Oh! Calcutta!

It is generally acknowledged that one of the important consequences of the abolition of theater censorship in 1968 was to make it possible for Hair to be produced in Britain. Another show that may not have been quite so important, but would certainly never have reached the stage in the Lord Chamberlain’s time, was Kenneth Tynan’s ‘nude musical revue’, Oh! Calcutta!, which opened at London’s Roundhouse on July 27, 1970, having previously opened off-Broadway on June 21, 1969. The New York production was damned by the critics as ‘sophomoric and soporific’, but it ran for 1,314 performances, while the London one played more than 3,900 times, closing only in 1980. The Broadway revival beat even that: it ran solidly through from 1976 to 1989.

So why Oh! Calcutta!? Tynan took the title from this 1946 painting by Clovis Trouille:

01 Clovis Trouille

For ‘Calcutta’…

02 oh-calcutta

… read ‘Quel cul t’as’.

03 oh calcutta George Welbes & Margaret Sappington

‘What a bottom you have!’ You’re probably saying it to the show’s 22-year-old actor-choreographer Margo Sappington, on the right, but if you also want to say it to the actor on the left, George Welbes … well, it may not be the name of a city in India, but chacun a son gout!

The revue sketches are not individually credited, but were written by a distinguished group of people, including novelist Edna O’Brien, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, former Beatle John Lennon (whose contribution was inspired by Liverpool’s mid-century ‘wanking schools’ – in other words, group masturbation) and playwrights Sam Shepard and Samuel Beckett (whose sketch is incomprehensible; no change there, then). Tynan also invited John Mortimer – later the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey – to write a sketch about bondage and flagellation, but Mortimer declined.

However, the revue does feature a sketch somewhat along those lines. It is entitled ‘Who: Whom’, and it’s hard to believe that the author can have been anyone other than Tynan himself. It opens the second act, with the lights coming up on a man in an armchair; in the Broadway production, he was played by Mark Dempsey. Then a girl enters:

She is dressed like a Victorian parlor maid – black dress, high button shoes, maid’s cap. She carries a birch rod. The man watches her as she crosses to the chase longue and kneels on it, placing the birch rod near her feet. She bends forward, resting her head on her folded arms. She raises her skirt and tucks it above her waist. She is wearing Victorian drawers. Her rear faces the audience as she bends again.

Then there descends from the flies a net containing a bikini-clad girl (Katie-Drew Wilkinson), who is bound and gagged. The man gets up and explains to the audience that he is a believer in democracy, and goes on to talk about the two girls. The one in the net, whom he calls Susan, is the classic defenseless damsel in distress who is always being subjected to indignities by savages or Vikings or Martians; whatever the precise context and whatever her particular misfortunes, people just love reading about her. Meanwhile, the parlor maid, whom he calls Jean, is employed in a Scottish mansion in the middle of the nineteenth century, and has been caught stealing plums. ‘She will now formally present herself.’ And with that, Jean drops her drawers and offers her bare bottom to the audience.

‘Like Susan,’ says the man, ‘she is known in many disguises – a wayward novice in an Irish cloister, or an indolent prefect at a strict finishing school. Many thousands of people respond to her plight, often quite vividly.’

Of course, he’s talking about the stock characters in Victorian and modern pornography. But there’s an intellectual dimension, too. He quotes Lenin’s dictum that the world is divided into ‘who’ and ‘whom’: ‘those who do, and those to whom it is done’. And Jean and Susan are both ‘whoms’. But there is a big difference between them: Susan is where she is because she is a victim of pure physical coercion, whereas Jean is submissively bending over for her punishment, effectively of her own free will. And what’s more, she’s not really Jean at all: she’s an actress called…

Irritatingly, we don’t know who played her on Broadway, because the sketches aren’t individually credited and the only photograph shows her like this:

04

But the script directs that the man should use the actress’s real name and give her biography. For purposes of putting something on paper, it makes her Eleanor Bron, the Anglo-Jewish actress Tynan had originally wanted to play the part. Here she is:

05 Eleanor Bron

Well, it wasn’t Eleanor – not even in London – but on Broadway it must have been one of the other four women in the cast: Nancy Tribush, Raina Barrett, Boni Enten or the aforementioned Margo Sappington. But the point is that she is a free agent: the man makes it clear that, unlike Susan (or should we say Katie?), she can opt to pull up her bloomers and walk off the stage without any fear of reprisal or damage to her professional reputation. So, he asks, does she want to leave the stage? Despite several prompts, she remains motionless, awaiting her punishment.

‘As I was saying,’ says the man, ‘I am a strict believer in democracy.’ And the lights fade slowly down…

All this is high on suggestiveness, but low on action: Susan’s too tangled up in her net to be spanked, and the lights are out before Jean gets her birching. But the script features another sketch, again almost certainly Tynan’s work, which remedies that deficiency. It is entitled ‘St Dominic’s, 1917’, and it too deals with democracy in action, among other things.

It is written for all five of the show’s actresses, playing schoolgirls Gwen, Morvyth and Fauvette (‘the spiciest character in the form’), the monitor Elspeth, and finally the headmistress, Miss Beesley – all of them talking in the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ idiom of school stories. The first climax comes when Elspeth has to intervene to break up a dormitory fight between Gwen and Fauvette, whereupon the girls freeze and a woman’s voice is heard over the theater’s public address system:

‘You have now met Gwen, Fauvette, Morvyth and Elspeth. At the end of this sketch, one of them will be publicly spanked. By a process of elimination, you, the audience, will decide on the victim. You can now eliminate either Gwen or Fauvette.’

And so the audience votes, one of those two girls is put out of the running, and the scene shifts to a classroom. Miss Beesley arrives, rebuking the girls for various misdemeanours, including the fight in the previous scene. Gwen is her favorite pupil, but she still tells the girl, ‘if you overstep the mark again, there’ll be a painful reckoning behind my green baize door.’

That line is said whether or not Gwen has been eliminated, but shortly afterwards the script divides into two versions depending on the way the voting went. A postal order belonging to Fauvette has gone missing. If the vote went Fauvette’s way, then there are two suspects, Gwen and Morvyth; but if Gwen is no longer at risk, the finger points at Morvyth alone. And then on the tannoy:

‘Three girls are still eligible for punishment. In precisely four minutes, one of them will be whipped. We now invite you to eliminate either Fauvette or Morvyth.’

(Or, alternatively, Morvyth or Gwen, if Fauvette has already been spared.)

Back to the dorm now, and the girls are changing out of their gymslips and into nighties. The girls are having a feast with ginger beer. Miss Beesley arrives, apparently benevolent. Then Fauvette drops a bombshell: she has found her missing postal order – in Elspeth’s locker. And so it’s time for the final vote, between Elspeth and the one other uneliminated girl.

Miss Beesley confronts Elspeth, who protests her innocence. ‘In all the years of my headmistressship, incidents such as this have very seldom occurred. I have had unruliness and disobedience before, but in the whole of my experience never a girl more brazen than you. It is of course impossible for me to allow you to remain at St Dominic’s.’

And then there are four different endings.

Elspeth: Miss Beesley says she will deal with the errant Elspeth in the morning, but in the meantime she promotes Gwen to be the new monitor and endows her with ‘full disciplinary powers’. Gwen asks Elspeth to hand over a hairbrush, unless of course she is ‘going to show the white feather’. But Elspeth is no coward: ‘I may be a blighter, but at least I don’t funk!’

Gwen: As Miss Beesley turns to leave, Morvyth stops her and explains that the postal order was actually stolen by Gwen and planted in Elspeth’s locker out of jealousy. Gwen is silent, unable to deny the story, unwilling to lie. She will be dealt with in the morning, but ‘in the meantime I shall hand you over to the tender mercies of your monitor, who has full disciplinary powers’. So this time it’s Elspeth who calls for the hairbrush, and Gwen who doesn’t ‘funk’.

Morvyth: basically the same as with Gwen.

Fauvette: As before, except that there has been no actual theft!

Whichever version is used, the final stage action remains the same:

The victim fetches a hairbrush from her washstand, gives it to the monitor and bends over her knee. The monitor slowly raises the victim’s nightie to her waist and, even more slowly, pulls down her knickers. The other girls gather round to watch the spanking. It takes place in slow motion, with the victim ritualistically wriggling as each blow falls. The girls count in unison. We should feel that this is a kind of tribal ceremony – the sacrifice of the willing victim. As the monitor spanks, it might be a good idea to project on backcloth a moving close shot of the victim’s bottom. The counting grows louder and the pace increases. At about the count of ten, we hear electronic ‘take-off’ music, possibly like the sound used by the Beatles in ‘A Day in the Life’. As this sound and the spanking reach a climax, we

BLACKOUT

Kenneth Tynan once defined a humanist as ‘someone who remembers the faces of the people he spanks’, so it’s perhaps a little surprising that the four endings are virtually identical. The prospective cast of actresses was quite diverse, as you can see here:

06 Broadway cast

But, save for the necessary plot adjustments, the dialog is the same in each of the four versions, and there is no attempt to give each girl individual characterization, a different response to her predicament. In fact, it’s the usual problem with most spanking scenes written by spanking enthusiasts: the spanking itself is what matters most, and because of that, everything else comes a poor second.

To put it another way: although it ends with a spanking, in most other respects it’s not actually a very good sketch. And perhaps that’s why, so far as I know, it has never actually been performed – for it was dropped from Oh! Calcutta! before the first night…

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