Adorable Menken" takes repeated curtain calls, bringing the Yankee custom of "blowing kisses" to the London stage. Even the critics are prey to the excitement save for the obligatory hand-wringing over the scant costume: The Times: "The lady's costume is certainly not one Queen Elizabeth would have recommended to her maids of honor;" The Daily Telegraph: "A considerable amount of a symmetrical figure is somewhat lavishly displayed;" The London Review: "She looks like Lady Godiva in a shift."

In July, 1864, Menken returned to America, reportedly in disgust, "for she fully realized that the respectable portion of the British public turned its back on her." She returned in 1867, again in Mazeppa.  Whilst in London, she conducted a scandalously public affair with the poet, Swinbourne. In 1868, only in her early 30's, "the Menken" was dead of a combination of rheumatism and an overfondness for brandy.

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