- Sisters In Sin: Brothel Drama In America, 1900–1920
American audiences love safe slumming. Nowadays it's movies about the "underworld," mostly focused on drugs (Do the Right Thing, Traffic, My Own Private Idaho, the opening of Citizen Ruth). In the first two decades of the twentieth century it was plays about the "demi-monde," focused on multiple versions of sullied female chastity. Why and how some of the fifty plays that appeared about this nexus of subjects between 1899 and 1922 succeeded while others flopped or were closed down is the subject of Katie Johnson's meticulously researched and fascinating book.
Sisters in Sin abounds in irony and paradoxes. Johnson works "not only to reintroduce forgotten texts to the cultural consciousness, but also to explicate the cultural work of those texts . . . in affirming and resisting cultural and legal discourses" (16). The fallen-woman-with-a-sympathetic-story was hardly new. Camille was the grandmammy of them all. The new element in Progressive Era (1890–1920) treatments of this character was "an increased emphasis on depicting the social conditions leading to, and the consequences of, prostitution, rather than the whore's repentance and punishment" (10). The era treated in Sisters in Sin opened with the creation of New York City's first vice commission in 1900, and concluded with the closing of many red-light districts in 1920, just on the eve of the Pulitzer [End Page 153] Prize committee giving its drama award to Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie in 1922.
Johnson focuses on about a dozen plays that she slots in four categories. "The Female Performer as Prostitute" discusses plays in which actresses, models, and singers are read as scarlet women—a popular conflation, though research of the day showed that very few women who turned to prostitution did so for "easy money," with only a minuscule percentage of these coming from the ranks of artists or performers (74). "Working Girls" treats department-store salesgirls as both a new demographic and a cultural conundrum; they could neither afford most of what they were selling nor could they go astray (for money, necessities, or little luxuries) and expect to keep the gainful employment that did not provide enough (money, necessities, or little luxuries). "Opium Dens and Urban Brothels" is devoted to a discussion of a kind of play in which an unsuspecting white girl, often from a rural area, is drugged or otherwise enticed without her awareness into a house of prostitution. In "The Legitimation and Decline of the Brothel Drama," the author shows how plays that were putatively direct and shocking in their discussion of hidden realities (syphilis and prostitutes as ordinary women) were in fact conservative and recuperative in their politics.
So what determined whether a play would sizzle or fizzle? Much had to do with performers and performance. In the 1899 Zaza, producer David Belasco featured socialite divorcée Mrs. Leslie Carter as a French music-hall singer who, "transformed by love . . . becomes monogamous" (32), only to be betrayed by her married lover who returns to his wife. Zaza is spoiling for a confrontation until a meeting with the lover's little daughter melts her heart. She sacrifices herself not for love, but for family. Belasco built a publicity machine on the son Mrs. Carter had had to give up when she divorced, making hits of both star and vehicle. Less lucky was actress/producer Olga Nethersole. Her 1900 production of Clyde Fitch's Sapho depicted an artist's model, Fanny, who, like Zaza, goes good when she falls in love for real. Sapho, however, was closed by police order and Nethersole and her company were put on trial. At issue was not so much the subject matter of the play as Nethersole's high-dudgeon acting, revealing costumes, and a nifty production device in which the curtain fell and rose as many as five times to indicate a passage of time during which there was no question in anyone's mind that what was happening...