Probation Officer #104: Tableaux vivants and memory 2

Two girls would place themselves in front of him so his reaction to their solid, real, unglamorous and beautiful femaleness was placed between their bodies and out of sight of the audience. Most of the audience weren’t there to see his willie.  

But hiding an erection between two pretty girls does very little to make it go away. 

8 lovely ladies enacting the three graces, the rape of the Sabine Women, etc. The guys about to rape the Sabine women have prop Roman shields, helmets and swords. High budget!

8 lovely ladies enacting the three graces, the rape of the Sabine Women, etc. Note that the guys about to rape the Sabine women have prop Roman shields, helmets and swords. Hi, budget!

In this club the tableaux vivants, viewed consecutively, told a story. There was a compere who actually told the story, but each time the lights went on, the tableau vivant performers would be posed to represent the next stage in the story.

It wasnt the sort of place that enacted classical or historical scenes. Their audience wasn’t interested, and wouldn’t get the references anyway. And it cost too much.

Instead they’d do domestic comedy. Like this:

Tableau 1: A working class father tells his daughters not to go out. (Man in cloth cap, loose overalls and moustache. Girls half-undressed, draped about and putting on stockings, facing the audience, or lipstick, with their asses to the audience.)  

Tableau 2: The girls go out anyway. (Girls only. Their clothes have got caught in the doors, windows, furniture etc, as they sneak away.)

Tableau 3: They get into trouble. (Man, mostly or entirely naked, pretending to chase naked girls, who are pretending to run away.)

Tableau 4: Policeman makes them go home. (Man in policeman’s hat and carrying truncheon. Blowing inaudible whistle. Girls slumped and miserable. Two of them are between the audience and the “policeman’s” penis.)

Tableau 5: Girls try to sneak in, at home. (Girls only. Lots of ungainly nude posing, climbing through windows, up stage trees, etc.)

Tableau 6: But father catches them. (Outraged father with night-cap on head and belt in hand. Girls mock-cowering, two of them keeping his penis mostly out of sight. Later, they’d drape one of the girls over his lap. It did nothing to reduce his erection, but at least it made it easier to hide.)

See? Comedy! But the clubs would do it with less clothing.

See? Comedy! But the clubs would do it with less clothing.

That was a typical story. The “discipline” theme wasn’t quite bdsm. It was what passed for comedy at the time, and the idea of girls getting thrashed bare-assed by their fathers didn’t seem as abusive to a middle-aged 1960s audience as it would to a modern one.

But it wasn’t entirely bdsm-free, either.  There was always a market for spanking and discipline themes, and it you did it as comedy you could get away with a lot that you wouldn’t get away with if you admitted it was erotic.

This is no time to be all knowing about “the English vice”. American television producers discovered the same thing at about the same time, which is why you got things like the wife-spanking scenes in The Lucy Show 

So that was my ancient drinking mate’s job, and one of my sources for knowledge about tableaux vivants. I’m back to the story of Sa’afia’s punishment night tomorrow.

Probation Officer #103: Tableaux vivants and memory 1

The first time I went to a pub I was 17. I was breaking the law by being there, and I expected it to be incredibly adult and decadent. The funny thing was that it lived up to my expectations. I met a decadent adult, an old guy who saw someone wide-eyed, naïve, and a bit poetical, and thought, rightly, that he’d found someone prepared to listen to his stories.

"You're 20, right? Right. Well, if you are, then I am. Beer?"

“You’re 20, right? Right. Well, if you are, then so am I. Beer?”

But first he complimented – politely – the shirt of the girl behind the bar and made her laugh, by way of establishing that he wasn’t interested in my 17 year old arse. I only realise that bit now. At the time it hadn’t occurred to me. The barmaid didn’t have any interest in my arse either, and I did mind that. I liked everything about her, so it hardly seemed fair. Still, she poured me a huge handle of beer when I ordered one in my deepest, butchest voice, so she was all right.

His first few stories were good knock-about stuff about working in factories, and workers versus bosses. A couple more beers, though, and the stories got older and more lecherous. He claimed that when he was “a good-looking young feller like you” he’d worked as a model in tableaux vivants.

That was in some dingy club in Greek Street, in Soho. People mainly cite the brighter, more up-market theatres when they talk about tableaux vivants, but this wasn’t one of those. He told me the name of the club as if I should know it, but I didn’t, and I’ve long ago forgotten what it was.

He said it was great being straight in that world, because the men in that world tended to be rich but old and fat and very unattractive. “You get the face you deserve, son, and their lives gave them faces like baboon’s arses. Yeah, I’d say they deserved it.” He said that the better looking guys at the club tended not to be interested in the girls at the club. He called those guys “queers”. 

It’s odd how the word “queer” has changed. The emotion behind it is different, because it was a hate word, but the only people I hear using the word now mean it as a compliment. Along the way it’s also changed its meaning: it used to mean “homosexual”, but now it means anything sexual that isn’t mainstream. I could say I’m queer because I’m into bdsm and polyamory. If you’re reading this blog you can probably claim you’re queer for one reason or other. If you want. 

I tend not to self-apply the word, though. That’s partly because I don’t think I’ve ever faced discrimination that involved personal, physical risk, as many gay men have. I’ve been snubbed by people who found out that I’m a dom, because of my sexuality, but no-one’s ever threatened to beat me up for it. So it seems cheap to take on a word, with a hint of martyrdom to it, that I haven’t earned. The other reason I don’t self-apply the word is that “queer theory” writing tends to be tedious, self-regarding wank, and no matter how bad my writing may be, I can’t identify at all with the for/war/d slashes and (b)rackets of queer texts.

Anyway, when that old man said “queer” he meant “homosexual”. He wasn’t a bad man, so he didn’t mean it as a hate word. He used it with a kind of amusement: live and let live, to each their own, we’re all broadminded, and so on, but with a hint of dismissal (“just don’t frighten the horses”) behind it. That won’t do now, but his youth was back in the Golden Age for queer-bashing, so he was probably fairly advanced for his day.

Anyway, he said the other young men in the club weren’t all that interested in naked girls. He’d originally been hired to knock out a wall, and the manager had noticed he’d be strong enough to lift a girl so she could pretend to be flying, and hold still. So that was how he got into theatre.

So as a young, good-looking straight man he was popular with the girls at the club, and he got a rapid education. But as a straight young man, when he was naked on stage with a group of attractive, naked girls he found he had a presentation problem.

I’ll leave this anecdote here. Come back tomorrow. 

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.