Then and Now: Was a play with sandals really a scandal

Nearly a century before Lenny Bruce’s first obscenity trial in San Francisco after a famous 1961 performance at the Jazz Workshop, another Jew was arrested for breaking the laws of public performance — portraying Jesus.

David Belasco backed a controversial production of “The Passion.”

As historian Fred Rosenbaum has told the story so memorably, in 1879 a Jewish convert to Christianity, Salmi Morse, wrote an English-version language of “The Passion.” With the backing of S.F.-born producer David Belasco, Morse staged an austere production at the Grand Opera House to the fascination and anxiety of Jews and Christians alike.

Jesus was played by Irish actor James O’Neill (father of playwright Eugene O’Neill) who — along with the Sephardic Jewish Belasco — was fined and arrested after a performance, still wearing his robe and sandals. The crime? Participating in a theatrical production portraying Jesus Christ.

The arrests didn’t stick, but the fines did, and the first American production of “The Passion” quickly closed down. Morse died soon after, likely a suicide, while Belasco — dubbed “The Bishop of Broadway” for his priestlike black wardrobe — went on to revolutionize the American theater. His plays “Madame Butterfly” and “The Girl of the Golden West” were adapted as operas by Puccini, and 40 of his plays were made into movies.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”