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Sex for Sale: Six Progressive-Era Brothel Dramas
by Katie N. Johnson
University of Iowa Press, 2015
Paper: 978-1-60938-313-8 | eISBN: 978-1-60938-314-5
Library of Congress Classification PS627.P76S49 2015
Dewey Decimal Classification 812.5209355

In early twentieth-century U.S. culture, sex sold.  While known mainly for its social reforms, the Progressive Era was also obsessed with prostitution, sexuality, and the staging of women’s changing roles in the modern era. By the 1910s, plays about prostitution (or “brothel dramas”) had inundated Broadway, where they sometimes became long-running hits and other times sparked fiery obscenity debates. In Sex for Sale, Katie N. Johnson recovers six of these plays, presenting them with astute cultural analysis, photographs, and production histories. The result is a new history of U.S. theatre that reveals the brothel drama’s crucial role in shaping attitudes toward sexuality, birth control, immigration, urbanization, and women’s work.

The volume includes the work of major figures including Eugene O’Neill, John Reed, Rachel Crothers, and Elizabeth Robins. Now largely forgotten and some previously unpublished, these plays were among the most celebrated and debated productions of their day.  Together, their portrayals of commercialized vice, drug addiction, poverty, white slavery, and interracial desire reveal the Progressive Era’s fascination with the underworld and the theatre’s power to regulate sexuality.  Additional plays, commentary, and teaching materials are available at
Plays included:
Ourselves (1913) by Rachel Crothers
The Web (1913) by Eugene O’Neill
My Little Sister (1913) by Elizabeth Robins
Moondown (1915) by John Reed
Cocaine (1916) by Pendleton King
A Shanghai Cinderella (renamed East is West, 1918) by Samuel Shipman and John B. Hymer

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