by Chase Dimock
We know Mae West as an actress, a sex symbol, a cultural icon, a comedienne, a master of the one liner and the double entendre. What we don’t think of Mae West as is an author. It has been largely forgotten that Mae West got her start on stage, in a series of salacious plays she wrote for herself in the late 20s. West was by then a veteran of the Vaudeville circuit appearing mostly chorus line gigs and bit parts. But when she grew tired of waiting for the right part and her big break to come around, she decided to write her own roles. With early plays such as “Sex” and “Diamond Lil”, West invented the vamp persona that defined her career over the next five decades. If we think of Mae West as playwright and an author that wrote the character that she ultimately became, then we can view her iconography as its own meticulously plotted text and her careful crafting of figure and image as a finely formulated semiotics of the body. If we think of Mae West as an author, then her pithy one-liners and double entendres transcend the ephemera of comic relief and reveal her as one of the most astute observers of sexual and gender politics of the modernist era. If we think of Mae West as an author, a quote like “I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing”, becomes an insight into gender performativity. Her quote “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution”, becomes a critique of the state’s power to enforce heteronormativity through marriage. And finally her quote “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for the double meaning” becomes a post-modernist play on the endless veils of irony and metaphor that obscure and inflate every day speech. It is this Mae West as author and sexual philosopher who put her text into her curves, that I want to recover and illuminate.
While West marketed herself as an object of heterosexual desire, she not only understood her appeal to a gay audience, but she also engaged with the newly emerging gay community in her plays. Thus, I want to also think about Mae West as queer theorist—as an interpreter of queer sexuality who saw the newly visible figure of the homosexual in society as a product of power relations—a figure determined by the interplay of institutional powers, medicine and the law, and his own creative power to define himself. For this, I turn to her 1927 play, “The Drag”, a text centered on the question of the male homosexual’s position in society. Unlike her previous play, “Sex”, which launched her into notoriety and stardom on Broadway, “The Drag” was not a vehicle for self-promotion as an actress. Mae West did not write a role for herself. Instead, “The Drag” sought to cash in on what contemporary scholars have called “The Pansy Craze”, a period in the 1920s when female impersonators appeared in mainstream stage shows and the Jazz age youth went slumming at gay bars and drag balls. The “pansy”, often known as the “fairy”, was a figure that created gender confusion; a male that interwove signifiers of masculinity and femininity on his body. He paraded feminine mannerisms, walked in high heels with a swish, and even used feminine pronouns, but he was not a trans-woman. The fairy became the dominant image of what was termed the “invert”, before “gay” hit wide usage two decades later; a biological male with the soul of a woman on the inside.
From her start on stage, Mae West cultivated a strong following amongst fairies and drag impersonators and became what I would call the first true gay icon. Before drag queens impersonated Cher, Diana Ross, and even Joan Crawford, they were impersonating Mae West in
the 30s. Over the top, aggressively sexual, and trafficking in wise cracks and double entendres, Mae West was born for drag impersonation, and some scholars believe that she was actually made from drag. Some believe that Mae West borrowed her “vamp” character and persona from the most famous female impersonator of the era, Bert Savoy. Savoy was the first female impersonator to achieve mainstream fame as a comedian with an act that played on the double entendre that every risqué joke he made as a female character echoed queerly as a man speaking the sexuality as a woman. For the masses, he was a man in a dress, but for the queer audience that read between the lines, he was the first gay comedian. West patterned both her outward vamp image and her trademark double entendres on Savoy’s act. Mae West’s status as a sex symbol, was ultimately a form of drag in of itself.
Even before “The Drag” had been staged, the play embroiled Mae West in controversy. West’s previous play “Sex” was currently in a successful, year-long run in New York, but when word of the casting call for “The Drag” came out, a call that attracted hundreds of fairies and queens from Greenwich Village because the play ends with a 20 minute, largely improvised drag show, West’s plays finally elicited the attention of local authorities. Lillian Schlissel documents this in detail in her introduction to a 1997 collection of West’s plays. On February 9, 1927, West’s play was raided by the police and the entire cast of “Sex” was arrested. West was sentenced to 10 days in jail for “corrupting the morals of youth”, and in vintage Mae West fashion, she turned the trial and jail time into a publicity stunt. She arrived at the prison in a limousine in her vamp persona and spent her time there entertaining the warden and his wife. While the trial and conviction shot Mae West into stardom and eventually launched her movie career a few years later when talking pictures were developed, “The Drag” was ultimately never performed on Broadway. The Society for the Prevention of Vice threatened to place all Broadway plays under intense scrutiny if “The Drag” were to be staged. Although the play was wrapped in the spectacular sensationalism of its proposed drag performance, it was at its core an attempt to air discourse about the new urban visibility of homosexuality and to situate it within questions of its medical and legal standing in society. Thus, a play that contained a serious discussion of the legal status of homosexuality in America could not itself find a legal space in which to be performed.
Before I go too far into this question of West’s medical and legal discourse on homosexuality, I should outline the play itself. In “The Drag” Rolly Kingsbury is a closeted homosexual who recently married Clair, the daughter of a prominent doctor. Clair is disillusioned with the marriage because Rolly shows her little affection and spends most of his time working for the family’s profitable iron works company. An unsuspected love triangle forms when Rolly develops an attraction to a civil engineer on his project, Allen Grayson, who in turn, falls for Claire. Rolly’s affection for Allen, in turn, drives his former lover David, an emotionally troubled, obvious invert into a state of rage, and he eventually murders Rolly. Rolly’s death “outs” his hidden sexuality to the family, including his father the judge and his father-in-law the doctor. As a drama on a pure level of narrative, “The Drag” is thoroughly mediocre and uninventive. Yet, what draws me to this play is not the story in of itself, or the proposed drag ball extravaganza that never came to fruition, though it would have been fabulous, but the discourse in which West situates the question of homosexuality. West purposefully casts Rolly’s father as a judge and Rolly’s father in law as a doctor and begins the play with a protracted argument between the two of them on the question of homosexuality in order to stage a serious discussion on legality of homosexuality given its medical and psychological origins. The flimsy melodrama and lavish spectacle of the play conceal a much deeper political question about the homosexual as a medical and juridical subject.
To begin to delve into West’s medical and legal discourse, I start with Michel Foucault’s concept of a “juridico-medical complex”. In an interview, Foucault once stated “Medical power is at the heart of the society of normalization. Its effects can be seen everywhere: in the family, in schools, in factories, in courts of law, on the subject of sexuality, education, work, crime. Medicine has taken on a general social function: it inﬁltrates law, it plugs into it, it makes it work. A sort of juridico-medical complex is presently being constituted, which is the major form of power.” For Foucault, this juridico-medical complex is a form of bio-power, a power that state and capitalist institutions exercise through the human body to create subjects that are compliant to and efficient in carrying out its interests. As an example of Bio-Power, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault famously claims that the homosexual was invented in 1870. This does not mean that there were not male-male and female-female relationships before this year, but that this was an era in which sexologists and doctors conceptualized same sex desire as the product of a distinct anatomy and biology. The homosexual was conceived of as a distinctly different species that possessed, as Foucault termed it, a “hermaphordism of the soul”. The homosexual was born among studies of other social misfits and undesirables such as the prostitute, the criminal, and the “lower races” in which the medical gaze was deployed through forensics, and pseudo sciences like phrenology to prove that these individuals were truly, biologically inferior beings. We can see that medical science in the 19th century sought to vindicate social prejudices by finding biological proof of their judgment on the body. Not only did the question of a biological origin for homosexuality have immediate impact on the legal questions of homosexual conduct, but I would argue that its very study and discovery was influenced by the law, both positively and negatively. The French grandfather of forensic science, Ambroise Tardieu produced a guide for authorities to identify homosexuals based on their body characteristics, including, dubiously their “funnel shaped anuses”. The German sexologists, on the other hand, used the medical discourse of homosexuality to campaign for the repeal of Paragraph 175, the law Hitler would later use to deport homosexuals to concentration camps.
Mae West’s drama is aware of this juridico-medical history of the construction of homosexuality as it begins with the Doctor’s sister delivering to him an “Ulrich” book and declaring, “I have never heard of such outlandish diseases in my life”. Ulrich is a reference to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, an early German campaigner for homosexual rights. He referred to the homosexual male as an “Urning”, a reference to Plato’s Symposium and the vaunted male love of the Greeks, and in 1867 became the first homosexual to openly campaign for the repeal of sodomy laws. In an 1870 essay “Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law” Ulrichs takes the congenital origin of homosexuality as proof the Urning possesses natural laws as humans and by placing them in accordance with natural law as the foundation of civil society, the Urning is entitled to full protection as citizens as well:
“The Urning, too, is a person. He, too, therefore, has inalienable rights. His sexual orientation is a right established by nature. Legislators have no right to veto nature; no right to persecute nature in the course of its work; no right to torture living creatures who are subject to those drives nature gave them. The Urning is also a citizen. He, too, has civil rights; and according to these rights, the state has certain duties to fulfill as well.”
What I find interesting about the reference to Ulrichs is that Mae West could have used more famous sexologists like Havelock Ellis, Richard Von Krafft Ebbing, or even the contemporary Freud to establish interest in the biology and psychology of homosexuality. Instead, she picked a more obscure name that was not so much interested in proving the biology of homosexuality as he was in taking it as an a priori fact and using the language to campaign for civil rights.
The Doctor is thus immediately established as sympathetic to the homosexual. Explaining his interest in the text to his sister, the Doctor states “there are many, man ills that science has not yet discovered, Barbara, to say nothing of being able to cure them.” When his sister pushes him on why he has taken interest in such an obscene subject, the Doctor cloaks himself in the rhetoric of the Hippocratic Oath and the objective pursuit of scientific knowledge, “Why every physician owes something to medical science. Old Hippocrates, the Greek founder of medicine himself, did his bit when he formed the school of physicians, and it’s up to the rest of us to do our share.” When his sister questions how such a book could make it through the mail given the censorship of obscene materials, the doctor once again vaguely labels the book “a work of science”, as if the mere mention of scientific inquiry trumps all other pursuits. Often in this era works of fiction, biography, or opinion that directly engaged homosexuality were prefaced with a doctor’s forward assuring that the obscene or offensive subject should be pardoned because the work has value for the medical community in studying a social and psychological problem. Thus, West uses the common tactic of legitimizing the frank discussion and depiction of homosexuality by framing the work in medical discourse.
Shortly after this scene, the Doctor is visited by a distraught, effeminate homosexual named David, who is, unbeknownst to him, the secret former lover of his son-in-law Rolly who is plotting Rolly’s eventual murder. David exclaims that he is “one of those damned creatures who are called degenerates and moral lepers for a thing they cannot help—a thing that has made me suffer!” David goes on to describe his previous affair with Rolly, that they were as happy as any married couple, and that he was not distraught about being dumped in order to marry a woman, but because Rolly is pursuing another man, a “normal man”, it has begun to turn him mad with jealousy. Unable to get over his jealousy, David entreats the doctor for a cure for his homosexuality; “I came to you because we all know that you are trying to find a way. Doctor, there is not one of us that would not like to be like other men. Comes a time when our burden is too heavy and—there is only one way.” Yet, it seems as though David, and whoever he got this information from, confuses a cure for homosexuality with therapy for those struggling with their homosexuality. The Doctor reminds him “Don’t talk like that. One man is born white, another black—neither is born a criminal. A difference in a man’s mind, and you are the greatest sufferers.” Along side early medical studies of homosexuality in the 19th century, criminologists became obsessed with using similar studies and discourse to attempt to prove that criminal compulsion was the product of a biological degeneracy. The Doctor comes close to closing the circle, that if one is born black or white, but is socialized into being “Negro” and “Arian” as social constructs, and if criminals are not born this way, but created by society, then the homosexual is himself a social construction as well. Yet, the doctor stops short of this analogy; the homosexual is presumed to be a real, existing fact of biology that explains his habits and neuroses and that the problem they face is an intolerant law, not a medical practice of science that has pathologized him as a lesser being, an accident of nature, a poor degenerate.
The Doctor’s visit with David is then interrupted by a visit from the Judge, Rolly’s father, who wants him to testify in case to determine the sanity of a defendant. The Doctor is reluctant to take on the task, “How do I know he is? Isn’t sanity or what we call insanity the state of a man’s mind—his viewpoint? When he differs from the course laid down by the rest of us, we call him crazy of a genius. And then, we say, all geniuses are insane. And perhaps he thinks the rest of us are crazy.” The doctor rightfully criticizes the law’s vague, overly broad category of insanity and its claim to criminalize the psyche. This launches the doctor and the judge into an argument over science and the law as epistemological paradigms:
Doctor: “All a judge thinks of is his law. Everything he does is measured by the law, and when he gets through measuring there is nothing left to measure.
Judge: It’s nonsense! What do you know about law?
Doctor: And what do you know about fact? You base everything on theories—hypothesis. When it comes to facts, you’re groping.
Judge: And what is your whole profession but theory?
Doctor: Theory nothing, we work on fact.
Judge: You theorize before you find the fact…
Far from determining whether legal or medical paradigms of thought supply a more truthful or useful paradigm of inquiry, what the argument reveals is that they are ultimately the same. Both adhere to a rigid structure of knowledge production that can only create judgments based on the parameters of its own internal logic. The difference is that law is considered a thoroughly subjective, human institution and science is considered to be an objective observation of the natural world around us. Law is premised on value, science is premised on truth. Although the scientific method proposes objectivity and neutrality in its observation and measurement, it is never fully divorced from the demands of society or the limitations of human perception. In terms of the debate over homosexuality, we can think of this as the false dichotomy we have created in the battle between nature and nurture. Nature is presumed to be the organic state of existence and nurture its social state, but what we often fail to recognize is that nature is in of itself a social construction. What is natural is based on subjective opinions and affects on “the natural”. We only invoke the unnatural to deride practices that we dislike, otherwise the practices of which we are proud are the product of civilization’s defeat of the barbarity of nature. Thus, the question of homosexuality is not a tug of war between legal or medical discourses, but instead it is a product of their collusion, a product of how society uses medical discourse to legitimize their will and how medicine responds to social demands.
The Doctor expands his critique of the law’s inability to properly determine the legal status of the psyche to include sodomy laws, “I’ve got a poor devil in there right now, whom you’d call a criminal—a degenerate—an outcast, and yet in his own mind, he’s committing no wrong—he’s doing nothing save what he should do—his very lack of normality is normality to him. I’d call him a trick of fate—a misfit of nature.” To which the judge responds “Nature has no misfits. Look at the trees—the flowers.” and the Doctor retorts “—but how do we know they aren’t misfits.” The Judge reflects a certain Social Darwinist gaze upon the world, while the Doctor begins to question the categories of normality, but not the power relations of normativity itself. He asserts the subjective concept that one man’s norm is another man’s abnormality, but what he is unwilling to discard is the Aristotelian logic of the binary that nonetheless things can universally be placed into normal and abnormal categories. His conquest is to recover one’s right to normalcy while retaining the rhetoric of the abnormal instead of questioning the very human construct of normalcy, which in his scientific setting as a doctor, already implies a certain judgment on the observed and a preconceived notion of how to observed and categorize it.
Shifting toward a question of the law, the Judge declares that “People like that should be herded together on some desert Isle” and that “A man is what he makes himself—“. The Judge touches on existentialism, albeit in the service of prejudice, but the Doctor argues back,
“And before that, a man is what he is born to be. Nature seems to have made no distinction in bestowing this misfortune on the human race. We find this abnormality among persons of every state of society. It has held sway on the thrones of kings, princes, statesmen, scholars, fools! Wealth, culture, refinement, makes no difference. From nadir to zenith of man’s career on earth, this nameless vice has traversed all the way.”
Still casting the homosexual as the cruel victim of the genetic lottery, the Doctor then attacks the legal response to the “homosexual problem”, “You think that four stone walls and a barred window will cure everything or anything. But still you endeavor by law to force a man born with inverted sexual desires, born to make his way in the world with millions of human beings radically different than he is to become something his soul will not permit him to become” The terms of the debate then shift into a binary between theory and practice, with the Judge complaining that the doctor’s medical theories may be true, but they do nothing to a solve a problem that he is forced by society to confront through the judicial system:
“After all What have you done? You medical men, you scientists, you social philosophers? Not one damn solitary thing, so far as I have been able to learn. You sit back just as you are doing now and gabble about faith, hope, and charity—you commiserate with these abnormal creature, out of the charity of your hearts, no doubt, but you don’t lift a finger to relieve the situation. I happen to know that there are approximately five million homosexuals in the United States and of these the greater percentage are born sexual inverts…And yet, you brilliant physicians, you learned doctors who are curing cancer, tuberculosis and other diseases have not bothered to thoroughly investigate what is as vitally menacing to society as any of the more pernicious diseases. Have you five million cancer cases in this country, or in the world for that matter? Yet you sit back in your offices and rant and rail against what the law is doing to handle the situation, but can you offer a solution?”
Just as the doctor replies “there is a cure for this thing” he is interrupted as his daughter enters the room, and the debate ends for the play as the Doctor attends to her marital woes that begin the drama of the play. The argument between the Doctor and the Judge is obviously skewed to make the audience sympathize with the Doctor’s argument. Just like how the Doctor is blind to how his biases on normality and abnormality actually produce the homosexual as a degenerate subject, the Judge fails to see that his burden of adjudicating millions of homosexuals is a product of the legal system branding the homosexual as a criminal body. There is no criminal outside of a legal system that deems his behavior criminal. Thus, the law does not police already existing criminals, but instead the law creates the criminal and then arrests him. The problem is ultimately then the naturalization of criminality. If homosexuality is a crime and homosexuality is presumed to be in born, then the homosexual is an innate criminal inhabiting an illegal body. This is the essence of Foucault’s juridico-medical complex.
Although “The Drag” never made it to the stage on Broadway due to the preemptive force of the law that caught word of the extravagant drag ball performance that West planned to recreate, had it been performed, the local law enforcement would have found its greatest threat to not be the spectacle of fairies and inverts on parade, but instead its nuanced critique of the legal prohibition of sodomy and the use and abuse of medical discourse to justify a prejudiced status quo.
Post Script: For an excellent analysis of Mae West’s iconography as a movie star, read University of Illinois professor Ramona Curry’s book Too Much of a Good Thing
About the Author:
Chase Dimock is a PhD candidate in Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois. He specializes in 20th century American, French, and German literature with an emphasis in Queer Theory, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Marxism. As a Graduate Assistant, he has taught courses on western literature spanning the ancients to the existentialists as well as courses on gender studies, erotic literature, and representations of the Holocaust. His current research is devoted to exploring interwar queer sexualities in the works of lost and forgotten American expatriate authors and how the established French canon of gay authors and French gay culture influenced the construction of an American queer subject. Chase Dimock is also a regular contributor to the arts and politics magazine As It Ought To Be and he writes reviews of queer theory publications for Lambda Literary.