The mid-Seventies revue Another Way to Love was advertised in New York theater listings as a ‘dramatization of sex fantasies’, but its originator, Barry Farber, saw it more as therapy, helping audiences by materializing their unfulfilled desires. ‘We don’t want to appear like an Oh! Calcutta! with clothes on or a Let My People Come where nobody comes,’ he said. ‘We call it accommodation therapy. It’s a key – it unlocks people. I can’t tell you what it’s like to see people helped after years of fruitless psychiatry.’
Farber was a noted radio talk show host with political ambitions, who failed to be elected a Republican congressman in 1970. He later promoted conventional ‘wholesome’ morality and argued for the power of shame, but in the 1970s he took a freer approach to sexuality:
‘We want to reach the man who thinks his fantasy is the only one in the world, and has always thought of it as some kind of deadly social disease. We want him to say, “Wow! Look at that beautiful girl, They’re doing my thing.” A psychotherapist can’t come close. Nobody ever eradicated a fantasy, but we can point to plenty who have accommodated them.’
He first became interested in sexual minorities after interviewing the dominatrix Monique van Cleef in 1968. ‘She told me that 50% of all males have unique, one-of-a-kind fantasies.’ The thought stayed with him for years, until one night in September 1974, he dreamed of using theater as a way of bringing those fantasies to life. So he began to collect personal accounts, and – perhaps finding it wasn’t a subject easily broached in everyday conversation – ran an advertisement in Penthouse magazine, headed ‘What Turns You On?’, asking people to write in.
The response was phenomenal: letters arrived in their thousands. People told stories about secret desires ranging from female domination to tickling to being basted and oven-roasted like a turkey. One thing that struck Farber’s collaborator Chip Durgom, a bearded, saturnine-looking man noted for his versatility as an actor, was that there was very little heavy sado-masochism:
‘The vast majority of unusual fantasies have to do with some feeling of submission. They involve seduction, being overpowered and the danger of being discovered. Whips and chains and blood tortures have a limited appeal.’
To create Another Way to Love, they selected seven specific fantasies – six from men and one from a woman – and turned them into a series of revue sketches written and performed by Durgom and his blonde girlfriend Leil Lowndes.
The sketch that interests us was the only one based on a woman’s fantasy. It is entitled ‘Bottoms Up’, and it was described in the playbill as:
A peek into the bedroom of an earnest young wife who endeavors to redesign her color scheme by pestering, plaguing and provoking her posterior decorator.
(That’s a rather roundabout way of saying she gets herself a red bottom!)
A love-making couple are interrupted by a phone call; David is a defense attorney and the call is from a judge about a case he is involved in, so he has to take it. But his wife Francesca starts hitting him during the conversation: the judge is trying to praise him for his dignity in court and he is trying not to lose that dignity by crying out. So when the call ends, he tells her, ‘That is it, Francesca! That is it! Ten points! You are getting ten points!’ She protests, so he runs through her eight misdeeds of the day, from hard-boiling his soft-boiled egg through to losing his place in the Harvard Law Review.
FRANCESCA: I was only trying to show you about the new laws on wife-beating.
DAVID: Well, then, that’s another point for abstract insubordinate intellectualizing, and for humiliating me on the phone.
FRANCESCA: That is only nine, David.
And at that, he puts her across his knee, grabs a wooden paddle, pulls up her short skirt, takes down her panties and begins to spank her. She tries to wriggle free, to no avail, and the lights go down. End of sketch.
I know of six photographs of the sketch, illustrating how performances must have differed from one another in the details of costume and pose.
The spanking takes the actors close to the boundary of one of the show’s basic rules: the subject matter might be sexual, but it was to be handled without any actual sex and with no nudity. That’s why, although Francesca (the character in the sketch) is spanked on her bare bottom, with her panties pulled down, Leil (the actress playing the part) is wearing a thong underneath, as can be clearly seen in that first dynamic picture. ‘We want to invite the middle classes, not put them off,’ explained Barry Farber – so the material had to be handled tastefully if the show was to be a success.
And Another Way to Love was indeed successful. It played at The Project, an off-off-Broadway loft with capacity for an audience of just 75 people, starting with only one performance a week, Friday nights; but it was so popular that it soon had to play twice, then thrice weekly from Thursday to Saturday. There were also bespoke performances for special interest groups. After nearly two years up in the loft, it moved to a larger venue, the Bijou Theatre on West 45th Street, and ran from February to December 1977, when the money ran out. It was later revived back at The Project in 1980, with the same cast and an expanded roster of sketches, but with ‘Bottoms Up’ still present and correct.
An eye-witness account of the revival shows that the sketch had now changed somewhat:
Francesca and David are dressing to go to a posh art gallery opening. They are in their underwear. Francesca continually interrupts David, trying to get him to make love with her. She is apparently insatiable. They are both playful, although he treats her like a naughty child. She succeeds in having him tickle her feet and spank her with a hairbrush, very mildly. The telephone rings. David answers. While he’s distracted talking on the telephone, Francesca pours water on the tuxedo he is planning to wear that evening. It is now impossible for them to go out. When David realizes what Francesca has done, he tells her, still playfully, that now he will have to punish her for her misbehavior. She obviously loves the prospect of being punished, although she screams and resists and pretends otherwise. As the sketch ends, David takes her over his knee and starts spanking her.
Like all witness testimony, this is both revealing and frustrating for what it does not reveal. It is clear that the sketch has been completely rewritten since the 1975 production, giving the characters a new context and David a new set of real-world objectives. But the basic idea and structure remain the same: Francesca provokes David into giving her a spanking, only it’s now even more obvious that this is her intention – that the coercion in the sketch is coming from her, removing any possibility of seeing David’s points system as merely the regime of a domestic bully. The frustration is that we learn virtually nothing about the spanking itself: whether David uses an implement or just his hand, how Francesca reacts, whether she is spanked with her panties up or down. All we are told is the one detail that guarantees it really is a spanking: that David puts Francesca across his knee.
With that in mind, one especially notable change is the additional business with the hairbrush. Although it says he ‘spanks’ her with it, I think it likely that he only smacked her: everything in the sketch builds to the image of Francesca across David’s knee being soundly spanked, and it would anticipate and undermine that climax to show the same image earlier, only with a less vigorous spanking. Surely what happened instead is that he picked up the hairbrush and gave her a quick, informal smack on the seat of her panties, reserving the full formality and grandeur of OTK for the closing tableau.
The long-term theatrical impact of Another Way to Love was negligible, not least because of the way American culture turned rightwards in the new decade. But a few years earlier it played a part in scuppering Barry Farber’s second bid to enter politics, in New York’s 1977 mayoral election: in the Republican primaries his opponent campaigned negatively with the accusation that he had been involved with an alleged ‘live sex show’, and in the election itself he was beaten by the legendary Ed Koch.
So the revue’s serious purpose, and the restraint of its realization on stage, were overlooked by critics looking for usable dirt and seeing nothing else. Perhaps that’s understandable, especially since by then the show’s producer, Fred Perna, had embarked on a career as a director of porn films. Meanwhile, Leil Lowndes and Chip Durgom split up in 1980, which probably put paid to any chance of a further revival just as effectively as the changing cultural climate. Leil then married none other than Barry Farber (they divorced five years later) and eventually became a writer of self-help manuals about interpersonal communication – a subject that’s perhaps not completely distinct from that of Another Way to Love.
And maybe that’s a small part of the show’s true legacy: not a set of sketches that will be performed again, still less a handful of spanking photos, so much as the part it may have played in enabling Leil Lowndes’ insights into her topic, and the therapeutic help it may have given to audiences back in the Seventies. If it made anyone happier, more understanding, more at ease with themselves … can we ask for anything more?