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Who was Mae West?

West is a west is a west is a west

‘I first had to create myself, and to create the fully mature image I had to write it out to begin with. I admit that my writing is only for the theatre, that my ideas and my texts were from the first for the stage, through the secret doors of my personal life.’

Mae West, Goodness Has Nothing To Do With It

Mae West’s writing generated the myths surrounding her. In the 1920s, Broadway reviews such as Sex (1926) and The Drag (1927) established her reputation as a liberated, sexually aggressive woman who publicly celebrated sex for fun and pleasure. Described by the critic Thomas Doherty as ‘her own best creation’; West navigated her way through vaudeville music halls, to the truimph and controversy on the Broadway stage, to superstardom status in film and radio and finally to beloved, pop culture icon. Urban legend had it that she was actually a  man, her critics claim that she never wrote a single word of her plays, scripts and memoirs while her fans insist that she be credited for creating a postmodern self before the term had even been invented. All this hearsay prompts the question: who was Mae West?

Postmodern Libertarian?

In her plays, West presented themes from the sexual undergrounds of prostitution and homosexuality in a manner that blurred the lines between representations of sex and sex itself. By adding a measure of irony to her performances she was able to create the ‘Mae West’ that appealed to mainstream audiences and an atain renown as an icon. By cribbing the black female impersonator Bert Williams and the jokes of Bert Savoy she managed to become to imbue the caricutred mannerisms of a man’s idea of femmininity. This paradoxical arrangement implied that West herself was performing (or perhaps was!) a man acting as a woman.

For a taste of  just how sexually provocative West was, as well as her trademark wit, watch her duel with a babyfaced Cary Grant in 1933’s She Done Him Wrong. In this scene, we see the two engage in coded word play as West attempts to lead  Grant (feel you girl!) upstairs:

Sex (1926) eschewed the typical punishment and ruin of the fallen woman. Instead, the hooker is the heroine inverting the expected narrative and rendering sin as an adventurous characteristic. Throughout it is clear that West as LaMont, is a quintessential New Yorker. She talks about ‘sugar daddies,’ ‘a jane,’ being jyped’ and’dirty charity.’ Margy’s goodbye is ‘blow bum, bow.’ West placed this kind of language onstage in an attempt to render formalities futile for her characters; their particular vernacular didn’t just enable puns – it established who they were. Audiences recognised lines that set out to amuse. Margy and Gregg, her ‘client’ talk about the gift he’s been saving her after an absence of some months:

Gregg: …Oh I’ve got something for you, wait until you see this, wait until you see this, wait until you see this.

Margy: Well, come on and let’s see it.

Gregg: You’ll get it. I don’t mind telling you I had an awful time saving it for you. Why all the women were fighting for it.

Margy: It better be good.

Gregg: It’s good alright. It’s the best you could get, but you’ve got to be very careful not to be bend it.

The ‘it’ that couldn’t be bent turns out to be a feather, but the ‘business’ signalled in the stage directions indicated a more anatomical reference. The repetition of the phrases ‘wait until you see this’ and ‘you’ll get it’ underscores the rowdy nature of the exchange while anticipating the huge laughs that the revelation of the feather will deliver. Margy remains nonchalant throughout this dialogue only stating, ‘It better be good;’ reinforcing the idea that she is a woman who is hard to impress as well as humourous. This ironic sense of detachment contributes to the frequent obsevation tat West was ‘the greatest female impersonator of all time.’ Marybeth Hamilon argues that it was this fragmented quality that allowed West to perform ‘an impersonation at several removes: an authentic tough girl mimicking fairy impersonators mimicking the flamboyance of working-class women.’ Mae West, with Bert Savoy as one of her many influences, was an amalgam of several variables. As an artist her work was so self-referential it can only be described as postmodern.

Gritty realist?

Behind Mae West’s bawdy stories are the sad stories. Agnes, the reluctant whore in Sex only arouses pity. Her plight is never played for laughs. All she wants to do is go home and  and her conviction that virtue can be recaptured is moving, ‘If he really loves you it won’t matter to him what you’ve been…it’s the wife you make that counts.’ The Drag is not a rapid departure from Sex in that wealth continues to mask corruption. Rolly Kingsbury, a judge’s son and
homosexual, marries an unsuspecting young woman named Claire, throws down his gay lover and attempts to seduce his ‘straight’ colleague. A drag ball at the end ofthe play gives the audiences glimpses of gaudy displays of cross-dressing and covers the darker story of Rolly’s murder. By focusing on such subject matter West taps into what fascinated New York society in the 1920s and 1930s. As historian Langston Hughes recalls, ‘it was `fashionable for the intelligentsia and the social leaders of both Harlem and the downtown areítygoupy boxes at [drag balls] and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancing floor.’ The Drag had no star; ‘the throng’ was imagined to be a spectacle. Female impersonators­ Clem and the Duchess ­took possession of the story and the comedy. Actors were invited to ‘script’ their own dialogue. What official dialogue there was embarrassment. ‘We loved each other. I worshipped him. We were happy…in our own way. No normally married couple were happier than we were.  West never derided the deep feeling her gay characters had for one another. In all her work, the gay plays
provide the only love stories West would ever write. In the inverted world of the gay plays, ‘the  queens’ are the innocents. With the exception of Rolly, they do not lie about who they are. Their garish attire, rather than a ‘disguise’, serves to confirm their identity. While there is a melancholy element to her writing, humour is employed to mask the sentiment. The audience of the 1920s who attended West’s plays would never normally have been exposed to issues of gay love, drug abuse and the sex industry onstage before. Working in comic genres softens the range of gritty material but never dismisses it.

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