Today is the birthday of George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824). Two years ago we wrote about his comical epic poem Don Juan, which is now one of our favorite pieces of literature. Today, we write about the reason we found ourselves re-reading Don Juan in the first place (I’d first read it when I was about 19). The reason is that our current project can trace its original roots back to Byron’s 1819 poem Mazeppa.
By the standards of his epics, Mazeppa is just a little scrap of a thing. It was originally published with another little scrap called A Fragment, often called the first vampire story, which we wrote about here. Like many of his generation, Byron was entranced with the notion of all things “Eastern”. Mazeppa (based on popular legends) concerns a Ukrainian gentleman who is punished for an improvident love affair by being lashed naked to a horse, with the horse being set loose into the wild, resulting in all sorts of tortures for the hapless victim. In Byron’s poem, the tale is told first person by the now elderly Mazeppa, still a soldier.
Byron’s poem was extremely popular in its day, so much so that it inspired other poems on the subject (Hugo, Pushkin), numerous paintings by artists like Gericault, Delacroix, Vernet and Currier and Ives, and pieces of music (Lizst). It was bound to make its way to the theatre. The first stage version premiered in Paris in 1825; by the 1830s it had migrated to the United States in a cobbled together, hilariously pretentious version by a hack named H.M. Milner which bears little resemblance to Byron’s original, aside from the sadistic spectacle of Mazeppa’s involuntary ride. The biggest star to ever play the role (in fact, she was to become permanently associated with it) was none other than Adah Isaacs Menken (a female in male drag)- – the subject of our new play, produced by Theatre Askew.
And we re-create a (burlesqued) version of Mazeppa’s ride in the show, thus as we said at the top, the kernel of our show begins with Byron. Menken adored Byron, by the way, and for a time, the male drag star even dressed like him and cut her hair short to resemble his.
Learn more about this all-star show and how you can help bring it to fruition here.