The Dirty Dozen August Installment Part 2:
An abridged catalogue of Mae West’s most salacious theater
Okay, so at this point you (hopefully) know the basic history of Sex, by Mae West. But, Mae West was more than just Sex! While most people are familiar with the name Mae West for her glamorous roles on the silver screen, her sex symbol status, or her great influence on other artists (The Beatles, Jean-Michael Frank, and Salvador Dalí to name a few), us theater geeks know her for the feminist power plays she wrote, produced, and starred in. While SEX is the most famous because it landed her in jail for ten days for ‘lucidity’, her other plays are just as badass. Read about a few of them below!
- The Drag
The Drag was a follow-up play to Sex. An avid supporter of gay rights her entire life, Mae West said she was inspired to write a play about gay men by her friends who wished they could live openly and freely with the people they loved without being ostracized. I won’t get into the full plot because this isn’t Wikipedia, but I will tell you that the show opens at a gay conversion therapist, and ends with a murder covered up as a suicide. Just like Sex, the play was a huge financial success, and just like Sex it was fiercely criticized and received severe reviews for its sexual content. The original show written in 1927 never opened on broadway after being banned by critics for its candid portrayal of homosexuality. Mae West re-wrote parts of the show in 1928 replacing a gay character with a straight one and renaming the show The Pleasure Man, however, the show still did not do well.
If you are interested in learning more about The Drag, or early theatrical portrayals of gay culture, you should probably go add this book to your amazon cart right now: Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in the American Theater, by Jordan Schildcrout, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance at Purchase College. The back of the book blurb reads:
The “villainous homosexual” has long stalked America’s cultural imagination, most explicitly in the figure of the queer murderer, a character in dozens of plays. But as society’s understanding of homosexuality has changed, so has the significance of these controversial characters, especially when employed by LGBT theater artists themselves to explore darker fears and desires. Murder Most Queer examines the shifting meanings of murderous LGBT characters in American theater over a century, showing how these representations wrestle with and ultimately subvert notions of gay villainy.
Um yeah, that got my attention. There is a whole section on The Drag in Schildcrout’s book, and I am so excited to read all about it once my copy arrives in the mail!
2) Diamond Lil
Diamond Lil was also written in 1928, but unlike The Pleasure Man it was a success. Probably because Diamond Lil was about a ‘racy woman’, i.e. Mae West got to be sultry on stage in a way that men liked so the play did well- CURSE YOU MALE GAZE, CURSE YOU PATRIARCHY, YOU ARE NOTHING WITHOUT FEMINIST ART…okay, rant over, I blacked out for a second but I’M BACK. The Show was a huge success on Broadway, and it ended up touring until 1950.
The show was then adapted into a movie starring Mae West and Cary Grant called She Done Him Wrong. It was actually Cary Grant’s first big role in the movies! In addition, Mae West brought Louise Beavers into the movie, saying that she demanded to play opposite a black actress to try to break the racial barriers of Hollywood. Mae West’s activism continued to cause controversy even though Beavers’ character was that of West’s maid (insert angry rant about racism in movies here), and paramount continued to censor West’s casting and scripts in her future films.
Finally, one last fun trivia fact: At 66 minutes, She Done Him Wrong is the shortest movie to ever be nominated for an academy award for best picture.
3) And Many More…
The other shows Mae West wrote and starred in are not well recorded either because they were not huge hits, or because their movie adaptations were all more popular. Turns out that without a scandal, people don’t really take much notice of women making theater…huh, who’d’a thunk it? So instead of focusing on one for the last section, I’m going to list random anecdotes I found about the rest of her stage endeavors.
- Vera Violetta, 1911: The only thing I can find about this show is that Mae West only preformed through the previews. I can’t find out why, but I like to imagine that someone was being sexists and she stormed out in a fit of feminist glory.
- Winsome Widow, 1912: This was a Zigfield musical at Moulin Rouge. West had a small role, but she quit after again only 5 performances.
- The Mimic of the World, 1921: West wore a black velvet dress with slits up both sides of her legs all the way up to her hips AND she was still brunette at the time.
- The Constant Sinner, 1931: Skipping over some of her other works, enjoy the description of the main character Babe Gordon in The Constant Sinner; “Babe was eighteen and a prizefighter’s tart, picking up her living on their hard earned winnings. Her acquaintances numbered trollops, murderers, bootleggers and gambling-den keepers.”
If you haven’t already, please attend our event for SEX on Facebook for updates, ticket info, and special surprises!!