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A CurtainUp Feature
Broadway's Love Affair with The Oldest Profession.
Among the most eagerly awaited revivals on Broadway this fall is George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession starring two-time Best Actress Tony award-winner Cherry Jones (The Heiress in 1995 and Doubt in 2005) in the title role in this play that was once considered shocking. Although the last Broadway revival in 1976 starred Ruth Gordon as the formidably entrepreneurial madam Kitty Warren and Lynne Redgrave as her disapproving daughter, some of you may recall an admirable revival by The Irish Repertory Company starring Dana Ivey in 2005.
The Victorians were ho-hum Towards Shaw's MadamNotwithstanding the recent popularity of the play at major regional theaters, notably at the Shaw Festival in 2008 and at Princeton's McCarter Theatre in 2009, we can only imagine how Shaw reacted to the apathetic response he got from the late Victorians at its premiere in 1894. If Shaw's play is necessarily comprised of his own philosophical attitudes on prostitution, incest and the evils of capitalism, it was, nevertheless, deemed "immoral and improper" in 1894 by Britain's Lord Chamberlain. How encouraging that must have been to the thirty-eight year old upstart?
In contrast, its American premiere in 1905 would prompt three subsequent and successful revivals all starring Mary Shaw (no relation--an entrepreneurial feminist in her own right) which says something about the way Americans responded to this play and its healthy dosage of sex, politics and religion. These days the only thing immoral and improper about the play is not to do it justice. While it remains to be seen how the incredibly talented Jones embodies this woman molded by economic necessity and by her genuine passion for life, I thought it would be fun to not only go back and recall some of the other 20th century plays that most vividly, smartly and even respectfully dealt with the oldest profession, but also consider the impact of the actors who made indelible impressions in them.
Call Me Madam. . .or whatever else you wish but the job's the same. . .Call them whores, courtesans, prostitutes, hookers, call girls, geishas or professional pleasure providers, the ladies who render a service for a fee, committing what is conceded to be a victimless crime, would not only prompt some great work from some of the world's most prominent playwrights but also would give many talented actors the roles of their lifetime. Here is my own selection of best loved and most celebrated whores d'oeuvres.
Somerset Maugham's Sexy Sadie. . .Jeanne Eagles achieved legendary status as a result of her performance in 1922 as South Seas sinner Sadie Thompson in Rain co-written by Clemence Randolph and John Colton adapting Somerset Maugham short story. After touring in the play that initially amassed a respectable 256 performances, Eagles returned with it to Broadway in 1924 where it played an additional 648 performances. Let us not forget that the indomitable Tallulah Bankhead tried to muscle her way into the role in 1935 for a less impressive run of 47 performances.
Fresh from the success of Rain, John Colton continued his fascination with prostitution, this time with white slavery in The Shanghai Gesture in 1926. Audiences were apparently shocked by the evils perpetrated by Chinese brothel proprietress Mother Goddam, as formidably portrayed by Florence Reed. Like Eagles, Reed returned to Broadway after touring for two years with the play for which she would be forever identified, but she could only sustain the run this time for 16 more performances. (The play was revived with modest success by the Mirror Repertory Company in 2009.)
O'Neill's Fling with sinnersEugene O'Neill had his fling with women of questionable but also admirable character with Anna Christie in 1921, giving Pauline Lord a major career boost. Lord's performance so impressed O'Neill that she would play Nina in Strange Interlude in 1928. Of the four subsequent Broadway revivals of Anna Christie, it was the one in 1977 with a brilliant Natasha Richardson that made critics look anew at the fallen heroine Anna Christopherson. The theater lost a great artist with Richardson's untimely death in 2009. Let's not forget it was also the breakthrough role for the legendary film star Greta Garbo that enabled her to go from silent films to talkies.
There's another Anna, we shouldn't overlook, Anna Lucasta. Philip Yordan's 1946 play featuring an all-black cast (the play was originally supposed to have a white cast) was one of the biggest hits of the post-World War II era. Making her stage debut in the title role, Hilda Simms was the first African-American woman to star in a Broadway play. It chalked up an impressive 957 performances.
Tennessee Williams' Fallen WomenTennessee Williams loved his fallen women, but probably none as dearly as he did the delusional Blanche Du Bois of A Streetcar Named Desire. Since Jessica Tandy's breakthrough performance in the original 1947 production, Broadway has seen the challenging role interpreted six times by the likes of Uta Hagen (1950), Tallulah Bankhead (1956). I feel lucky that I saw Bankhead during the play's pre-New York engagement earlier that year at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Coral Gables, Florida. For the record, the Bankhead that I remember was splendid, and had her gay New York fan base not behaved like lunatics she would be remembered more respectfully today for her performance. Moving on: Rosemary Harris (1973), Blythe Danner (1984), Jessica Lange (1992) and Natasha Richardson (2005) also made distinctive impressions.
It's hard to keep track of Alma Winemiller, the spinster who falls most heartbreakingly from grace in Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke. Margaret Phillips originated the role in 1948, but it was Betsy Palmer who would play her sensitively in a revised version called Eccentricities of a Nightingale in 1976. Film star Mary McDonnell had a courageous fling with it in 1996 when it was once again called Summer and Smoke. Most importantly it was Geraldine Page who took ownership of the role in the Off Broadway production in 1952. It is often said to be the production that put Off Broadway officially on the map.
Susie, Irma, Charity. . .The World of Susie Wong by Paul Osborn was a hit in 1958 and sparked the career of French-Vietnamese actress France Nuyen in the title role in 1958. A successful film and TV career followed.
You could say that British actress Elizabeth Seal, who won the Best Leading Actress in a Musical Tony award in 1961, was the toast of Broadway for 524 performances in the title role of the imported musical Irma La Douce.
Arguably Broadway's most adored, award-winning performer Gwen Verdon didn't need to win the Tony in 1966 (she was only nominated) for her memorable performance as the whore with a heart of gold Sweet Charity, she had already won four: Can Can (1953), Damn Yankees (1955), New Girl in Town (1957), the musical version of Anna Christie), and Redhead (1959.)
The Sneaky Geisha. . .David Henry Hwang's play M Butterfly would not only win the Tony for Best New Play of 1988, but also the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The successful and highly lauded play would run for 777 performances, catapulting B.D. Wong, the winner of the Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor, to overnight stardom in the title role of the fraudulent geisha.
And Because Sex sells better than science.. .In one of the funniest skits in the 1958 A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the famous performing/writing team considered the way that MGM sold its major release of the year Madam Curie to the public. The studio had no problem when their "distinguished" production starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, as the famed married to-each-other scientists, opened at the Radio City Music Hall. But how should they market the famed "Madam" when it played its subsequent engagement in a grind house on 42nd Street? The answer was simple. The marquee would read: "See Madam Curie, the most famous madam in history. " As we know, sex sells. And as you can also see from the above, the listing is not definitive, but rather a refresher on how many careers have been buoyed by the actress and in one case the actor playing the you-know-who with the you-know-what on Broadway.
Please feel free to add your favorite prostitute in dramatic literature and its portrayer to this compilation. Just remember only the main role counts. And please don't go back to Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck's 1910 play Mary Magdalene, with Olga Nethersole in the title role. We now know that Jesus' disciple, unfairly maligned and judged by the men who had the power to do so at the time, has finally been absolved of being a prostitute.
The Sex Trade Career Ladder According to Shaw. . .In the light of this revival of Mrs. Warren's Profession, here is what Shaw had to say about why he wrote the play: "to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together."
Mrs. Warren's Profession (currently in previews prior to its opening 10/03/10. Stay tuned for Elyse Sommer's review. In the meantime: It's at American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street(212) 719 - 1300