The Dirty Blondes theater company is presenting a staged reading of Mae West’s 1927 Broadway hit Sex Sept. 29 – Oct. 2 at UNDER St. Marks in Manhattan’s East Village. Director Courtney Laine Self took some time to answer our questions about the forward-thinking feminist play that got West jailed for “lewdness and corrupting the youth.”
There’s a quote in your bio that caught my eye: “I’m interested in theatre’s ability to be the catalyst for social change in our society.” In Mae West’s time, and specifically in the days before television, stage drama played a bigger role in popular culture than it does now. Was SEX a catalyst for social change in its time? What about Mae West’s persona, and her career as a whole?
First of all, I’m not a Mae West historian, but it seems to me West wrote SEX first and foremost as a vehicle for herself. I don’t necessarily think West had social change as a primary goal.
I don’t say that disparagingly, though – it seems as though she had the purest and noblest of intentions, which was to write and play characters she felt she could identify with (i.e. strong, funny, independent, sexy, and most certainly never the victim).
This mindset of creating her own destiny by embracing who she truly knew she was despite society’s narrowly-defined role for women in the day is revolutionary and is a building block of the most profound type of social change.
History-conscious people may have heard of the play without knowing much about it except that it was risqué and got Mae West arrested. (I count myself in that group.) What is the play about, aside from the story of “a sharp-witted prostitute looking for true love”? And what can it tell us about Mae West and about its time?
For me, the title SEX is ironic. This play isn’t about sex – it’s about one woman’s efforts to be something other than an object of sexual desire. It’s about finding worth in yourself in a world where you aren’t allowed to have any.
Margy (the lead role, originally played by Mae West) is a sex worker in Montreal who wants out of the business. Make no mistake, however: She doesn’t look down upon her line of work. She has no problem with sex, her sexuality, being a sexual being. Her problem is with being reduced to only her sexuality and having sex be the only form of agency available to her.
At one point Margy says, “…I’ve been a chattel to that Sex. All that bad that’s in me has been put there by men. I began to hate every one of them…used them for what I could get out of them…” So she’s talking about being a possession of sex when she simply wants to be able to be a full person.
West was focusing on the only two roles available to women at the time – ‘whore’ and ‘wife’ – and wrote a character whose journey shows the struggles to buck those expectations when the path hasn’t yet been formed.
The Dirty Blondes are described as “a feminist theater company with a taste for provocation.” How does the play SEX intersect with feminism then and now?
Mae West wrote SEX in the mid-1920s, just after the peak of first-wave feminism hit with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. First-wave feminism was about suffrage and other basic political inequalities. SEX more directly challenges gender roles and expectations and illustrates the hypocrisy and tragic consequences of societal gender inequities. So, West was more in line with second-wave feminism – which didn’t happen until the 1960s!
West was so ahead of her time the poignancy is almost lost. It almost seems accidental how prophetic it was. At the time, the play was considered so indecent it was criminal – but no one perceived it as a political statement. Open this play in the ’60s and it still might have been criminal, but for very different reasons.
I’m not entirely certain what West’s intentions were, but I do know she was an early supporter of women’s lib and homosexual rights, so even if she was just writing this for titillation, she knew mixing titillation with a strong and focused female lead was revolutionary.
What’s so mind-blowing to me is just how much we, as a country and most definitely globally, are still struggling with the concepts West so easily detailed for us. The reboot of Ghostbusters with four female leads this summer and the outrage so many had because of a gender switch is indicative of a society that still struggles with seeing women as the “norm” as opposed to the “other.” Men can be anything, but women have to be within the prescribed confines of “woman-ness.”
This is precisely what protagonist Margy is fighting against in SEX. And let’s be honest: Just having a Broadway play with a female protagonist, three female leads, and a female playwright is a statistical anomaly even today.
Despite the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, a puritanical spirit still has influence in America. For today’s audiences, does the play comment on what has not changed since it was chased out of its Broadway theater 90 years ago after a 10-month run?
I don’t think the perceived risqué nature of the play in the ’20s carries over to today. Today’s audiences would not be in any way shocked by the level of material that is sexual in nature. We are completely desensitized to seeing it at this point.
What hasn’t changed is being able to see a woman fully embrace her sexuality and still allow her to be a fleshed-out and complex individual with dreams and goals and strengths and weaknesses. Margy says in the play, “There’s only one thing about you to hold a guy, and outside of that you’re merely nothing.” Margy’s words still ring true today when considering the over-sexualized male gaze in advertising, gender-focused cyberbullying, rape culture, unfair school uniform policies, and so many other aspects of our society.
Despite terrible reviews, the play was a hit with audiences. Do you think that was only or mainly because of its subject matter and star? Or does it also have artistic value as a drama?
Most of those reviews were from conservative critics. Their critiques probably had very little to do with the dramatic merit of the play and more with perceived moral atrocities.
I believe the play does have a great deal of artistic value [with respect to] its content and the culture in which it was written. Mae West wasn’t encouraged growing up to write the next great American drama. She didn’t go to college and take playwriting courses. She wasn’t studying the classics and the techniques of Realism, comedy, etc. She was a woman discouraged from her line of work from the beginning. She was a woman who never felt her identity was in line with what was expected of her.
She was an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, an activist, and an artist who created her own work that reflected her unique perspective. I think that shows tremendous artistic value.
You’re a choreographer and a director, two endeavors that usually entail a lot of movement. What are the challenges of producing a staged reading, where movement is by definition minimal?
All my direction/choreography, no matter how movement-based, is driven from text/theme/character/plot in the beginning. I’m interested in movement only insofar as it drives the ideas within a piece. So, I really think of myself as an idea person first.
What I really enjoy about readings is [that] the structure of what the audience will be watching puts more weight on thinking about the ideas and the text in many ways. It’s an agreement the audience makes with the production to watch only what is put before them and to be asked to use their imagination more actively to “see” what the production might be or could be.
And working with actors on this level also allows for and justifies working more intimately with just these ideas, when many times this ever-so-important bookwork (“idea” work) gets skipped over because of time restraints and production demands. A reading gives us the permission to just think and talk sometimes.
That said, we’re still hoping to have a visually interesting evening for you that blurs the boundaries of a typical reading with that of a more fully-produced event.
What other projects are you (or will you be) working on next?
I’m currently developing a new musical produced through 92Y’s Musical Theatre Development Lab that is examining how dance can take on more weight as a narrative and storytelling element within the musical form. We are having multiple showings throughout the winter and the project will culminate with a full-length product this Spring open to audiences. Check out my website for more info on that and other projects coming up!
For more information and tickets for SEX, presented by FRIGID New York @ Horse Trade in association with The Dirty Blondes, visit the Dirty Blondes website.