Rocky Horror at 40 or Why we all need a little Frank in our lives

A version of this article was first published in SIN – NUI Galway’s Student Newspaper 

I first saw The Rocky Horror Show, watching the movie with my dad at the tender age of 15. As you might imagine, a musical starring a cannibalistic, polyamorous, bisexual, transvestite scientist can make for some awkward father-son viewing. An awkwardness only exacerbated by said son’s (then unacknowledged) less-than-hetero sexuality.

Jump forward to last month, however, and my father and I are rocking out to the 40th anniversary production of Rocky Horror at the Millennium Forum, Derry. Around us, a crowd of otherwise ordinary people, many in costume, are belting out lyrics like “I’m just a sweet Transvestite / from Transsexual / Transylvania!” or “I’ll oil you up and rub you down … You need a friendly hand and I need action”.

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                                           “Hey there” 

We’re just one of hundreds of crowds doing that in cinemas and theatres across the world. At 40 years old, Rocky Horror is still going strong- the movie has the longest-running theatrical release in film history- it’s being shown right now, somewhere.

So, what makes so many tax-paying, sober-minded adults want to dress up in leather and sequins and sing about hot alien-on-guy action? I can’t answer definitively but there was a moment near the end of the play that threw me for a loop. You see, I’d expected the dancing, the singing, the flouncing, the innuendo, the outrageousness and the sheer camp of the show. I expected to have a great time.

I never expected to cry.

But as Frank-N-Furter (played by the stupendous Oliver Thornton) looked out at the audience and sang the opening lines of  the song “Don’t dream it, be it”, the show clicked and what had seemed random, humorous and irreverent was suddenly touching, political and life-or-death serious. Funny songs became hymns to queerness; the show a single firework of fabulous in an night-time of heteronormativity. I got it.

And just like that, it was all ripped away. Like Blanche’s paper lantern in A Streetcar Named Desire, the beautiful, fragile space the play eked out was collapsed, leaving behind a cold, harshly-lit void.

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                    “I don’t think I ever seen you in the light!”

It was devastating. And I cried. Though Frank’s downfall, like Oscar Wilde’s, is one of his own making, it is no less affecting for that. You realise some lives are like lightning rods, how quickly an unwillingness to compromise oneself can call down the brute forces of hate, ignorance and fear.

I won’t tell you how the play ends but, even though the cast returned for three upbeat rock-n-roll encores, we all knew what had really happened. In a very real way, Rocky Horror is a microcosm of queer history. Whether in 1930s Berlin or Russia today, the frail spaces we carve out for difference, beauty and love are all too easily overwhelmed when fear and ignorance combine with power.

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                                 Gay Pride marchers attacked by police in Russia

It’s this space the play creates that draws so many people to Rocky Horror. It’s why the play and movie continues to be shown/performed almost every day. People come- in costume or out- to sing and dance and be a part of Frank-N-Furter’s world for just a little time. And though we know it has to come to an end, we also know that when we leave the theatre, we’ll leave a little more human and a little more fabulous.

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Long live Rocky Horror! 

Here’s to the next 40 years.

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The long and dusty path, thus far!

Our intrepid leader at Thereisbear! Theatre has started a blog about the company. It’s well worth a look and it conveniently explains what I’ve been doing for so long instead of updating here.

Check it out at The long and dusty path, thus far!. And watch out for yours truly too!

Thereisbear! coming to a theatre near you. 

Jack Russells and Jacobeans

My mother has moved to a new house: a converted cottage in rural Donegal. She moved there from another house in rural Donegal (hereafter referred to as simply ‘Donegal’) so it’s not so drastic a transition.

Actually, to call it a converted cottage is a bit inaccurate. Converting cottage is more appropriate, we’re still in the process.

The house belonged to a woman named Mary Hiudaí, my mother’s partner’s grandmother. Mary passed away last year. She was 104 years old, and this house was already standing when she was born. No one living knows when it was built, but it’s been here for over a century.

In the move, we lost our cat Tigger. He disappeared from the house and hasn’t returned since. Bereft of his comparative intellectualism, I’ve been forced to get to know Mum’s step-son, Pepper,

‘How do do?’

and his adoptive sister, Shorty. They’re watching me as I write this because they’re hoping I’ll take them for a walk to the beach. I probably will.

Jack Russells combine some of the more delightful aspects of puberty and ADHD. They’re skittery, excitable, awkward wee things that zoom in through your legs and tangle you up in their leads. They yip too. A lot.

All the same, they grow on you

I watched a three-part documentary on BBC called The King and the Playwright about King James I and Shakespeare. It was hosted by James Shapiro, the author of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

I’d never really thought of Shakespeare as a Jacobean. The image-myth of Elizabeth and of Shakespeare as the high point of an Elizabethan Golden Age is so strong and well-established in our collective psyche that we tend to forget the other, less arresting, monarch.

Then there’s Shakespeare in Love

But Shapiro makes a compelling case for James’ accession and the resulting political turbulence having had a transformative effect on Shakespeare’s writing and dramaturgy. Elizabeth died after a 44-year reign with no heir. James was king of Scotland, a foreign and belligerent nation, and son of the despised Mary, Queen of Scots.

From this environment of uncertainty and reform emerged the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s newly re-christened company, now operating under the King’s own patronage. Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays include some of his most famous, experimental and difficult dramas. Macbeth, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, Timon of Athens and The Tempest are all Jacobean plays. Throughout the series, Shapiro demonstrates how they were rooted in, and engaged with, the Jacobean political climate.

I’m interested in the ways Shakespeare used magic in these plays. Compared to earlier works like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the supernatural in Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays is dark, dangerous and pessimistic. Even The Winter’s Tale, in which a statue comes to life in a fairytale happy ending, is one of the darkest and most tragic of the comedies.

The death of a son, such as that of Leontes’ in The Winter’s Tale, was a horror that Shakespeare himself experienced in 1596. That the tragedy of the first three acts is only allayed by such an undeniably magical event, and that even magic cannot restore Leontes’ son, suggests that Shakespeare is using the fantastic mode reflexively. He is drawing attention to Leontes’ loss rather than providing a happy ending.

This ending fulfils the same function as the ending of Pandosto, the original play on which The Winter’s Tale is based. In that, the character equivalent to Leontes commits suicide, again highlighting how his actions have caused him irreparable loss. In fact, the magical nature of the ending makes the ending even more bittersweet in retrospect.

As Shapiro illustrates, such a point would become extremely pertinent to Jacobean England. In 1612, Prince Henry, James’ son, died suddenly of typhoid fever. The nation mourned for the young heir to the throne and mock funerals were held in three other cities around the country to allow the people to express their grief. At Henry’s sister’s wedding, held the following February, the King’s Men performed The Winter’s Tale before the still-grieving court. I doubt the fairy-tale ending much mitigated the audience’s sharing in Leontes’ grief.

Magic and late-Shakespearean drama is an area of particular expertise for my good friend Emer, whose blog can be found at http://emeramchugh.wordpress.com .

N. B. I took the damn dogs to the beach and lost most of the goodwill I’d developed towards them when they ran off chasing rabbits and pretended not to hear me calling. If they’re growing on me, it’s more fungus than friendship.

Of course, they had a great time

On the plus side, this was the beach.