Nostalgia, rape culture, thick texts and obsession

Back in 1973 I went to this musical I’d heard about that had just transferred from the Royal Court to a semi-derelict cinema. It was a strange year – I was trying to finish my BLitt thesis and was starting to think that I wasn’t a very good poet. (In 1973 this was true – made worse by the fact that my ex-flatmate Chris Reid clearly was very good indeed. I have told elsewhere the story of how my thesis became someone else’s significant novel and a rather good article of mine but also led to my leaving academia for good.) I’d been hanging out with the trans woman community in Manchester for years – at Oxford I had had the serious talking to by a senior feminist academic about how transexuality was a False Consciousness and had made the mistake of listening to her.

But on the other hand, it was the year I got obsessed with Cabaret the movie and with Bowie – it was the year I saw the Stardust tour. And in that cinema the third high-heeled shoe dropped because I saw the Rocky Horror show for the first time. Can you imagine? I was unhappy and dysphoric and full of self-doubt. And here were Richard O’Brien and Tim Curry and Nell Campbell and Pat Quinn and the others all telling me it was OK – dom’t dream it, be it.

I was, I guess, one of the first kids – OK I was 24 but still – to feel able to normalize my gender socially among my actual friends by just saying Sally Bowles, Frank’n’Furter, Ziggy and flicking a black boa at them. It was a cowardly short-term compromise but I had guilt and fear and was not quite prepared to commit by taking black-market hormones. Charing Cross was John Randall and all his demands for hetero and cis normativity and I was young and wanted to have fun…

So there’s that – going to see the gala tonight was an act of continuity to my younger self in the same way as kissing Richard thankyou was when I met him at a party some years ago and duetting on Science Fiction Double Feature with Pat Quinn was at a more recent party.

Good times, bum times – I’ve had’em all and my dear, I’m still here – to quote a different favourite musical.

******

So, obviously seeing Stephen Fry, Anthony Head and others share the narrator role with O’Brien was funny. David Bedella does a great impression of what Tim Curry would have been like with an even better voice – generally the cast were better singers than any in the original show. It was musically tight in a way I didn’t expect – it really is a very fine piece of music theatre that uses 50s rock and late 60s antheming to create something brilliant and new.

Like many other thick texts – and I really should have written about it in that article – it has got thicker as it has crossed forty years and acquired a canon of performance that includes canon audience participation and endlessly accreting and changing heckling. There are songs that no longer make sense because the things they refer to no longer exist – Charles Adams In Seven Days I Can Make You A Man ads are no longer on the back of comics and we don’t watch science fiction double features in the back row of cinemas any more. We know about these things BECAUSE THEY ARE REFERRED TO IN THE FILM OF THIS SHOW.

I worried in advance that the scenes where Frank pretends to be Brad, then Janet, to seduce the pair of them would leave a nasty taste – as well as pubic hair jokes – in the back of the throat and they are 70s rape culture and rather worrying in terms of trans panic…Except of course they are more – Frank is a predator and a murderous one as well as someone leading life on their own terms and both admirable and a monster. Frank’n’Furter is – and I am absolutely sure O’Brien knew this back then before the likes of me ever told him – one of the great morally ambiguous protagonists of musical theatre – along with Mackie Messer, Carmen and Don Giovanni. The scene where Magenta and RiffRaff transform into their true alien selves and announce Frank’s execution really does remind me of the Statue calling for Don Giovanni – and the abortive intervention of Doctor Scott has parallels in Mozard as well. The show starts with a metatextual comment and ends with a reprise that places what we have seen in the genre that comment describes – it is a science fiction double feature show – just as The Threepenny Opera starts with the street ballad of Mack the Knife and ends with a reprise that puts us back in the alienated darkness. And Carmen? I kind of threw that in because I need to think about it, but I’ll know the parallel when I get a chance to make it up.

And it’s a show that plays around with the idea of decadence and actually says – boring people think this is decadence and there is something amoral and dangerous about it – but being normal was equally imposed and sucked worse. Rocky is the Creature but is hot and has a tender soul; Frank is not killed for his actual sins but for being an incompetent leader. And the final duet between Brad and Janet is a chastened one which the narrator takes over to talk of ‘crawling on the planet’s face, some insects called the human race/ lost in time and lost in space.’ How’s that for Brechtian alienations children?

Status – as they say, happy and singing old songs in my heart. But also devoted to the idea of having my seventieth birthday party in four years time be a Rocky Horror karaoke.

Or possible a Threepenny Opera one.

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About rozkaveney

Middleaged, trans, novelist, poet, activist
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12 Responses to Nostalgia, rape culture, thick texts and obsession

  1. OMG I’d never realised how Brechtian Rocky Horror is. You are totally, totally right. It’s even more Brechtian the more vanilla (so to speak) you are when you first experience it.

    I first experienced Rocky Horror when I was around 17, in the mid-90s. It was a seminal movie for me too – the gender fuckery, the positive acknowledgement of ‘alternative’ lifestyles. I imprinted on it. But it plays with musical genres, which is part of why the music stays with you. And it’s playing with tropes all the time. I mean, I’m not old enough to remember science fiction double features – I can just remember that my earliest movie experiences had a short thing before the main feature – but I could extrapolate to what that was. I certainly don’t remember the kind of ads that promised a Man in Just Seven Days – but I had read enough science fiction and fiction from earlier on in the 20th century to realise what was going on, and know what they were trying to do. Literarily, musically, it’s very clever, and it’s about my kind of people. (I now also want to go and poke the parallels between Frank’n’Furter and Mack the Knife.)

    You get some wonderful Brechtian framing with Doctor Scott – some literal breaking of walls with Eddie, some fantastic inversion when the domestics are the ones in charge after all. It’s quite a mistake to be distracted by the camp – camp can be intellectual, and visceral, and Rocky Horror is both of those in the scene when Frank is called to account.

    Is the Carmen thing about paradigms of seduction? Or am I barking up the wrong tree? I don’t know it that well, sadly.

    Thank you for articulating some of the things that make Rocky Horror a magnificent theatrical construction. I’m glad you’ve had a fantastic evening.

    • gonzo21 says:

      I can remember being around 12/13 when I first saw it, when it was on channel 4 late one night. And it was billed as scifi so I watched it because growing up as a kid I had been very into the late night science fiction double bills. I was so vanilla I think most of it went over my head. But it obviously helped imprint me with tolerant attitudes towards how people choose to define themselves.

      Mostly I just remember really loving the music. And the costumes. And how god damned cool Frank was.

      • I first watched it when I was six or seven (in 1985 — I remember because my parents taped it over my Betamax copy of Remembrance Of The Daleks taped off the TV a few months earlier) — I had very broad-minded parents. I remember acting bits of it out to my friends in the school playground, and singing Sweet Transvestite to their general bemusement.
        I also remember singing Glad To Be Gay by Tom Robinson around the school playground, too, at a similar age. That I grew up to be an almost-hypermasculine straight cis man would tend to disprove, by itself, right-wing claims that you can brainwash people into changing their sexuality or gender…

      • gonzo21 says:

        I wonder if that ’85 showing was when Channel 4 first aired it, if so, that would peg my exposure to 11 years old. Which, sounds about what I thought it was.

        But yes, I too sang those songs, and grew up to be a very straight cis man too. So there’s at least two of us disproving those right-wing claims. 🙂

  2. desperance says:

    I see no reason why your birthday party can’t be both. Nobody’s going to go to bed after Threepenny Opera, so you might as well segue into Rocky Horror, and see who draws the parallels.

  3. londonkds says:

    Charles Atlas surely? I point out the mistype not to be superior but because of how wonderful I imagine a Charles Addams comics strip bodybuilding ad could have been.

  4. coth says:

    I remember Cabaret and Rocky Horror being part of my growing up, and the shock of understanding that sexual choice was both possible and dangerous. Those two, and Lady Sings the Blues, and Nashville.

    I’ve been trying to rewatch things for the last couple of years, on and off… Wanders off to Amazon, muttering.

  5. rosefox says:

    The tragedy of Carmen is that she lets herself love a man from the “straight” world who both adores and can’t bear her lawlessness. If you draw a parallel between her and Frank, then Brad or Janet should be Frank’s killer. But instead Frank’s betrayed by people from his own world because “your mission is a failure, your lifestyle’s too extreme”–two key phrases that are never explained. What’s the mission? And what about his lifestyle is too extreme for the permissive, ambiguity-cherishing Transylvanians? Creating Rocky? Or, perhaps, consorting with those appallingly normal Earthlings?

    If there’s a Carmen parallel, it’s doubly inverted. Frank is the lawman who’s abandoned the law, but his native culture is far more outrageous than the one he’s entered into. So we’re forced to realize that the Transylvanians see themselves as normal, and see small-town Americana as “extreme”. And then the lawman–not his lawless lover–is done in. It’s as if Don José were suddenly arrested by his fellow soldiers for dallying with Carmen, and then killed by one of them in a fit of rage.

    In that situation, Carmen, like Brad and Janet, would be left bewildered and bereft. As would the audience, because the woman’s supposed to be the one who gets punished for promiscuity or for setting foot outside her culture’s limits. (An oft-overlooked radical aspect of RHPS is that blond innocent all-American Janet sleeps with two people who aren’t her fiancé, ditches her cardigan and Mary Janes for a corset and boa, and never suffers personal consequences for it. Her misery is an incidental casualty of Frank’s tragic arc.)

    • rozkaveney says:

      That’s brilliant. You remind me of SOLDIER’S GIRL – the film based on the murder of the boy friend of trans woman Calpurnia Adams by a couple of his barracks mates.

  6. melchar says:

    I saw RHPS when it was new, first run … But even then as the 2nd bill – on a very warm spring/summer, where it was double-billed with ‘Monty Python & the Holy Grail’ for about two months. Because the matinee was $2.50 and I loved both films, I saw them about 25 +/- times each. Years later I was included in a ‘midnight showing’ outing to see RHPS again and was rather annoyed at not being able to enjoy the movie because of the spectacle it had become. …I still loved the movie .. And it likely helped shape some of my early teen thought (it was only a PG rating), so I enjoyed it seditiously.

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