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Lay for the Day
3rd June

1861, Albany, New York: Adah Menken makes her first appearance in Mazeppa, a dramatic adaptation of a poem by Byron.
Menken, who captivated the public – especially the male public – of her day, remains elusive. Of three websites that record her story, one says that she was Jewish, another that she was born in New Orleans to a black father and Creole mother, and the third that she was born Ada C. McCord in Memphis, Tennessee. As to her date of birth, the consensus seems to settle on 15th June 1835.
(Adah Menken, left, from her myspace page.)
Menken conquered both the United States and Europe with Mazeppa's Ride, which formed the climax of the original show. Byron’s poem ends with the hero condemned to die by being tied naked to a wild horse and sent galloping into the wilderness. The vision of Adah as the naked man, in form-fitting, flesh-coloured costume, bound onto her well-trained steed, thrilled her 19th-century spectators beyond all measure.
In London she performed Mazeppa’s Ride for the first time in 1864 at Astley’s Amphitheatre, Lambeth. The Amphitheatre was the forerunner of today’s circuses – a circular arena roofed with canvas, specifically designed for equestrian displays. The success of Menken and Mazeppa established the well-loved circus tradition of lovely maidens in daring garb performing daring feats on horseback.
The short poem, and illustration, for this long note come from The Entertainers.


The waist-high net-clad thighs
and clenched and seam-drawn rump
that swoop before your eyes,
the tasselled basque and deep
décolletage that keep
me barely in, and shown
shaved oxter, arms upthrown,
call for applause when, jump
and somersault complete,
I land on slender feet.
These, as Eros fancies,
should surmount sleek ponies’ dances.
And yet the truth, although you see no horn,
is that I am the Virgin tames the Unicorn.

John Gibbens

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar

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