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.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Nexus: Int'l Henry Miller Journal - Vol. 7

This year’s journal issue of Nexus is now available for sale. To celebrate their seventh year, they are selling copies for just $7 post-paid (this offer is available only to those in the United States and Canada). The 188-page journal may be purchased from their website.

Here’s the breakdown:

Four Letters from Henry Miller to George Orwell
(Henry Miller)
In this series of four transcriptions of letters written by Miller to “Eric Blair” (Orwell’s real name) from 1936-1938, we see both the similarities and distinct differences between the two men. Miller starts off by commending Orwell for his Down and Out in Paris and London, in which Miller finds a parallel to his own life in Paris, and offers a few insightful comparisons. However, Miller also criticizes Orwell’s political views and offers his own philosophy about the human condition, literature and surrealism. We understand from Miller’s side of the correspondence that Orwell, in his letters, has critiqued Black Spring and has been in contact with Jack Kahane. The last letter, written in April 1938, contains health advice to Orwell, who was in a sanatorium with an illness.

Miller, writing from his home at 18 Villa Seurat, would receive Orwell as a guest just weeks after the third letter in October 1936. This series of letters is essential reading for understanding the bonds and divides that would have informed their conversation during that Paris visit in December 1936, just before Orwell continued on to fight in the Spanish civil war.

Reveries of a Solitary Old Man and His Angels – Henry Miller’s Unknown Book and His Encounter with the Magician, Joseph Delteil
(Karl Orend)
In 1975, Miller wrote one of his most obscure books, Je ne suis pas plus con qu’un autre. Written completely in Henry’s imperfect French, he insisted that it never receive an English translation. In this essay, Karl Orend doesn’t merely talk about this book; he goes deep into a lifetime of influences and inspirations, as if Henry is reflecting upon them as an elderly man in 1975, tucked away at his Pacific Palisades home on Ocampo Drive. Some of these accounts are directly related to the writing of the French book: Sylvie Crossman, who suggested he write it; Miller’s earliest exposure to and efforts to speak the French language; and a biography of the relationship between Miller and Joseph Delteil, drawn from decades of their correspondences (Miller quoted Delteil in Je ne suis pas). But, like a reverie, there is a lot of room for free association. The narrative swims from Frank Harris to Renate Gerhardt, spirituality to music, and numerous references to books and authors, always ebbing back to Miller in 1975, reflecting on his life. Chock full of fascinating detail.

Henry Miller and the Celebration of Loss
(Natalija Bonic)
Belgium-based philosopher Natalija Bonic explores Miller’s apparent jubilation at the prospect of human destruction in his earlier novels, especially Tropic of Cancer, where personal loss perplexingly elicits joy. For comparison, Bonic looks to the Greek tragedies and the concept of seasonal solstice, from which we may understand the reversal of expectation in the face of loss. In chaos, we are both liberated and shattered as the standard social boundaries come down. Bonic analyzes three techniques by which Miller sought to disrupt order and generate chaos: by “highlighting the trivial and rejected, flattening the standard perspective, and ‘becoming inhuman.’"

Acceptance and Compassion in Henry Miller’s Book of Friends
(Eric D. Lehman)
Miller’s late-life Book of Friends seems at odds with the celebration of the “destruction of values” that appeared to be his agenda in his earlier books. Against this presumption, Eric D. Lehman questions the critics and contemplates the values of Miller’s anarchist position, which was actually less about total nihilism and more a longing for freedom defined by mutually-supportive compassion. Rather than minimalize the nostalgia and sentimentality that is present in Friends, Lehman takes a deeper look at Miller’s efforts to defend the values of human connection, which involve the acceptance of others as individuals.

Henry Miller’s Paris Guidebooks
(Kreg Wallace)
Kreg Wallace, who runs the excellent Miller Walks blog, contributes this essay about two Paris guidebooks that Miller had used to enrich his discovery of Paris in the 1930s: The Stones of Paris in History and Letters (Benjamin and Charlotte Martin) and The Paris of the Novelists (Arthur B. Maurice). Beyond merely directing Miller to various points of interest, these guidebooks offered descriptions that were quoted and even lifted by Miller in Tropic of Cancer.

Teach as You Like and Die Happy: Henry Miller as High School Curriculum
(Douglas Matus)

Matus, a (former?) teacher in Texas, makes a case for adding Henry Miller to the American high school curriculum. Although the educational overseers may take exception to Miller’s more “obscene” and therefore unsuitable phrasings, there is still value in teaching Miller in excerpts. With Miller’s “bio as the bait”--students often identiy with his ethic of rebellion--his writing is able to reach young people and allow a chance to reveal its true value. Once connected to Miller’s voice, students learn from the history and American literature that Miller often references, or is reference to. The hope here is to engage young students with literature they find exciting, and to develop the “critical faculties of the teenage mind.”

A Birthday Party for Henry
(Harry Kiakis)

Continuing a Nexus Journal tradition, we have another instalment from the personal journals of Harry Kiakis, who knew Miller late in the author’s life. Here, we are at a surprise party for Henry’s birthday on December 26, 1968. Kiakis documents the day, making observations about the event’s many guests, including Hoki [plus her parents, and friend, Puko], Gerald and Diane Robitaille, Henry’s doctor (Dr. Siegel), Bronislaw Kaper, Lisa Lu, Robert Snyder, Allegra Snyder Fuller, Jakob Gimpel, Joe Gray, Bradley Smith, Sydney Omarr, Michael York, and Riko (of 669 Gallery).

Crossing Brooklyn Bridge: An Ekphrastic Correspondence between Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and Henry Miller
(Katy Masuga)
As someone way smarter than me has summarized on Wikipedia, “‘Ekphrasis’ or ecphrasis is the graphic, often dramatic description of a visual work of art.” In this in-depth essay, Katy Masuga uses the Brooklyn Bridge as a central object and concept that binds together the writers Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and Henry Miller in a complex way; abstract yet imtimate at the same time. While Whitman is, by decades, the literary precursor of both Miller and Crane, the three men share a sort of call and response dialogue in their writings about the Brooklyn Bridge: a conversation that transcends time and space, and leaves an impressionistic legacy on the culture’s collective imagination.

June’s Arizona Grave
(Randy Chase)

Some dude writes about June Mansfield’s grave in Arizona, comparing known details of her life to the evidence provided by her tombstone.

Henry Miller: The Author as Artist
(Magnus Grehn)
This brief article details the facts about a recent exhibit of Miller’s watercolours in Sweden, at the Uppsala Art Museum. These works are from the same collection of 21 watercolours that had been displayed in Miller’s first Swedish exhibition in 1967, and had been purchased and housed in Sweden ever since.

June/Nadja: Symbolic Sisters in Arms?
(Michael Jones)
The title character in Andre Breton’s Nadja seems to share affinities with Miller’s wife June. Both women share an “aura of mystery, danger and sexual promise,” both were born in 1902, and both wanted to become actresses. The fact that Miller lists Nadja as one of the influential Books in my Life brings relevance to these parallels, since Nadja was published in 1928, when Miller was then in the thick of things with June as part of his life. In this essay, Jones compares physical descriptions, personality traits and the madness behind the masks of these two tragic muses.

Finding the Feminine: Rethinking Henry Miller’s Tropics Trilogy
(Allison Palumbo)

Henry Miller’s branding by second-wave feminists as “misogynist” has somehow left Miller “on the fringes of scholastic attention.” Now, in 2010, Allison Palumbo uses feminist theory to re-examine the value of Miller’s work, arguing that his subversion of dominant culture to champion individual expression actually reflects feminist interest. Much of her analysis is based on Hélène Cixious’ concept of écriture féminine, which allows for Miller’s expression of the masculine, while it also appreciates the fact that this masculinity is not presented as a position of privilege, but instead undermines phallocentric constraints. To come to this conclusion, Palumbo analyzes Miller’s writings on the body and on the self in his Tropics trilogy.

Again, this particular volume is only $7 (compared to the usual $20). Get it at the Nexus Journal website,