Maud Allen: The Salome Dancer

Maude Allan as Salome with the head of John the Baptist

Maud Allen (1873-1956), born as Beulah Maude Durrant in Toronto, Canada, was an early twentieth century performer. She was a favourite of the music hall and popular theatres, where a population from diverse social backgrounds went to watch a variety of plays, sketches, comedy and songs- much like a modern variety show.

She was a larger than life character, changing her name after her brother was hanged for the murder of two women, writing a sex manual, and pursuing a career in dance with little formal training. Maud often designed her own costumes- like her infamous outfit for the ‘Salome Dance’. Her shows were received to popular acclaim- in 1908, she performed 250 performances in one year. During this period, she earned £250 a week- a top wage for a top stage star.

Yet, Maud’s often scanty clothing meant her shows often lay at the border of respectability. In 1909, her famous ‘Salome Dance’ was excluded from her performance by several major English cities when she went on tour. The Manchester censors banned her entire show. She continued to dance for many years until 1918, when she was involved in an infamous libel case when the British MP Noel Pemberton Billing accused her of lesbianism in his journal. She lost the case and gained a reputation for sexual licentiousness and immorality.

Maud’s fame declined after the highly publicized court case, although she performed for the last time on the British stage at age 60 in 1932, and for the last time in Los Angeles four years later. To make ends meet, she taught dance, and eventually moved to California during WW2, where she worked as a draughtsmen. From 1928, she had a ten-year relationships with her secretary Verna Aldrich, who was twenty years her junior.

In 1909, when Maud Allen came to Dublin, her performance was met with a mixed response. One audience member wrote to complain on the immorality on the show to the Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh, providing both a fascinating description of the show and of the audience’s response to it:

At the Empire theatre next week an artiste is to give a salome and other dances in which she appears in an almost entirely nude condition. […] I witnessed this dance performed in the same (Empire) Theatre a few months ago & shall try to give a full description of it, its reception & the  papers reference to it; the latter I took care to look up. The dancer has her breasts covered with two closely fitting shields; these cover the nipple & part, not all of each breast. Except for necklaces & a few ornamental looking cords to holding the breast shields in position the body is completely naked to a level with the points of the hips, or to 3 inches say below the naval which was prominently visible from the hips hang, secured by a belt or string, a series of parallel black cords which are quite free from each other behind, but are very close and apparently held together in front by cross threads, as is ordinary cloth, no shoes, stockings, or drawers are worn, when the person stands still the limbs are not visible at all in front & only slightly so from behind but as she rapidly turns round  & round as she does in dancing (apparently for no other reason than to expose herself) the cords fly apart behind right up to the belt at the hips completely exposing legs & hops up to “the small of the back”. Owing to the closely fitting arrangement of cord in front the limbs are shown nude to well above the knees but no more.

The dance I saw described as “a scribe of sensuous gyrations” which is a correct description. It is performed before a representation of the head of John the Baptist with a heavily bearded face. The head is carried off in triumph at the end. This dance was performed amidst a regular storm of boos & hisses mingled with some applause. Some youths near me in a jocular way, gave utterance to expressions, one after another of the most immodest kind imaginable. At the end a goodly section of the audience applauded very vigorously; a greater number kept up the hissing (which was kept going all along) but rather less vigorously than the applauders. The Telegraph (I did not see the Herald) puffed the dance in advance as usual. After it was given its comment was I remember that she was received with loud applause but that some few expressed dissent; which was decidedly very misleading. The Herald made no reference to the continual hissing & booing carried on during the performance.

Source: ‘Layman’ to +Walsh, [ND 1909], Walsh Papers, 1909 382/4 Laity, Dublin Diocesan Archives.

Further reading

Toni Bentley, The Sisters of Salome, (University of Nebraska Press, 2005).

J.R. Walkowitz, ‘The “Vision of Salome”:  Cosmopolitanism and Erotic Dancing in Central London, 1908-1918’, American Historical Review, 108(2) (2003).

Katie Barclay was fascinated by the number of complaints written by the Catholic laity to their priests on performances in Dublin’s many theatres, which inspired her to find out more about ‘the Salome Dancer’.  She is trying to figure out what these complaints tell us about attitudes towards morality in nineteenth century Ireland.

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