Mae West was much more than a local-born movie star or even a sex symbol. She was a playwright, a woman decades ahead of her time in dramatizing questions of gender and sexuality. Her views almost a century ago were remarkably progressive when it came to homosexuality and those views were never better dramatized than in her shocking play entitled “The Drag.”
Even today, in a time when society has largely embraced gay marriage and become more accepting, West’s play would be so offensive to some that it still could not be staged in many places in America. In puritanical 1920s America, the play was considered outrageous and morally offensive.
West, who grew up locally and began her theatrical career on Brooklyn vaudeville stages at the age of five, said that the theater was her greatest education. She had little formal schooling, but the stage taught her all she needed to know. She soon became friendly with a number of gay theatrical professionals and West immediately empathized with gay people. She enjoyed spending time in gay clubs in the west village and one night she hit upon the idea of writing a play about gay men.
West was no stranger to controversy. In 1927, the same year that she staged she debuted in a salacious hit on Broadway, which she authored called “Sex.” Her drama was so shocking that it got her and the producers arrested and proved to be one of the best pieces of publicity West ever received. Being thrown into the women’s prison on Roosevelt Island for a week, she took a limo to jail and said she wore silk underwear throughout her detention. The surrounding publicity made her show the hottest ticket on Broadway.
“The Drag” was far more controversial. In fact, it was deemed so salacious that West did not try to stage it on Broadway and penned the play under the pseudonym Jane Mast. What stirred up so much fuss? “The Drag” is about taboos and living with a dark secret life, which in 1920s America was a reality for most gay Americans. Its hero, the closeted gay socialite, Rolly Kingsbury, comes “from one of the finest families” but is trapped in a loveless marriage. The protagonist’s father is a homophobic judge, his father-in-law a therapist who specializes in gay conversion, perfect foils for Rolly.
West herself had been a vaudeville male impersonator early in her career, and the play culminates in an elaborate drag ball. From her earliest days in the theater, West was a great believer in improvisation and she gave the gay cast that she chose artistic license to break away from the script at their discretion.
“The Drag” was inspired by her many gay friends’ struggles to be accepted for who they really were. She actively sought out gay actors, something that was totally taboo at a time when the actor’s union forbid gays from performing speaking roles on Broadway. Her casting calls were at a gay Greenwich Village bar and years later she spoke with pride about having helped gays on Broadway.
Too risqué for Broadway, it opened in Connecticut. “The Drag” was a success with audiences, although Variety called it “an inexpressibly brutal and vulgar attempt to capitalize on a dirty matter for profit”. West knew that her material was incendiary stating that audiences were “too childlike to face like grownups the problem of homosexuals.” “The Drag” deals with guilt, shame and families falling apart over secrets, themes that still seem very current and highly controversial in the modern world. The incendiary play only lasted for ten performances before it was shut down.
West was not only a playwright but also an early gay rights activist. In her autobiography, West spoke about her reasons for writing “The Drag” and her other provocative dramas that “brought down the howl of the too pious.” She described “a strong compulsion to put down a realistic drama of the tragic waste of a way of life that was spreading into modern society, at a time when any mention of it was met by ordinary people with a state of shocked horror.”
Although West is a cultural icon, few people know her as a playwright and fewer still realize that the girl from Greenpoint was an avant-guarde gay rights activist who dramatized issues 90 years ago that modern America is still struggling to accept.