Go West!

Mae West’s The Drag Opens at the Provincetown Theater

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by Steve Desroches

Almost one hundred years ago Mae West sparked both a sensation and scandal, something she was adept at and knew how to play to her advantage, just like her sizzling double entendres and seductive quips. Best known for her film career, which she embarked on at almost 40 years old, West’s performing life began as a child in vaudeville and then later in burlesque, eventually getting her big break in 1918 in the musical comedy revue Sometime opposite Ed Wynn, in which she performed the shimmy, a popular yet scandalous dance in conservative circles. Her brazen sexuality and unapologetic sensuality made her a star, and a pioneer, as with each shake she fired perhaps the first bullets of what would later become the Sexual Revolution. But it was what West did with words that landed her both in the spotlight, and in jail, cementing her status as a legend.

It’s her writing that has captured the imagination of Provincetown Theater artistic director David Drake and why he chose her 1927 play The Drag to kick off the 2022 season at the Bradford Street performance space.  Since taking the creative helm of the theater in 2017, Drake has largely focused on American playwrights wanting to tap into the legacy of the Provincetown Players, who are often credited with giving a unique voice to American theater rather than just copy that of European writers. Drake argues that West is a quintessentially American voice, though her early theater had for decades slid into obscurity. Since West’s death in 1980, her work as a playwright has been the subject of serious academic inquiry examining her impact on concepts of feminism, sexuality, and LGBTQ issues. It’s well documented that West had many gay and lesbian friends from an early age, often meeting and performing with them on the vaudeville and burlesque circuit. At the start of her adult career on stage she initially performed as a male impersonator, and when she developed her now iconic persona, she adopted the swishy walk and cadence of speech popular among drag queens of the day, particularly her close friends Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge, the top female impersonators of the early 20th century. She would also frequently attend drag parties and balls and jot down the jokes and barbs the queens snapped back and forth, incorporating them into her act and her plays, like The Drag.

The Drag, billed then as a “homosexual comedy,” was, for its time, a sympathetic look at a gay male couple and the pressures society places on them with almost a Greek chorus of two patriarchal figures, one a judge and the other a doctor, that debate the nature of homosexuality. It opened January 1927 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where after almost two weeks of sold-out performances it was shut down by the police. The production, in which West cast exclusively gay actors, moved to Bayonne, New Jersey, where once again it was shut down by the vice squad. All of this happened while West was starring in her salacious Broadway hit play Sex, which ran alongside The Captive, a play by Édouard Bourdet that openly addressed a lesbian relationship. The popularity of these stage shows led the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to work with the New York Police Department to shut the shows down and raid the theaters, arresting everyone associated with the productions, resulting in West serving a week and a day in prison and paying a $500 fine. In response, New York State passed a law prohibiting the hiring of “homosexual actors” or the representation of homosexuals on the stage.

“It was a conflation of these plays that put her in jail,” says Drake. “By the late 1920s there was a rise in conservative morals groups taking on what they saw as an out of control world. There’s so much in common with then and now. People were very interested in seeing these plays, but the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world would shut them down.”

Drake initially planned to present The Drag in 2020, seeing it as part of a larger program of important topics in an election year. The pandemic of course derailed those plans. However, in just two years, the themes West explored and  the conservative backlash she and others faced seems eerily familiar as those same forces are engaged in a ferocious homophobic and transphobic reaction to recent progress made on LGBTQ rights as well as furthering attacks on women and reproductive rights in a familiar push of right-wing Christian supremacy and reactionary moralism. With Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, numerous local and state government’s banning pro-LGBTQ books, a stacked Supreme Court that seems poised to roll back gay rights, and a group of Republican senators that want a warning on any children’s television show that is pro-LGBTQ, it’s as if we’ve fallen into a time machine operated by Anita Bryant.

Theater is the perfect place to explore where we’ve been and where we might be headed, says Drake. In what is one of the first professional productions of The Drag since it was shut down 95 years ago, Drake has reveled in adapting the play to ensure a connection to a modern audience while keeping true to West’s intent. Since the play never made it to Broadway and in turn never received the re-writes and adjustments that come with a fully realized staging, The Drag script is still in its raw state, full of opportunity for a creative force like Drake and the Provincetown Theater. And in a nod to the play’s drag roots, Drake cast Stephen Carey, often better known as drag performer Ladyfingers, as Hell’s Kitchen Kate. Carey’s Phyllis Diller impersonations always steal the show, and Drake saw the casting as appropriate because several jokes West used from her drag ball days made their way into Diller’s act in the 1960s, showing the longevity of the humor of those drag queens of the Jazz Age and subsequent Pansy Craze before conservatism and bigotry shut it down temporarily, but not permanently.

“The jokes are still funny,” says Drake. “If you make fun of it, it’s satire, and the audience would be over it in about 20 minutes. You have to believe these people. You have to accept the rules of melodrama. We embrace the melodrama!”

The Drag is performed Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. now through June 5 at the Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St. Tickets ($40) are available at the box office and online at provincetowntheater.org. For more information call 508.487.7487.