Mae West Wrote Plays; Pity We Can Only Read Them

Three Plays by Mae West: ‘Sex,’ ‘The Drag’ and ‘The Pleasure Man,’ edited by Lillian Schlissel. Routledge, 246 pages, $16.99.

Mae West was thrown into jail in New York on Feb. 9, 1927, for having written and starred in a play called Sex , the content of which a grand jury deemed “wicked, lewd, scandalous, bawdy, obscene, indecent, infamous, immoral, and impure.” By the time the case went to trial on May 28, Sex had been performed on Broadway 339 times and had been seen by about 325,000 people.

After spending the night in the Jefferson Market Women’s Prison, Miss West provided the $14,000 bail it cost to have herself and her 22 colleagues-her cast and producer-released. Three years later, she would spend $60,000 defending The Pleasure Man against similar charges at a time when ticket prices ranged from 50 cents to $1.50 and gross receipts of $5,000 per week were considered pretty terrific. It would still be five years before Miss West would make her film debut in Night After Night , shrewdly upstaging the far more beautiful Constance Cummings with her very first big line. (The coat-check girl says, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds,” to which Miss West replies in thickest Brooklynese, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, my dear.”)

The jury for the Sex case found Miss West and her producer guilty of obscenity and endangering the morals of youth, and she was sentenced to 10 days in jail and a $500 fine. She arrived on Welfare Island in a limousine, carrying an armload of white roses and smiling for the photographers. Upon her release, she donated $1,000-what Liberty magazine had paid for an interview with her-to found the Mae West Memorial Library in the women’s prison. Her career was off to a roaring start, and she was quoted later to say, “Considering what Sex got me, a few days in the pen ‘n’ a $500 fine ain’t too bad a deal.” Her troubles with the law over her “works of art” (which her lawyer compared in court to A Tale of Two Cities, Hamlet and the Bible) were perfectly congruent with her budding theatrical persona as one of the great icons of female hell-raising.

The prosecutors in all the cases against Miss West’s plays, as is evident from the legal documents printed as an appendix to Three Plays by Mae West , were not concerned so much with the actual events or lewdness in the plays as with the depiction of “fairies” on a public stage. In “Notes for Prosecution Arguments in People v. Mae West et Al. ,” a prosecutor notes that “these men were not mere female impersonators, but degenerates, who, even offstage, when not performing, adopted the mannerisms of women.” His only mistake was that, in all likelihood, these “degenerate” men were never not performing: They were, in life as in the theater, the great gay characters of 1920’s New York, and Mae West was devoted to them.

One of her main influences, as noted by the book’s editor, Lillian Schlissel, in a fascinating short introduction, was Bert Savoy, a vaudeville actor who played “cheeky dames named Margie and Maude, gossipy secretaries and beauticians, party girls, and flirts.” Offstage, Savoy was just as campy as in the theater. “Stopping in front of Saks Fifth Avenue,” Ms. Schlissel writes, “he told friends, ‘It’s just too much. I don’t care if he'”-presumably meaning an imaginary sugar daddy-“‘is building it for me.… I’ll never live in it!’ Mae West on stage probably owed more to Bert Savoy than to any woman in the theater before 1920.” She was as close as any woman has ever come to being one of the great American queens.

With the publication of these plays, we see some of the sources of her persona, notes for a memorable character. As Ms. Schlissel admits in the introduction, West was not an original writer; nor was she a great one. The plays themselves surely would be much better on stage than they are in print. The third act of The Drag , a vehicle for her openly gay entourage (who were wonderful performers, no doubt), opens with a party where the “girls” are tossing around lines such as “I’m the type that men prefer. I can at least go through the Navy yard without having the flags drop to half-mast.” In a good production, these parties would be a lot of fun; unfortunately, in print they seem stiff and wooden.

The Drag (1927), subtitled A Homosexual Comedy in Three Acts , is a rather heavy-handed defense of social difference, which was West’s main theme. Tragedy, for her, resulted from being pushed out, or kept out, of a class or club to which one feels entitled to belong. In The Drag , Rolly Kingsbury manages to alienate himself from every connection. The crazed man in love with him (West called him “an outcast” in her cast list) kills Rolly in the end; Rolly’s father-in-law arranges for the act to be called a suicide.

The comedy in the subtitle is provided by the gay guys with their campy lines about cabdrivers and ball gowns, and by the situation of Rolly’s loopy wife, who doesn’t understand what’s wrong with her marriage. (“What’s he done?” she’s asked. “Why, nothing. That’s just it,” she replies.)

The Pleasure Man is a revision of The Drag . The story is of a modern Don Juan, an actor who seduces one girl after another and who eventually gets punished for his sins: One girl’s big brother cuts the actor’s dick off. Again, there are homosexuals everywhere, but they are just the spice for what would otherwise be a bland play that “tells a moral story”-which is how West described it in court.

The best of the three plays is the earliest-written in 1926-and the only one in which West acted (in the title role), Sex . West played Margy LaMont, an experienced and ambitious prostitute from Montreal (“I’m a jane that craves service”). In Act 1, Margy saves the life of Clara Stanton, a society dame on a naughty fling, who then accuses Margy of robbing her. Margy swears revenge. In Act 2, Margy has followed the fleet down to Trinidad. (The playbill ad for Sex reads, “The story of a bad little girl who was good to the navy!”) Jimmy, a rich civilian, falls in love with her: “There was a certain look in your eyes,” he says to Margy.

“What kind of a certain look?”

“I don’t know, but I only hope you don’t look at any other man that way.”

“You silly boy,” Margy says.

Margy goes back to the East Coast with her new boyfriend and discovers that the guy’s mother is old Clara Stanton. A cat fight ensues, and this must have been really great theater. Margy says, “I’ll bet without this beautiful home, without money, and without any restrictions, you’d be worse than I have ever been.… The only difference between us is that you could afford to give it away.”

Sex is well written, it’s funny, and it gave West a superb opportunity to develop the type we have seen in her best movies. Telling her about Trinidad, one character says, “Why, down there, you can get a room and a bath, a wife and a bottle of liquor for two dollars.” Margy drawls in reply, “It must be bum liquor.” The comedy is often a little dark: When Jimmy comes downstairs, in his parents’ house, and finds Margy with a lieutenant of the navy she was so good to, he asks, “What is my little sweetheart doing? Entertaining?” And Margy replies, “Not tonight, dear.”

Mae West was many things-sexual outlaw, wildcat feminist, actress, icon. The publication of these plays proves that she was more complex than her movies suggest. The only thing she did straightforwardly was to insist that her convictions were worth fighting for. And she fought for them.