Starring Rob Campbell, Dana Eskelson, Ronete Levenson and Elisabeth Waterston
THE SHANGHAI GESTURE was first given to Mirror Repertory Company in 1985 by the late actress Geraldine Page, who was interested in the legendary role of Mother Goddam, a part so coveted by Bette Davis that she entitled her autobiography by that name. It takes place in China in the roaring twenties when Shanghai was a truly cosmopolitan city filled with Russian refugees, its people exploited by opium traders and adventurers from all over Europe and Great Britain, and visited by American entrepreneurs. Played by Tina Chen, Mother Goddam is a Manchu princess shamed and discarded by an aristocratic English merchant and sold into sex slavery who can never return to her home. A survivor, she has risen to great power and reputation within a complex society where she runs an elegant brothel frequented by governors, mandarins, and princes who chose amongst women who are beautiful and tastefully dressed. Tonight there is great excitement, for she is having a dinner party – and society folk, the British and other European aristocrats and their wives are coming to dinner. What transpires during the dinner is hypnotic, humorous, erotic, terrifying, shocking, surprising, sad, and utterly fascinating. Many secrets – those of each guest – are revealed, and the ultimate secrets – those of Sir Guy Charteris – literally change lives. Even Mother Goddam must face an unanticipated revelation of a secret of her own.
Unlike Madame Butterfly, Mother Goddam chooses not to view herself as a victim. Instead she outwits and punishes her male oppressors. This single fact made this play (produced so soon after women had gotten the vote) a great favorite with female audiences as well and it was taken up as a popular feminist tract. It played the Martin Beck (now the Hirschfeld) for an extraordinary 210 performances and then moved to the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) where it continued to play for many months more.
John Colton was the author of the equally long-running Rain which starred Jeanne Eagels and which was an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s short story, Miss Sadie Thompson. Colton wrote THE SHANGHAI GESTURE from personal experience during his Grand Tour of the Orient following his matriculation from Oxford. A classicist, he wrote THE SHANGHAI GESTURE to take place within twenty-four hours, and intended it to be a serious tragedy. To his surprise, a post Victorian world was shocked by the open sexuality and a strong plot in which a woman defeated a powerful, educated man, and critics of the time reacted in a variety of ways. Some, like the famed Alexander Wolcott and the popular Walter Winchell responded with acclaim, and some, like the esteemed Brooks Atkinson, with grudging admiration, but audiences loved THE SHANGHAI GESTURE and kept it running for three years and many more on the road.