is remembered as a screen siren with a smart mouth, but she was also a playwright, a sexual pioneer and a bundle of contradictions. Wmdu: Hannah McGill
IN 1928, THE BROADWAY RUN 0F MAE WEST'S play Pleasure Man was closed in a dramatic police raid. West triumphed in the obscenity trial that followed, but chose not to re-open the show. ‘Revivals are only fresh and stimulating if a great play has lain dormant for a long time,’ she later explained, with characteristic hauteur. Since Pleasure Man has now 'Iain dormant' for over 60 years, we can assume that its author would lend her blessing to its imminent revival at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre.
Before she ever strutted her redoubtable stuff for the Hollywood cameras, Mae West was a showbiz cause celebre. She first performed in vaudeville aged seven. Her mother was a wealthy German fashion model, her father an ex-boxer, automobile tycoon and private detective. They indulged their precocious daughter and supported her career; and when the child star grew up, her risque burlesque act filled both theatres and column inches. Still, astronomical weekly wages, burgeoning fame and a close business partnership with scandal weren't enough for her.
In her 1959 autobiography Goodness Had . Nothing To Do With It, West notes that she became a writer 'by the accident of needing material and having no place to get it.’ The eye-candy roles into which her burlesque career propelled her were unsatisfactory to one who fancied herself a sexual pioneer. 'Behind the symbol I was becoming,’ she writes, 'there was much good material for drama, satire and ironic comment on the wars of the sexes.’ In 1926 her first play, Sex, was a runaway hit — but newspapers refused to print its title.The New York Times prissily stated that ‘Up until now the word "sex" has been taboo, except when used in such harmless phrases as “the fair sex" and "the opposite sex". The New York Times will not change now.‘
The play was closed, and West's refusal to conform to the passive stereotype of 'the fair sex' landed her in jail. She was dubbed a 'corruptor of the morals of youth', fined $500, and imprisoned for ten days. Undeterred — and not one to disappoint a public eager for her next outrage — she started work on another play. The Drag concerns homosexuality and requires a cast
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of 40 female impersonators. Her subsequent work, Pleasure Man, revisits that theme.
It is a fitting association. Mae West was, after all, the greatest drag queen of all time. By taking glamour to grotesque extremes, she parodied it; she was too blonde, too curvy, too painted. Her swaying walk, flamboyant costumes and innuendo-laden banter complete a caricature of coy femininity.
It's hardly surprising that she became a camp icon; but her gay fans might be disappointed to learn that West took a dim view of the lifestyle that seemed to fascinate her. ‘Homosexuality is a danger to the entire social system of Western civilazation,’ she wrote, adding that she_intended her work to reveal 'its secret anti-social aspects'. However, many of the decadent, depraved social saboteurs she sought to reprimand could not have been more thrilled. 'It's the queerest show you've ever seen!’ screamed an ultra-camp Variety review of Pleasure Man. 'All of the Queens are in it . . . It can't miss, and if you think it can; hope you get henna in your toothbrush.’
Like all the most enduring icons, then, West is a patchwork of contradictions. A camp goddess, she was disgusted by homosexuality; a stridently feminist writer, now published by Virago, she was also the ultimate self-styled sex object. It remains to be seen whether Pleasure Man will thrill audiences again as it did in 1926, but the pleasure woman’s star remains undimmed.
Pleasure Man opens at Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, on Fri 4 Feb.. Free preview on Thu 3 Feb.