"When Mercedes de Acosta met men who ran the
theaters, they did not want to work with a strong woman who
loved women. Men found her too overpowering." And when
suggestions were offered to Mercedes on how to make her
scripts more commercial, "she would say, 'To hell with
them.'" - Ram Gopal
Inspired by romantic relationships with Alla Nazimova and
Isadora Duncan, and especially with Eva Le Gallienne,
Mercedes de Acosta embarked on a career in the theater as a playwright.
already published three volumes of poetry and a novel, but in
the next decade, she wrote ten plays and one musical. Four of
her plays were actually produced. One, a play about Joan of
Arc, starred her lover at the time, Eva Le
Gallienne, and premiered in Paris in 1925. By the time the
play closed in Paris, Mercedes and LeGallienne had broken up.
LeGallienne, who was very ambitious and wanted to found her
own theatre company, had landed a wealthy patron who would
eventually bankroll her theatre venture in New York. Having
that theatre was more important to her than continuing her
relationship with Mercedes.
Devastated by the rejection, Mercedes
resumed working on a play she had begun several years earlier,
Jacob Slovak, a drama about anti-semitism in a little
New England town. It played on Broadway in 1927. "Perfectly
cast, perfectly acted and perfectly directed," wrote one
critic. The New York Times called it "an honest and
interesting play." Billboard
it was "strong meat. . . . an excellently written play."
A London production the next year
starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. The Daily
called it "a remarkable and
powerful religious play." Other critics said it was "a moving
play . . . finely acted."
untimely death in 1924, the internationally famous actress Eleonora Duse had promised to
star in Mercedes's play The Mother of Christ. Several years
later when Mercedes attemped to mount another professional
production, Robert Edmond Jones designed the set,
Gladys Calthrop designed the costumes
and Igor Stravinsky agreed to provide music.
But most of her plays were never
produced. Mercedes recognized that she faced an uphill battle.
She came to the conclusion that in New York at this
time, if an artist rose from the gutter the critics were all
out to give him a break, but if he had background and wealth
it was assumed from the start that he was an untalented idiot.
Usually the critics either demolished him without fair
criticism or completely ignored him. Mercedes was doubly
dealt- she had both background and a history of wealth working
Indeed, the women that
Mercedes created in her plays in the 1920s were in turmoil,
like herself as she contemplated marriage. These women
struggle over issues of loneliness, social ostracism,
prejudice, unhappy marriages, divorce, sexual desire,
identity, forbidden loves, and self-recognition.
As with Eva Le Gallienne in Mercedes's play about
Even though she avoided direct
representation of same-sex eroticism in her writing, she
freely "smuggled in" ideas and issues common to those of us in
the homosexual community but she put them in a heterosexual
setting. It is what one scholar calls "queening."
Mercedes de Acosta was not hugely famous. Her contributions to the
theater were minimal. Yet her story reveals a woman who stood
up courageously for her beliefs and values. She seldom
stumbled, even when her friends and peers turned against her.
She lived her desire and paid the price. Her love for other
women and her struggle for acceptance were certainly sources
of her originality and fueled her writing. Perhaps the
description of her as "that furious lesbian" should become an
admirable attribute rather than a scornful slur.