‘A boy’s best friend is his mother,’ goes the old song, which couldn’t be an apter opening to Rob George’s play Percy and Rose, written for the centenary of the celebrated Australian composer and concert pianist Percy Grainger (1882-1961), known to his friends as ‘Perks’ and best known to posterity for his modern arrangements of traditional folk songs like ‘An English Country Garden’ and ‘Danny Boy’.
The action centers on his uncommonly close, peculiar relationship with his mother Rose, who raised him on a literary diet of Scandinavian folk tales that gave him romantic ideas about Nordic warriors and a fixation on the interconnectedness of pleasure and pain.
Rose is both proud and ashamed of her son: proud of his talents, ashamed of his kink. The first half of the play, which takes place while they are living in London, deals at length with her efforts to bring him back to sexual ‘normality’ by introducing him to a pretty young lady, Margot Harrison, as his live-in piano pupil and then prospective bride. ‘A mother cannot be a wife as well,’ she tells him. ‘You should be married, then perhaps you would not have these strange sexual tastes.’
This leaves Percy with a problem: how to explain those unconventional tastes to a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth English girl who thinks butter wouldn’t melt in his either. The tastes? ‘I get a lot of pleasure out of pain,’ he tells a friend:
‘A man has to have the strength to tie the woman down, to stop her running away and he has to whip her to stop her giggling, just as a stallion sinks his teeth into the mare’s neck as he mounts her. All of my sexual pleasure comes out of this cruel joy. … To see red welts on white skin. I love the sight of white, pure, full breasts and yet all I wont to do is to whip, burn, slash and desecrate them. Do you find that strange?’
Rose is Percy’s central focus, but she is determined to be supplanted by Margot: ‘My role in his life will be over. I will be like a schoolteacher handing over her class to the next grade.’ Percy, on the other hand, believes that only his mother can love him, and sees a wife as merely the object of his lust. And so, halfway through the play, he introduces Margot to his kink:
PERCY: Would you raise your skirts so that I might look at you?
(Margot withdraws with mock horror.)
MARGOT: Why, Percy Grainger!
(She demurely shows a bit of ankle.)
PERCY: No, higher than that.
(Her skirts are raised to her knees.)
PERCY: I want to see the tender, white, full flesh of your thighs.
(She holds her skirts to her waist. Percy admires them.)
PERCY: Yes, they are very nice, like purest silk. Now bend over.
Margot is curious: is he trying to make her a better pianist, she asks.
PERCY: No, a better lover.
(She bends over.)
PERCY: Support yourself on the piano.
MARGOT: What is that for?
PERCY: Just do as you are told. Now I want to see your bum.
(Margot is getting a bit worried.)
MARGOT: But Perks, what if Rose should…?
PERCY: She won’t.
(She raises her skirts over her waist again.)
PERCY: Are you comfortable?
MARGOT: Oh, yes, as comfortable as can be…
PERCY: I said I wanted to see your bum.
(He wrenches her bloomers down. Margot is surprised.)
PERCY: Don’t move.
MARGOT: Can we not go to your bedroom?
(He ignores her as he admires her bum.)
PERCY: Your bum is so white, so clear, so unmarked.
MARGOT: Why should it be otherwise?
PERCY: You know, you are not progressing as well with your music as you should.
MARGOT: I don’t get time to practice.
PERCY: You must be punished.
(Margot laughs and turns to put her arms around his neck.)
MARGOT: Punished! Oh Percy darling, whatever are you talking about?
(He pushes her back down and holds her there by her hair.)
PERCY: You ungrateful, untalented, wretched girl. How dare you come here and waste my valuable time.
(He smacks her on the bum. She screams.)
MARGOT: I will try harder in future.
PERCY: I know you will, for I will give you a lesson you will never forget.
(He smacks her again.)
MARGOT: Percy, stop it. you have no right.
PERCY: I have every right. You are a very disobedient pupil.
MARGOT: That is enough, Perks, it’s not funny!
PERCY: Of course not, I am deadly serious.
PERCY: This is not a game. Now keep still. Do as you are told.
MARGOT (screams): Stop it! Stop it!
PERCY: Now that I have put some colour in your cheeks, don’t you feel invigorated?
MARGOT: No! Let me go!
(She starts to lash out and kick at him in an attempt to get away.)
PERCY: Well then, my flighty young mare, this calls for the horsewhip.
(As he reaches for the whip, Margot struggles free.)
PERCY: Oh yes, I really must lay waste to your beautiful body.
MARGOT: What are you saying? Why are you doing this? Perks!
(She backs away as Percy approaches her with the whip.)
PERCY: You will enjoy it, I am sure.
MARGOT: No! I don’t want to. Stop it!! Stop it!!
She is unconvinced by his assurance that ‘the joy is exquisite’, and the whip is never plied. ‘I do love him,’ she tells Rose later in the scene, ‘but not in that way.’ And so Rose shows her the door: the engagement is off.
Afterwards, Margot spreads gossip about Percy, though since it is true it can hardly be said to be malicious. His liking for flagellation is considered merely comical, but wagging tongues are scandalized by the depth of his relationship with his mother. He only escapes Rose’s emotional domination after her death. The last scene of the play sees him meet a Swedish girl, Ella Strom, during a game of deck quoits. She fulfills all his long-held fantasies about being in thrall to a ‘Nordic goddess’, but she is disappointed when he tells her that he loves her like a sister. ‘Ah,’ he reassures her, ‘but a sister is someone to whom my lusts are sharper and more unbridled than towards a non-related sweetheart.’ He proposes marriage with uncommon self-assurance: ‘my sex powers are so great that you will be forever satisfied.’ It’s an offer she can’t refuse (well, she doesn’t, anyway), and in the final moments of the play, as the stage direction puts it,
‘Percy gives Ella a firm smack on the rump.’
It looks as if they are going to be very happy together.
‘The play does not set out to capitalize cheaply on Percy’s kinks,’ said the Sydney Morning Herald in a review of the first production, which opened at the Adelaide Festival on March 10, 1982, with the actor-pianist Dennis Olsen as Percy and Deborah Little as Margot.
And Daphne Grey doubled as both Rose and Ella, the latter ‘replacing Rose’s anxiety with spanking cheerfulness’, as another reviewer wryly phrased it.
The production was a smash hit and toured Australia for the best part of a year, taking in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, where it closed on August 20, 1983; it was also adapted for radio with the original cast. In 1999 it was also made into a movie, Passion, with Richard Roxburgh and Emily Woof, which is well worth watching – but not if your only interest is in M/F spanking scenes, because the flagellation is a lot more extreme and a lot less specifically targeted.
But onstage, at least, a small part of the play’s success seems to have lain in what happens to Margot at the climax of the first half, as described by the British reviewer Michael Billington:
‘Even when the hero takes down his fiancée’s drawers and starts to spank her bottom, the audience murmurs its delighted approval.’
Of course, it does help the atmosphere of what Billington called ‘cosy kinkiness’ that, in complete contrast with the 1999 screenplay, the script takes care to abort the smacking before it gets heavy with the whip – though five bottom-reddening smacks with the open hand must have been quite enough for Deborah Little in the course of an 18-month run!