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Oh! Calcutta!

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Grove, New York, 1969
(price: $1.75; 192 pages)

The blurb on the back:

'Some time ago,' said the British drama critic Kenneth Tynan in an article in the Village Voice, 'it occurred to me that there was no place for a civilized man to take a civilized woman to spend an evening of civilized erotic stimulation. At one end, there's burlesque, at the other, an expensive night club, but no place in between. We're trying to fill that gaap with this show.'
Oh! Calcutta! Mr Tynan has assembled a group of sketches which deal with almost every conceivable erotic fantasy and sexual reality that Western man has dreamt up or experienced. The distinguished roster of authors includes Samuel Beckett, Edna O'Brien, Jules Feiffer, Leonard Melfi, John Lennon, and, not to be outdone, Kenneth Tynan himself.
The title of this revue, which is taken from the title of a painting by the French surrealist painter Clovis Trouille, contains a phonetic French pun: 'Oh! Quelle ... t'as!' Or, freely translated: 'Oh! What a lovely ... you have!'

There was a time when Kenneth Tynan was a respected drama critic. Well, actually before that, there was a time when he was the enfant terrible of theatre criticism, and that was probably when he was at his best. But he was still going strong in the 1960s when he worked closely with the National Theatre and was responsible for the London stage being quite hip and cool (like it isn't now, for example). Oh, and he said the word 'fuck' on TV - the first person to do so in Britain.

Then censorship ended and Tynan got this incredibly dumb notion that a bit of posh porn - sorry, erotica - might be not only a money-spinner but a valid artistic endeavour. He was right on the former count - Oh! Calcutta! ran for more than 1300 performances in New York and more than 2400 in London - but dead wrong on the latter. Despite the presence of some genuinely talented writers (and John Lennon), Oh! Calcutta! was never much more than a 'revue' of the kind that Fiona Richmond appeared in. Pretensions are all very well, but they don't really belong in pornography.

This book comes courtesy of the Grove Press, and is based on the Broadway production. And - despite everything - it's a lovely production, with the texts to the central sketches and dozens of illustrations, many of which (and this will surprise no one who's read about Tynan's private life) concern spanking. Well look, take this, for example:

now that's what I call quite sophisticated

It should be noted, however, that if all this seems a tad tame and perhaps even prissy, it was a minor cause célèbre back then: the stage show wasn't prosecuted (to Tynan's disappointment, one feels), but a British bookseller was fined 150 for importing from America a consignment that included seven copies of this book.

Another picture? Oh, go on then...