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Contribution by Martin Butler
One of the more bizarre episodes in the afterlife of Volpone happened in April 1928, when the Theatre Guild production of Stefan Zweig's adaptation (translated by Ruth Langner) was investigated by the New York District Attorney. He was responding to a complaint by the theatrical producers Lee Shubert and J. J. Shubert, who had laid objections against Volpone and Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, which was being performed concurrently by the same company. These, claimed the Shuberts, violated the Wales Padlock Law against objectionable plays. Strange Interlude offended against decency as it had a sex appeal which does not help to mold the mind of the young girl. Where the dangers of Volpone lay was not specified.
The Wales Padlock Law was enacted in 1927 in response to a moral panic over New York's theatres, in which sexualized themes such as homosexuality, lesbianism, and transvestism had become endemic. The highest profile offender had been Mae West, who was jailed in 1926 for the play Sex, which she wrote and starred in. Under the new measure (not rescinded until 1967), the producer and actors of any offensive play in New York risked arrest, and the playhouse could lose its licence for a year. The furore over Strange Interlude would be repeated in 1929, when performances in Boston were banned.
In the case of Volpone, there was a strong suspicion that the real motive for complaint was commercial, as the Theatre Guild had recently moved their road bookings from the Shuberts to a competitor, and the Shuberts may have been taking their revenge. A week later, after his assistant had visited both plays, the District Attorney decided that although the texts of Volpone and Strange Interlude each contained coarse lines, these were omitted from the versions currently being staged. It would be a splendid idea, said the District Attorney, if producers who wish to revive a classic play would have regard for the taste of the public and not try to offend good taste. Nonetheless, even in Zweig's racy version, Volpone did not corrupt the morals of youth. It must be a relief to all Jonsonians to have this confirmed on legal authority.
(Quotations from The New York Times, 25 April 1928, p. 31, and 2 May 1928, p. 16)Share on Twitter Share on Facebook