Monday, January 23, 2017

One Last Night with Mata Hari

(Here are my Director's notes from the world premiere production of One Last Night with Mata Hari, which just finished its run at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, ON.)

A century after her execution by firing squad in 1917, Mata Hari remains a household name. Search for her on Google and you will generate more than 40 million hits. Much of what you will find mixes fiction and fact, with the emphasis on the former. Mata Hari has become a mythological figure for the modern age: an exotic, treacherous femme fatale who seduces men, drains them of information, then ruthlessly betrays and discards them. As enchanting as she is dangerous, that version of Mata Hari has been embodied on film by some of cinema’s most glamourous stars, including Greta Garbo, Jeanne Moreau, and Sylvia Kristel. The real woman is barely visible beneath all the layers of fabrication. But now that the records of her secret trial are available, we have a better chance of recovering the truth.

To be sure, Mata Hari herself contributed much to her own myth. Before she was ever accused of being a double agent, she was already trafficking in a form of deception. Her stage persona was a deliberate invention in a mode we now would call “cultural appropriation.” To be blunt, she might as well have been using Edward Said’s Orientalism as a handbook. Mata Hari presented herself as half-Asian, but she was all Dutch, born Margaretha Zelle (she preferred the French version of her name, Marguerite). In that respect, one can compare Marguerite’s creation of Mata Hari, a putatively half-Asian performer, to Archibald Belaney’s creation of his fraudulent First Nations persona, Grey Owl. Of course, both were exposed as imposters. But it is worthwhile looking beyond that “aha!” moment to consider why Europe was at first so eager to embrace Mata Hari as a performer and so ready later to believe she was a traitor.

One way of grasping the point quickly is to compare Mata Hari to another semi-mythological figure from the Great War, the legendary Canadian flying ace, Billy Bishop. John Burge and I are both admirers of the elegant simplicity of the musical Billy Bishop Goes to War, and in some ways what we’ve created is deliberately the flip side of that show. Whereas its tunes were often inspired by the patriotic music hall, ours draw more on the sardonic cabaret and art song. As a mythical persona, Billy Bishop represents the culmination of the vast patriarchal and nationalistic drive toward war, a nearly gleeful bloodlust (“we’re going to fight the Hun!”). Western Civilization was plainly in the grip of a neurotic obsession with violence as an agent for change. But there were other means of expressing that same desire, as Modris Eksteins taught us in Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of Modernism; in the shadow of war, art was making its own sort of revolution. Mata Hari’s performance might have served as a sort of dream in which the East represented freedom from repression: an erotic, feminized revolution.

What of Mata Hari’s career as a spy? [Spoiler alert!] “Career” already overstates the matter. She did indeed provide the allies with some information, although her job was not made easy. Was she a double agent? Well, as we show, the conviction was based on scant evidence.

The authorities were eager to preserve Bishop’s life because he was “good for morale” (meaning good for preserving the enthusiasm for killing or being killed). If Mata Hari represented a tug in the opposite direction---away from Thanatos, the death instinct, and towards Eros and life---it is easy to imagine why it would be in certain interests to portray her as an enemy of the people. Now, that is an argument about preferences in propaganda; to move from there to the idea that there was a vast conspiracy to execute Mata Hari would be to indulge in paranoia. However, to suspect a smaller conspiracy is not at all unreasonable. After the war, Mata Hari’s nemesis, Georges Ladoux, stood trial for treason---twice. In the end he was acquitted, but enough evidence had been mustered against him to end his career.