Long considered the best historical example of the French term “femme fatale,” her name synonymous with spying, Mata Hari is overdue for a second look, which Elaine Kendall is giving her in her new play, The Trial of Mata Hari. Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in the Netherlands, this convicted German spy adopted the stage name Mata Hari, meaning “Eye of the Sun,” after living in Indonesia, and used it to begin her career as an exotic dancer in early 20th century French theatres and nightclubs. A Dutch dancer passing as a Javanese princess, Mata Hari built her notoriety out of a “strikingly attractive, amoral, and compellingly sensual” character. Her highly successful stage act involved slowly shedding layers of clothes until she wore nothing but a jeweled bra. From one perspective, Mata Hari appears to be the original romantic-a woman living for affection, breathing sensuality, and abiding by promiscuity. But that’s only a part of her story. In February of 1916, Mata Hari was arrested in her hotel in Paris, and by October 15, 1917, she had been tried for espionage, found guilty, and executed by a French firing squad at just 41 years of age. Now, 90 years after Mata Hari’s execution, Santa Barbara playwright Elaine Kendall, director Meredith McMinn, and the Theatrical Treats team will give the original femme fatale another chance.
The author of four books of American social history, Elaine Kendall has been a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and has reviewed books, art, and theater for many national magazines. Today, writing historical plays has become her most cherished form of expression. Explaining her choice of Mata Hari, Kendall described the types of historical figures she is interested in by saying that she likes “subjects who have led both a known and an unknown life.” Because Mata Hari’s mystery stems from concerns about the validity of her trial, Kendall says that “myth has piled upon legend, effectively burying her beneath almost a century of rumor, half truths and downright lies.”
With new evidence in hand from Pat Shipman’s recent biography, Femme Fatale, Kendall has rediscovered and reconstructed this slippery human cipher. Like Shipman, Kendall believes that Mata Hari may have been innocent. Yes, she played her lovers and flaunted herself at an untimely, dangerous time, seeking attention, but none of this necessarily meant that Mata Hari was a German spy. It’s possible that our notorious “Femme Fatale” was used as a scapegoat by the George Ladoux, head of French counter-espionage. The Trial of Mata Hari will reconstruct and dramatize Mata Hari’s last 14 months-the period in which she was “suspected, interrogated, arrested, imprisoned, secretly tried, and shot by a French firing squad.” While many questions remain surrounding this enigmatic woman, there can be no doubt that Elaine Kendall’s play will shed more light on the Dutch “Eye of the Day” and perhaps even help author Pat Shipman’s cause in arguing for Mata Hari’s ultimate innocence.
The Trial of Mata Hari will be read at the Victoria Hall Theater twice on Thursday, June 19, at 1pm following a lunch in the Victoria Hall Courtyard, and then again at 8pm. For tickets and information call 800-494-8497. The Trial of Mata Hari is the first in a series of Theatrical Treats that will continue throughout the summer.