sexuality on the American Stage
- The depiction of sexuality on the American stage has always been fraught with controversy, challenging playwrights, actors, producers, and censors, not to mention audiences. By the middle of the 19th century, attention was focused on the revelation of the female form as most vividly exemplified by Adah Isaacs Menken's illusion of nudity in Mazeppa (1861), which simultaneously scandalized and titillated audiences. From 1880 to 1930, the focus shifted from nudity (it was generally not permitted, although musicals and burlesque featured scantily clad chorus girls throughout this period) to frank discussions of life's realities, including sexuality, in the plays of Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and a few of their contemporaries. The earliest productions of these plays in American theatres inspired considerable controversy, mostly over depictions of marital infidelity, unwed mothers, social disease, prostitution, etc. American dramatists were slow to step into such areas except in the most moralizing ways. James A. Herne's Margaret Fleming (1890), which dealt with a faithless husband forced to bring his out-of-wedlock child to his wife's care, appeared in this period, although it was not widely seen. The plays of Ibsen and Shaw raised outcries, with producer Arnold Daly and actress Mary Shaw arrested for producing Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession in 1905, a play equating prostitution and marriage.Before World War I, a few dramatists, including Edward Sheldon, touched on sexuality. After the war, sexual themes were often present, if only vaguely, in depictions of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, faithless spouses, and a somewhat more open awareness of sexuality. Interracial sexuality was occasionally depicted, although not without controversy, as in the case of Edwin Milton Royle's The Squaw Man (1905), featuring a marriage between a white man and a Native American woman, but more significantly in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924), exploring a relationship between an African American man and a white woman. O'Neill received death threats and a significant censorship battle ensued. Mae West scandalized Broadway with her play Sex (1926), in which she assaulted the hypocrisies of contemporary sexual mores, and her next play, The Drag (1927), delved into homosexuality. It so outraged the populace that it never opened in New York despite West's box office clout. Explorations of heterosexuality were more frequently seen, but homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender issues would not find dramatic voice until after the 1960s.
The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. James Fisher.
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