On February 19, 1927, Daly’s 63rd Street Theater featured a most unusual encore. The actors in Mae West’s hit Broadway show had just exited the stage when a crowd of police officers entered, announced the cast and crew under arrest, and led them to the station house. According to the grand jury indictment, the accused “unlawfully did prepare, advertise, give, present, and participate in an obscene, indecent, immoral and impure drama, play, exhibition, show and entertainment then and there called Sex.”
The defendants were charged with three counts: maintaining a public nuisance, unlawfully permitting a place to be used for an immoral play, and corrupting the morals of youths and others. Though that last charge echoes the crimes impugned against Socrates, Miss Mae West was not about to down any hemlock. Convicted and sentenced to 10 days on Welfare Island—which she served cheerfully, barring a complaint about the nasty, scratchy undergarments—West parlayed the scandal into a success. She found that being naughty could in fact be awfully nice. It could transform an actress of obscure origin into a star.
But while West’s ample proportions, saucy drawl, and signature lines now reign iconic, the play that launched her fame has languished in obscurity, unpublished until recently and unperformed in New York City since the vice raid.
In the fall of 1995, director Elyse Singer was rehearsing Love in the Void, a piece based on rocker Courtney Love’s impassioned online postings. Singer and her cast were brainstorming Love’s antecedents—smart, funny, powerful, angry, sexy women. It proved a more difficult task than imagined, Singer says. Dorothy Parker wasn’t sexy enough, Marilyn Monroe wasn’t powerful enough. The one woman who met all the criteria was Mae West. “Perhaps she wasn’t quite as angry,” Singer explains, “but she was very conscious about what she was doing.”
A few weeks later, Singer came across a book review of a Mae West bio. The review reminded her that West had been an estimable playwright and director as well as an actress. Singer decided to track down West’s first play, Sex, in hopes of producing it. The detective story that followed included trips to the Library of Congress, digging up clandestine copies of the script, and two and a half years of legal negotiations with West’s estate. Singer obtained permission to do a 10-minute excerpt for the New Georges Perform-a-thon and two staged readings, but she longed to mount a full production. Finally, on August 13 of this year, the estate granted her the rights.
Sex spotlights the travails of Margy Lamont, a hot blond mama who plies the oldest profession from Montreal to Trinidad to Connecticut. Singer’s revival, produced under the aegis of her company, Hourglass, opens on December 9 at the Living Room of the Gershwin Hotel. This version intersperses the play’s text with excerpts from West’s obscenity trial and contemporary opinions of the play—one 1926 review was titled “Monstrosity Plucked From Garbage Can. Destined to Sewer.”
Though she insists that her production’s trial framework was in place before the nudie bar crackdowns and the Brooklyn Museum brouhaha, Singer does argue the play’s relevance. She says it relates to our culture’s “cyclical, ongoing, puritanical impulses.” The questions Sex asks, says Singer, still prove ticklish: “What options are there for a poor woman? How does class enter into romantic/sexual relations? Can love exist without sex or money?”
Written nearly 75 years ago, Sex may not play so provocatively now, but the social problems it spotlights—alcoholism, drug use, prostitution, adultery, graft—remain ever troubling. And so does its unredeemed protagonist. Singer posits that the moral crusaders found West’s Margy Lamont threatening because of “her unapologetic sexuality. Here was a woman who liked physical sensation, who loved sex. Here she was and she didn’t get killed off.”
And Singer suggests that the play further resonates as a dynamic act of self-creation. In Margy Lamont, West wrote herself the role that would ensure her notoriety, partly owing to the vigor of her performance, partly to the outcry she must have known she would cause. As West herself said, in I’m No Angel, “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad I’m better.”