In 1913, the New York theatre world was electrified with the presentation of Eugène Brieux’s play, Damaged Goods. While Henrik Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, had referenced sexually transmitted disease, Brieux’s plot featured a main character wrestling with the physical and social ramifications of syphilis after an ill-chosen affair. As with so many of his works, Brieux intended the characters in Damaged Goods to point out social injustice — in this case, the way syphilis could be spread to innocent spouses and children — but the only heroes in the story remain solely the men who also pose the greatest threat. The syphilis bacteria isn’t the real pathogen in the story. Instead, the real threat stems from how the male characters use their intelligence, rendering the women helpless carriers of the disease. The play and the publicity surrounding the piece cast women to the sidelines, but the actual history of the production places women in far more active roles.
The play, and the novel subsequently made of the popular work, focuses on George Dupont, a young man about to be married when he learns that he has contracted syphilis. The doctor treating him prescribes the usual course of medication, but George refuses. While not discussed at length in the play, the treatment for syphilis at the time of the play involved the use of arsenic, and George knows that the required medication will mean the postponement of his engagement. George passionately argues with the doctor that the social ramifications of that decision would paralyze him, and despite the best effort of the doctor to logically convince George of the science behind the disease, George chooses to forego the treatment and continue with his marriage.
George and the doctor represent two sides of the play: the passionate and the logical. Men exhibit these characteristics throughout the play, with the women as the passive receivers of their decisions. George’s young wife, Henriette, is infected with the disease, as is their young daughter, Germaine. George’s decision to follow through with his marriage turns him into the plague that infects his family, something that could have been avoided if he had listened to the other man in the play and relied on science. Without agency, the women of the play — the wife, mother, and mistress — simply trust in the knowledge and decisions of the men in their lives.
Richard Bennett received the most publicity and notoriety as the driving force behind the play and the way it spread knowledge of the disease across the United States. Known as one of the best actors of the time, Bennett publicly took the roles of producer and purveyor of the story, using publicity to make him not only the star, but also the social force behind the play. According to press reports at the time, it was his star power that propelled the play from an obscure reading for the Sociological Fund to a Broadway-bound piece. Upton Sinclair, in his preface to his novelization of the play, describes Bennett as courageous for bringing the subject to the stage. The Kansas City Independent identifies Bennett as the sole interpreter of the work, giving him the credit for bringing the appropriate sincerity and frankness of the play to cities across the United States.
Brieux wrote the role of the doctor to be the voice of reason, and Bennett stepped into the role onstage as the helpless George who realizes the error of his ways and as the offstage crusader for open conversations about syphilis. After the Broadway production, Bennett made it his life’s work to travel through the United States with the play. The tour resulted in more interest, and eventually, Hollywood called. The initial 1914 silent film ushered in the era of exploitation films, becoming one of the first films to present a taboo subject on the screen. But even in the poster for the film, the role of women is apparent: Bennett looks directly out toward the viewer, while the mother casts her eyes downward toward the child. He is the agent who can address the audience, while the woman must keep her eyes focused on the child. This image makes Bennett the activist of the project, the one who will tell the audience the story they need to hear.
While the play itself casts the men as the decision-makers who determine whether to spread or conquer this sexually transmitted disease, much of the publicity surrounding the play at the time of its production similarly places men in control. Brieux, known as a moralizing playwright in his home country of France, found great fame in the United States for his revolutionary, open discussion of issues such as venereal disease, motherhood, and divorce. Though he was passionate about the plight of women, sometimes describing them as living in slave-like conditions, his works nonetheless rarely featured women who take action or make decisions. Yet in the long history of how Damaged Goods made its way to the stage, women led the charge to bring the play and the social issues within it to light. Just as the play reduces women to innocuous players, the women behind the success of Damaged Goods have similarly been relegated to the background.
A cursory look at the historical evidence might indicate that, just as in the play, the men involved with Damaged Goods were the ones controlling how venereal disease would be portrayed in the United States. Curiously, it was a woman who, in fact, brought the play to the attention of the United States. Mrs. Dorothy Baxter, wife of philanthropist George Baxter, first saw the play in Paris, and after returning to the United States in search of a place to produce the play, returned to France specifically to speak to Brieux about the possibility of producing the play. Not only did she convince the men of the importance of the venture, but when established theatre groups refused to produce the play, Dorothy Baxter started the Author’s Producing Society to bring it to the United States. Her single-minded efforts were responsible for bringing the play to an audience.
In this story, men become the force of reason to try to bring a stop to syphilis through a careful understanding of how the disease spreads, treatment options, and the necessity of ignoring societal pressures in order to face syphilis head on. The way the story is crafted, however, makes men the agents of change, the sole actors on society’s stage to change. The publicity surrounding the play reinforces the notion that men must be the activists against venereal disease, with Brieux and Bennett taking the spotlight as the primary storytellers. Even at the time, medical professionals and activists rejected the idea that women couldn’t be in control of their own sexual health. The Sociological Fund, one of the original supporters of the play, heartily affirmed that women had to be active in maintaining their own sexual health, and the Fund believed that women’s rights would lead to a decline in venereal disease. While women might not have the most prominent role in Damaged Goods, the play stands at the moment in history when women began to take a more active role in their sexual health.
Alicia Corts earned her PhD in Theatre and Film Studies from the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on the way gender is encoded in virtual spaces. Her work has been published in Ecumenica and Theatre Journal, as well as in several edited volumes. She currently heads the theatre program at Saint Leo University in Florida.
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