The Liberal Republican Movement

 “The Modern Mazeppa”
  Source:  Harper’s Weekly
  Date:   June 1, 1872, p. 428

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Complete HarpWeek Explanation:
Nast’s theatrical “set piece” of the June 1, 1872 issue introduces presidential nominee Greeley as “The Modern Mazeppa” in “What I Know about the Road from Cincinnati to___.”  It is a travesty of the venerable theatrical war-horse, “Mazeppa” (or “The Wild Horse of Tartary”), dating from 1830 and itself based on a swashbuckling 1819 poem by Lord Byron.  The play originally depended for its limited appeal on a hair-raising final scene in which a young Polish nobleman is stripped of his clothing by a villainous count, tied to the back of a spirited stallion, and the two, in tandem, gallop across the stage on an elevated runway.  An 1861 production starring the seductive actress Adah Isaacs Mencken became an overnight sensation when it was offered in New York City and Albany.

Adah Mencken’s version generated even more interest than usual because she played the male hero, wearing a flesh-colored body stocking that created the illusion that she was totally naked, and because the runway was extended out into the audience to further surround and engage the spectators. In the best traditions of the special effects of the day, lightning flashed, snow fell, wolves howled, and vultures circled. A moving background panorama of craggy peaks and yawning gorges passed before wondering eyes. After fighting a duel with the evil count, Adah Mencken was divested of her black cloak and prepared for her unbridled ride in what has been described as the “first public striptease act ever witnessed in a theater.”

An editorial in the New York Tribune, presumably penned by Greeley, took a dim view: “We cannot believe that the actress scheduled to appear before our citizenry in Mazeppa would so shock and revolt decent people by exposing her body in the nude.”  In Nast’s cartoon, 11 years later, Greeley is the captive passenger, bound by a single rope, on a perilous course for the White House atop the cliff in the upper-right. Although it is highly doubtful that Greeley ever saw Adah Mencken’s sensational performance, it is possible that an avid theatrical partisan like Nast would have seen it at the earliest opportunity. (He drew Jefferson Davis as “The Modern Mazeppa” for Phunny Phellow in June 1862.)

Greeley’s Liberal Republican steed, with the “Gratz Brown” tag on its tail, is receiving a send-off (upper left) from the Cincinnati Convention leaders (left-right): Senators Reuben Fenton, Lyman Trumbull, Carl Schurz, and Thomas Tipton.  The inevitable paper in Greeley’s pocket is entitled “What I Know About Horsemanship, H. G.”  The tiny figure just behind Schurz’s right arm seems to represent a first attempt at sketching Whitelaw Reid, the Tribune’s acting editor and manager of Greeley’s nomination at the Cincinnati convention.



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