Brava Olga, Brava!

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Olga Nethersole: a controversial woman . . . with a heart of gold!

Olga Isabella Nethersole was an unusual commodity insofar as she was an English actress who starred in both the Victorian and Edwardian eras, yet chose to use her birth name as opposed to a stage (or professional) name.

Wikipedia advises that she was born in London on January 18, 1867, and was the daughter of a solicitor (Harry Nethersole) and his wife (Christina) who was of Spanish extraction.

Public records clearly indicate that by 1882 Olga’s mother was widowed and had four children to raise: two sons and two daughters. And, she managed to do so by keeping a boarding house with six lodgers.

There are numerous newspaper articles in respect to Olga Nethersole. A quick summary of her career would tell that she was an English actress who made her stage debut in Brighton in 1887, the year before making her London debut. For the next 20 years she was much in demand, hugely talented, well respected and – it could be said – a little controversial.

She toured Great Britain, Australia and the United States and it was in the United States in 1900 that she agreed to produce, direct, and star in the French play Sapho. The play was adapted for stage by the American playwright Clyde Fitch although Miss Nethersole insisted on a rewrite telling the story from the point of view of the lead female character rather than the male character as was done in the original version.

The reimagining meant that the play centered on a woman who has love affairs with men to whom she is not married. Sapho’s lead character, Fanny LeGrand, played by Nethersole, seduces a naïve man named Jean Gaussin. In the scene that caused the most furor, the two characters ascend a spiral staircase together, presumably toward a bedroom though that is never shown or suggested. In the end, LeGrand leaves Gaussin to reform and marry the father of her child.

From the Clifton Society of March 1, 1900:

“Miss Olga Nethersole has been getting into trouble in New York over the production of Sapho, and the question as to whether it is a play which can be safely witnessed by a young person is to be decided by a Court of Justice. Acting on information supplied, the District Attorney has procured warrants for the arrest of Miss Olga Nethersole, Mr. Marcus Mazer, her manager, and Mr. Theodore Moss, lessee of Wallack’s Theatre, where the piece is running. Miss Nethersole says that the procedure is incomprehensible to her and is simply persecution.”

The play was at the center of a sensational New York City indecency trial. Sapho was not an exceptional success, but the incident is considered a notable step in the transformation of American societal attitudes regarding gender roles and public depictions of sex in the 20th century.

Olga and others were arrested and faced trial although after only two days in court, they were acquitted by the jury in just fifteen minutes.

Huge public interest saw the play proceed although reviews were negative, and the press predicted it would flop. The show’s notoriety kept it going however, and it ran in New York for a total of 83 performances. From 1901 through to 1913 Nethersole took it on tour to cities throughout America, as well as London and Australia. She brought the play back to New York in 1905, 1908, 1910 and 1913, in the later years sometimes just playing the third act.

The play remained controversial with municipal authorities and in some cities, bans were placed on entire performances, or failing that, insisting on changes in dialogue and costume.

The following are extracted from a lengthy article in the Westminster Gazette of May 2, 1902 in which the reporter praises the abilities of Olga and welcomes her back to Great Britain although also pulls no punches regarding Sapho.

“There is no need to discuss the ethics of the affair or the suitability of  Sapho to stage representation. They say that the censor has had a busy week or so with the management, discussing what may be passed and what played, and it is alleged that the episode of Jean’s climb up the stairs with Sapho in his arms has been suppressed by that authority; but all this is a matter of little moment. For it is only fair to say that the tawdry piece of trash Mr. Clyde Fitch offers to us is moral in its result, and that, putting aside the first act, vice is not presented attractively.”

“Perhaps it is not going too far to say that Sapho is the worst play by Mr. Fitch that we have seen in London, though it seems almost wicked to say such a thing of any work.”

Enough of the controversy, what about the woman beyond the actress? This is where most admirers center their respect for Olga Nethersole.

The Leeds Mercury of June 2, 1919 reported that Olga Nethersole, who has been doing such good work for the Red Cross as a surgical nurse at the New End Military Hospital, for the past three years, is talking of coming back to the stage, provided she can find a theatre. Many actors and actresses supported the war effort although Olga served as a surgical nurse.

In 1919 she established the People’s League of Health which was an organization devised to raise the standard of health of the nation, enquire into social problems affecting the health of the nation, and to help improve social and economic conditions.

She combined her theatre work with health work for the rest of her life and was awarded the Royal Red Cross (a military decoration awarded in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth for exceptional services in military nursing) and a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organizations, and public service).

Olga died in January 1951. Was she controversial? Who cares? She devoted much of her life to the welfare of others.

Brava, Olga. Brava!

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Fascinating Thank you

Based on the evidence offered in this article, I would have acquitted Olga had I been one of the jurors.

Here is a lovely Bamforth & Co. card of Olga Nethersole from my own collection.

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