Mae West is an icon: literally, a representative symbol. In the popular imagination, Mae West stands in for a certain type of seduction—blonde, campy, one-liner-heavy. But though West is best known for her distinctive performances, she was also a controversial playwright; before West established the acting persona that would stick in the public’s minds for a century, she was offending critics and facing jail time for shows that she called “comedy-dramas of life,” illuminating elements of life yet to be popularized onstage.
West’s plays The Drag and The Pleasure Man brought a type of communal gay camp onstage that at turns scandalized and excited a largely straight audience. And back in 1926, before Diamond Lil, her play-turned-movie about a good-natured prostitute, launched West to bona fide stardom, she wrote and performed another play—SEX—which would lay the groundwork for the plot of Diamond Lil but polarized audiences in a way Diamond Lil never did.
In SEX, West starred as a prostitute named Margy Lamont. The plot is winding, complicated, and not the point; viewer response was created by the first two acts, where the audience saw Margy working in a brothel and then in a nightclub. Critics were universally horrified by SEX. The New Yorker described the script as “street sweepings”; the New York Herald Tribune said that “never in a long experience of theatre-going have we met with a set of characters so depraved”; the slightly more provocative New York Daily Mirror titled their review “SEX an Offensive Play, Monstrosity Plucked From Garbage Can, Destined to Sewer.”
It wasn’t that there had never been sex or representations of sex workers on Broadway before; but critics found SEX reminiscent of burlesque (stigmatized at the time), as well as uncomfortably realistic in its treatment of sex work and class. As Marybeth Hamilton puts it in “SEX, The Drag, and 1920s Broadway,” “Margy was . . . an ill-paid sex-worker who traded her body on the streets. West made that fact unmistakable. As West embodied her, Margy was palpably from the lower orders . . . Margy is bitterly conscious of herself as a member of the oppressed class, and the grimness and harshness of her manner are reflected in the world she inhabits.” Imagine Mae West’s characteristic delivery without the irony: that was Margy Lamont. Understandably (though not correctly), people were scandalized.
As usually happens when people freak out about a piece of art, ticket sales went up. Then, on February 9, 1927, SEX was raided by the acting mayor, and West spent $14,000 to bail herself and her fellow actors out of jail. As she refused to shut down the show, West was sentenced to ten days in jail for “corrupting the morals of youth.” She was released two days early for good behavior, and the jail time essentially operated as a publicity stunt, launching her in the media as a “bad girl” of theater.
West capitalized on the publicity of SEX and took it as an opportunity to retool her persona, creating Diamond Lil. West plays a sex worker in Diamond Lil as well, but this time, it was funny. Lil was constantly making jokes, and West played her with a veil of irony, so an audience could interpret all of the raunchiness as satire. Plus, the specter of class was never mentioned, making it easier to swallow for middle-class audiences. West called Lil “a little spicy, but not too raw”; this was the beginning of the West performances we know today. I’m grateful for West’s fame, and her later work; but I’m glad we know what was lost in translation.