Date of Degree

6-2017

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Theatre

Advisor(s)

Jean Graham-Jones

Committee Members

David Savran

Frank Hentschker

Subject Categories

American Popular Culture | Arts and Humanities | Dance | History | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Other American Studies | Other Theatre and Performance Studies | Theatre and Performance Studies | Theatre History

Keywords

Salome, New York, Early Twentieth Century, Vaudeville, Variety, Performance, Hysteria, Neurology

Abstract

In January 1907, New York City had its first major encounter with the figure of Salome. Appearing on three large stages in the city simultaneously, the archetype of the dancing girl quickly became an object of controversy. Her appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House in its staging of Strauss’s Salome resulted in public debate and the ultimate closure of the performance by the Met’s Board of Directors. The event brought attention to the Salome archetype’s already contested character. Salome arrived in the United States from Europe where she had been the subject of a quarter century of debates about how aesthetic representations of the dancing girl were indulging the decadent and neurologically degenerate nature of modernist culture. Within the context of New York, Salome quickly became a vehicle by which U.S. culture could negotiate its own relationship to the modern experience.

In the three years following the Met’s closure of its production of Strauss’s opera, the figure of Salome would appear on variety stages around the city in increasing numbers. These performances, using many of the European representations of the dancing girl as their model, embodied, I argue, a significant number of the neuropathological traits that were proving so threatening to western culture. This dissertation examines this explosion of Salome performances in New York from 1907 to 1909. It looks to how in their performative celebration of the archetype of the dancing girl they engaged new medical models of neurological impairment circulating at the time.

The chapters in this dissertation illuminate what I see as the process by which the archetype of Salome became increasingly neuropathologized. In chapter one, I position the dancing girl inside a modernist landscape where neurological concepts were freely circulating. I do so by examining how changes to individual experiences with the physical and social environments of modern life coincided with the rise of neurology as a medical sub-discipline. In chapter two, I provide a preliminary discussion of the Salome phenomenon in New York, what has come to be known as the city’s period of Salomania. This is followed by an explication of how the modernist archetype that became so popular in the city gained its neuropathological character. To do so, I look to the archetype’s fin de siècle past in Europe. The final chapter examines more closely the dynamics of New York’s Salomania. It considers how the popular performances embodied the neurological nature of modernist culture through their representation of neuropathological conditions. The chapter concludes with two case studies. I first examine the performance style of Gertrude Hoffmann, a successful vaudeville performer who was one of the first to present a Salome act at a major variety venue. I study her work for how it embodies traits associated with the neurological condition of generalized hysteria. Next I examine the contortionist/dancer La Sylphe for how her iteration of Salome corresponded with behaviors and gestures associated with the neurological condition of epilepsy.

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