This article accompanies the fable
Life as Opera
Mazeppa and Adah Isaacs Menken
Mazeppa began its career as an epic poem by Byron in 1818, the story of a page caught in an affair with a married woman from a higher class. When the affair is discovered, the outraged husband has him tied to the back of a wild horse which is set loose, the intent being to kill him. He survives, of course, and Romantic artists and performers picked it up from there.
One of those performers was the American Adah Isaacs Menken, seen in this publicity shot, which she arranged herself. There are many less flattering shots, including semi-nudes.
Born in New Orleans in 1835 and dead by 1868, Menken managed to scandalize America with her Lady Godiva-like stage performances in Mazeppa, her multiple marriages (four in seven years), her short cropped hair and her cigarettes. She converted to Judaism with her short-lived first marriage and remained committed to it throughout her life.
In the 1860’s she took Mazeppa to Paris and London (and was there feted by Dumas pére, Rossetti, Swinburne, Dickens and others). She died unnoticed in Paris at the age of 33 and was buried in a cemetery in Montparnasse. It has been said that Mazeppa remained the most widely performed drama in the American West from the 1860s until the end of the century.
Byron's poem had captured the imagination of French painters: Gericault in 1823 and Delacroix in 1824, both of whom presumably identified with Mazeppa, and, perhaps most famously, Emile Jean Horace Vernet, one of whose versions is below: