Wales Padlock Law Censors Risque Theater

Often considered the first and only major censorship law covering the theater in the United States, the Wales Padlock Law targeted plays considered risque, namely those dealing with homosexuality and prostitution. The law remained on the books until 1967.

Summary of Event

The 1920’s in New York City was a decade of contrasts. While liquor prohibition was in effect and moral crusades were plentiful, the speakeasy culture was entrenched and the moral order was being challenged by Broadway theater. Expecting big profits, playwright and actor Mae West chose to press the boundaries of public decency. Her vaudeville-inspired play Sex was financially successful and prompted playwrights and theater owners to tackle more sexual themes. Her friendly relationship with the city’s mayor, Jimmy Walker, encouraged her to be more sexually explicit in her plays. [kw]Wales Padlock Law Censors Risque Theater (Feb., 1927)
[kw]Padlock Law Censors Risque Theater, Wales (Feb., 1927)
[kw]Law Censors Risque Theater, Wales Padlock (Feb., 1927)
[kw]Theater, Wales Padlock Law Censors Risque (Feb., 1927)
Wales Padlock Law (1927)
Padlock Law, Wales (1927)
Drama and theater;censorship of
Sexuality;in American theater
Censorship;and American theater[American theater]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb., 1927: Wales Padlock Law Censors Risque Theater[0280]
[c]Arts;Feb., 1927: Wales Padlock Law Censors Risque Theater[0280]
West, Mae
Walker, James
McKee, Joseph V.
Wales, B. Roger
Banton, Joab H.
Dodd, Charles H.

However, on February 9, 1927, Mayor Walker was on vacation, and acting Mayor Joseph V. McKee, known as “Holy Joe,” staged a politically motivated raid on three “indecent” plays. West’s Sex, William Francis Dugan’s unsuccessful comedy The Virgin Man, and Éduard Bourdet’s lesbian drama The Captive were each halted at intermission. The first two plays were considered lewd but nonthreatening. However, The Captive, a sensitive, restrained look at a lesbian relationship, was considered dangerous. As a result, the cast and crew of each show were arrested, jailed, and subsequently fined.

The raids renewed the resolve of socially conservative forces in the New York State Assembly. Their response came in less than two weeks. During the last few hours of a legislative session, the Republicans in Albany introduced legislation amending the Penal Code of 1909, a code regulating indecent materials. Two new provisions were added to the law. The first prohibited plays “depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perversion.” The second and more troubling provision, Section 1140A, directed that theater owners who chose to produce a show that could “tend to the corruption of youth or others” could have their playhouses padlocked and closed for the course of one year.

District attorneys Joab H. Banton of New York and Charles H. Dodd of Brooklyn had suggested the law, and Senator B. Roger Wales had sponsored it in the legislature. The entire legislature was sensitive to the public outcry for censorship leading up to the 1927 raids. As a result, the Wales Padlock Law was passed, giving New York officials the authority to arrest and prosecute producers and actors associated with any “immoral drama.”

Opponents of the bill felt that it gave too much power to the district attorney or assistant district attorney, and they circulated a petition to repeal the law. The petition had been sent to Governor Alfred E. Smith, but the law remained in effect until 1967.


The adoption of the Wales Padlock Law began a forty-year period of extreme self-censorship on the part of the U.S. theater community, especially in New York and particularly where depictions of gay and lesbian characters and themes were concerned. Because the law targeted theater owners and producers, who supported the theater financially, few playwrights, directors, or actors would or could challenge it in a meaningful way.

In 1928, the first drama to be affected by the law, Simon Gantillon’s Maya, set a chilling example for years to come. In this case, the district attorney began receiving protests about the play. Then, acting on the suggestion made in an assistant’s review, he closed the play after only fifteen performances. The producers, knowing the Wales Padlock Law could close their theater, did not appeal the case.

In 1930, the first legal challenge to the law was filed by Mae West. It was an attempt to dismiss obscenity charges against her gay-themed play Pleasure Man, formerly titled The Drag. Surprisingly, the case ended in a hung jury, which caused the judge to dismiss the charges. As a result of this challenge, an amendment was attached to the Wales Law that assured that, from that point on, only the writers and producers and not the cast or crew of a production would be held responsible for material deemed obscene or immoral.

The insidious self-censorship encouraged by the Wales Law was its primary impact; only a small number of little-known plays were actively removed from the stage between 1927 and 1967. Attempts to remove classic plays such as Ben Jonson’s Volpone (pr. 1605) and Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (pr. 1928) in the late 1920’s were unsuccessful. Producer-director Herman Shumlin, tired of the threat of the padlock, challenged the law in 1934 with Lillian Hellman’s lesbian classic The Children’s Hour (pr. 1934). Though not well supported in the theater community, the play opened successfully on Broadway. Another lesbian drama, Dorothy and Howard Baker’s Trio, was closed by the Shuberts in 1944 to avoid the law’s sanctions. During the 1950’s, the McCarthy years, few gay or lesbian plays were attempted for fear of the padlock. In the 1960’s the law was ignored, and by 1970 the depiction of gay and lesbian characters on stage began to be commonplace.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court finally granted freedom of speech status to the legitimate theater. Only one year later, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (pr. 1968) would launch the GLBT theater revolution. Wales Padlock Law (1927)
Padlock Law, Wales (1927)
Drama and theater;censorship of
Sexuality;in American theater
Censorship;and American theater[American theater]

Further Reading

  • Clum, John. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
  • Curtin, Kaier. “We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians”: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage. Boston: Alyson, 1987.
  • DeJongh, Nicholas. Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage. New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Friedman, Andrea. Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy, and Obscenity in New York City, 1909-1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
  • Hanna, David. Come Up and See Me Sometime: An Uncensored Biography of Mae West. New York: Belmont Tower Books, 1976.
  • Latham, Angela J. “The Right to Bare: Containing and Encoding American Women in Popular Entertainments of the 1920’s.” Theatre Journal 49, no. 4 (1997): 455-473.
  • Laufe, Abe. The Wicked Stage: A History of Theatre Censorship and Harassment in the United States. New York: Ungar, 1978.
  • West, Mae. Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It. New York: Avon, 1959.

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