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In 1927 Mae West wrote a play called “Drag” which was swiftly banned.
The play, subtitled A Homosexual Comedy in Three Acts and written under the pseudonym Jane Mast, was about a young society man, Rolly Kingsbury, who prefers feminine young men, and presented a sympathetic medical view of homosexuality as a natural thing. Oh, it also staged a flamboyant drag queen ball, with largely improvised dialogue and a jazz band on stage. Well, what else would you expect from Mae West?
The Drag was shut down after 10 out-of-town performances, and never made it to Broadway, but sold lots of tickets.
Mae West herself had been a male impersonator early in her career.
The Drag was inspired by her many gay friends; she knew their daily struggles to be open about their relationships, and to be accepted for who they were.
When casting the play, she actively sought out gay actors. That caused trouble as well. The actors’ union barred gay men from parts with speaking lines. She auditioned them at a gay bar in Greenwich Village. In her autobiography, she claimed to have “helped a lot of gay boys along” by casting them at a time when “producers never gave speaking parts to homosexuals”.
The play opened in Connecticut. It was a success with audiences, although Variety called it “an inexpressibly brutal and vulgar attempt to capitalise on a dirty matter for profit”.
One Broadway producer said it was “the worst possible play I have ever heard of contemplating an invasion of New York” and that it “strikes at the heart of decency”.
West rewrote the play a year later as “The Pleasure Man”, making the lead character straight, but she still faced criticism for it being too explicit, and ended up in court.
Mae West was born on August 17, 1893 and died on November 22, 1980.