"Sex" and Synanon onstage

The Draconian sexual mores of Mae West's era and the curious past of former cult kid Deborah Swisher turn up the heat in New York theater.

By Cintra Wilson

Published February 17, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I have noticed while reading a variety of literature from the last turn of the century that women in the late 1800s who ran away with boyfriends and didn't marry them were considered (and this is the word used, across the board, in every book) "ruined". Any non-virgin, any woman with a past, was officially over with and finished because of her own failure to avoid cavorting with the devil, and her only remaining options in life were either full-bore prostitution -- living out the remainder of her days in social hell as a lonely, shame-drenched pariah in the lowest and most darkly corrupt corners of town -- or moving to Australia, where she could "start a new life" and never disclose the circumstances that had caused her to relocate. This says shockingly rotten things about the hysterically puritanical sexual mores of 100 years ago and great things about Australia.

There has been a recent off-Broadway renaissance focused on Mae West. Smart young women are starting to figure out that the outrageous self-possession of West's sexual persona is rather a cool and isolated thing in the world of celebrity. This was especially true back when she was doing it. It is especially true today, when the most pervasive attribute of "attractive" women competing for male sexual attention is the way they passive-aggressively (or aggressively) abuse themselves in one way or another with weight loss, surgical enhancements and other severe physical renovations, in supplication to physiologically unlikely and generally ass-out beauty standards, i.e., they dislike what they are and chain-whip themselves into fitting the currently reigning beauty template.

West liked the other kind of self-abuse better. She was an unstopping font of self-approval, who could justify any passion for herself, any look, any sensation, any sin; she was, in her way, truly liberated. When the fashion of the time shifted away from her body type, she adopted a different decade; West got herself up as an 1890s good-time girl in order to make the most of her womanly mounds instead of trying to bind herself into the no-hipped, no-breasted flapper look of the '20s. When she didn't like her lines, she rewrote them. When acting roles stopped coming her way, she wrote her own. When the cops came, she laughed. As playwright Claudia Shear (whose play "Dirty Blonde" features West as a character) told the New York Times, "Mae West was never devastated by a man; she never looked in the mirror and said, 'I'm fat.'"

When people think of West, if they aren't very familiar with her work, they generally think of a big woman in a huge hat, a Dolly Parton wig and a hazardously plunging neckline who growled innuendo at men in a sexually threatening fashion until she was so old it was downright scary.

One doesn't generally think of West as a playwright, but she was indeed the author of six plays produced on Broadway between 1926 and 1931, and ended up doing time for it. In 1927, West spent eight days at Welfare Island Women's Workhouse (now Roosevelt Island) after being convicted of producing a work "calculated to excite in the spectator impure imagination." West was tried on obscenity charges after police shut down her play "Sex" (ironically, after it had been in full production for nearly a year) in order to prevent the impending opening of her second play, "The Drag" (subtitled "A Homosexual Comedy") which featured transvestites. A man in a dress was always a good sight gag, but not, in the '20s, if he actually liked it.

West thrived on the bad publicity, however, tenaciously wiggling even harder into the public eye, after one 1926 review bore the headline "Monstrosity Plucked From Garbage Can. Destined to Sewer." West knew exactly how hypocritically full of shit all the flak she was getting was, and lustily reveled in getting her name in the papers for good or ill; she knew that ultimately the notoriety was the best thing possible for her career. "I expect it will be the making of me," she gushed to all the New York papers when she was hauled off to jail. She was right.

David Thompson wrote of West, "The real conclusion of her work is that sex is an idea, an obsession for the human being, and one of the most reliable distractions from the equally potent idea that life is tragic."

"Sex" is the tale of a Montreal prostitute who decides to "go straight" after a stint following the naval fleet to Trinidad. It's fairly dumb, but funny -- there's a shiny, red double-entendre in virtually every couplet. The play exults in the eternal question: Is class the only difference between prostitutes and women who marry for money? I like that theme, and have always wondered why whores get arrested while Georgette Mosbacher is still free to roam the streets.

"Ever since I knew what sex was I knew that men were hunters," hisses Margy LaMont, West's demimonde heroine. "I blame men for the way I am." The story, sadly, winds up like just another Whore With a Heart of Gold tale: Margy has a moral breakthrough, opts for dismissing what might be her true happiness and selflessly moves to (here we go again) Australia, to live out her days in vigorous self-improvement and modesty. Boo. Once again, even in West's world, the scarlet woman has to be a thousand times more morally responsible than anyone else in order to balance and/or justify her experiences.

I wanted the hooker to marry the rich boy and make him very happy by loving him and giving him a red-hot good time for the rest of his life, forcing everyone to forgive and forget her checkered past with a little sophisticated wink, brazenly charting her own moral universe.

"When I'm good, I'm very, very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better," said West, often. Too bad she never went all the way with that idea, to become a true sexual antihero. She shocked and scandalized, but always in a way that could be deemed charming by the randier average Joes and good-time Charlies; she never really scared anyone but the super-puritanical squares.

West did chart her own moral universe, but more in her life than in her art. She also never really knew when to quit, ignoring all signs of wear and playing the come-hither screen coquette until well into her 70s and eventually becoming a frightening joke, a symbol of overripe sexuality. While we'd all like to be raucously humping into advanced old age, none of us really wants to visualize it too graphically; sex in old age, ideally, becomes more demure and spiritual. Mae West was always a brazen tramp, a great tongue-in-cheek sexual bully, down hard to the end, but there's a lot to be said for that, too.

Elyse Singer, the director (and excavator) of "Sex" in its current run at New York's Gershwin Hotel, seems to gravitate toward women with curious pasts. Singer is also the director of another play currently running off-Broadway, "Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother," an autobiographical one-woman show by a pal of mine, Deborah Swisher, who has about the most interesting past I can think of.

Since "autobiographical one-person shows" have essentially worn out their welcome with theater audiences fatigued by paying to witness what should be breakthroughs in the therapist's office, "Hundreds" is promoted as a wild tale of '60s naiveti and sunny, idealistic foolishness. The story is actually a well-told, hardcore look inside soul-deep brainwashing, cult-style, but audiences might not fall all over themselves to see it if it were billed that way.

Swisher, a gorgeous, half-black, half-Jewish hottie, spent her childhood in the Synanon commune in California. Synanon, which started out as a drug-rehabilitation-cum-life-redirecting program for convicts, evolved into a celebrity-studded, high-profile "alternative lifestyle" experiment before digressing into an isolated, armed and paranoid community that blindly carried out the weirdly intrusive whims of an egomaniacal, charismatic leader.

In the multi-voiced telling of the story (all characters superbly realized by fireball Swisher), Debbie is separated from her mother and sister at age 7, then raised by cult members, trained to live and work in an environment that sounds a lot like a nonstop hippie boot camp, peer-pressured into shaving her head, peer-pressured into losing her virginity to an older man "suggested" for her by cult leaders, emotionally sabotaged by sadistic power abusers and systematically turned against her mother and sister when they show disloyalty toward "the Group." However, her tone never indicts, her story never accuses or even regrets. Swisher shows remarkable compassion for her old environment, and proves irrevocably by the very life-affirming magnitude of her person that there must have been something good about Synanon, because it cranked out a golden kid like Deb.

Swisher, in real life, is one of those Frank Capra heroines who believes in Honesty and Truth and Abraham Lincoln and Santa Claus. She is one of the most cheerful, non-bitter, non-jaded, non-cynical, sweet, hardworking people I've ever known, and it all comes across onstage. The show itself is a testament to Swisher's plucky human spirit; when she was performing "Hundreds" at another theater last year and bankrolling the production herself, as much as I loved the show, I tried to convince her to give it up and get a cash gig so she could stop temping at law firms. But she so guilelessly believed in herself, just like all the after-school specials say you're supposed to, that she ignored all sideline ventures and kept flogging away on her little show (which is hugely demanding both physically and emotionally) and now she is in a big off-Broadway venue, which is pretty goddamned major in the scheme of things.

She emerged so victorious with that heartwarming maneuver that she made me feel that I had been a sad, mangled vampire to give her such wretched advice. Who'd a thunk that that "Believe in yourself" stuff actually worked? It's such a dried-out clichi we don't even consider it anymore. It apparently takes a cult to isolate you from these hoary, overplayed chestnuts of Hollywood sentimentality enough to sincerely implement them in your own life.

While "Hundreds" is unquestionably elevating to the human spirit, yadda yadda yadda, and little old ladies go away feeling touched and brave, and young men go away and think about Swisher when they take a shower, and all that good stuff, it remains to be seen what will happen. Will artistic good triumph over commercial evil -- will something else happen with this unique, remarkable story? Will it move up? Will it go to capital-B Broadway? Will it get picked up by a film company? Will Swisher get to be in the film, if it does? Will the studio want to rewrite it into a grotesque, cloying failure of a hack monstrosity, like they always do? Or will the sheer difference of it from other stories keep the big money away?

In short, it will be very interesting to watch the trajectory of Deborah Swisher, as I believe her to be a veritable bellwether for how evil or not evil things are swinging in the entertainment world. I naturally presume the worst, but that's only because I am corroded by worldly cynicism.

Well, we'll just have to wait and see, won't we?

If Swisher's world-beating heart can't slay the Goliath of rampant, blockbuster commercialism, no one's can.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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