'It Pulsates with Dramatic Power': White Slavery, Popular Culture and Modernity in Australia in 1913

Article excerpt

The play The Warning opened on 22 November 1913 at the Little Theatre on Sydney's Castlereagh Street. Written by Australian playwright 'Henry Basnell', its subject matter--white slavery, or the trade in women for sexual purposes--was sensational. 'It pulsates with dramatic power', declared an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald. (1) Two days later on the other side of the world, a feature-length film also dealing with white slavery, Traffic in Souls, premiered at Joe Weber's Theatre on the corner of 29th and Broadway in New York City.

At first glance it seems to be an uncanny coincidence that simultaneous productions in far-distant cities could share their subject matter so closely. Furthermore, both the Sydney play script and the New York movie (2) deal with similar issues: the proper place of women in the public sphere, the need for women's sexuality to be regulated, and the commodification of women. Both exhibit ambivalent attitudes toward modernity and the city. Underlying these discourses, in each production, were attitudes to race, especially whiteness. How could a Sydney play and a New York film be so similar? In fact, their topic and approach were not unique but were found in a plethora of investigations, newspaper articles, pamphlets, conferences and novels produced in an era of world-wide moral panic about white slavery that began around 1880.

This article will, firstly, outline the historical context of the white slavery panic and, secondly, examine The Warning and Traffic in Souls in order to explore how the language, images and metaphors connected with white slavery contributed to the discourses of modernity, (3) sexuality, gender and whiteness. Finally, because both The Warning and Traffic in Souls are productions of modern, mass-entertainment industries, they offer an opportunity to explore how popular culture forged connections between Australia and the phenomenon of global modernity.

White slavery and moral panic

Although 'Henry Basnell' was named as author of The Warning in the newspaper advertisements, copyright registration documents reveal that the play was written by Wilton and Louise Welch. (4) Wilton Welch directed the production, with his eighteen-year-old wife--as Louise Carbasse--playing the feisty heroine. (5) (Carbasse later found fame as Hollywood star Louise Lovely.) The reason for disguising their authorship of the play is unclear, but tales of subterfuge also surround the genesis of the New York film. According to Terry Ramsaye, Traffic in Souls was made on the sly by George Loan Tucker and Jack Cohn at Universal in New York. (6) They were forbidden to proceed with the project by their boss Carl Laemmle, whose concern was not the film's topic but the cost of the proposed production. Because it was longer than the cheap one- or two-reel comedies Universal had produced up until that time, it was more risky financially. As it turned out, Traffic in Souls was so profitable that its takings underpinned the success of the Universal company (even so, Laemmle persisted with short-film production longer than any other studio head). (7) However, Kevin Brownlow dismisses Ramsaye's tale of the film's secret production, (8) noting that Universal set up a special division to promote the film with a $1,000-per-week national campaign. (9)

Both the film and the play take place in contemporary urban settings and purport to reveal the dangers to women inherent in city life--especially sexual dangers. These anxieties were current for decades in both the United States and Europe. Concerns about the trade in women and girls were expressed as early as 1847, when the British Parliament considered--and then withdrew--a Bill for 'the suppression of trading in seduction and prostitution and the better protection of females'. At the same time, 'certain individuals' who drew attention to themselves by frequently traveling abroad accompanied by small groups of English girls were kept under surveillance by the British Home Office, as it was believed that these girls would end their journeys in European bordellos. …