45. Zaza cocktail

21 Dec

Miss Up-To-Date (throwing away her cigarette): Well, old girl, how did you like ‘Zaza’?

Miss Fan de Siècle: Oh, it’s not altogether bad, but it’s not a play that I’d recommend to my mother.

— “In a New York Finishing School”, Life, vol. 33, no. 863 (8 June 1899), p. 481.

“January 9, 1899 will remain a notable date in the history of the New York stage,” predicted an anonymous, but confident contributor to Munsey’s Magazine shortly after the world-altering event in question. “On that night, at the Garrick Theater, Mrs. Leslie Carter, in Zaza, set the house in a turmoil of enthusiasm and sent the critics away in a white heat” (“The Stage”, vol. 20:5 [February 1899], pp. 802-17 [p. 817]). Now long forgotten, Zaza was the most talked-about premiere of the dramatic season. Not every reviewer shared the opinion of the Washington Post that this was “a great play”—more often they preferred such descriptions as “boldly realistic”, “shocking”, “intensely modern” and “moving”; but everyone certainly agreed that its leading lady was “a genius of the highest order”. Mrs Leslie Carter, a middle-aged divorcée who had appeared in just a handful of productions since her debut 10 years before, was a revelation: here, suddenly, was an American Sara Bernhardt and the most accomplished actress of her generation.

The play, written by Pierre Berton and Charles Simon, with Gabrielle Réjeane originating the title role, had premiered in Paris at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in May of 1898. The English-language rights were snapped up by the writer, director and impresario David Belasco, who recognized that the drama, with a few tweaks to suit local tastes, could be the perfect vehicle for his protégée, Mrs Leslie Carter, whom he had trained since she had run away from her abusive banker husband. That’s because she, like the character she would impersonate with such great success, was, as one admirer observed, a “woman completely free of all traditions of the past”, “une femme du siècle” (Elizabeth Graham, “Mrs Leslie Carter”, Metropolitan Magazine, vol. 9:3 [March 1899], pp. 283-6 [p. 283]). Like Trilby, Zaza is something of a rags-to-riches tale. The eponymous heroine is a singer in a seedy Parisian concert hall who falls in love with one of the regulars, Bernard Dufrène, a man of breeding and cultivation. After living with Dufrène for six blissfully happy months in a country cottage, Zaza learns that her beau is in fact married and a father. She determines to betray their adulterous relationship to Dufrène’s wife, but, before she can do so, encounters his daughter, Toto, and, overcome by the child’s unspoilt innocence, is unable to vent her feelings. Instead she confronts her inamorato, hurling reproaches and crockery, and the doomed lovers go their separate ways. Two years later, when Zaza has become a star, Dufrène seeks a reconciliation, but she, having learned invaluable moral lessons, sends him back to his family. (In the original, French version, Zaza resumes her affair with him—that, as Belasco well knew, would never fly in America.)

Even those reviewers who heaped extravagant praise both on play and player knew what really attracted the punters: the sympathetic portrayal of an illicit affair and Mrs. Carter’s frequent dishabille:   “The pity is, however, that Zaza will owe so much of its enormous pecuniary success, not to its art, not to the possibly beneficent influence upon a well-constituted mind of the exhibition of the development of good and evil, and a power for good, in an outcast woman; not to the extraordinary skill of expression Mrs. Carter has acquired, but to the eagerness of the multitude to see something sensationally naughty” (“The Week at the Theatres”, New York Times, 15 January 1899). There were plenty of critics exercised by the “ethics and morality” of Zaza. “The play is based solely upon vice,” tut-tutted the New York Dramatic Mirror, “and it is strong only when it is most unwholesome. […] No good may come of a play that offers as its redeeming elements only jealousy and revenge, while painting in bright red the things that are pictured generally, and wisely, in pale tints” (14 January 1899, p. 16). William Winter, generally a champion of Belasco’s work, was appalled by the depravity he claimed to have witnessed at the Garrick. “Such dramas as Zaza,” spluttered the censorious prude, “defile the public mind and degrade the Stage, and it would be propitious for the community if they could be played on from a fire hose and washed into the sewer where they belong” (William Winter, The Life of David Belasco, vol. 1 (New York: Moffat, Yard and Co., 1918), p. 464). Even stronger judgements awaited the cast when, after 18 months in New York and other major cities, the production transferred to London. Despite winning popular acclaim, and warmly applauded by royalty including the Prince and Princess of Wales and the King of Sweden and Norway, the press was scathing: the Globe declared the Franco-American export “more crude, more sensual, and more objectionable” than any recent home-grown effort; the Westminster Gazette dismissed the work as “stupid and ill-written throughout, coarse and animal” (“London Theatrical News”, New York Times, 22 April 1900); the Athenaeum, while it allowed that at least the “pretence is abandoned that the old-fashioned virtues of chastity, modesty, and fidelity have now any existence”, yet felt obliged to “protest against a scene of seduction such as that which in the first act Mrs Carter exhibits” (“The Week”, Athenaeum, no. 3782 [21 April 1900], pp. 507-8 [p. 508 ]); and the Era, whose savage review was quoted at length in the House of Commons by Liberal MP Samuel Smith, fumed: “One of the most unpleasant plays that we have seen in London for some time past is Zaza.  […] It is a disgraceful libel on the dramatic profession, and the story is developed with so much base and sordid realism, the seamy side of an illicit connection is shown with such perverse and persistent grovelling in the mud, that the effect created is repellent and depressing” (“Zaza at the Garrick”, Era, no. 3213, 21 April 1900, p.12). Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.

And so we come to the cocktail named in tribute to either the play or the heroine. It’s first mentioned in a piece in the New York Times about fashionable drinks in 1904, some 5 years after Zaza’s opening night (so presumably it existed before then):

The Zaza cocktail is not so old but that it is new, and it finds favour with many of the Broadwayites. It is made up of dry gin, Dubonnet, and orange bitters, served in a cocktail glass. A modification of this, known as the Dubonnet cocktail, is made of Dubonnet, brandy and orange bitters, the only difference being the substitution of brandy for dry gin.

— “Spring Fashions in Drinks”, New York Times, 8 May 1904.

By at least 1910 the cocktail begins to appear in recipe books: the earliest that I know of is Jack’s Manual, where the formula is simply 50% dry gin and 50% Dubonnet (J.A. Grohusko, Jack’s Manual [New York, McClunn, 1910],  p. 84). The bitters have mysteriously gone, and they would stay gone. Which is a shame: they really enliven what is otherwise a rather uncomplicated drink. Another oddity: as the Times piece makes clear, the Dubonnet cocktail was originally made with brandy. Later it would be made with gin and, as such, displaced the Zaza from the standard repertoire (although the play would be periodically revived, and the story filmed, several times, most notably starring Gloria Swanson, I suppose the name “Zaza” eventually became too enigmatic). The Savoy Cocktail Book lists the Dubonnet and the Zaza separately, but the recipe is identical.


3 Responses to “45. Zaza cocktail”

  1. barrypopik April 13, 2012 at 2:39 am #

    This website is very impressive! There’s a 1900 “Zaza Cocktail” cite in the National Police Gazette (American Periodical Series). I was thinking of adding an entry on this cocktail to my own website (expanding the old note in the American Dialect Society listserv archives), but you’ve done such a great job already…I’ve studied the “scofflaw” in great detail back in the 1990s and your work on the “Scofflaw Cocktail” brought back some memories.

  2. barrypopik April 13, 2012 at 2:44 am #

    This is an impressive website! I was going to add “Zaza Cocktail” to my own website, but you’ve done such a fine job already!

    There is a 1900 citation of the Zaza Cocktail in the National Police Gazette (available in American Periodical Series Online). The NPG is an excellent resource for cocktail information from the late 1800s-early 1900s.

    I studied the word “scofflaw” back in the 1990s when I was a New York City parking violations judge and the “Scofflaw Cocktail” sure brought back old memories. I have dozens of wonderful “scofflaw” cartoons.

    • Greg Moore May 27, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

      Belated thanks for your kind words (I’ve been on a self-imposed blogging break for a couple of months now) and for the NPG reference. It means a lot, coming as it does from such an august authority on matters etymological!

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