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  • Richard Byrne

A Few Words About Lola Montez

This short essay was the program note for the world premiere of my play, An Evening with Lola Montez, at the 2019 Capitol Fringe Festival.

Alan Walker, biographer of Franz Liszt, hates Lola Montez.

The first volume of his three-volume biography of the famed composer and pianist – Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years – is notable for its author’s feverish attempts to assassinate Lola Montez’s character.

Walker observes:

Of all Liszt’s passing galanteries, this one attracted the most attention. Let us attempt to jettison some of the gossip and establish some of the facts. Her name was not Lola, she was not Spanish, and if her critics are to be believed, she was not a dancer either. Everything about Lola Montez was false – except perhaps her ample bosom, which she once bared before King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her real name was Eliza Gilbert, and she was born in Limerick, Ireland, in 1818. Even more prosaic was her family background…

And so on.

Reviewers invariably comment upon the priggish tone of Walker’s life of Liszt. But the author’s hatred of Lola Montez is particularly remarkable. He denies the brief but apparently torrid affair between pianist and dancer ever occurred. But that is not enough. Walker seeks to harry her from the stage of history with a sustained volley of barbs and quips.

With evidence supplied only by a close reading of her critics, Liszt’s biographer deems Lola Montez’s stage guise “ridiculous,” argues that she could not keep time, and depicts her as little better than a whore. Walker asserts – and boldly – that Lola Montez was a creature who prospered with the aid of a “succession of managers who were her lovers.” She was a woman whose body was her “chief asset.”

History sees the matter much differently.

That Lola Montez was a brazen and prodigious liar is in very little doubt. Bruce Seymour’s excellent (and largely sympathetic) biography, Lola Montez: A Life, chases down almost every one of her howlers and fabrications, and relays them to readers in microscopic detail.

Yet Seymour never wavers in his admiration of his subject. That is because the scope of what Lola Montez accomplished with her extraordinary life is breathtaking – and beyond dispute.

She married young in dire and exigent circumstances. That marriage failed miserably, and it was the occasion of a ludicrously public and shaming divorce in London.

That should have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. With the deck of patriarchal Victorian society stacked against her, and her future happiness in the hazard, Eliza Gilbert had the intelligence, fortitude, and sheer willpower to reinvent herself in 1842 and 1843 as Lola Montez – a Spanish dancer.

And not merely reinvent herself. Lola Montez made a prodigious success of that endeavor. She took the Continent by storm with her beauty, audacity, and force of personality.

Far from Walker’s viciously lopsided account, the audience reaction to her performances was ferociously divided. Critics did launch their darts at her obvious lack of training in classical dance. But the crowds literally battled over her appearances in many of the grandest theatres in Europe. Her supporters were just as fierce as her detractors.

Why? Because it was apparent from the very start of her public career was that Lola Montez had what later came to be known as “it.” A quality that was indefinable and irresistible all at once.

As her popularity and notoriety grew, Lola Montez became more than a mere celebrity. She was viewed not only as a dancer who attracted great controversy, but also as a symbol of the powerful new social and political liberality that culminated in the revolutions of 1848.

Indeed, Lola’s most famous role in history was as the consort of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her deep involvement in the politics of Bavaria – which led to her narrow escape from the country amidst riots, tumult, and revolution – also led to Ludwig’s abdication.

Cast out of Bavaria, and fallen once again from grace, Lola Montez did not fall apart. She traveled the world to dance her famous spider dance – America, Australia, Central America. She acted in plays about her time in Bavaria.

And when Lola could no longer endure the physical strain, she wrote and delivered witty, self-penned lectures until her death in 1861 in New York City.

An Evening with Lola Montez depicts Lola giving one of these lectures in Brooklyn in 1858. The play is based on a foundation of her own words. Her own account of the matter.

Much of what Lola Montez asserts is debatable in a factual sense. But it is a powerful story of self-invention from which she never wavered – even when the press tried to expose her many falsehoods.

Lola Montez’s lectures were, by all accounts, greeted with intense curiosity and rewarded with rapturous applause. By the time of her death, any lingering ridicule was transmuted into respect. She had lived a life rich in improbable incident, and bore it all with unflappable grace and resilience.

The dedication Lola Montez wrote for a published book of her lectures is the best and most succinct key to her impetuous and forceful personality – and also to the principles by which she lived, loved, provoked, and (however briefly) conquered:

To all men and women of every land, who are not afraid of themselves, who trust so much in their own souls that they dare to stand up in the might of their own individuality, to meet the tidal currents of the world.

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1 comentario

14 abr

Love love love the bravery of this woman, thanks for writing this play!

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