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Rosary Hartel O’Neill is a regaled author of dozens of plays and three nonfiction books. A professor who holds a Ph.D., Rosary’s work has been featured at festivals all over the world, and she has won numerous fellowships to study and work abroad in countries such as Germany, France, Italy, and Ireland.

Between 1986 and 2001, Rosary was the Founding Artistic Director of the Southern Repertory Theatre in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she was born and raised. She presently lives in New York City where she is a proud member of the Playwright Director’s Workshop at the Actors Studio.

Rosary’s latest play is called “John Singer Sargent and Madam X, actually” and it focuses on the real-life relationship between the famous painter John Singer Sargent and the woman he painted known only as “Madam X” whose painting currently hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In an exclusive Interview, Rosary recently discussed the play, her experiences in theater, and the history that inspires so much of her work.

History

Blasting News (BN): When did you first become aware of the "Madame X" painting and what most interested you about it?

Rosary O’Neill (RO): When I lived in New Orleans there was a superb exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art of Sargent's portraits. The sensuality and passion in his amazing paintings mesmerized me. So, I started following Sargent’s exhibitions in various museums.

When I saw the portrait of Madame X at the Metropolitan, I was stunned to realize that Mad melie Gautreau from New Orleans. I’d actually eaten at Gautreaux Restaurant in uptown New Orleans, a restaurant run by Amelie’s distant descendants! Other descendants still run the family’s plantation Parlange in rural Louisiana.

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I began studying Amelie Gautreau and found she was 24 and considered the most beautiful woman in Paris when Sargent painted her. I had written a number of plays set in the 1880s--“The Awakening of Kate Chopin,” “Degas in New Orleans,” “Uncle Victor”--s,o I knew and had studied the period well.

I like to write about famous artists who have to bout with unimaginable problems on their way to victory. And Sargent (an ex-patriot from Philadelphia) studying in Paris was that. Also, Amelie and her widow mother had moved to Paris after losing everything in the Civil War and Amelie had been schooled by nuns and eventually became celebrated as the most beautiful woman in Paris.

BN: So, who was Madame X and what do you know about her?

RO: Well, in 1884, Amelie Gautreau was like the Marilyn Monroe of Paris; sensitive, glittery, flamboyant, and sad. And Amelie needed to get a flattering portrait. The art school in Paris (Le Salon des Beaux Arts) was shunning John Sargent since the Parisians were annoyed that he had won all the prizes that they hoped to bestow on the French.

So, Sargent engineered to meet Amelie and get her approval to do the portrait. He hoped for his graduation show at the Salon his portrait of Amelie Gautreau would get him assigned a major spot in a major room at the exhibition and a feature in all the articles in the Paris.

BN: Why was this woman’s story so intriguing to you?

RO: The story appealed to me because of the betrayal involved and the torture inflicted on the hero Sargent; an old adage in writing is torture the hero! Also, on a personal note, the play had a great romantic lead and my son is an actor and so I always write roles with great romantic male leads whether he plays them or not. He is a young mentor, very active before at Yale and now at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I was fascinated by the beauty and complexity of the role of Sargent and also by the circumstances of the beautiful, Amelie. She was married to someone else and pregnant by her lover, the infamous Doctor Pozzi. Pozzi was known as “Dr. Love” because of his history with women and his profession as the first gynecologist in Paris.

The naïve Sargent fell in love with Amelie and thought the baby was his. The resulting conflict and tension caused him to change the name on the portrait of Amelie Gatutreau to Madame X in his efforts to assure that Amelie Gautreau would never be remembered and the portrait would never immortalize her.

Theater

BN: What most interested you about the history of the painting and its background and did anything in particular surprise you while you wrote this play?

RO: I was surprised that the portrait was not the original one Sargent had designed of Amelie Gautrau but one he created out of his revulsion once she revealed her morose and violent nature. Of course, of secondary interest was the whole beautiful world of the Belle Epoque. Other characters involved in the Love Salon of Dr. Love and Amelie Gautreau were Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Sarah Bernhardt.

BN: What other paintings did Sargent create and what was his later life like?

RO: The scandal that the “Madame X” portrait generated created such an interest in the painting that Sargent was able to live off the proceeds of renting the painting for the rest of his life. At only 28 years of age, the horror and glory Sargent experience by insisting his portrait of “Madame X” not be removed is a lesson in hope and tenacity. Sargent believed in his work and defied the whole establishment of Paris and in so doing broke his way into a career.

Afterwards he did portraits of many celebrities like Mrs. J P Morgan (at the Morgan Library in NYC) Edwin Booth and Joseph Jefferson, famous 19th century actors (at the Players Club in NYC) and many other notable personages. Oscar Wilde and Henry James and other Brits championed Sargent and he lived most of his life in Britain where he was named a British citizen and is celebrated in the National Portrait Gallery.

BN: How did you find a way to get this work staged?

RO: The director Benno Haenel and I have been members of the Actors Studio Playwright Directors Workshop. Benno directed the first stages of my new play called “Monty, Marilyn, and Liz” at the Actors Studio and asked me for other plays that I had written--which is a dream for a playwright--that his company might do at the Gallery Theater. I was thrilled he picked my Sargent play.

BN: What else is forthcoming for you and your plays?

RO: “John Singer Sargent and Madame X” has been selected be shown as part of The 20th Annual Lower East Side Festival of the Arts between May 26 and 28. This event is really popular and usually attracts about 3,000 visitors to the Theater for the New City which is a famous venue.

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A reading of “Madam X” will be performed live at The Gallery Players on 199 14th Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on May 22 at 7 p.m.