New York Times: Reaction to "The Captive", 1926-1927
"The tyranny of her warped infatuation"
On September 30, 1926, J. Brooks Atkinson, in the New York Times, reviews The Captive, a tragedy translated from the French play by Edourd Bourdet, which had opened the previous night in New York City.
- . . . As most theatre enthusiasts know by this time, "The Captive" writes the tragedy of a young woman, well-bred and of good family, who falls into a twisted relationship with another woman. For nearly half the play this loathsome possibility, never mentioned, scarcely hinted at, hangs over the drama like a black pall, a prescience of impending doom.
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- A member of the Foreign Office, ordered to Rome, cannot understand why his oldest daughter refuses to accompany him. Thoroughly distraught, she puts him off with an evasion. Her old friend, Jacques Vierieu, she pleads, is in love with her, and may propose to her if properly manoeuvred.
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- When her father departs Irene summons Jacques and tries to persuade him to play the part of fiance, a part agreeable to him, but not on these false terms. For Irene refuses to confide in him, nor in anyone else, the full truth of her frightful misery.
- During the remaining two acts M. Bourdet directs his story expertly at high speed, facing the issue boldly and sounding the note of doom with increasing frequency. Fully conscious of his responsibilities, Jacques marries Irene immediately to save her from herself and to release her from the tyranny of her warped infatuation.
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- For a year spent in travel they get on amicably and return to Paris, where they set up their home. But Irene does not escape for long; nor does Jacques. In self-defense he resumes a liaison with his former sweetheart. And just before the final curtain Irene succumbs. The sound of a closing door off-stage completes this sombre story.
- Relentless in his presentation of this theme, M. Bourdet occasionally sets it off against the simple innocence of a little sister or the refreshing normality of Jacques and the charming Francroise Meillant. Without this illuminating relief "The Captive" might degenerate into commercial exploitation of a revolting theme. . . .
On October 25, the Times indicates that the content of theatrical productions is becoming a subject of controversy in the political area.
- MAKE SHOWS CLEAN, HINT FROM WALKER
- Mayor Tells Catholic Actors Guild Some Producers Will Have to Change Ways.
- READY TO TACKLE THEATRE
- Opposed to Stage Censorship as "Un-American and Impossible of Performance."
- That the City Administration may cross words with some of the theatrical producers unless the moral tone of several productions in town is elevated in the near future was intimated last night by Mayor Walker. . . . 
On October 29, the Times reports that three unidentified plays were under police investigation.
The Play Jury
On November 15, the Times reports the first test that year of the "play jury"; a body of twelve men and women who would meet that day to decide whether "The Captive" is an objectionable and salacious play. "The Captive" deals frankly, although delicately, according to reviewers, with highly complicated and suggestive psychopathic relationships. The play jury had been in operation the previous year, making judgments and advising the district attorney concerning material it found salacious in New York City theatrical performances. Organized groups of dramatists, producers, and actors had agreed that the "verdict of the jury shall in all cases be complied with." Some saw this informal play jury structure as a way of heading off state censorship by a legally appointed board. The district attorney had reportedly agreed to abide by the play jury's decisions. The jury's meeting on November 15 took place in the district attorney's office.
The following day, November 16, the Times reports:
- VOTE OF PLAY JURY FREES 'THE CAPTIVE'
- Six Ballots Condemn the Play, Five Clear It, One Is Blank-Nine Needed to Convict.
- THREE JURORS ARE WOMEN
- Further Actlon Unllkely-Hornblow Sees Test of Whether Stage May Treat "Adult Subjects" Decently.
- New York's play jury released "The Captive" yesterday from danger of suspension or expurgation after two hours of discussion. . . .
- None of those present, either within or without the jury room, would comment on the procedure, except Mr. [Arthur] Hornblow [the play's translator], who said:
- "This is a rather critical case for the theatre. It will test whether adult subjects may be treated hereafter in a decent way on the stage. The moving pictures have left the legitimate stage only the adult portion of the public, speaking from an intellectual standpoint.
- "The type of persons who still go to the spoken drama are not the type who would be menaced by subjects of rather an advanced nature .... "
On December 29, the Times reports:
- MAYOR STARTS WAR ON IMMORAL PLAYS
- Warns Producers Censorship Will Result Unless They Voluntarily Clean Stage.
- THREAT BRINGS PROMISES
- Theatrical Men Expected to Name ControUer-Walker Told Public Wants 'Risque' Shows.
- Mayor Walker, who recently imposed a 3 A.M. curfew on the night clubs, called the leading theatrical producers to the City Hall yesterday and warned them that censorship would result unless they voluntarily cleaned up the stage. The producers promised to cooperate with the Mayor. . . .
- Many complaints have been received at the City Hall about the salacious dialogue and situations of certain plays and the nudity of chorus girls in certain musical shows now on Broadway. The last straw, it is understood, came when plans were announced for the production of a new play, said to be even more daring than one which has particularly aroused unfavorable comment because of the subject it deals with.83
The reference is to a forthcoming production of Mae West's play The Drag, which, like The Captive, dealt with an aspect of homosexual subculture.
On January 21,1927, the Times carries a letter from a concerned mother.
- Suggestions for Play Censorship.
- To the Editor of The New York Times:
- As a mother of growing children there is one suggestion I would like to make to Mayor Walker on the subject of play censorship, and that is that all forms of sex perversion be banned as subjects for dramatic or musical comedy material.
- Curiosity is one of the greatest of lures at the dangerous period of adolescence. I have been compelled to enlighten my children on subjects that they have heard discussed or seen depicted upon the stage that are dangerously suggestive and unnecessary. Nakedness and sex appeal along normal lines may discount modesty and outrage good taste, but perversion is a horror and social smallpox that should be treated in the segregation of the pest house laboratory.
- ELSIE McCORMACK.
- Jackson Heights, L. I., Jan. 18, 1927.
On February 1, 1927, the Times reports:
- Three committees, one composed of theatrical producers, another of actors and the third of playwrights, will meet tomorrow afternoon to ascertain how the stage may be purified so that the threatened drastic censorship of the theatre may be avoided. . . .
- It is expected that tomorrow's meeting will discuss plans for presenting the case against censorship before the legislative committee at Albany, which is to hold a public hearing on a proposed censorship law. This law is modeled on the English plan and provides for the submission of manuscripts to a censor before production.
- The entire movement is a direct result of Mayor Walker's warning to the producers that unless they voluntarily cleaned house stage censorship would follow. The producers will undoubtedly have certain proposals to submit to the Mayor when he returns from his trip to Havana, Cuba.
A "special" dispatch to the Times adds:
- "Captive" Approved at Princeton
The ninety Princeton seniors taking the course in the development of the drama under Dr. Donald Clive Stuart, asked to list all the plays they had seen during the term and to choose the one they liked best, giving their reasons, selected Edouard Bourdet's "The Captive.". . .
- "The Captive" received fourteen votes for the best play, and it was seen by more students than any other. One man picked it because "it is a decent treatment of an indecent theme," another because "it fooled the play jury," but the principal reason for its popularity, according to the answers, is that it is a "beautifully made and beautifully presented play." Several men liked it because of the personal attractiveness of Helen Mencken.
Another "special" dispatch to the Times is headed:
- "The Drag" Opens at Bridgeport.
- BRIDGEPORT, Conn .... "The Drag," a new play by Jane Mast [Mae West], author of "Sex," had its premier at the old Park Theatre here tonight after being barred from a Stamford theatre.
- This is the play which is said to have caused the sudden action on the part of New York managers toward cleaning up the stage there. It is scheduled to open in New York soon.
- The first night audience here included many visitors from New York. The play was ostensibly presented in the same spirit in which "Damaged Goods" was given to the theatre--going public. A physician was discovered at centre stage when the curtain rolled up on the first act. He was there with his moral when the final curtain fell. This presumably was intended to sterilize what went on.
- The play purports to put across the message that certain persons are more to be pitied than censured. The Bridgeport police censor decided that there was a strong enough message in the play to warrant the local color used in lending force to the message.
Two days later, on February 3, 1927, the Times reports:
- STAGE WORKS OUT CENSORSHIP PLAN; CITY GETS IT TODAY
- After three hours of discussion at the offices of the Actors' Equity Association ... representatives of the actors, producers and playwrights agreed yesterday on a tentative plan for regulating the theatre without censorship. . . . If it is acceptable to the District Attorney and the city administration, it will be immediately worked out in detail and adOPted, in the hope of averting the danger that the Legislature may establish an official censorship over the stage. . . .
- The citizens' play jury plan is still nominally in effect, although since the last jury gave a favorable verdict on "The Captive" no effort has been made to invoke that tribunal.
- The citizens' play juries functioned with unexpected liberality. . . . The failure of the jury to bring in more radical verdicts disappointed many members of the reform organizations which backed the play jury system. John S. Sumner, Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and other sponsors withdrew their support and are now advocating censorship. . . .
- William Morganstern, producer of "The Drag," said yesterday that he had his choice of anyone of three theatres for that drama and that he expected to have it on Broadway at an early date, possibly next week.
On February 9, a Times story suggested that a conference of police officials presaged raids on plays.
And on February 10, the Times's front·page main headline reads:
- POLICE RAID THREE SHOWS, SEX, CAPTIVE AND VIRGIN MAN;
- HOLD ACTORS AND MANAGERS
- ALL GO TO NIGHT COURT
- Police Politely Serve the Warranfli After the Final Curtains.
- VICTIMS NOT UNWILLING
- Submit Cordially to Arrests, Whlcb Will Be Repeated Till Plays Are Purged.
- 41 ARE RELEASED IN BAIL
- Two Shows Had Been Cleared by the Play JuryDrive May Be Extended to Others.
Among those in The Captive cast arrested were its stars, Basil Rathbone and Helen Mencken. Mae West, the star of Sex, was also arrested, along with twenty cast members.
The following day, February 11, a banner headline in the Times declares:
- RAIDED SHOWS STAY OPEN; INJUNCTIONS STOP POLICE
- "The Captive," "Sex" and "The Virgin Man," the producers and casts of which were arrested Wednesday night, were performed last night under the protection of Supreme Court injunctions.
- The management of "The Virgin Man" at the Princess Theatre had withdrawn advertising and sent out notices that the play would close Saturday night. After Wednesday night's raid, however, the management reconsidered the intention to close and announced that the show would continue open in the expectation of a long run ....
- District Attorney Banton said yesterday that he would prosecute those implicated in the production of "The Captive" and "Sex" in spite of the fact that they had been acquitted by play juries ....
- Varying reasons were advanced yesterday for the sudden police activity against shows which had been permitted to run without molestation for months. It was admitted that "Sex" was not worse than it was eleven months ago, and "The Captive" no worse than it was four months ago. Mr. Banton said that many complaints had come from many sources against the drama, showing that the public was thoroughly aroused. . . .
On February 13, the Times reports:
- 'RAIDED SHOWS PLAY TO CROWDED HOUSES'
- One [The Virgin Manl. Expiring, Is Brought Back to Life by Police Campaign-May Seek Bigger Theatre.
- PRODUCER DROPS 'THE DRAG'
- No Further Effort Will Be Made to Present It, He Declares.
On February 21, a Times headline reads:
- CITY SPEEDS ACTION IN 'CAPTIVE' CASE
- Impetus to State Censorship Seen if Play WinsPolice Raiding Power at Stake.
- INJUNCTIONS UP THURSDAY
- Many Preachers Assail Sections of Theatre and Press as Aids to Immorality.
- A speedy determination of the right of the police to raid attempted performances of "The Captive" will be sought by the city, according to Assistant Corporation Counsel Russell L. Tarbox, who said yesterday that a legal victory for "The Captive" would give the strongest possible impetus to the movement at Albany in favor of establishing a censorship of the stage by legislative enactment. . . .
On February 26, a Times headline reads:
- WALKER SATISFIED BY STAGE CLEAN·UP
- Police to Take the Initiative Henceforth, He Says.
The report says that the mayor
- believes that much good has been done by the suppression of "The Captive" and the suits brought against two other shows [Sex and The Virgin Man].
On March 7, the Times reports John s. Sumner, head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, advocated "an aggressive campaign for the establishment of legislative censorship." The report adds:
- Maurice B. Blumenthal, who as Assistant District Attorney twenty-five years ago led the crusade which drove "Sappho" from the New York stage, discussed the censorship question in a statement yesterday. Describing the once scandalous staircase scene from "Sappho," which caused such moral indignation a quarter of a century ago, Mr. Blumenthal said:
- "The decency of the show was challenged by many worthy citizens, and according to the standards of morality obtaining at thaLtime the play was indecent. Our standards as to dress, conversation, conduct and morality generally have fluctuated, ... but in the past twenty-five years they have been woefully lowered. . . . "
- Speakers at a meeting of the Jewish Theatrical Guild referred to the theatrical presentation of "abnormality":
Censorship was characterized as "despotic" by Rabbi Nathan Krass, who said the only true censorship was that of the theatre-going public. "We don't want the stage converted into a dumping ground for the moral and spiritual garbage of the human race," he added, "and plays dealing with abnormality belong to the psychopathists and psychoanalysts. But unless the managers decide to discontinue vicious plays I fear the law will intervene."
Actor Wilton lackaye is quoted as saying that "plays dealing with abnormality should not be available to invite the attendance of young girls. . . .
By this time the original production of The Captive had closed and Horace B. liveright had negotiated to reopen it-if he could obtain a legal ruling to prevent police interference.
On March 9, the Times headline reads:
- 'CAPTIVE' IMMORAL, MAHONEY DECIDES
- Justice Then Denies Injunction to Protect Liveright in Reproducing Play.
- UPHOLDS LITERARY QUALITY
- But Views Theme as Harmful to Some Persons in Audience Who Should Be Guarded.
- DECISION TO BE APPEALED
- Supreme Court Justice Jeremiah A. Mahoney ruled yesterday that "The Captive" was immoral and refused to grant an injunction preventing the District Attorney, the police and others from interfering with the effort of Horace B. Liveright to produce it. Mr. Liveright and his counsel, Arthur Garfield Hays, said that they would appeal immediately. . . .
- Justice Mahoney gave the opinion that the drama had excellent literary quality and that it might not harm a mature and intelligent audience. On the other hand, he held that it might have dangerous effects on some persons in an indiscriminate, cosmopolitan audience. . . On that ground, he held that the police and the District Attorney had acted correctly in seeking to stop "The Captive" and to prevent its revival.
- The judge asked rhetorically if the obscenity statute did not look to the protection, not of the mature and intelligent ... but of the young and immature, the ignorant and sensualiy inclined?
- The opinion referred to the affidavits of Police Commissioner McLaughlin that 70 per cent. of the audience on Saturday night, Feb. 5, were under 25 years of age. In a box near the police sat four boys not over 18 years. Women comprised 60 per cent. of the audience, and groups of unescorted girls in twos and threes sat together, the statements said.
- "I can readily realize," continued Justice Mahoney, "that an audience of intelligent and mature minds could not possibly be swayed or influenced by any portrayal of a theme or characters, no matter how obscene, but the ordinary and average gatherings of human beings in a cosmopolitan city like this are not of such a nature and the law recognizes the fact that many people must be protected from their very selves.
- "Taking into consideration the natural effect and tendency of this play, I readily have reached the conclusion that it does offend the statute against the obscene drama."
On March 19, the Times reports that the case of The Captive had been appealed before the appellate division of the New York City court system on March 17.
- Arthur Garfield Hays made the main argument in favor of "The Captive" as counsel for Horace B. Liveright, who bought the play after it had been raided by the police. Mr. Hays made his argument on the ground of free intellectual discussion of a problem in which, he contended, nothing immoral or lecherous took place.
- Mr. Hays said that the statute under which action was taken against the play has to do with plays "which excite sexual or lecherous desire," and with plays which excite impure imagination.
- "It is the contention of Mr. Liveright," he said, "that there is not a word, line or thought in the play that could or would excite lustful emotion; that, on the contrary, it is a literary masterpiece of high social valhe. The subject matter of 'The Captive' has been dealt with in some of the most famous classics of history. The matter is handled in a delicate, artistic, subtle and inoffensive manner. There is not an offensive or vulgar line in the play, nor is there any obscene or unrefined situation or action."
The same day's Times reports that the New York State legislature in Albany was presented with "the so-called theatrical 'padlock bill' proposed by District Attorney Banton of New York and other public prosecutors in the city ... " The Republican measure backed by Banton was thought to have a good chance of passing.
The following month, on April 6, 1927, the bill "to amend the penal law, in relation to immoral plays" became New York State law.
This law declared that any person who "presents or participates in, any obscene, indecent, immoral or impure" production "which would tend to the corruption of the morals of youth or others" was guilty of a misdemeanor. The same was true of anyone presenting any work "depicting or dealing with, the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perversion . . . " The owner of a building used for the performance of any such play was also guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction could lose the required operating license.
The New York State statue outlawing the presentation of homosexuality on the state's stages remained on the books until a general revision of the laws in 1967.
- ↑ J. Brooks Atkinson, "The Play . . . Tragedy from the French," New York Times, September 30, 1926, page 23, col. 1.
- ↑ New York Times, October 25, 1926, p. 34, col. 1.
- ↑ New York Times, October 29, 1926, p. 12, col. 1.
- ↑ New York Times, November 15, 1926, p. 23, col. 1.
- ↑ New York Times, November 16, 1926, p. 11, col. 1.
- ↑ New York Times, December 29, 1926, p. 1, col. 5.
- ↑ New York Times, January 21, 1927, p. 14, col. 1.
- ↑ New York Times, February 1, 1927, p. 1, col. 5.
- ↑ New York Times, February 1, 1927, p. 3, col. 1.
- ↑ New York Times, February 3, 1927, p. 1, col. 6.
- ↑ New York Times, February 9, 1927, p. 1, col. 6.
- ↑ New York Times, February 10, 1927, p. ? col. ?
- ↑ New York Times, Feb. 11, 1927, p. 1, col. 1.
- ↑ New York Times, Feb. 13, 1927, p. I, col. 4.
- ↑ New York Times, Feb. 21, 1927, p. 19, col. 1.
- ↑ New York Times, Feb. 26, 1927, p. 15, col. 2.
- ↑ New York Times, March 7, 1927, p.11, cols. 1,3.
- ↑ New York Times, March 9, 1927, p. 27, col. I.
- ↑ New York Times, March 19, 1927, p. 3. col. 1.
- ↑ Laws of the State of New York (Albany: J. B. Lyon, 1927), p. 1731-32. This law appears to have been amended in Sept. 1931 to exclude actors and musicians. This statute remained in effect until the revision in 1967 of the entire penal code of New York State. Jonathan Ned Katz thanks E. Carrington Boggan and Robert Roth for help with this research.