So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Shanghai Gesture: A Play by John Colton

The Shanghai Gesture: A Play by John Colton

I became interested in this play after watching the 1941 movie of the same name that was adapted from it. To get the movie past the Hollywood censors many changes had to be made to the story and I wanted to see what the original 1918 play was about. Fortunately my local university library has a copy.

Here are some excerpts from a review of a 2009 production of this play.

"Written in 1918 and last produced in New York on Broadway in l926 The Shanghai Gesture is a 100-year-old historic American play that has always been controversial for its bold confrontation of still-relevant issues."

"The Shanghai Gesture confronts issues of women's rights, the sex trade, child abuse/slavery, and what happens when one country imposes its culture upon another."

"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. 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."

To read the whole review go to

There is not a lot to add to a review like that. In the book's introduction, John D. Williams talks about the significance of the title. The verb "shanghai" as in "to be shanghaied" originally meant to kidnap or force someone to work on a ship by drugging them. It is not much used these days but it came to take on the more general meaning of being coerced into doing something against your will.

From this comes the gesture that some know as the Shanghai Gesture. We all have seen it at one time or another. In the UK they call it "cocking a snook." Williams describes how it is made. "Place the fingers of your right hand extended. Distend the thumb of your right hand until it touches your nose. The little finger of your right hand is stretched venomously toward the world. You say nothing but you think much, and that is that." He goes on to say: "When the world puts its heel on a derelict, when life is just a little too hard, when a man is marooned, by parents or otherwise, before he has a chance to plead, he is wont to accept his condition -- if there is no way out -- but he only accepts his fate after making the Shanghai Gesture." It has a long history. The gesture can be seen in The Festival of Fools, a print made in 1560 by artist Pieter Bruegel (the elder). This may explain why a fool is pictured on the cover of Gary Indiana's 2009 novel The Shanghai Gesture.


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