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”.
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.
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.
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.
Long live Rocky Horror!
Here’s to the next 40 years.