Oh! Calcutta!

by Michael Buening

10 August 2006


I Only Watch Oh! Calcutta! For the Interpretative Dance

In 1969, famed British theater critic Kenneth Tynan assembled the likes of John Lennon, Sam Shephard, and Samuel Beckett to create an erotic Off Broadway comedy and ended up with a series of Benny Hill outtakes peppered with total nudity called Oh! Calcutta!. Somehow, and I’m thinking it has something to do with the Full Monty, the show ran for 20 years and for a time was the longest running show in Broadway history. New Video NYC has recently released a 1971 television taping (for pay per view) of the show, so inquiring minds can discover the wonders of the sexual revolution—like how just mentioning masturbation made for titillating comedy gold. 

Having not been alive when it opened, I can’t really explain what created this mess except to chalk it up to the same societal impulse that produced such it-sounded-good-at-the time pop cultural ephemera as “The Macarena” and bicycle shorts. The writers seem to have been aware of its turkey status; the skits have never been assigned authorship. And if Clive Barnes New York Times review serves as any kind of barometer (“you have nothing to lose but your brains”) then it certainly didn’t meet with any critical hosannas, either. As usual, it was the outraged Puritans of tabloid journalism ( The Daily News called it “hardcore pornography”) that raised the show’s profile and stoked the curiosity of Times Square tourists, which surely played right into the producer’s hands.

In New Video NYC’s one good packaging conceit, the liner notes consist of the show’s 1971 Playbill program (with a few unrelated articles taken out). It helps to place the show in a historical context and bolsters what is the show and DVD’s greatest value as an archeological curiosity and a snapshot of a less sexually inhibited artistic climate. Unfortunately the booklet is pretty much the only extra feature. A documentary on the history of Oh! Calcutta! would have been a very worthwhile inclusion, and probably more interesting than the show itself.

The television program opens with a jumble of images contrasting the audience taking their seats with the actor’s preparations backstage, where they trade witticisms like “you don’t have to make up your cock, go to props they’ll give you one.” Once the lights dim, besides a few video effects used during the opening credits and a dance shot on location in a park, the show is pretty much taped as is from the audience’s perspective.

The skits are remarkably similar; whether this is due to Tynan’s failure to make sure his writers weren’t all covering the same territory or a male-centric proclivity, I don’t know. Most of them open with a randy young male trying to convince his wife/girlfriend to swing/role play/indulge a fetish. What’s not that amusing starts to become creepy after watching an endless parade of ladies pushed into sex acts against their will. In “Jack & Jill”, Jill is outright raped at the end of the sketch, and though this is treated seriously, it comes across as trite and gross in the context of the entire show. Overall, there is an obsession that free love may be passing these men by and a wink-wink nod to the audience that we know what it’s all about, although it’s not clear that the authors really do. In his 1969 review Barnes says “there is no more innocent show in town.” Modern audiences would probably say “naive”, “out of touch”, “cynically exploitative”, and “wrong-headed”.

They are a few worthwhile moments. One sketch, “Delicious Indignities”, where an 18th century fop tries to seduce an innocent maiden with sexual traps that backfire, is funny as a whole because it has been structured as a comic bit of which sex is the topic, not an excuse to say naughty words for a laugh. “Four in Hand”, shows imaginative use of the stage, as a group of men masturbate while watching a screen that projects their thoughts (one can’t stop thinking of the Lone Ranger), but ends clumsily with an outburst of homophobic angst.  But these are minor successes, largely driven more by the enthusiasm and creative energy of the actors (notably Bill Macy) and not the skit’s authors.

While the comedy wallows in the juvenile, the modern dance sequences highlight the show’s irritating tendency to revert to arty nonsense whenever it becomes insecure about its essential nature as a glorified burlesque show. The coy opening strip tease dance descends into a quasi-rock n’ roll bacchanalia; the nature dance, set to space age Simon & Garfunkle, is ridiculously sincere. At their worst, these dances are one step up from the juvenile outlook: pubescent gropings at the “seriousness” of love with the concentrated solemnity of communion. However choreographer Margo Sappington, with her partner George Welbes, perform a routine, “One on One”, that successfully traverses the high and low aspirations. With acrobatic thrusts that swerve from confident to vulnerable, they act out the lyrics to Bob Dylan-esque folk rock about a hapless yokel who gets involved with “middle class poontang”.  In a refreshingly sophisticated but not pretentious way, the dance illustrates Woody Allen’s dictum that sex is only dirty if it’s done right. The rest of the show is not erotic primarily because it views sex as either a cheap joke or ethereal wonder without anything human, animal, complicated, awkward, or recognizably real in between.

In the closing scene, a crowded, overlapping song and dance that starts like a precursor to Sondheim’s Company, Oh! Calcutta! finally lets loose with a little self-conscious fun. The dancers freeze and take turns reciting one-liners that are the imagined thoughts of audience members. For once these jokes work: “What the fuck are they doing up there?” “When are they gonna bring on the horse?” “Big deal.” “Who wrote this piece of shit anyway?”

Oh! Calcutta!


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