In recent years, there has been a positive glut of feminist scholarship and public interest in the life and career of Mae West. 1 There are any number of reasons for this convergence of interest. Feminists for the most part were not interested in West in the 1970s (when West had a major comeback), but became attracted to her image in the late 1980s and 1990s due to changes that occurred in feminist thought and culture—changes epitomized and, maybe, made possible by Madonna’s emergence—that made West’s over-the-top, sexually aware style seem transgressive rather than regressive. 2 Ironically, however, the renewed interest in West reflects a return of sorts to a 1970s feminist interest in role models that had been largely displaced by psychoanalytic theories but that was reopened and reformulated by cultural studies’ engagement with star studies and questions of reception. Undoubtedly, this interest is also fueled by both the academic market, in its tendencies toward canonization, and the commercial market that has made West’s films accessible on cable television and on video.
Much of this recent work on West, including mine, reads her as a forerunner of a contemporary feminist and queer politics and as an icon of transgressive social and sexual politics. Against an earlier misogynist view that West seemed like a man in drag, feminist critics read her as a female female impersonator who challenges traditional gender and sexual stereotypes by denaturalizing traditional feminine aesthetics.
West’s role as an author informs this view by demonstrating West’s control over her own image. The interest in West as author inspired the feminist press Virago to reprint her 1937 novel The Constant Sinner in 1995. Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag, The Pleasure Man finally brings these most notorious—and important—plays to light. Until now only available to a few scholars at the Library of Congress, the plays have been a crucial feature of most recent analyses of West, especially the books by Hamilton and Leider. West wrote a total of eleven plays, eight of which were produced before she went to Hollywood. Sex (1926), The Drag (1927), and The Pleasure Man (1928) have historically garnered the most attention.
West’s infamous run-ins with the police over these three works form an important component of her star text and, indeed, established the conditions for her controversial Hollywood career and subsequent run-ins with the Hays office. As editor Lillian Schlissel details, Sex was raided by the New York City police along with two other Broadway plays with sexual themes, The Captive (about lesbianism) and The Virgin Man, and West was jailed for nine days on the count of producing an immoral play. The Drag was forced to close out of town. The Pleasure Man went to trial for being immoral, indecent, impure, and obscene; however, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, largely because the defense succeeded in making the chief witness for the prosecution appear foolish by forcing him to imitate the female impersonators in the play. Happily, the book includes original documents from the trials that illuminate the laws and vagaries of theatrical censorship in the 1920s.
Moreover, these texts, especially the gay-themed The Drag and The Pleasure Man, authorize claims about West’s progressive queer sexual politics and show her interest in and knowledge of drag culture and female impersonation. Despite its provocative title, Sex is a fairly standard melodrama about a self-sacrificing prostitute. The Drag and The Pleasure Man, however, offer more daring representations. The Drag, which circulated in gay communities for years in mimeographed form, attempts to represent seriously the plight of homosexuals in a [End Page 125] hypocritical society. Most of its power and verve, however, centers around a drag ball and the improvised dialogue of its gay characters, who were played by drag queens West recruited from Greenwich Village hangouts. The Pleasure Man, a backstage morality tale about a carousing heterosexual male, prominently features gay characters...