by M. Chu
Context: “La Prisonniere,” a play written by Parisian playwright Édouard Bourdet, was first performed at the Théatre Femina in Paris during March 1926. “La Prisonniere” tells the story of heroine Irene de Montcel, who is seduced by the wife of her fiancé’s childhood friend. The play was adapted for American stages by Arthur Hornblow, Jr.; less than five months after its opening night, performances of “The Captive” were suspended, the cast was arrested, and New York State enacted the Wales Padlock censorship law.
Arthur Hornblow, Jr. was an American businessman educated in France. After fighting in World War I, he pursued a career as a translator in the theater industry, and in September 1926, his adaptation of “La Prisonniere” (or “The Captive”) opened at New York City’s Empire Theater. It was the first American stage play to deal openly with lesbianism, and it was hugely popular; in fact, 1927 poll of Princeton students in the New York Times ranked “The Captive” as the best play, and it was seen by more students than any other production at the time.
Despite its popularity, a February performance of “The Captive” was raided by police in 1927, and the entire cast was arrested. The play’s frank discussion of lesbianism led to the New York State Wales Padlock Law, which outlawed plays depicting and dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy or sex perversion.
What is interesting about “The Captive” is that there is no actual depiction of Irene’s lover, Madame D’Aiguine, so there is no actual depiction of physical affection; in fact, the word “lesbian” or “invert” is never even used.
In the 1920s, it was thought that for a woman to be a lesbian, she had to be manly; however, Irene de Montcel was a picture of feminine perfection. The concept of an older, well-bred woman seducing a younger woman was in line with the French libertine tradition of lesbianism; however, in America, it was perceived as shocking. This “new lesbian,” who looked just like every other young woman in America, was more of a threat to society than a lesbian who was easily discernible. “The Captive” was also the first major public incident of heterosexual people being attracted to lesbians. Figures such as Irene de Montcel gave men a false sense of a woman’s sexual availability, and, as portrayed in “The Captive,” men were considered failures when they weren’t able to satisfy women.
Doctors even took this so far as to decide that there must be some type of “sixth sense” among gay people so that they would be able to identify “their kind.” This “sixth sense” would lead to the uniting of lesbians, which was more dangerous to the status quo of society than an isolated individual would be. Additionally, a discussion between Jacques, Irene’s fiancé, and the husband of Irene’s lover refers to the two women and their relationship as a “shadow” that would destroy household life.
In essence, “The Captive” represented concepts (any woman could be a lesbian, regardless of what she looked like; men could fail at satisfying women) that threatened the heterosexual order.