The Vice Man Cometh

New York's Art War Archives

Here's a scene to gladden Rudy Giuliani's heart: As the curtain rises on an Off-Broadway show, the NYPD swoops down, arresting the cast, producer, house manager, and even the concessionaire. The company is hauled into night court, charged with "disorderly conduct" for attempting to stage a blasphemous, immoral, and obscene performance.

If this sounds like next week's news, don't panic. It happened in 1905. The play was that blasphemous, obscene, immoral work, Mrs. Warren's Profession, by George Bernard Shaw. The charges, as you've guessed, were thrown out after the judge read the script, discovering that it made vice a good deal less attractive "than other dramas which the police had overlooked." Instead, it raised moral questions they ignored: One of Shaw's characters is a clergyman who's had an affair with the enterprising brothel keeper Mrs. Warren; his son is in love with Mrs. Warren's daughter. The play's "sensational" climax comes when Mrs. Warren's wealthy protector maliciously tells the two young lovers that they're half-siblings.

Mrs. Warren's Profession hasn't received any New York City funds on Rudy's watch, but that's probably just because it's been seen so many times in the preceding decades— including major stagings at Lincoln Center Theater and at the Roundabout, both of which receive monies from the Department of Cultural Affairs. On neither occasion were those 1905 warrants for disorderly conduct mentioned.

Statue of limitations? Some holy toe-sucking from Buñuel's Anti-Catholic L'age D'or.
photo courtesy of Photofest
Statue of limitations? Some holy toe-sucking from Buñuel's Anti-Catholic L'age D'or.

In the long parade of municipal attempts at censorship, New York has chosen its cases with an eerie quirkiness. It took no legal action, for instance, in 1911, when the Abbey Theatre's arrival from Dublin with Synge's Playboy of the Western World caused a near-riot on opening night. A segment of the city's Irish American community took offense at the play's gritty poetic realism; one ethnic tabloid— yes, the tabs have been down on art for most of this century— even attacked the actresses' bare feet: "No such feet ever came out of Ireland. They were typically Anglo-Saxon feet— big, clumsy, and flat." The Shuberts, who were managing the Abbey's tour, nervously issued a mollifying statement (the troupe's artistic codirector, Lady Gregory, noted in her journal, "Shubert is a yellow cur"), but the now sold-out run continued peacefully. The honor of arresting and trying the Abbey company for blasphemy and indecency was left to its next stop, Philadelphia, where two priests testified against Synge's play. In cross-examination, one of them conceded that "the people of Ireland do use the name of God at other times than in blessing."

New York held its legal tongue again in 1915, when one of the century's most controversial films, Birth of a Nation, opened, to a storm of protest from African Americans and white liberals offended at D.W. Griffith's melodramatic distortions of history, his racial stereotyping, and his portrayal of the KKK as a band of heroes. (The film sparked a nationwide revival of the Klan.) A boycott attempt by the fledgling NAACP, under W.E.B. DuBois, had only limited effect. Clearly a masterpiece, the film displayed Griffith's cinematic genius as fully as it did his predilection for the one-dimensional and crude. Virtually every publicly funded institution in New York that shows films has screened it countless times over the decades, in the face of regular protest from black New Yorkers— and regular silence from the city.

When New York was roused to censorial action, the usual topic was not religion or race, but sex— literally so in the case of Mae West, who in 1927 shimmied her way into the best- publicized eight days ever served on Rikers Island by writing and starring in a play called (what else?) Sex. The mild titillation of West's half-comic intrigues with sailors and gangsters, however, would have been left to impair the public morals undisturbed if advance word hadn't arrived of her even more scandalous next play. The Drag, an exploitative but basically sympathetic treatment of male homosexuality and cross-dressing, with a full-scale drag ball for a climax, opened in Bayonne, New Jersey, late in 1927, and was promptly shuttered by local officials. By some mysterious coincidence, the NYPD suddenly decided to raid Sex, which had been running for nearly a year, closing the show and sending West to the slammer. The resulting publicity fueled her subsequent entry into movies, where the whole story was replayed when her early box-office triumphs helped trigger Hollywood's newly tightened Production Code. Fittingly, in the late 1930s Paramount tried to buy the rights to Mrs. Warren's Profession as a vehicle for West; alas, Shaw nixed the deal. (He might have sensed their kinship, having told the papers, at the time of the Abbey Theatre uproar, "All decent people are arrested in America.")

West wasn't the only theater artist to find the city clamping down on any interest in variant sexuality. The same year as Sex, the police shut down The Captive, Arthur Hornblow Jr.'s adaptation of ·Edouard Bourdet's Paris hit, La prisonnière. This was truly absurd, since the predatory lesbian who attempted to seduce a naive young bride was the villain of Bourdet's moralizing melodrama. Nobody was arrested or even charged with any crime; they were simply warned that they could be, and the show shut down quietly after 20 sold-out weeks. Hornblow parlayed the scandal into a lengthy career as Hollywood's most cultivated producer; it was he who supposedly told Sam Goldwyn that the play couldn't be filmed because it was about lesbians, provoking the immortal reply, "So we'll make 'em Americans."

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