We're a wild and untamed thing!
Tonight, if I were home – or, at least, within three miles of the room where I plug in my laptop and vibrator, which is the nearest approximation – I would be going to see the Rocky Horror Show at the New Theatre in Oxford. What I’m going to be missing is standing around in my undies for an hour on a a freezing cold street filled with strangely and scantily-clad young men and women, all daubed with glitter and goth-make-up, wearing suspenders and brightly-coloured wigs. Alright, yes, I’m pining already. But it gets me thinking.
What, exactly, is it about Rocky Horror that makes it one of the most successful musicals of all time – certainly the most successful on a small-scale? The songs are good, but they’re not that good – not on the scale of, say, West Side Story, or Les Mis. You could never stage it in a secondary school. The sets and costumes are concertedly tacky, designed to shock and to amuse rather than to dazzle and divert. The story is incomprehensible at first, and preposterous after the two or three sober viewings it takes the average student audience to digest O’Brien’s diagetic. And that’s if you’re NOT watching it with a roomful of the converted, who will no doubt be shouting callbacks over the dialogue, making it impossible to follow what’s going on. What’s more, thirty years on, it must surely be beginning to date somewhat, mustn’t it?
So why does it continue to turn seemingly well-adjusted young people into lip-licking, toast-throwing, callback-yelling, over-made-up, under-dressed mini-maenads?
Because Rocky Horror is not just a musical. It’s a phenomenon in the most prodigious sense of the term; a classic example of the power of transgressive pop art in Western culture. Richard O’Brien was a visionary, who wanted to make a musical that would have people singing and dancing about social transgression, sexual deviance and the subversion of Western moral standards. O’Brien wanted to create something totally new; something so irreverent, both in and transcending its time, that people would have no choice but to align themselves for and against his musical. And the truly stunning thing?
It worked. It worked more perfectly than its creator could possibly have envisaged, with students and secretaries and shop-workers who weren’t born when the stage-show opened on broadway, parents and children, introverts and extroverts all over the Western world cross-dressing, letting their hair down and getting into the more transgressive side of kink.
And what’s more, unlike so many contemporary, transgressive political memes, it’s FUN. We see the Transylvanians gyrating on stage, and we want to join them. Rocky Horror offers us the chance to forget ourselves and our moral standards for one night; to strip down to our slinkiest smalls and daub ourselves like whores and gothic rentboys and celebrate deviance and hetero-abnormality. What’s more, O’Brien’s songs are addictive; they make collusion in his political message easy and desirable, to those with even the subtlest streak of sympathy.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Rocky is its agelessness. Thirty years on, the show is still not in the least dated; there are more floorshow-casts and touring performances of the musical at the turn of the 21st century than ever before, and the special-edition DVD has sold in millions. Why is this?
Perhaps because The Rocky Horror Show fulfils some sort of basal and irreprehensible human need, a need identifiable in civilised societies since the Maenads of Ancient Greece, the Attic cults and Bacchinaliae of Rome; the need to loosen our moral boundaries in a ritual manner, accompanied by superficially meaningless quasi-religious ceremonies ( such as, for example, the throwing of rice and toast, the wearing of outlandish underwear) – the need of all civilised creatures to become, within an enclosed and physically removed setting, for one night, a wild and untamed thing.
But there is another, more important reason why the Rocky Horror Show is not yet dated: its message is very much still current. Yes, in our progressive, post-feminist, post-modernist, liberal-conservative era, we still need Rocky Horror. Thirty years on, Frank’n’furter with his outré drag and wanton, gender-transgressive sexual amorality, is still a shocking character concept. As Western politics in the aftermath years of the World Trade Centre attacks (and yes, I KNOW it’s easier to write ‘9/11’, but it’s lazy and dangerously over-mystifies an essentially human tragedy) align themselves increasingly with lack-lustre, comsumer-centric liberal conservatism and with the religious right, sex may be everywhere, but the Western stance on sexual transgression, genuine liberation of personal pleasure and personal power, and social deviance, is becoming more, and not less stringent. In a world where several American states are poised to repeal their abortion laws, O’Brien’s message is still current. It’s still so difficult, having a good time. We still need the Rocky Horror show.
Almost five months ago, I stood on stage in a crowded club in Oxford – three doors down the Road from where the stage show opens tonight, wearing a top hat, tails and suspenders, and not much else. I screamed into the microphone, trying to make myself heard over the chanting of the drunken townies at the back, trying to egg on my bewildered, under-dressed cast to ignore the rioting on the floor and carry on, somehow, with the show. But in the middle of ‘hot patootie,’ they started throwing bottles.
As the transylvanians desperately dived for safety, I exchanged frantic gestures with my producer, and tried to keep the crowd back whilst a valiant techie started to dismantle the expensively-hired projector, dodging the missiles. As the army surged onto the stage, I saw hate in their eyes.
There is a fine, fine line between sneering derision and violence, and I saw it that night. Walking home in the dark and my suspenders, it took a while to consolidate what it was that I realised when the townie mob invaded and trashed our show. It’s not as simple, nor as teenage as ‘they’re still out to get us’ (although they are.) And it can’t be reduced to ‘we still need to stand up for our right to be freaks and have fun’ (although we do). It’s simply that the of sexually and politically transgressive manifesto remains just that – transgressive – and whilst it does, we still need to stand up and sing and dance and celebrate it. Until we can walk through town glammed-up and dragged-up as sweet transvestites and Transylvanians and not nurse a glimmer of the kind of fear we all felt that night, we will still need these rituals. We will still need Rocky Horror.