Theda Bara in Salome (1918)
Theda Bara as Cleopatra (1917)
Silent movie stars, playing to strengths, Egyptology & Theda Bara
When I was a new performer, one of my mentors Misty La Moore (who can always be relied on to boost a girl’s ego when she needs it) used to say that on stage I had the face of a silent movie actress. So I decided that I’d explore this skill which I’d accidentally stumbled across, silent movie face-pulling (if that's a skill?), and try and build it into an entire act.
I went back to some of my favourite silent movies for research. I was focusing on Theda Bara, the original silent movie vamp. She was always portrayed as the dark character, the man-trap who used her sexuality to her advantage, the exotic ‘other’. The vamp character originated, well, because people are sometimes really racist, and this character was created to play on stereotypes and demonise eastern European migrants in the West. (If you think this doesn’t happen now take a look at how British Media portrays Roma Gypsies.)
I had also been looking into the 1920s’ obsession with Egyptology. With the discovery of Tutenkhaman’s tomb in 1922, the west went Egypt-mad. In 1893 the performer ‘Little Egypt’ (or one of three performers going under the name of ‘Little Egypt’s) had performed at the Chicago World’s Fair. As a result the ‘cooch’ style of dancing, based on Syrian & Egyptian folkloric dance styles, had become a staple of burlesque shows in the following decades.
So I decided Eastern Mythology was my theme. Flowing on from this, I wanted to incorporate some old-style belly-dance influenced bump and grind moves into my act.
I loved the images of Theda Bara in her roles as Salome and Cleopatra, so I started looking at characters and costumes that would relate to this idea.
I was attracted to the idea of doing an act based on the goddess Ishtar, as Theda Bara might have played her. Ishtar was the Babylonian/Assyrian goddess of love, the night, fertility, sexuality, and war, but who had a tendency to destroy her lovers. This was the perfect vamp character – exotic, seductive and destructive.
Old Babylonian period Queen of Night relief, often considered to represent an aspect of Ishtar.
Ishtar. Note the layered skirt and 'wings' which came to be a part of my final costume. I wanted a lion too.
"Woe to him whom Ishtar had honoured! The fickle goddess treated her passing lovers cruelly, and the unhappy wretches usually paid dearly for the favours heaped on them.”
One of the most famous myths about Ishtar describes her descent to the underworld. In this myth, Ishtar approaches the gates of the underworld and demands that the gatekeeper open them:
Shedding clothing? Why, it just so happens I’m into that!
Naked, you say? What a great idea!
But in all seriousness, if shedding clothing is a part of one of my routines, I do like to know the motivation for why a character I'm playing might be undressing.
I began to research Ishtar for costume inspiration. I was interested in Eastern-inspired 1920s costumes and sought out archival imagery as a starting point. Many sketches of swathes of shimmering beaded fringe and loops of beading were made.
I'm facinated by classic burlesque and showgirl headdresses, and wanted to take on the technical challenge of making a headdress with significant structural demands (my first). As Ishtar is referred to as a 'cow moon goddess', I decided to construct a horned headdress. The horns were literally made from number eight wire (or a wire gauge that was pretty damn close), and I constructed the form for the horns out of packaging that a motorcycle magazine had come in.
I accompanied my luxe-gothic costume with period-appropriate makeup. This was based on photos of Theda Bara and a Russian actress that I had used for costume inspiration. Conveniently the Kryolan concept store had just opened in Newmarket (a glorious wonderland!). There I was able to find the blackest of black and cochineal coloured eye shadows to recreate 1920s makeup.
The actual makeup they used when filming silent movies was rather unusual. In order to be able to be registered by the primitive cameras, blues, lavenders and yellows were used to contour the face. I suspected it looked truly bizarre in real life, so I aimed to approximate how the make-up would have appeared on screen, rather than in reality.