Mae West, Digital ID th-64133, New York Public LibraryMae West. On Stage and Screen: Photograph File of the Billy Rose Theatre Collection
Today is the 118th anniversary of Mae West's birth, although I doubt she'd admit it. As West quipped — "You're never too old to become younger." West was a delightfully controversial performer who got her start in vaudeville before moving to the New York stage and finally landing in Hollywood. A comedienne, actress and writer, she was constantly pushing the boundaries of sexuality and innuendo. Frustrated by the lack of parts appropriate for both her physique and brash sense of humor, West decided to take the bull by the horns and create roles for herself by writing her own plays. Her play Sex, which she wrote, produced, directed and starred in, about a brothel in Montreal, got her persecuted with moral charges in 1927. Of course, as those things go, the persecution, along with a slew of negative reviews, increased the shows ticket sales and enhanced her career. West drove to prison in a limousine.
Her next play, The Drag: A Homosexual Comedy in Three Acts very nearly made it to Broadway before being shut down. West wrote The Drag as one of the first plays to portray homosexuals in a sympathetic light. West recruited 50 drag queens from Paul and Joe's, the most popular gay cabaret in Greenwich Village at the time, to audition for her show. But at the time, discussion of "perverts" on the New York City stage was illegal and when the play opened in Bayonne, New Jersey, the police ordered a seated audience out of the theatre. In New York, the Society for the Prevention of Vice warned that if The Drag was brought there, there would be a move to censor all Broadway plays.She later re-wrote The Drag to circumvent the censors, titled it The Pleasure Man and opened it for a whopping run of one and a half performances before being raided by the police. Though they intended the raid to be demoralizing to the cast and audience, it was the police who got the worst of it. When the Lieutenant called for the lights to come up, the police were met with boos, catcalls and a drag queen delivering a speech about police oppression. West posted bail for all 59 of her actors and two years later the play went on trial. The trail was as theatrical as the play itself, a battle of wits and semantics. After fourteen days of testimony, the jury failed to reach a decision and the indictments against 24 defendants were dismissed.
Mae West, Digital ID th-64124, New York Public Library
West's plays were primarily improvised and her courage and gall made it possible for gay men to be more than chorus boys. Though it's questionable how much her gay characters were "true" portrayals of the culture, she was a clear advocate and friend to a number of gay actors. They were her "sisters" on the road, and when her mother was sick and dying in the hospital, it's said it was her gay friends she brought with her on visits. More thorough accounts of her life and work can be found in any number of biographies including Mae West: It Ain't No Sin or Mae West: An Icon in Black and White.