Probation Officer #102: Tableaux vivants

So that was Kenneth Tynan, the theatre critic – an enthusiastic man with the back of a hairbrush, but mostly only cruel in his reviews – who campaigned for the end of Britain’s bizarre theatre censorship, and celebrated his victory by putting on Oh! Calcutta! Originally, Oh! Calcutta! included bdsm sequences he wrote himself. These  have been quietly dropped from the current revival.

By the way, Tynan’s Diaries were published a few years ago. I read them after they were remaindered. Whoever thought they were worth printing didn’t do the man’s reputation any favours. On a day-by-day basis Tynan comes across as silly, self-satisfied and a bit boring. He must have been more interesting in person than he was on the page, or they wouldn’t have put him on television so he could say ‘fuck’ to everyone.

Anyway, before Tynan’s fine work getting the Lord Chamberlain out of the British theatrical censorship business, there used to be some extraordinary performances in the clubs that catered for gentlemen who wanted to see naked ladies on the stage while they enjoyed a quiet drink in semi-darkness with a raincoat across their lap.  Theatrical censorship created a new theatrical art form: the erotic tableau vivant.

That's lovely, darlings. That's Art, that is. Now, don't move!

That’s lovely, darlings. That’s Art, that is. Now, don’t move!

In erotic tableaux vivants, naked women and the occasional naked man would enact erotic scenes from classical myth or literature: The Rape of the Sabine Women, or The Birth of Venus, for example, or Hot Nymphs Bathing by a Sylvan Pool. Or they could present “historical” scenes, like Brutal Cossacks Whipping a Naked Female Anarchist. You could have nudity, simulated sex, rape, flagellation and other stirring scenes on the stage, so long as the “actors” kept perfectly silent and never moved a muscle.

 This happened because a theatre manager – Mr Crommer, of The Windmill Theatre in London’s Soho district, pointed out to the Lord Chamberlain that he couldn’t logically say that he thought nudity itself was indecent. If he thought that, he’d have to ban nude statues and paintings.

The film "Frank and I", also released as "Lady Libertine", includes a scene in which the hero, Charles, visits a brothel and is shown "tableaux vivants".

A still from the film “Frank and I”, also released as “Lady Libertine”. The film includes a scene in which the hero, Charles, visits a brothel and is shown “tableaux vivants”.

Therefore the Lord Chamberlain couldn’t consistently claim that nude actors on stage was indecent: it must only be indecent if the actors did what actors usually do: walk around, talk, do stage “business”.  So British stages were allowed to present nudity, so long as the naked girls were perfectly silent and still, as if they were statues, or the human figures in a painting.

The rule was that if the performers moved or talked, the performance was obscene, but if they kept still, it was artistic.

 We are working our way back, I promise, to the night of Sa’afia’s punishment. 

Probation Officer #101: Oh! Calcutta!

There was a time – more than two hundred years – when the English theatre was censored by an official called the Lord Chamberlain. The rulings the Lords Chamberlain made on what could and could not be shown in a theatre were weird and occasionally wonderful. We’ll come back to them in the next post.

The position of Lord Chamberlain, and his strange rules for theatres, were abolished in 1966. One of the principal campaigners for abolition was Kenneth Tynan. When someone mentions Tynan these days, he usually gets this one-line explanation of who he was: “the first man to say ‘fuck’ on television.”

"Oh! Calcutta! Calcutta!" by Clovis Trouille. The title is a pun on "Oh! Quel cul t'as!" (in English, "Oh! What a lovely ass you have!".) Ken Tynan borrowed both the image and it's title for his show.

“Oh! Calcutta! Calcutta!” by Clovis Trouille.
The title is a pun on “Oh! Quel cul t’as!” (in English, “Oh! What a lovely ass you have!”.) And maybe, just maybe, there’s a joke about the Black Hole of Calcutta there, too. Ken Tynan borrowed both the image and its title for his show.

But one day he’ll be remembered for being the man who celebrated the relaxation of theatrical censorship by putting together the revue, Oh! Calcutta! and writing two playful bdsm sketches for it.

One of these sketches is a schoolgirl spanking scenario, the only twist being that the audience is asked, half-way through, to vote on which girl gets the slipper at the end. (There were four “schoolgirls”, so four different endings were written.)

The other sketch is more interesting. It starts with two women on stage, one in bondage, and one kneeling submissively.

A man walks on-stage holding a cane and contemplates the two women. He points out to the audience that the two women both represent images of submission, but there’s a difference. Once the bound woman has agreed to be bound, she doesn’t have to choose to stay. The other woman has to choose to remain, moment by moment, whatever happens. So he rules that the bound woman is less interesting, and orders that she be picked up in a net and carted off-stage.

Scene from Oh! Calcutta! 1870s discipline; 1970s hair.

Scene from Oh! Calcutta! 1870s discipline; 1970s hair.

Then he tells the audience that the other woman is an actor pretending to be a Victorian maid, who is about to be caned by her master for, oh, stealing some plums. The woman prepares herself for punishment, turning her back to the audience and pulling down her skirts to receive the cane on her bare bottom.

The man then reminds the audience that this woman, submissively waiting for the cane, isn’t really a Victorian maid but an actor. He even tells the audience the actor’s “real” name. And he says the woman doesn’t really have to stay to be caned. He invites her to leave the stage if she wants.

She stays. 

He walks over and lines the cane up against her bottom.

They probably black out the stage at that point. I’ve never actually seen this sketch, and I read the script more than ten years ago. This is from memory.  

These days they still revive Oh! Calcutta! but without Tynan’s two spanking sequences. That’s interesting, because it suggests that bdsm, even in light spanking form, is still seen as too transgressive to be “safe” theatre. Somehow I quite like that.

This will bring us back to my night “punishing” Sa’afia, really it will.