SEX: Reading Mae West’s 1926 Hit

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This upcoming Sunday will mark the 89th anniversary of the premiere of Mae West’s controversial 1926 play, Sex. Long on my reading list, I finally made time to seek out Sex, which was published for the first time about 20 years ago. Everyone remembers Mae West as the oft-qoted actress with an equally oft-imitated sashay. But many don’t realize that West wrote most of her film material, and before coming to Hollywood in 1932, was a not-so-respected, but pretty well known, Broadway playwright. Aside from Diamond Lil (1928), which was later adapted into Paramount’s She Done Him Wrong (1933), Sex is West’s most famous play. In addition to its notorious title, which was referred to in newspapers as “that play”, Sex was remembered for the NYPD raid that occurred ten months into the run and led to a highly publicized trial that culminated in West serving ten days in prison.

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As a result of this legal action and accompanying moral outrage, the play has earned a reputation of heightened salacity. Unfortunately, modern readers are likely to do no more than yawn and nod in recognition, for the text seems so incredibly tame by today’s standards. Adapted from an unproduced play that was purchased called Following The Fleet, Mae West’s Sex concerns a prostitute in a Montreal brothel, named Margy (obviously West’s role) who is accused by Clara, a battered society woman (who has been having an affair with a pimp) of drugging her and stealing her jewelry. Margy escapes to Trinidad where she falls in love with a young millionare. They go back home to meet his folks and his mom turns out to be Clara, who wants to tell her son about Margy’s past. But Margy threatens to expose the truth of how they met. Things come to a head when the pimp comes back for blackmail and Margy steps in to save the day, give up the young suitor, and ride off into the sunset with a sailor who’s been trying to court her throughout the whole play.

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Dramas about prostitutes had become commonplace on the Great White Way, and Sex doesn’t add anything new — aside from a lower-class sensibility that enlivens the dialogue and heightens the conflict, which stems from the societal differences between Clara and Margy. But the story, complete with its frank talk of — you guessed it — sex, isn’t the vulgar pornography that critics would have had us believe. Most of their objections, I imagine, come from the language, which assumes an incredibly natural and unpoetic vernacular that makes the story seem tawdrier than it actually is. Furthermore, Margy, like West herself, is unapologetic about her identity, and instead of punishment for her wicked ways, is given a surprisingly happy ending (that admittedly, doesn’t quite work because we don’t care at all for her new beau). But modern readers looking to see some of the signature Westian quips may be disappointed. There aren’t many outright quotables; Margy is a much harder character than future West roles, and all of her dialogue, while often amusing, remains in the voice of this jaded character.

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Thus, what surprised me most about Sex was how dramatically solid the play read. I’d anticipated a vanity piece in which West gave herself funny double entendres and a handful of love interests. Shockingly, the interactions between Margy and the various men in her life became the play’s shortcoming, for none of the male characters, aside from the villainous pimp, Rocky, were afforded any nuanced renderings. Instead, the drama came alive in the moments Margy shared with the females — principally Agnes, the young hooker who dreams of going straight and Clara, “the dirty charity” whom West uses to voice her claim that the repressed rich are just as sexually depraved as the poor, only with less moral ground on which to stand. In these scenes, Margy feels like a fully realized character. In Agnes, we see who Margy once was, and their scenes have a bitter sweetness, while her moments with Clara inspire a powerful juxtaposition of sympathy with disgust. These are the beats that validate West as a writer.

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Sex‘s merit lies not in any of the supposed filth that led to the play’s infamous legal scandal. (Nor in the two songs and shimmy West gives herself space for in the middle of the second act.) Rather, it’s in West’s ability to craft a credible multi-faceted character — one shaped, as she puts it in a late mini-monologue, by sex. It’s a loaded concept almost diminished by a purposely provocative title. Yet, to West’s credit, without the title, the play would just be another story about a bitter hooker. And there are a lot of those. West knew how to market herself, and when Sex was all over, West basked in the afterglow of her enhanced publicity. A star was born, and her career, like Margy’s, was shaped almost entirely by Sex.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!

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