Mae West’s Play About Gays Is Banned on Broadway Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Mae West’s play The Drag was first performed in Connecticut to packed houses because of censorship restrictions in New York. It was American theater’s first substantial and somewhat realistic picture of the world of cross-dressing and drag among gays. Although the play was naïve by modern standards because of its view that gay men want to be women, its advocacy of restraint to prevent disruptions to family life, and its claim that cross-dressing harms society, there is no doubt that the play’s theme was heartfelt on the part of its creator and its tolerant views were ahead of their time.

Summary of Event

Mae West, who wrote and acted in the successful and notorious play Sex (1926), wrote what would become another notorious—and scandalous—play: The Drag: A Homosexual Comedy in Three Acts (1927). The Drag, written under the pseudonym Jane Mast, offered its audience a glimpse into the lives of the gay men of New York City’s infamous drag, or cross-dressing, balls. The publicity leading up to the anticipated opening of the play on Broadway in New York caused such a stir that legislation quickly was introduced to ban such plays in the city. The Society for the Suppression of Vice Society for the Suppression of Vice campaigned against it as well. Newspapers and entertainment magazines all condemned the play. West, who had been arrested for Sex, was forced to end production of The Drag before it opened in New York. [kw]West’s Play About Gays Is Banned on Broadway, Mae (1927) [kw]Gays Is Banned on Broadway, Mae West’s Play About (1927) West, Mae New York City;Broadway theater Broadway theater Drag, The (play) West, Mae New York City;Broadway theater Broadway theater Drag, The (play) [g]United States;1927: Mae West’s Play About Gays Is Banned on Broadway[00400] [c]Performing arts;1927: Mae West’s Play About Gays Is Banned on Broadway[00400] [c]Public morals;1927: Mae West’s Play About Gays Is Banned on Broadway[00400] [c]Sex;1927: Mae West’s Play About Gays Is Banned on Broadway[00400] Elsner, Edward Timony, James

The play, which premiered on January 31, 1927, at Poli’s Theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut, tells the story of Rolly Kingsbury, who is gay but married to a woman to conceal his homosexuality. His friends include several flamboyant gays, and his wife is very unhappy in their Marriage;and homosexuality[homosexuality] marriage without fully understanding why (until the end of the play). Eventually, Kingsbury is killed by a former lover, David Caldwell. The play includes brief discussion between a sympathetic character representing the medical community and a character representing the law, a judge who finds homosexuals a threat to society.

For her first twenty-five years in show business, West had a fair amount of success in vaudeville, musical comedy, and even burlesque. To expand her career, she founded the Morals Production Company with James Timony and her mother. She then developed into a notable figure with star power with her play Sex, the story of a Montreal madam and the various goings-on in her brothel. With its April 26, 1926, premiere, Sex became one of the biggest hits on Broadway until it was forced to close permanently in March of 1927. A month earlier, on February 9, West and the entire cast and crew of Sex had been arrested for creating a public nuisance and producing an immoral play.

The popularity of Sex convinced West to begin another work in September, 1926. Another inspiration for her was timing. A new genre was developing on the Broadway stage—sex plays—and The Drag would fit right in as a “homosexual comedy-drama,” as West called her new production. A French play about lesbians, The Captive, had premiered on Broadway earlier in 1926. Adapted from Edouard Bourdet’s La Prisonniere, the American production was restrained in its depiction of lesbian desire (although this play, too, would be raided by police). Because of The Captive’s general acceptance, West felt she could create her gay-themed production (which, she and Timony would later claim, was envisioned as a gay version of The Captive). West and Timony began recruiting from known, albeit underground, gay neighborhoods in late 1926. She hired Edward Elsner to direct the play. (Elsner pushed West’s creative imagination, and West credited him for pointing out her distinguishing, and later trademark, walk.)

Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre served as the space (part of which they rented) where they would begin their work. The midnight-only rehearsals began, but the play was not quite complete. West, again with Elsner’s strong encouragement, allowed many in the cast to help “write” the play by ad-libbing their lines. The characters displayed extremely stereotypical mannerisms, but for the time it seemed appropriate.

The Drag did manage one staging in New York City: a private showing for doctors and New York City officials in an attempt to win support for bringing it to Broadway. To limit the chance that it would be censored, West had written into the play a doctor character, who argues that homosexuals are not criminals or dangerous to society; they simply need help, whether medical or psychological or simple compassion. West could then claim that the play was a vehicle for sex education and not merely a play about sex. However, the officials and doctors were not persuaded, and they refused to approve the play’s staging. Because of West’s previous arrest, for which she was awaiting trial, she decided against fighting for The Drag. She had hoped someday to turn it into a book or even to produce a film version of the play, but those plans never developed fully.

Impact

The public’s reaction to The Drag revealed how scandal would accompany homosexuality—and depictions of homosexuality—in 1920’s America, so much so that the play was taboo on stage even in the seemingly open and tolerant city of New York. Official condemnation of the play, too, only reaffirmed what many already knew: homosexuality, and its depiction, was taboo, officially.

Scholars have speculated that when it first premiered, The Drag had a significant social impact, both positive and negative. Although many insist that West was attempting to “help” the homosexual community by writing the play, others believe she was merely exploiting New York’s gay community for profit. Many argue that she saw the potential in the sex-plays genre and exploited it for her sole benefit, not only financially but also personally. Later, however, she often spoke on how she had always been in full support of gays, and that her support came out with the play. West, Mae New York City;Broadway theater Broadway theater Drag, The (play)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Failler, Angela. “Excitable Speech: Judith Butler, Mae West, and Sexual Innuendo.” In Butler Matters: Judith Butler’s Impact on Feminist and Queer Studies, edited by Margaret Sönser Breen and Warren J. Blumenfeld. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2005. Discusses ideas of “excitable speech,” in part as found in West’s plays, including The Drag, and how it contributed to speech used in social and political causes and resistance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, Marybeth. “When I’m Bad, I’m Better”: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Hamilton writes that her book is more than biography; it unravels who West truly was, teasing out and deciphering her paradoxical personality and contradictory character.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Carol M. Mae West: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. This is more than a bibliography of works on West. Includes an extended bibliographical essay, a biography, interviews, a list of work in theater, and a filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Mae. Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It: The Autobiography of Mae West. 1959. New ed. New York: Belvedere, 1981. West’s own thoughts and reminiscences on her life through the 1950’s. An interesting mix of personal memoir, business acumen, insights into life, and plenty of gossip.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Three Plays by Mae West: “Sex,” “The Drag,” “The Pleasure Man.” Edited by Lillian Schlissel. New York: Routledge, 1997. Collection that includes West’s three earliest plays. Includes a brief introduction by Schlissel that covers the plays and their histories independently. Also ties the plays together. Provides a look into the case against West for Sex, and includes trial documents.

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