For many in the LGBT community, especially those in major cities, there has never been a need to stay in the closet. In fact, for many in the Millennial and post Millennial generations, being gay is just a fact of life. It is neither feared nor a reason for harassment and, most importantly, it is not a crime. But to appreciate where we are, one need only look back to the 1960’s and the Stonewall Riot which began the massive changes we’ve seen since then. Looking back through time to the early 1900’s however, the future of the LGBT community looked pretty bleak even to the most optimistic.
Mae West was a groundbreaking pioneer. Her on-screen, wise-cracking vixen persona brought prematurely grey hair to many a censor. Due to her popularity, she single-handedly saved Paramount Pictures from going under. But before she ever uttered “Come up and see me” on-screen, or asked Beulah to “peel me a grape,” Mae West was championing sexual freedom on stage with plays she authored. THE DRAG, written in 1927 was highly successful out-of-town but was banned due to its depiction of homosexuality and other ‘perversions’ and closed before it could reach Broadway.
Though shocking and bold for its time, the play now feels overly melodramatic.
The play begins in in the library of Dr. James Richmond who, along with a colleague, judge Robert Kingsbury, believes that a form of conversion therapy would work to cure homosexuals. The judge’s son, Roland, is married to Dr. Richmond’s daughter, Clair.
Clem Hathaway has brought a friend, David Caldwell, to see the doctor because David is seriously depressed. The doctor sedates him and leaves him in his office. In the meantime, Clair tells her father that she wants to travel abroad without her husband. She also tells her aunt that her husband has had no interest in having a sexual relationship. Meanwhile David stumbles out of the office and runs into Roland who, it turns out, was David’s former lover. The doctor re-enters and catches them in a struggle assuming that David has become violent. He later tells his son-in-law “Thank God you’re not what he is.” From here the melodrama kicks into high gear.
After a party planning scene with some very effeminate friends, Roland sends them away so he can be alone with Allen Greyson, an architect working on some family projects, with whom he is in love. After making his confession, Allen rejects him saying that he is, in fact, in love with Roland’s wife, Clair, and tells her so.
We next are at Roland’s family mansion where a drag ball is underway. Roland eventually sends them home and proceeds offstage where we hear a gun shot. The butler calls the judge and tells him Roland has been shot. After falsely accusing Allen of the murder, David returns and confesses that he did it. The doctor asks the judge to be lenient. In order to avoid being enmeshed in scandal, the judge declares the death a suicide and everyone lives happily ever after.
Although the play does contain a few choice Mae West style quips, the script is pretty creaky and overly melodramatic throughout. Most of the cast gives a good try at pulling it off. But unfortunately, it would take far more than that to make this play really work for today’s audience. But if you want to get a good feel of how difficult gay life was one hundred years ago even in one of America’s most liberal cities, then this play will be a fascinating history lesson. It will also give you a glimpse into the work of the pre-Hollywood Mae West where every now and then her future star shines through.
THE DRAG is playing on a double bill with another of Mae West’s plays, SEX. Unfortunately, the night I attended the show, only THE DRAG was performed. For a complete schedule of when you can catch these plays or to order tickets, visit their website, DesertRosePlayhouse.org.