In seventeenth-century Madrid, Don Caesar de Bazan has gambled away all his money and is only saved from the reprisals of a nasty crowd when the gypsy street singer Maritana intercedes and pacifies the mob. The penniless Don Caesar decides that the only pleasure left to him is duelling – but unfortunately it is carnival, and all fighting is banned for a week by royal edict, on pain of death. He is arrested and condemned, but is visited shortly before his execution by a royal minister, Don Jose, with a proposition: he is asked to marry an unknown bride, and thereby make her the Countess de Bazan; a pardon, timed to arrive an hour after the execution, will then ensure that she has a widowhood untainted by shame. The reason for this, unknown to Don Caesar, is that the King has fallen in love with Maritana, but her lowly status makes it impossible for her to become his mistress. Don Caesar’s misfortune offers a quick and convenient way of elevating her to the aristocracy.
Don Caesar agrees and, with the clock ticking away the last minutes of his life, he marries the heavily veiled Maritana. He is then taken away to meet his death, while Don Jose brings Maritana back to meet her new aristocratic in-laws. She is startled by the sound of offstage gunfire, but doesn’t realize what it is: the firing squad executing her new husband. Later Don Jose deceives her into thinking that Don Caesar is still alive, and tries to pass off the King, incognito, as him. But the real Don Caesar really isn’t dead: he somehow managed to remove the bullets before the soldiers shot him, and feigned death to avoid embarrassing them. Now he has come back in disguise to claim his bride, protected by the pardon that was less posthumous than Don Jose and the King intended it to be…
Don Caesar de Bazan was a French play of the Romantic era, completely devoid of any hint of spanking. It was written in 1844 by Philippe Dumanoir and Adolphe d’Ennery, and swiftly translated into English by Gilbert Abbott a’Beckett and Mark Lemon. Before 1844 was done, it had been staged in both London and America, and its popularity held up through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. It became the basis of an 1872 opera, and there were several film versions, notably The Spanish Dancer (1923), with Pola Negri as Maritana.
One sign of that popularity is the fact that two quite separate productions opened in New York in the same month, September 1901 – and this has some bearing on our story. The one that’s relevant to us was mounted by the actor-manager Edwin Rostell’s company, and after a few weeks in New York it was due to depart on a tour of the south. We can still trace some of the bookings, and therefore the route: Staunton, Virginia (September 30); Houston, Texas (November 18); and Ardmore in the Indian territory that would later become the state of Oklahoma (December 4).
But for the New York opening, Rostell needed something that would make the play stand out against its rival. He needed a splash, a sensation. He needed – a spanking scene!
It seems to have been late in the rehearsal process that the existence of the other production came to Rostell’s attention. The play had been cast, the actors had procured their costumes (at their own expense) and the performances were being honed. Maritana was to be played by Agnes Lane,
who had until recently been a junior member of Sarah Bernhardt’s company, and took the role with Rostell because it promoted her to leading lady status. All that began to slip away from her when Rostell came to her with instructions to amend her overall performance, and with a particular script change at the end of the first act…
Rostell had consulted with the tour’s financial backer, though as Miss Lane later told it, she evidently didn’t believe any such person really existed. In any event, the decision was to make some last-minute alterations so that New York audiences, who would surely only want to see Don Caesar de Bazan once that season, would choose the Rostell production over its rival. To that end, Miss Lane was told to play Maritana in a more ‘soubrettish’ manner – in other words, pert and sexy. And there was to be a bit of ‘playful business’ added at the moment when she hears the guns of the firing squad and jumps up with a cry of ‘What’s that?’ As rehearsed, the actors would then have frozen into an end-of-act tableau. But now the plan was for Don Jose to take Maritana across his knee and spank her until the curtain fell.
It seems a bizarrely gratuitous interpolation, but I guess the rationale must have been that Don Jose’s plan depends utterly on Maritana not finding out that the gunfire was the sound of her husband’s execution. When she says, ‘What’s that?’, the one thing she must not be allowed to have is a straight and truthful answer. So he has to distract her somehow, and chooses an unorthodox way of doing so.
I can’t say I find that entirely convincing, and back in 1901 Miss Lane certainly wasn’t buying it. She didn’t think it was ‘playful business’. She thought it was indecent:
‘The mysterious and nameless backer with money wanted to spoil that beautiful tableau at the end of the first act by having me in a short skirt stretched across a man’s knee and getting spanked.’
It is worth pointing out that in 1901, a skirt might have been considered short if it exposed her ankles. She had no problem with that: after all, it was in character for a gypsy girl, and she’d paid for the costume herself. But she absolutely drew the line at being spanked. Upon refusal, she was promptly fired from the company.
There’s no record of who replaced her in the role, but obviously somebody did, because the production went ahead. Nor is there any direct evidence that they went ahead with the plan to spank Maritana, though after an actress had been dismissed for declining to play the scene, one of the essential requirements for her successor must surely have been a willingness to be spanked onstage: having dropped the actress, they couldn’t then drop the business. But if Rostell and his backer (if real) thought that a spanking scene would create the kind of theatrical sensation that was to happen nearly four decades later with My Dear Children, they were mistaken: they simply didn’t get that kind of publicity.
But what they did get was a lawsuit from Agnes Lane. She didn’t dispute her sacking or seek reinstatement in the company, but what she wanted from them was reimbursement of the money she’d invested in her costumes for a role she would now never play. And that was a story picked up in newspaper syndication across America. ‘Actress declines to be spanked’ read the headlines. Agnes Lane went down in theatrical and spanking history, and, on the road with the play, Edwin Rostell was left to reflect upon the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity.