Mae West – comedian, dancer, singer, actor, playwright, director, producer, novelist and sex symbol – had a career that lasted more than 80 years, which included performances that were famous, or infamous, for their power to shock. Below, Dr Will Visconti explores the star’s fearless approach to topics considered taboo and how she created herself as her most enduring ‘character’, who she used as a mouthpiece to criticise hypocrisy.
In 1926, Mae West’s play, Sex, premiered at Daly’s 63rd St Theatre in New York. Under the pen name of Jane Mast, West wrote and starred in a melodrama in the style of popular pieces of the era, including those in which she had herself appeared or with which her own show was in competition.
After nearly 12 months, the play was raided, and West and her company, were charged with obscenity. Similarly, her later plays The Drag (1927) and The Pleasure Man (1928) were raided and shut down, albeit much more swiftly. Despite Mae West’s best efforts, The Drag never made it to Broadway. It was a financial success during its run but was poorly received by critics primarily because of its sexual content (particularly its homosexual content). Within all of her plays are elements of the humour for which West became famous, alongside more serious subject matters like drug use, blackmail and human trafficking.
What set Sex apart from other shows running during the period was West’s depiction of Margy LaMont, a tough but not heartless prostitute who tries to help a ‘fallen woman’ and a victim of blackmailing while trying to make a better life for herself beyond the world of toughs and gangsters.
Similarly, The Drag portrayed gay men and drag queens sympathetically, and treated the female impersonator Paradise, as one of the heroines of The Pleasure Man. At the same time, however, groups like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice were agitating for tighter restrictions on material shown in performances that they deemed to be indecent or immoral. Édouard Bourdet’s melodrama The Captive, which tells the story of same-sex desire between women while never actually using the word ‘lesbian’, was also raided at the same time as The Drag. This formed part of the backdrop against which Mae West’s play’s publicity was set, and something on which she capitalised, when her later play The Drag was dubbed ‘a male Captive’ by the press.
At the same time as West was launching plays as an alternative to the paucity of satisfactory opportunities available to her, there were several other sensational or sensationalised acts running. Most prominent among these was the performer Eva Tanguay, who was billed as an ‘eccentric comedienne’ and was renowned for her energetic style, flamboyantly bizarre costumes and innuendo-laden songs.
Eva Tanguay had made a name for herself with the song I Don’t Care, which played up her insouciance and sexuality, but was rendered more palatable to audiences because of her shape and manner. In the same way, Sophie Tucker, whose style was influenced by Eva Tanguy, and in turn was compared to Mae West, played with notions of sexiness through her delivery or songs and joking references to her looks. Tanguay presented as wild and frenetic, rather than classically beautiful, just as Tucker’s ample figure and later her age meant that she had a degree of licence to sing bawdy songs that were undercut by her appearance.
During Mae West’s time as a theatre actress, there was also a fondness for what are commonly termed ‘blood and thunder’ melodramas of the late 19th century; many elements of the genre are certainly present in the plays that she wrote. Mae, however, subverted many of the trends of mainstream melodrama by making the central characters of her work the very ones who were usually punished and singled out for opprobrium, when they were represented at all. In Sex, Margy LaMont emerges victorious (with several men falling in love with her, amidst cases of mistaken identity and upsetting discoveries about characters along the way).
As a result of the court case and indecency charges around Sex and her successive plays, West’s fame skyrocketed, making a succès de scandale of her work. She was given a $500 fine and a ten-day stay in Welfare Island Prison, which she turned to her advantage for both publicity and a means of garnering more material. She dined with the governor, visited other inmates, and was reputedly permitted to wear her own silk underwear rather than the coarser prison issue linen undergarments. In her later film work, another controversial element to West’s performances was her insistence on casting black actors. This was despite the limitations imposed by Hollywood at the time that the only roles made available to black actors were as servants.
Several of Mae West’s films drew on Sex and her other plays and novels, with She Done Him Wrong taking its inspiration from Sex and Diamond Lil; and the play Frisco Kate transforming into the film Klondike Annie, all with Mae in the starring role. The character of Margy LaMont, and then Diamond Lil, became integral to the creation and marketing of the ‘Mae West Character’ – what effectively became, or was, West’s public persona.
Watching West on screen in films made within a decade of the premieres of her first plays, one gains a strong sense of how her onstage training, combined with her skill and drive as a writer, her observational skills and her comic timing were distilled into the creation of Mae West as her own most enduring character, who she used as a mouthpiece to criticise hypocrisy and, in her own words, to ‘kid sex’.
Dr Will Visconti completed a joint PhD in French Studies and Italian Studies at the University of Sydney. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory at the Institute of Modern Language Research, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and is a history and cultural studies lecturer at Central Saint Martins.
- Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. Affairs to Remember: The Hollywood Comedy of the Sexes (1991, Manchester University Press)
- Schlissel, Lillian (ed.). Three Plays by Mae West: “Sex”, “The Drag”, and “The Pleasure Man” (Nick Hern, 1997)
- Sherman, Lowell (dir.). She Done Him Wrong (1933, Paramount)
- West, Mae. Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It (Virago, 1959, 1996)
- Wortis Leider, Emily. Becoming Mae West (2001, Thorndike Press)