Still from a performance of The Captive found on The Great Baz

Edouard Bourdet’s Lesbian Play, ‘The Captive’, Was Certainly Captive of its Time

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home isn't the first lesbian themed work of art to garner acclaim and controversy; 90 years ago, The Captive set the precedent.

When Fun Home walked away with this year’s Tony Award for Best Musical, it became the first musical about a lesbian to win the award. Granted, it’s not like dozen of previous lesbian musicals had been up for the award, only to lose to the latest Hal Prince or Andrew Lloyd Weber uber-musical. Still, the Tony’s haven’t shied away from supporting LGBT works of art, giving its top musical or play award to works about gay men (La Cage Aux Folles, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Torch Song Trilogy, Angels in America, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Take Me Out) and trans men (Kinky Boots, M. Butterfly, I Am My Own Wife), but lesbians haven’t really gotten a strong foothold in the theater world.

This is why the musical version of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name is so ground-breaking. Not only did it walk off with a slew of Tony Awards, it also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Obie Award, Drama Desk Award, Drama League Award, Outer Critic Circle Award, Off Broadway Alliance Award, and Lucille Lortel Award, and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, which raises the question: who knew there were so many darn awards for theater?

Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel is no stranger to praise, however. The autobiographical novel, which details through flashbacks and time-jumps Bechdel’s relationship with her closeted father, was the first graphic novel to be a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. According to The New York Times‘ Sean Wilsey, “it is a pioneering work, pushing two genres (comics and memoir) in multiple new directions, with panels that combine the detail and technical proficiency of R. Crumb with a seriousness, emotional complexity and innovation completely its own.” (“The Things They Buried”, 18 June 2006) Since its publication, Fun Home has been subjected to scholarly study in such journals as CameraObscura, European Journal of English Studies, Journal of Modern Literature, and Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, among others, and it has been studied in university literature and queer study courses.

It’s this latest fact that has thrust Fun Home into the spotlight again, as a handful of students at Duke University refused to read the novel after it was placed on the university’s summer reading list. The students objected to the “homosexual themes” of the novel, which suggests that the students would do well to withdraw from Duke and enroll at Oral Roberts University, where their microcosmic and homophobic world views aren’t likely to be challenged or expanded. While their refusal sets a dangerous precedent (when do we let students start setting the curriculum?), it also shows how great works of art with LGBT themes can still be controversial, despite the growing acceptance of LGBT individuals by Western societies.

Had a story such as Fun Home premiered decades ago, it would be much easier to understand the mainstream’s social discomfort with it. While we look at Fun Home and celebrate it as “ground-breaking”, it isn’t the first lesbian themed theatre piece to enjoy both immense success and controversy simultaneously. Certainly, that was the experience of Edouard Bourdet when his play The Captive premiered on Broadway in 1926. Despite a successful run, it was closed after its cast was arrested by New York City police for being immoral.

Among those arrested were Helen Menken, in a star-making role, and future Oscar nominee (and the Sherlock Holmes pre-Benedict) Basil Rathbone. As Rathbone recalled in his autobiography, In and Out of Character, he noticed “an unusual number of people outside and more policemen than I had ever seen anywhere at one time in New York… 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.” Years later, Rathbone was still angered by the play’s closing, referring to it in his autobiography as a “cold-blooded unscrupulous sabotage of an important contemporary work of art”. (qtd. on “Basil Rathbone: The Captive“)

What had raised the ire of local politicians was The Captive‘s storyline of a young woman trying to squash the love she has for another woman by marrying a man she doesn’t love, but who is madly in love with her. Unfortunately, the play appeared at the same time as several other shows on Broadway that featured homosexuality or open sexuality in some form, including Mae West’s The Drag, and local officials felt pressure from prominent journalists to stop the wave of “indecency” creeping into the New York theatre scene. In an effort to prevent convictions against any of those involved in the show, producers of The Captive agreed to close the show immediately and charges against those arrested were dropped.

The play tells the story of Irene, a young woman who rejects the idea of traveling from Paris to Rome with her father, explaining to him that she is in love with Jacques and must stay behind to be with him. Although he knows that Irene doesn’t love him, Jacques agrees to play along with the ruse, in hopes of being close to Irene. Eventually, he learns that Irene doesn’t return his affection because she is having an affair with Madame Aiguines, the real reason she refuses to travel to Rome. When he confronts Irene with the truth, she pleads with him to save her, telling him, “I know, I must seem crazy. Well, I am crazy! You’ve got to treat me like a crazy person — a sick person — and take care of me, that’s all. If you don’t come to my rescue right away — it will be too late!” (The Captive qtd in Forbidden Acts: Pioneering Gay & Lesbian Plays of the Twentieth Century, Benjamin A. Hodges, ed. 2003) The marriage is unsuccessful, however, and Irene returns to Madame Aiguines. In the end, the two women agree that they can’t one another, and part with an offering to one another of violets as a symbol of their love.

J. Brooks Atkinson, the premiere theatre critic of the day, gave the play a stellar review in The New York Times, noting Bourdet’s “crisp economical playwriting”. Atkinson didn’t seem bothered by the lesbian aspect of the play: “Although, as the reader will soon discover, the occasional for The Captive is the fact of an abnormal relationship between two women, the interest is solely in the revelation of character. M. Bourdet has described his people as ordinary well-bred human beings, whatever their failings may be.” (qtd. in Forbidden Acts). However, legendary theatre critic George Jean Nathan called The Captive “the most suggestive, corruptive, and potentially evil fraught play ever shown in the American theater… a documentary in favor of sex degeneracy.” (qtd. in Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century, Alan Sinfield. 1999)

Despite the disagreement among critics, The Captive played to packed houses for a 17-week run before police shut it down, and Rathbone believed that the show would have continued on for a much longer run, if allowed. Not only did the arrests send a loud and clear message to theater producers to focus on wholesome fare, it destroyed the sales of violets, the backbone of the floral industry in those days. According to Out on Stage, the play was also banned in London, but enjoyed successful runs in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Vienna, Holland, and Switzerland. As of now, it has yet to be reproduced on the New York stage.

It’s been 89 years since The Captive opened on Broadway, and in the years since, society’s reaction to LGBT artistic works has grown increasingly accepting. Nonetheless, the protests at Duke University show that there are still pockets of society that find LGBT works objectionable. While the students at Duke have garnered the most attention, Fun Home‘s inclusion in the curriculum has also received complaints at the University of Utah, Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, California, and the College of Charleston in South Carolina. The last incident inspired legislators to propose cutting the university’s funding for their summer reading program, although participation in the program was voluntary and groups as wide-ranging as the ACLU, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the American Association of University Professors opposed the cuts, which were eventually defeated.

Although The Captive‘s view of lesbianism is antiquated by modern standards, it still holds an important place in the history of lesbian theater. Contemporary works such as Fun Home — both the novel and the musical — can enter the mainstream today because works like The Captive proved that, even a century ago, there was an audience willing to engage in exceptional storytelling, even if the subject matter was foreign to their own experiences.