The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is up to its old tricks again this season – unearthing a forgotten play by a female playwright that premiered during the lifetime of the festival’s namesake Bernard Shaw.
But while Sex, a melodrama/musical comedy about the international misadventures of a Montreal prostitute named Margy LaMont, has only had a couple of small productions since it first premiered on Broadway in 1926, the woman who wrote it has hardly been forgotten.
Mae West, the Hollywood film star with the husky voice who battled the Hays Code by double-entendre to become the highest-paid woman in the United States in the 1930s, first came to prominence a decade earlier as she attempted to escape vaudeville by performing in plays she wrote for herself on the New York stage.
Sex, which begins in the red-light district of Montreal, was a box-office hit that ran nearly a year on Broadway before West was arrested and then sentenced to 10 days in jail for “giving an obscene performance.” The scandal made the Brooklyn-born performer/playwright front-page news for the first, but far from the last, time.
“This was such a big court case and it really brought her a ton of publicity,” says Pamela Robertson Wojcik, a University of Chicago professor whose books include Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna. “It helped fuel her stardom.”
As West, who claimed to have worn silk underwear during her stay at Jefferson Market women’s prison, put it herself: “Considering what Sex got me, a few days in the pen and a $500 fine ain’t too bad a deal.”
The acclaimed director Peter Hinton-Davis (formerly Hinton) has wanted to direct Sex for a long time, since he read the script when it was first published in the late 1990s as part of a collection of West’s plays that had long sat gathering dust in the Library of Congress.
“I walked into this whole world of a Mae West that I didn’t know about,” recalls Hinton-Davis, who brought the play to Shaw’s artistic director Tim Carroll shortly after he was appointed. “She was a very progressive and radical person – and her plays offer an interesting perspective into the 1920s.”
Sex premiered in a Broadway season that saw many so-called “sex plays,” such as John Colton’s The Shanghai Gesture, about an Asian madam, and Lulu Belle, from Charles MacArthur (co-writer of The Front Page) and Edward Sheldon, about a notorious black prostitute.
But what was different about West’s play, beyond not othering its protagonist in racist ways, is that it wasn’t “obedient to the unwritten rule that prescribed ruin for fallen women,” as Lillian Schlissel writes in her introduction to Three Plays by Mae West.
Instead, Margy LaMont is an unapologetic sex worker before the term was coined, with her own code of ethics. She saves the life of an American society woman slumming in the “sin city of the North,” a fateful decision that leads her from Montreal to Trinidad to New England, eluding criminals and pursuing romance (with the occasional dance number featuring sailors to further liven things up).
“It’s a funny, sexy play,” says Diana Donnelly, the long-time Shaw Festival company member who will play LaMont. “I think in our relationship to history, we are chronology snobs. … We may be more Victorian in our relationship to the word ‘sex’ than Mae West was.”
Indeed, many of West’s 1920s plays make you question what you really know about the times she was writing in. For instance, The Drag, a 1927 “homosexual drama” that followed Sex to the stage, tackles what is now called conversion therapy and put New York’s LGBT ball culture on stage a full 90 years before Pose premiered on TV.
Robertson Wojcik, the Chicago professor, suspects Sex – which had run 390 performances by the time police shut it down – may have been raided in part to keep The Drag, with its female impersonators and drag numbers, from transferring to Broadway. (Although the belated timing also had to do with the fact that theatre-loving New York mayor Jimmy Walker was away on holiday in Cuba, allowing the moralistic district attorney Joab Banton to make his strike on sex plays.)
Nevertheless, Broadway continued to be a home for West – and, in 1928, she opened Diamond Lil, the stage comedy that she’d later adapt into the 1933 Oscar-nominated, box-office smash She Done Him Wrong (which features classic West-isms such as “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” and “Listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them").
For Canadian theatregoers today, Sex’s appeal is not just its history with the censors but its setting; it’s hard to think of another play from the period that takes place, even in part, in Montreal.
Donnelly will be the first Montrealer to play the Montrealer Margy LaMont – “Marguerite?” she speculates – a character who, admittedly, speaks more like a streetwise Brooklynite than a French Canadian.
While it’s unclear what West’s first-hand knowledge of Montreal was, LaMont lives with a blackmailer and murderer named Rocky on “Caidoux Street” – which seems to be a reference to a real street in the red-light district called Cadieux.
Curiously, Cadieux was renamed, a year after Sex premiered, to De Bullion amid one of Montreal’s attempts (and failures) to clean up its image. The timing of the renaming may have been a coincidence, but, as Hinton-Davis says, it’s “part of the legend of the play.”
If Sex was such a succès de scandale initially, the only question is: Why has it been neglected by theatre companies even after West’s early plays finally emerged from the archives in the nineties?
“I think the reason these don’t get performed is that on the page they’re not very good,” Robertson Wojcik says matter-of-factly. “The performance is where they come through.”
Indeed, West’s writing is truly theatrical in that it requires embodiment to achieve its full meaning. During her obscenity trial in 1927, the prosecution found it very difficult to explain exactly why Sex was obscene, forcing a sergeant from the vice squad to try to mimic West’s delivery and at one point describe her dance moves: “Miss West moved her navel up and down and from right to left.” (West took inspiration from African-American dancers and drag performers in her stage persona.)
Donnelly, who will have the hard task of making a Mae West part her own, thinks the writing transcends West’s individuality as a performer, however. “She’s such an iconic personality that people are dismissive of her value as a writer,” she says.
Of course, 39 years after her death, West’s writing can be more easily divorced from her personality – especially for younger theatregoers
“There’s a whole generation who’s never heard of Mae West,” Hinton-Davis says. “She’s so well in need of a reintroduction.”
The Shaw Festival officially opens this week in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Sex runs at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre from June 21 to Oct. 13 (shawfest.com).