Saturday, January 7, 2012
THE SHANGHAI GESTURE by John Colton
It was actually a rather controversial play back in 1918, with protests from the Chinese embassy and accusations of morbid racism. It criticizes Western imperialism in Asia, and tackles taboo subjects like prostitution, addiction, and racial mixing. A scene of a white girl being auctioned off as a sex slave to lascivious Chinese coolies is something out of a Sax Rohmer novel.
Mother God Damn is the madame of the biggest brothel in Shanghai, as well as the keeper of the secrets of the city's western aristocrats. Her secretary is a bankrupt Englishman, working off gambling debts. She's planning a lavish dinner party in celebration of the Chinese New Year, and invited the cream of Shanghai's western ambassadors and businessmen, none of whom dare to refuse. It's all part of a huge scheme of revenge against the arrogant Sir Guy Charteris, who struts in hoping to make Mother God Damn his mistress. Also showing up are Prince Oshima, a dissolute Japanese diplomat, and Poppy, his English girlfriend, a well-dressed hoyden who's a self-dubbed nymphomaniac as well as an alcoholic and drug addict.
In the decadent atmosphere of the brothel, all sorts of plots and counterplots unfold. It's ripe melodrama with touches of Greek tragedy, but it's so trashy by modern standards, like an overproduced and underthought Lifetime TV movie. The attitudes toward race and racial cross-breeding are horribly quaint and outdated, and it's also ruthlessly classist.
The play is rarely produced, with good reason; unless done as overheated camp melodrama, there's really no place for it today. (It was revived by the Mirror Repertory Company in 2009, to mixed reviews, but actually featured an Asian actress playing Mother God Damn for the first time. The picture at top is from that production.) Also, the stage directions call for huge and lavish sets, something most companies would balk at or just make do with minimalist substitutions. The Shanghai Gesture is regarded as something of a minor classic of the theater, but upon reading it I'd guess that its reputation is more about notoriety than actual quality.
If someone ever mounts a production of this, I'd enjoy seeing it (if I can get to it). The play can be a little hard to find; I borrowed a dusty copy from the Pratt library in Baltimore, and checking on Abebooks shows copies available from $50 to $99. Read it if you can find it, but don't expect much from it. It's an amusing relic, little more.