[Wanda Morley is playing the title role in the play Fedora]
[Stage direction: Fedora, in full evening dress, closely wrapped in furs, enters hurriedly… ]
Bernhardt herself could not have looked the part more superbly. Wanda was cloaked from head to heels in dark, supple, plumy sables….
As she reached the stage fireplace she tossed her small round muff on a chair and stretched out ungloved hands to a red cellophane fire, chafing them with a realistic shiver. Her hood fell back, and she allowed her open cloak to slide down to her elbows without dropping it altogether. Her shoulders were bare and dazzlingly white above the dark fur. For this scene Pauline had designed a dress of golden gauze, sleek to the waist, and foaming about the feet in a frothy glitter. Diamonds blazed at her throat and crowned her dark head, heightening the golden flash of her eyes. Obviously they were the real thing, cold and heavy. Her small head bore the weight proudly as she turned from the fire and spoke her first line. ‘Is the master away?’
observations: I’ve done an earlier entry on excellent 1940s clothes in this theatrical mystery, but that didn’t exhaust the possibilities: I wanted to find out more about the play being performed in the book.
The play is highly relevant, because of the strange setup in which most of the cast do not know who the dead man- an actor on stage when he dies - is. The play is Fedora, by the French author Victorien Sardou, which is generally described like this:
The first production in 1882 starred Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of Princess Fédora Romanoff. She wore a soft felt hat in that role which was soon a popular fashion for women; the hat became known as a Fedora.- so although the word generally suggests the hat now, Fedora is actually the name generally known as Theodora in the West.
Irrelevant but interesting: Queen Victoria, that well-known only child, wandering the corridors of Kensington Palace with only a governess for company – well, she actually had an older half-sister (with no claim to the throne of England) called Fedora.
The play is described as an old-fashioned and melodramatic star vehicle: the diva-ish older actress Wanda knows the production is ideal for her talents. I didn’t notice any mention of the hat in any part of the book. I also thought it would be easy to find a picture of Sarah Bernhardt wearing a Fedora hat, but it is not.
The play is also a form of murder story: Fedora’s lover dies, and she is determined to revenge herself on the man who killed him. But when eventually she finds out the truth, it turns out not to be that simple. I haven’t read the text of the play, but the plot certainly suggests it would be a fabulous star vehicle for an actress, something like a Greek tragedy. There is also an opera by Giordano based on the play – again, it must be a great role for the right prima donna.
Sardou also wrote the play on which Tosca – one of the most enduring and popular of all operas – was based. He was, apparently, a proponent of ‘the well-made play’ – not always seen as a term of praise.
The original Fedora play was staged in 1882: some years later (1895) there appeared a book and then play called Trilby by George Du Maurier (grandfather of blog favourite Daphne). And, strangely, the same thing happened – Trilby is the name of the heroine, and she wore a hat which became fashionable and was named after her.
Two years ago on the blog we tracked down a play called Romance by Edward Sheldon – another diva-led melodrama, one that would have suited Wanda from this book.
You can read more about the plot of the actual murder story in last week’s entry.
The splendid top picture shows actress Fanny Davenport playing Fedora in the play, from the NYPL.