Mercedes De Acosta

"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. Eva as St JoanShe had 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 thought it was "strong meat. . . . an excellently written play."

A London production the next year starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. The Daily Sketch called it "a remarkable and powerful religious play." Other critics said it was "a moving play . . . finely acted."

CostumeBefore her untimely death in 1924, the internationally famous Duseactress 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 against her.

Mercedes de Acosta's PlaysIndeed, 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 St. Joan.

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.

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