The Sign of the Cross

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The Sign of the Cross is a historical tragedy in four acts by Wilson Barrett (1846-1904)[1].

The original text

The story is of "Marcus Superbus", a Roman patrician under Nero, who has fallen in love with a young woman named "Mercia" and converts to Christianity for her. "Poppea", the emperor Nero's wife, harbours an unrequited lust for Marcus, leading to "Mercia" and "Marcus" sacrificing their lives in the arena. Claimed to have been his attempt to bridge the gap between Church and stage,

The play's story resembles the Polish novel Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916)[2], which was first published between 26 March 1895 and 29 February 1896 in the Gazeta Polska, the first instalment appearing a mere two days before the play's first production in the USA, and eleven months before its publication as a Polish book in 1896. However, besides smaller differences, the endings of the two works differ greatly, for in Quo Vadis the lovers "Marcus Vinicius" and "Lygia" survive, while "Nero" and "Poppea" are the ones who die.

The play was originally produced by Wilson Barrett at the Grand Opera House, St. Louis, Missouri on 28 March 1895, before it was presented on Broadway at the Knickerbocker Theatre in late 1895. Barrett also took it to England, opening at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, on 26 August 1895, before taking it to the Lyric Theatre, London, in 1896.

Translations and adaptations

Twice filmed, in 1914, directed by Frederick A. Thomson[3] and in 1932, produced and directed by Cecil B. de Mille[4]

Translated into Afrikaans as Die Teken van die Kruis and produced by Jean Plaat-Stultjes in 1930.

Performance history in South Africa

1898: First performed in South Africa on 23 June by W.J. Holloway and his company, playing in Cape Town for 4 weeks.

1901: According to D.C. Boonzaier (1923), The Holloway Theatre Company performed Quo Vadis in Cape Town, but since Boonzaier says that "(o)nly the vaguest recollection remains with me of Mr Holloway's Quo Vadis", it is quite probable that the play performed in this case was in fact The Sign of the Cross. Interestingly, F.C.L. Bosman (1980) adds an tantalizing note to this when he ascribes the play to "S. Strange", but then adds "Adapted from H. Sienkiewicz's novel by W. Barrett" in a footnote on p 408 of his history.

1902: Performed by Wilson Barrett and his company at the Good Hope Theatre, Cape Town, under the management of the Wheeler Brothers as part of a short season that also included The Silver King (Jones and Herman) and The Manxman (Caine/Barrett). The cast of the play included Wilson Barrett and Ambrose Manning.

1904: Produced by the Wheeler Brothers in the Opera House, Cape Town, opening on 19 November, with a cast that included Clifford Pembroke and Sylvia Cavalho in the leading roles.

1910: Produced by Leonard Rayne and his company, as part of their repertoire of six plays, opening at the Standard Theatre, Johannesburg, and then touring the various cities, including a performances at the Opera House, Cape Town, in April. Thelma Gutsche referred to this play as one of Leonard Rayne's greatest successes.

1930: Performed in Afrikaans as Die Teken van die Kruis by Jean Plaat-Stultjes and his company in 1930.


D.C. Boonzaier, 1923. "My playgoing days – 30 years in the history of the Cape Town stage", in SA Review, 9 March and 24 August 1932. (Reprinted in Bosman 1980: pp. 374-439.)

F.C.L. Bosman. 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1912. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: pp. 406, 411, 421, 433

Thelma Gutsche 1940c. "Cut out the cackle". The South African Theatre, Music and Dance, 1(2):14-15.

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