Saturday, June 26, 2010

Henry & June: 'Captive' Audience

On February 9, 1927, New York City police raided three theatres in a crackdown on Broadway’s spate of recent “obscene” performances [1] [2] [3]. One was bluntly titled Sex, which starred Mae West. Another, The Captive, riled the defenders of conservative intolerance, for its frank portrayal of “deviant” lesbian lust [4]. Approximately 8-10 weeks earlier, the play had been attended by Henry Miller, June Mansfield and Jean Kronski.

Although there’s a trivial aspect to this posting about the Millers attending The Captive, I think there’s more to it. First, the event helps us confirm the time period presented in Miller’s Nexus. Secondly, the themes of the play seem to resonate with Miller’s own life at the time: a man marries a woman who is obsessed with another woman, with the end result being that the man becomes an outsider in this ménage.

French playwright Edouard Bourdet saw his play, La Prisonnière, produced in 1926, when it opened in Paris on March 26th. It would also be staged in Berlin and London. [5]

The plot involves a 20-something woman named Irene, who develops an infatuation with a married woman, Madame d’Aiguines. When her father insists that she join the family in a relocation to Rome, Irene manages to stay in Paris by convincing a male friend, Jacques (who is in love with her), to pretend they are engaged to be married. When Jacques learns the real reason for Irene’s ruse, and drama ensues, Irene, seemingly afraid of her own passions, asks Jacques to “save” her by marrying her. He does. Irene tries to put on a mask of the perfect heterosexual housewife, and stops visiting Madame d’Aiguines. But, after a year in a sexless marriage, Jacques gets fed up and leaves Irene for a mistress, while, at the same time, Irene gets called for by her female love. The third act ends with Irene and Jacques both going off to unknown fates in pursuit of their own passions. [6] [7].

Buzz about the play reached overseas, and an American production was sought. The man hired to adapt it was Arthur Hornblow Jr (the future Mr. Myrna Loy) [8]. The title was changed to The Captive.

The American adaptation, The Captive, opened at the Empire Theatre in New York City on September 29, 1926—just six months after its Paris debut [9]. It starred actress Helen Menken as Irene (at the time Henry Miller saw her on stage, she’d been married to Humphrey Bogart for six months [10]). Her stage husband, Jacques, was played by Basil Rathbone [2]. The early reviews by New York theatre critics were filled with praise that carefully avoided the “L” word [11]. There were standing-room only shows during the first seventeen weeks of performance [12].

Promotional photograph from the New York production of The Captive, 1926. Source.


“It’s a French play. Everybody’s talking about it,” says Mona (June) in Henry Miller’s Nexus (p.59). She mentions The Captive in order to change the subject of Stasia’s planned abortion for a foetus she is unaware she is not actually carrying. Mona and Stasia have plans to see the play “shortly,” and invite Henry to come along “if I wished” (p.59 – see 59.2). A few pages later, Miller writes that he went to see the play by himself, “without letting them know” (p.63).

So far in my Nexus annotation project, I’ve established that the first 70 pages or so take place in November-December 1926: I base this on, a) the majority of events (after page 75) clearly take place in 1927; b) on page 65, it is declared that “Christmas is nigh,” followed by a Christmas dinner scene (and onward, of course, into the new year, 1927); and, c) that there is some snow on page 9, so it must be at least November [or a freakish October.] That Miller goes to see The Captive just two pages before stating that Christmas is on its way, I would suggest he attend the play in late November or early December. The established opening and closing dates of The Captive (Sept 1926 – Feb 1927 [9]) fall in line exactly with the Nexus timeline.


A week later, Mona and Stasia (June and Jean) see the play, still unaware that Miller had already seen it. The two women “return[ed] with violets and full of song” (p.63). Miller still doesn’t mention that he’d seen it; maybe he was unaware where they’d been.

Then, “one evening,” the three of them are at a Greek restaurant, when Mona and Stasia “spill the beans” about having seen The Captive: they tell Henry “what a wonderful play it was and how I ought to see it some time, maybe it would enlarge my ideas” (p.63). Miller responds by revealing that he had seen it a week earlier. “Whereupon a discussion began as to the merits of the play, capped by a battle royal because I failed to see eye to eye with them, because I interpreted everything in a prosaic, vulgar way” (p.63).


In the middle of this argument, Henry pulls out a love letter he’d found, from June to Jean (see Annotated Nexus 61.4). The two women scream with outrage, and the unhappy trio are asked to leave the restaurant. The timing of Henry’s 'Exhibit A' is interesting, because it’s almost as if, in talking about it, he became a player in The Captive, dealing with the same dilemma as Jacques.

In Act I of The Captive, Madame d’Aiguines’ husband (who knows his wife is a lesbian) gives a warning speech to Jacques about Irene. He may as well have been giving his paranoid speech to Henry about Stasia and Mona: “[S]he ransacks everything before the man whose home is being destroyed sees what is happening. By the time he realizes it, it is too late, he is alone! Alone, facing the secret alliance of two beings who understand one another, who divine each other’s wishes, because they are alike, because they are of the same sex, from a different planet than him, the foreigner, the enemy.” [13]

In the next scene (after the Greek restaurant), Henry and June are having some alone-time, without Stasia. When they find themselves in a long-overdue romantic moment, Henry thinks: “A full dress rehearsal, that’s what it was. Tomorrow we would play our parts—to a packed house” (p.64). This theatre reference, so close to the Captive scene, suggests to me that Miller is making a link.

In Miller’s notes for Nexus (c. 1945-1950s), he jots down “The Captive,” as a plot marker on a list of other scenes found in this section of the novel. To me, this means that he wanted The Captive to be more significant to the narrative that a simple incidental reference.

Excerpt from Miller's Schema For Nexus (Full document at PBA Galleries)


The Captive links continue. Earlier, Miller had mentioned that Mona and Stasia came home from the play carrying violets. In The Captive, violets are a symbolic device used to represent Madame d’Aiguines (who is never seen onstage) and, I assume, lesbianism. In Act I, Irene receives a bouquet of violets from d’Aiguines, just as a box of delivered violets is a catalyst for her running off at the end of Act III. Irene wears violets in between these acts. Miller, then, is suggesting that Mona and Stasia saw the play and, echoing the lesbian themes portrayed in the play, bought themselves violets in honour of their feelings for each other. Violets as a lesbian symbol go back to the poems of Sappho; but their usage in this 1926/1927 run of The Captive turned them into the Western cultural symbol they’ve apparently become [14]. (The extent to which June and/or Jean were or were not actually lesbians is a subject for discussion some other time.)

After Henry and June’s romantic date (mentioned earlier), he is dismayed to return home to see that a huge bouquet of violets have been placed in a vase by Stasia, on a table set for three. “Their presence seemed to outweigh all the words which had passed between us.” The message they represent, he thinks, depressively, is “love is something which must be shared” (p.65).

In fact, Miller’s use of violets in Nexus, goes beyond lesbian symbolism; he seems to have branded them as markers of Love in general, or perhaps, June’s love in particular. When Mona stands him up earlier on, he throws his gift of unclaimed violets away (57); after a fight, Mona brings Henry some violets as a “peace offering” (55); later, just before making love, Mona asks Henry to buy her some violets the next day (152). But when he returns with the violets the next day, all he find is a note: Mona and Stasia have run away to Paris together (153). (Stasia, in Plexus (587), is described as having “violet-blue eyes”; I’m not sure whether that is significant or not, i.e. Stasia has eyes for Mona).


In Crazy Cock (which parallels the action portrayed in Nexus, but in a more fictionalized way), a theatre show (unnamed) and the violets also make an appearance. On page 81, June (known in the novel as Hildred), receives the two theatre tickets from a customer; her theatre companion is Vanya (Jean Kronski, as she’s called in Crazy Cock). Just as in Nexus, June comes back home with a bouquet of violets. Henry (called Tony Bring in the novel) is suspicious about the source of the violets. June tells him they’re from a Spanish admirer, but Henry doesn’t believe her. He visits a flower shop near the Pepper Pot, where he assumes she usually buys her own violets. The Greek shop owner confirms that two women fitting June and Jean’s descriptions bought the violets. Violets don't play much of a role beyond this in Crazy Cock.


Approximately 8-10 weeks later, The Captive was shut down. Basil Rathbone describes the scene: “As we walked out onto the stage to await our first entrances we were stopped by a plainclothes policeman who showed his badge and said, 'Please don't let it disturb your performance tonight but consider yourself under arrest!' At the close of the play the cast were all ordered to dress and stand by to be escorted in police cars to a night court" [12]. The theatre had to refund $80,000 worth of tickets [15]. The resulting court ruling about “deviant” female sexuality in the public sphere leads to a statute amendment against plays depicting "sex degeneracy" and "sex perversion." [4] The direction of laws such as these will not be of much help to Miller in his future career as an author.

The old lesbian photo in the left side of the banner art is NOT from the play: it’s vintage erotica. But the photo on the right of the banner is from the play.



[1] GLBTQ; [2] The Captive; [3] “Police Raid Three Shows, Sex, Captives, And Virgin Man.” New York Times, Feb. 10, 1927; online; [4] Taylor, Leslie A. "I Made Up My Mind to Get It": The American Trial of The Well of Loneliness, New York City, 1928-29.” Journal of the History of Sexuality - Volume 10, Number 2, April 2001, pp. 250-286; [5] Tamagne, Florence. A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris, 1919-1939. Algora Publishing, 2006; p.196-197; [6] Houchin, John H. Censorship of the American theatre in the twentieth century. Cambridge University Press, 2003: p.95-99; [7] Inness, Sherrie A. The Lesbian Menace. U. Of Mass. Press, 1997: p.25; [8] Internet Broadway Database; [9] Internet Broadway Database; [10] Wikipedia: Helen Menken; [11] Hamilton, Marybeth. When I’m Bad, I’m Better: Mae West, Sex and American Entertainment. O. of California Press, 1997; p.57; [12] Rathbone, Basil. In and Out of Character. Limelight Editions, 1997; pp.101-103; [13] Tamagne, Florence. A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris, 1919-1939. Algora Publishing, 2006; p.196-197; [14] (PDF) William Percy; [15] Curtain, Kaier. We can always call them Bulgarians: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage. Alyson Publication, 1987; p.59.


Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

Fascinating stuff.

10:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great stuff RC

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Anonymous Kreg said...

This is a great post, RC. The violet symbolism is quite interesting and I never would have picked up on it. I wonder if the La Prisonniere play was an adaptation of Proust's novel of the same name, published in 1923. Proust's stuff also has a homosexual love theme and in the movie version of Henry and June, Henry borrows a copy of Proust's La Prisonniere from Anais Nin when they first meet.

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