THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW
background and analysis by Scott Miller
The Rocky Horror Show, that unlikely cult phenomenon with music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien, and a script by O’Brien and (uncredited) by director Jim Sharman and the original cast, hit the London stage in 1973, and it was certainly an animal like no other. At its core it tells a tale we’ve heard many times before, back even before Shakespeare, of braving a wilderness, of surviving lost innocence, of sexual awakening, about acceptance of difference, about birth and death, forgiveness and redemption, about the fall from grace of a transgressive god. And yet there is something different here, born as it was in the midst of the alternative theatre movement and at the dawn of the punk rock era. Of its first production in London, Jack Tinker wrote in the Daily Mail, “Richard O’Brien’s spangled piece of erotic fantasy is so funny, so fast, so sexy, and so unexpectedly well realised that one is in danger of merely applauding it without assessing it. That would be a pity. Because I believe Mr. O’Brien has something quite nifty to say.”
Rocky Horror explores American sexual hang-ups, the cultural chaos of the Sexual Revolution, and the sometimes cruel myth of the American Dream. It uses as its vocabulary pop a heady mix of cultural icons like Charles Atlas and muscle magazines, Frederick’s of Hollywood, old science fiction B-movies with scantily clad women, horror movies with barely sublimated sexual fantasies, punk and glam rock with their blurring of gender lines, collectively representing a long history of Americans hiding sex behind other things, of pretending to be sexless. And far from being an irrelevant museum piece today, Rocky holds lessons for us even now about how Americans over-react to nearly everything that comes along, and about how much happier we’d all be if we’d just stop doing that.
Because the show was created entirely by British artists, it has the advantage of an outsider’s objectivity in its exploration and satire of these mostly American phenomena. But its parentage also allows us to see its cross-dressing elements not as subversive transgressions, but instead as just one more example in a long tradition of cross-dressing, from boys playing girls in Shakespeare’s original productions, to men playing women in British pantomime, to the later androgyny of British glam rockers like David Bowie, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Bryan Ferry, Boy George, and others. For the British, the cross-dressing in Rocky was perhaps the least subversive element when it opened in London.
The Rocky Horror score is often dismissed as simplistic bubble-gum pop, but a closer examination shows fairly sophisticated storytelling through the music, delineating character and showing us the relative intensities of sexual awareness and openness among the characters. In this score, sexuality is expressed through the beat of rock and roll. Notice that Brad and Janet sing the softest pop (“Dammit Janet,” “Once in a While”), the servants sing rock with a harder beat (“The Time Warp,” “The Sword of Damocles”), and Frank gets the hardest beat, complete with electric guitar distortion (“Sweet Transvestite,” “The Charles Atlas Song”). Eddie sings late 1950s rock and roll (“Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?”), a form already in the past, showing us that he and his innocent view of sexuality are no longer part of this world. When Brad and Janet become sexually awakened, they are able to sing the harder rock of “Rose Tint My World” and “Wild and Untamed Thing.” We can watch Brad’s transformation, from the innocence of “Dammit Janet” to the self-awareness of “Once in a While,” to the frightening sexual awakening of the floor show to the despairing but perceptive poetry of “Super Heroes.” You can trace the musical journeys of Janet and Frank the same way. Whether O’Brien did all this consciously or not, nonetheless it’s all there and it tells us musically who these people are and how they change, just like all the greatest works of musical theatre do. Though many people might laugh at the notion, Rocky Horror is in many ways a serious musical and a serious social document.
Interestingly, many of the artists involved with the original productions of Rocky Horror have said in interviews that they believe the subsequent American productions in Los Angeles and New York and the film version lost much of what’s important about the show, its grit, its rawness, its confrontational directness, its relationship with its audience – a relationship quite different than what the film has with its audience. The original Rocky confronted and challenged its audience. Like Hair, Rocky was born out of the alternative theatre experiments of the 1960s. When it was mainstreamed (to the extent that Rocky Horror can be mainstreamed), when it was made slick and expensive, when the sets got better, when the score was orchestrated, some believe it lost its soul, its politics, its pre-punk sound, its edge. One listen to the original London cast album from 1973 reveals a very different show from what many of us know today. Those who know only the film may not really understand what Rocky was like in an upstairs, sixty-seat theatre.
And this may explain why it is that the original production in London got such positive reviews and all subsequent productions and the film have gotten such negative reviews. The material was not changed in any substantial way, but its presentation was changed greatly. Perhaps the reason Rocky Horror has not been embraced by the critical community since 1973 is that they haven’t seen Rocky as it was meant to be.
It Was Great When It All Began
The Rocky Horror Show began its life called It Came from Denton High (in an homage to the sci-fi film It Came from Outer Space),then later The Rocky Hor-ROAR Show. Richard O’Brien said in a New York Times interview in 2000, that he had wanted “to write a rock ‘n’ roll show that combined the unintentional humor of B-movies with the portentous dialogue of schlock horror.” With just a few songs finished (and none written down), and the narrator’s dialogue, O’Brien took the project to director Jim Sharman, who immediately decided to produce the show in the experimental theatre upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre in London, whose artistic director George Devine believed totally in his motto, “Here we give you the right to fail.”
The Royal Court was the center of new work and experimental theatre in London, playing home to up and coming “bad boy” playwrights like John Osborne and Joe Orton. Rocky was born out of the experimental theatre going on in London in the late sixties and early seventies, street theatre, guerilla theatre, political theatre, confrontational, rule-breaking alternative theatre. Many of the show’s creators had worked on both Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. O’Brien had been in Hair and had understudied Herod in Superstar. With music director Richard Hartley’s help, the Rocky score took shape and was arranged for a four-piece rock band. With the help of Jim Sharman and the assembled cast, the script was developed, almost as a group creation. The role of Columbia was created specifically for “Little Nell” Campbell, a street performer, and “The Time Warp” was written both to give the servants something more to do, but more than that, to give Campbell a tap solo in the midst of this crazy revisionist rock musical. Originally the show used a framing device of a kid watching sci-fi movies on TV, but that was scrapped early on.
Sharman took the cast to see the camp classic film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – which was playing in London at midnight as a cult hit – and told them that was to be their stylistic inspiration. On the other hand, Sharman made it very clear that the characters should be played completely sincerely, that the stakes had to be high, that it was a fight of Good versus Evil. Like the later musicals Little Shop of Horrors or Bat Boy, Rocky only works when it’s played sincerely, despite its inherent craziness. Barry Bostwick, the film’s Brad, says of the acting style, “There was a slight over-the-top acting that was required, yet it had to be grounded in reality and very real. Sort of fifteen percent hyper-ness that had to be added on top of every character’s reality.” Playing the story for laughs killed it.
The show’s original three week run was extended to five weeks, then it was transferred to an old movie theatre destined for demolition. After the cinema was demolished, it moved to the King’s Road Theatre. It was named Best Musical of 1973 in the London Evening Standard's annual poll of drama critics and ran 2,960 performances. Critic Irving Waddle wrote, “This is theatre made out of the rawest and crudest ingredients, and forming a charge strong enough to obliterate anything standing in its tracks.” Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian, “This show won me over entirely. It achieves the rare feat of being witty and erotic at the same time.” Naseem Khan wrote in The Evening Standard, “O’Brien has created a satirical and affectionate send-up that, unlike Rocky, remains well within control.” The New Statesman wrote, “The intention of course is to celebrate such freaks of pop culture as Hammer films, Alice Cooper, and the sci-fi of Michael Moorcook; and the result has tremendous invention, energy, and glee, right up to the final paean to bisexuality.” The show has since been translated into over a dozen languages and played more than twenty countries.
According to some accounts, Rocky Horror created the punk movement in London; according to other accounts Rocky helped fertilize the very earliest seeds of the movement. But putting aside the chicken/egg debate, the punk sound and the Rocky Horror sound shared much, both returning to the simplicity and directness of The Song, rejecting complexity and sophistication for directness and honesty. Just as the earliest rock and roll did, punk rebelled against ornament and ambition. The punks wanted to express simple (though not simplistic), honest emotions in the most direct way possible. The same could be said for the Rocky Horror score.
Likewise, whether Rocky inspired the punks or vise-versa, Rocky was there at the beginning and its faded-glamour, sadomasochistic look was the look of a new London subculture that would change the look and sound of rock and roll, and later, all of pop culture. Sue Blaine, the original costume designer, says, “I wouldn’t dream of taking credit for inventing punk! The Rocky Horror Show was definitely a big part of that build-up. It was happening at a time when the King’s Road [the bohemian section of London] was boiling up to something. I think certain elements of punk – for instance, ripped fishnet tights and glitter, and the funny-coloured hair – a lot of those aspects of it were directly attributed to Rocky.” She would go on to costume the stylish 1950s teen rock fable Absolute Beginners. The biggest surprise for Blane, O’Brien, Tim Curry, and others was the reaction women had to the corseted, fish-netted Frank N. Furter. No one would have ever guessed in 1973 that women would consider a man in a corset, platforms heels, and ripped fishnet stockings to be sexy. Maybe it was the times. Or maybe it was that our overly delineated boundaries between “male” and “female” aren’t as normal or as natural as we’d like to think.
Cards for Sorrow, Cards for Pain
After unprecedented success in London, the show was brought to the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t the same there – flashier, slicker, less sincere, less innocent – yet it still ran for a year and received some positive reviews. After the L.A. run, the artistic staff and much of the cast returned to England to shoot the film for 20th Century Fox. They made the film on a modest budget and a tight schedule, then flew back to the states to open the show on Broadway. Inexplicably, the theatre in New York was set up with the audience sitting cabaret style at small tables. The New York’s critics hated it, the show was universally panned and was a dismal flop, lasting only forty-five performances. It received one Tony Award nomination for lighting design but lost.
Patricia Quinn, the original Magenta, says of the American productions, “The show lost a lot of its naiveté. It lost its gritty appeal. These people improvised and made it glitzy.” Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times, “It was unexpected, unpretentious, and the cinema itself [in the original London production], from the peeling walls to the grubby seats, provided it with the perfect ambiance. It now looks flashy, expensive, and over-produced. Why did not someone understand – before the Los Angeles paint job – that the entire point of The Rocky Horror Show in London was that it was tacky?” But those who did not know the original stage version could not see the show’s strengths beyond its over-produced spectacle in New York. Martin Gottfried wrote in the New York Post, “The Rocky Horror Show is simple-minded, however beautifully it has been produced.” Once the show’s creative staff lifted Rocky up out of the realm of low-budget, minimalist, fringe theatre, they betrayed the low budget B-movies that were Rocky’s source material, and many argued they also lost Rocky’s soul.
Some critics were still fighting the idea of rock musicals themselves. In the previous six months, two ill-conceived rock musicals had crashed and burned, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, based on the songs of the Beatles, and The Night That Made America Famous, based on the songs of Harry Chapin, reinforcing that prejudice. One of the anti-rock brigade, James Spina, wrote in Women’s Wear Daily, “Rock is an approved forbidden fruit, the required final course for those theatre majors already well-graded in transvestitism, bisexuality, and gore.” He found the show “tacky, boring, and highly forgettable.”
The film version was a big flop too. Until enterprising movie theatres started running the film at midnight. Some say it first happened in Austin, Texas, others say it was at the Waverly Theatre in New York (immortalized in Hair’s song “Frank Mills”). Within a few months, a cult hit had been born. Stage and screen director Jim Sharman and designer Brian Thompson based the style of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the film version added the word Picture to the title) on another small film they’d made, Shirley Thompson Versus the Aliens. They consciously changed Rocky’s look, making the film more gothic, less punk than the stage version had been.
The show was revived in London in 1999 and on Broadway in 2000. Of the New York production, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, “For eight or nine times the price of a movie, in other words, you can relive in simulation a film you have already seen and, if you're a cultist, seen many, many times.” Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Post, “The show, which has book, music and lyrics by O'Brien, started in 1973 at London's Royal Court Theater, moving after a few months, to a wonderfully sleazy and dilapidated cinema in King's Road, where I first saw it. It was then bizarre, sweet and oddly charming. Arriving on Broadway two years later in an ill-advised and pointless cabaret setting, it looked weird, preposterous and distinctly charmless, and went belly-up after 45 performances. The current over-produced Broadway offering, directed by Christopher Ashley, clearly believes that nothing succeeds like excess and has piled encrustation upon ornamentation.” Barnes reviewed it again later with several cast replacements and wrote, “What do you say in the second place about a show you didn't much care for in the first place? I have nothing against The Rocky Horror Show, even Christopher Ashley's souped-up, over-staged and glossily vulgarized version at the Circle in the Square.” The Journal News said, “It wasn't exactly revolutionary in 1975, of course, but there was a freshness about it that is entirely gone now. Some very young audiences may get some kind of frisson out of it, but it all seems eminently safe, proper and self-conscious.”
The revival made the mistake of trying to emulate the film, most notably by encouraging audience participation and even selling ten dollar “prop” kits, but most reports suggest that the show wasn’t very successful in that respect. Most of the $80 seats were filled with older theatre patrons who either did not know the film (and therefore the jokes) very well or with folks who couldn’t afford the extra ten bucks on top of the high Broadway ticket price. Variety wrote, “This new production isn’t so much a revival of the original stage show – a huge hit in London that flopped quickly on Broadway – as a theatrical transcription of the 1975 screen version. . . Energetic participation is all but demanded.” But the question arises: why just do the movie on stage when the movie already exists and can be viewed on home video for far less than $80 a pop? Apparently, only a few audience members participated at any given performance, and unwilling audience members were often pestered by chorus members at certain points in the show until they submitted. So director Christopher Ashley actually paid actors to sit out in the audience and be the participatory audience the real audience would not be.
But it’s fair to ask why the show’s producers thought the audience participation from the film would work with the stage version, which has a fairly different script, different lyrics, and most important, timing that changes from night to night, unlike the leisurely pacing of the film, which real interactive audiences can count on to make room for the same jokes every night. More than that, O’Brien didn’t write the show to incorporate audience participation. And the film’s audience participation happened spontaneously, so any attempt to force it with a stage production was probably doomed from the start. Certainly, if the director had to pay actors to do the audience participation, something had been lost. Audience expectations walking into a Broadway theatre with an $80 tickets in hand are very different from expectations while seeing a midnight show at a seedy movie theatre with sticky floors.
The results of the revival’s misguided attempts were that critics blamed the misfires on the material, rather than the approach – material, don’t forget, that was universally praised in London when done with respect and the right aesthetic sensibility. Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Why would anyone want to stage a Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show, an artifact as mired in the 1970s as a pet rock? It surely can’t be because it’s a good play.” New York’s Daily News wrote, “Ashley, rightly, doesn’t even pretend that the original musical can stand alone.” Production designer David Rockwell was praised for capturing the “contemporary zeitgeist” with his Rocky Horror design, but apparently on one noticed that Rocky isn’t about 2000; it’s about 1973. In a chilling example of all that was wrong with the revival, director Ashley said in an interview with Time Out New York, “I decided to take the 70s out of it.” And, just as when Walter Bobbie took the 1920s out of his Broadway revival of Chicago, everything collapsed. Just as Chicago’s central themes and its wicked social satire rest entirely on the time period in which it’s set, so too is Rocky’s satire and social insights inextricably linked to the 70s. As the saying goes, “the more specific the details, the more universal the connection.”
Rocky is satirizing the 1970s. We may see resonance there for our own times, but the more specifically it lives in the seventies, the easier it can serve as a metaphor for today, allowing us to stand back from our own times and see them objectively. Frank is presented as a glam rock star because that was the only period of rock and roll during which gender became both fluid and irrelevant (the same reason Hedwig, of The Angry Inch fame, finds her home in that subgenre). The dissolution of gender roles was one of the things straight America feared the most. Frank’s lack of clear gender is his real monstrosity, which is why it’s always a mistake for productions to re-imagine Frank as anything other than a glam rocker.
To take the seventies and its issues out of Rocky Horror both emasculates it and short-circuits its social satire. No one in 2000 seemed to noticed that the leather and S&M themes in the revival costumes went exactly opposite to O’Brien’s original intentions of innocent, campy, goofy sexuality. Rocky Horror is not soft porn – it’s a satiric cartoon of sexuality at a particular time and place in American history. But director Ashley and his designers didn’t understand that. Only the Wall Street Journal could still see Rocky’s smarts behind all the distractions, and its reviewer Amy Gamerman wrote, “The carnival atmosphere of The Rocky Horror Show is so enveloping that it takes awhile before you notice how clever the show itself is – a smartly calibrated blend of salty, sweet and sarcastic, with its pierced tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.”
These days, the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show has eclipsed the stage version, with its wildly transgressive, vocal audiences. One commentator, Simon Fanshawe, wrote of the film, “The mantra of The Rocky Horror Picture Show was ‘Don't dream it, be it,’ and it hit the G-spot of the sexually omnivorous and opportunistic 1970s. Glam met rock, cross-dressed it, slept with it, and taught the audience all the tunes.” But what most of the film’s fans didn’t know was that famous mantra came from vintage Frederick’s of Hollywood magazine ads, originally nothing more than a manipulative cashing in on the desperate, sexual dreams of isolated suburban housewives. On stage, for the stage show’s original audience, the dark irony would have been obvious. The famous phrase was one of many cultural devices that helped the people with power and money tell those without what sex should be. It represented the Establishment as it cynically commercialized sexual pleasure. Could it be that Rocky Horror as a film worked on young Americans in the 70s and 80s exactly the same way the magazine ads once worked on those housewives? Rocky was (perhaps unintentionally) promising them sexual freedom and deviation, even though that promise would probably never be fulfilled.
But the film offered something else that may be more important. The majority of Rocky fans consider themselves misfits and outcasts in the real world. The communal ritual of Rocky screenings both welcomes them without judgment and also allows them an opportunity to actually choose their differentness, to be finally in control of the reasons why they live outside the mainstream, to choose outsider status. In this world where weird is no longer weird, everything is normal except normality. Here, Brad and Janet are the weirdos.
Perhaps the film took on its life of audience participation precisely because Rocky Horror is and must be an inherently shared, live experience. But many of those involved with the original stage versions lament the loss of the material’s meaning and impact through the shouted responses of the film audiences. But maybe the magic on stage could only be replicated on screen with an analogous live component. Of course, much about the Rocky film experience was not new. The Palace Theatre in San Francisco had been showing midnight films for years, with audiences dressing in costume, dancing in the aisles, even staging live shows alongside the films.
Sue Blane, Rocky’s original costumer, says of the audience participation, “It is funny, but on the other hand, it doesn’t allow you to see what a damn good piece of theatre it is. The script is really tight, very funny. The music is sensationally good. You will never witness the original again because of the audience participation.” Of course, that’s not true; theatres all over the world produce the stage show more or less in its original form. Most of them do not encourage audience participation, and the script and style of the stage show are different enough that many of the traditional shout-outs don’t make sense. Susan Sarandon, the film’s Janet, says of seeing the film, “You couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. It was just obscenity. Chaos. So it had lost what it had before, what made it clever. Though it may not be true of the stage show, the film no longer belongs to its creators; it belongs to the audience. It’s their show now.”
Several Rocky Horror stage cast members over the years have gone on to stardom. In addition to Tim Curry and Meat Loaf, Russell Crowe appeared as Eddie, Dr. Scott, and the Frank N. Furter understudy in Australia in 1987, Tracy Ullman played Janet in London in 1980, and Jerry Springer played the narrator in Cincinnati in the early 1980s. And the film cult continues. On July 11th, 2001 over 2,500 people attended Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, Colorado, to watch the film in the biggest Rocky gathering on record.
Rocky Horror is not just about sex and rock and roll. It’s not just mindless entertainment. Rocky is about something, issues that need discussing, questions that need answering, maybe more now in our cyber-age than ever before. Richard O’Brien once said, “We have a contract with life: the more intelligent you are, the more responsible you are. The more intelligence that’s given to you as a gift, the more you have to give back to society, the more your responsibility to make change, to improve things, is incumbent upon you. That’s the deal.”
David Evans, co-author of Rocky Horror: From Concept to Cult, writes, “I remember how I felt, coming out into Sloane Square on that first night in June 1973. I felt such surging joy, such euphoric elation. I know I must have been grinning from ear to ear for hours. I felt empowered, validated, and no longer alone.”
Give Yourself Over to Absolute Pleasure
In 1948, Alfred Kinsey published his world shattering Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which declared that more than 90% of American men had masturbated, more than half had had affairs, 69% had used prostitutes, and 39% had reached an orgasm with another man. Not surprisingly, his book was an overnight bestseller. Kinsey hadn’t changed sex in America; he had just told us what we were all doing, especially the things no one talked about. Suddenly, almost overnight, Americans were talking about sex – in detail – over their kitchen tables. Politicians immediately denounced all this as immoral and shocking and announced that it would mean the end of The Family – just as religious extremists in the 1980s and 1990s declared that gay marriage would destroy that same Family. Needless to say, none of these folks were happy when Kinsey published his next book in 1953, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. This study revealed that 33% of American women were not virgins when they married, 13% had had sex with more than six partners, and 69% of unmarried women who’d had premarital sex had no regrets about it.
Inspired by this new sexual honesty in America and in response to the reinforced efforts at sexual repression and demonization, Hugh Hefner published the first issue of Playboy in 1953, with a then unknown Marilyn Monroe on the cover and naked inside. In 1962, Harper’s Bazaar published a full page color ad featuring the famous model Christina Palozzi, completely nude. Perhaps the Powers That Be could have tamped all this down a bit had it not been for the explosion of rock and roll which took America by storm in 1954 and the years following. But the times, they were a-changin’, and in 1957, in response to a pornography case, the U.S. Supreme Court finally officially acknowledged that sex “is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern,” finally dispelling the notion that sex equaled pornography. Standards were loosening.
Teenagers became more promiscuous than ever but had not learned enough about birth control. Twenty percent of teenage girls who had sex were getting pregnant. But in 1960, the world changed forever with the invention of The Pill, the first oral contraceptive. For the first time, women had control over when they got pregnant, which allowed them to enjoy sexual experimentation outside of marriage with no dire consequences. Though condoms and diaphragms already existed, the pill was much easier, safer, and more convenient, and it changed the way women had sex. Within its first six years, five million women began taking the pill. In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown wrote her great, subversive sex manifesto, Sex and the Single Girl, also a bestseller, which said it was okay to have sex outside of marriage and, even more subversive, that it was okay never to get married at all. In Rocky Horror, Janet’s famous mantra in “Toucha Toucha Touch Me” represented a generation of woman desperate to explore and celebrate all the things their mothers had condemned as dirty and disgusting, as improper and un-ladylike. The conventional wisdom on sex and the female body was being called into question in big ways. And at the same time, Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique persuasively and controversially attacked the myth of the “happy homemaker.” In 1966, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, two sex researchers, published Human Sexual Response. Until then, many people honestly did not know what the clitoris did; so Masters and Johnson told them, most notably in a 1969 Playboy interview. By the end of the 60s, many states had stuck down their adultery and sodomy laws, and eight million women were taking the Pill.
In the early 1970s, the hardcore pornography industry exploded in America, cranking out more porn films than ever before, including several that attracted curious, mainstream audiences – Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and The Devil in Miss Jones. The surprise hit Deep Throat was made for $25,000 and grossed more than $10 million, just from theatre exhibition, not counting later profits from video. This wasn’t a complete surprise since mainstream films like Midnight Cowboy, Carnal Knowledge, Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice, and Last Tango in Paris had already been quite sexually explicit. Porn films were interesting because they were a kind of post-modern, meta-cinematic form; the actor and character could no longer be separated because when the character was having sex, so was the actor, and everybody knew it. Porn became not only a threat to “polite society,” but in a strange way, an entirely new art form.
But it also essentially ended the Sexual Revolution, transforming it from a movement into a business. With the incredible commercial success of Deep Throat and other films, sexuality was now a commodity, more so than it had ever been before. And that ended the idealism about sex that the 1960s had embodied.
Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?
Puritans weren’t the only ones who thought the Sexual Revolution was a bad thing. Others disliked it because they felt this new movement took all the mystery and magic – and most important, the romance – out of sex. In Rocky Horror, Eddie’s song “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?”(also called “Hot Patootie”) addresses this issue of how the hippie movement and the sexual revolution ruined everything. There’s even a reference to the change (for the worse, in Eddie’s opinion) in American pop culture and music, away from the romance of 1950s rock and roll, and toward the politics and disenfranchisement and nihilism of 1960s acid rock, embodied in the image of rock icon Buddy Holly’s premature death. Far from the pointless interruption of the show that someone people accuse it of being, Eddie’s song is a pointed commentary on the way the Sexual Revolution (in the person of Frank) was ruining romance in America (in the person of Columbia), a last, metaphorical stab at stopping the tide of the sexual revolution, and a final warning as the show’s first half comes to a close that Brad and Janet’s world is gone. Frank and the Sexual Revolution are too strong, and they silence forever the simplicity and purity of 50s rock and romance through Frank’s act of murdering Eddie, in effect also shutting the door forever on Brad and Janet’s old-fashioned world of sexual innocence.
This is also a theme addressed, though more subtly, in the show’s opening, “Science Fiction Double Feature.” A close reading of this lyric shows a real longing for the innocence of the 1950s, when sex was all subtext and metaphor. The song start by taking us back to that idealized time when movies told Americans what was good and bad, right and wrong, acceptable and “deviant.” And they told us all this very carefully and indirectly. But subtextual sexuality couldn’t stay hidden forever. Rock and roll would emerge, alongside drive-in movies, and these forces would change sex forever. This opening song sets up the central conflict of the show, though like the movies it celebrates, it does so subtly. It positions open, overt sexuality as not just a threat, but also a despoiler of the innocent, sweet, teen sexuality of the 1950s, a kind of innocence that existed more on the screen than in the back row of the local movie house.
O’Brien is talking about the very center of the culture of the fifties: the nexus of sex, drive-ins, and rock and roll. And a big part of the drive-in experience was low-budget science fiction, often in double features. “Science Fiction Double Feature” is O’Brien’s prologue, his statement of purpose. This will be a story about the (false) moral perfection of the 1950s as it slams up against the Sexual Revolution, here rendered in the back row.
I’ve Been Making a Man with Blond Hair and a Tan
But even though no one was supposed to talk about sex in the 1950s, America had other sexual outlets during that time, including one that takes comic center stage in The Rocky Horror Show. Bodybuilding and its accompanying muscle magazines became in the 1950s not only an innocent way for gay men to ogle beautiful, mostly naked men, but also the birthplace of gay soft porn. Richard O’Brien takes all the innocent sexual metaphors of the past, all the ways of talking about sex without talking about sex, and makes them all explicit in Rocky Horror, showing how silly they always were, not the least of which is Charles Atlas muscle ads and “fitness” magazines.
The first muscle magazine to acknowledge (though subtly) the connection between bodybuilding and sex was Joe Weider’s Your Physique, which debuted in 1938. Many magazines followed, and even today’s muscle magazines make no secret of the muscle-sex connection. Damion Matthews wrote in 2000 for Salon.com:
Available at most any newsstand, muscle magazines are homoerotic pornography for the masses. Their appeal seems to cross sexual orientations. Straight, gay and bisexual men have been known to enjoy them. In their pages, they eroticize both the flesh and the culture of men. To read them is to be sexually seduced into a fraternity to which all men are invited. They unite their readers in a kind of sexually charged adulation of masculinity. To the cult of testosterone in America, they have an almost biblical authority.
Though the appreciation of male strength and muscle goes back as far as Samson and Hercules, and though the modern bodybuilding culture began in America in the early 1900s, today’s popular muscle culture wouldn’t exist if not for a very few pioneers like Jack LaLanne and Vic Tanney, and most notably Charles Atlas. Atlas established a mail order business at the beginning of the twentieth century but had little success. It wasn’t until 1929, when Charles Roman joined him that business took off because Roman suggested advertising their products in comic books. The Charles Atlas “Dynamic Tension” program (mentioned in Rocky Horror) sold millions of copies, becoming the most successful mail order business in history, and is still advertised in comic books today. The ads declared, “In just seven days I can make you a man!” Surprisingly, Atlas’ plan did not include weightlifting, but instead consisted of stretching, calisthenics, isometrics, and daily affirmations. It made a lot of weight trainers angry, but no single man did more to popularize bodybuilding in America. He earned the title (though how and from whom is still unclear) “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” According to the CharlesAtlas.com website, Atlas’ measurements are “on file” (who knows where) as the “ideal male specimen for twentieth century man” – and the obvious choice as a model for Frank N. Furter’s experiment. Interestingly, Rocky Horror flirts in “The Charles Atlas Song” with the popular sci-fi theme of “science run amok” when Frank suggests that Charles Atlas’ plan is a waste of time, that Frank can make the perfect man more quickly and with far less effort. As so many sci-fi movies implied, anything that doesn’t take good old-fashioned hard work is suspect and probably the sign of Science Run Amok. After all, just look at the eventual results of Frank’s attempt at playing God.
The other bodybuilder mentioned in Rocky Horror, the very handsome Steve Reeves, brought muscle mania to the silver screen, most notably in the not very good but very popular Hercules (1957), a film not even intended for U.S. release until its producer saw Reeves’ star power and changed his plan. Originally filmed in Italian, it was quickly redubbed in English and released in America. Reeves quickly became a gay icon. Interestingly, Charles Atlas always claimed a statue of Hercules in the Brooklyn Museum is what inspired him to begin his own bodybuilding. So, of course, Frank N. Furter’s blond creation, Rocky Horror, is the pop cultural offspring of both Reeves and Atlas.
Rocky Horror’s roots lie in both science fiction and horror films, but perhaps its most ignored influence is the Kuchar Brothers’ 1965 underground film Sins of the Fleshapoids, which also influenced John Waters’ early work. Fleshapoids had a androgynous host/master of revels, a creepy castle, and robots instead of aliens, including two robots who fall in love and have sex, who could well be the inspiration for Riff Raff and Magenta. Even the look of parts of the Rocky Horror movie looks a lot like Fleshapoids.
The horror genre, in books and films, has always been one way humans deal with their greatest fears, primarily death, science, “other people,” and with sex. Dracula was about the fear of unbridled sexuality (both in its original novel and in film versions). The Fly and Frankenstein were about the fear of science gone too far (which some still fear today). Invasion of the Body Snatchers was about the fear of Communists infiltrating America. The Day the Earth Stood Still was about the fear of nuclear war. Forbidden Planet was about the fear of teenage sexuality and the classic sin of man playing God.
Rocky’s opening number pays tribute to and frankly acknowledges the contributions of many horror and science fiction B-movies. It’s interesting to note that while the song references several movies from the 1950s, two from the 1930s and one from the 1960s, there is nothing there from the 1940s. Sci-fi films were virtually non-existent during World War II, replaced by war movies and stories of “traditional” families being happy and hyper-patriotic. Also, most of the movies cited in “Science Fiction Double Feature” are shorter films, generally running only about eighty minutes. True to the song’s title, most of these films were intended to run as part of a double feature and the theater owners wanted to get two of them in, along with a cartoon and a newsreel, in under three hours.
Horror films have always represented our current cultural fears. In the 1930s, horror films dealt with our fear of our own more primitive, animal side. In the 1950s, they dealt with our fear of science after the use of the atom bomb. In the 1970s, they dealt with our fear of ourselves, the excesses of the 60s and 70s, the loosened moral code (which is why the most sexually active characters are most sure to die in these films). All three of these subjects can be found in Rocky Horror. And the most sexually active characters in Rocky are the ones who must die.
The movies references in “Science Fiction Double Feature” include The Day the Earth Stood Still, the Flash Gordon serials, The Invisible Man, King Kong, It Came From Outer Space, Doctor X, Forbidden Planet, Tarantula, The Day of the Triffids, Curse of the Demon, When Worlds Collide, and The Bride of Frankenstein. The song also mentions George Pal, special effects pioneer and director who helmed War of the Worlds, a film with parallels to the story of Rocky Horror.
Rocky Horror references When World Collide through both an older male character in a wheelchair – Mr. Stanton in When Worlds Collide and Dr. Scott in Rocky – and the promise of a trip to another planet in a rocket ship. Dr. Scott also has a parallel character in Professor Deemer in Tarantula. The theme of science gone too far, a central theme in Rocky Horror and a common theme in 1950s sci-fi, shows up in Tarantula, The Invisible Man, and Frankenstein. Rocky shares several parallels with Doctor X – a strange, murderous scientist doing experiments in his lab, a doctor in a wheelchair, a maid and butler (in tails, no less), and a prominent shot of a grandfather clock striking midnight. And of course Doctor X owes a lot to Frankenstein (which was released one year earlier), the clearest model for Rocky Horror, though surprisingly not mentioned in “Science Fiction Double Feature.”
One of the less obvious references in that first song is to the unfairly forgotten classic horror flick Curse of the Demon. In the film, psychologist Dana Andrews is investigating the mysterious death of a colleague. Over the course of his investigation a curse is placed on him by a dangerous cult leader, and it turns out the method of placing the curse is to pass into the victim’s possession a piece of parchment covered with ancient runes – but it must be done without the victim’s knowledge, which explains why passing those runes used lots of skills. The last part of the film is filled with the surprisingly effective suspense of whether Dana Andrews will be able to pass the runes – and the curse – back to the villain.
One tribute most people don’t notice is that part of Rocky’s narrative exposition closely mirrors The Werewolf vs. The Vampire Women, a trashy but surprisingly entertaining 1971 drive-in movie. Werewolf contains two young people – here, both women – driving through the woods and getting lost, a breakdown, a rainstorm, an old gothic mansion, a weird 70s sexual vibe, and a sexy lesbian vampire queen. A car accident in a rainstorm also shows up in the classic 1934 film The Black Cat (which weirdly combines elements of Dracula and Sweeney Todd), as the young couple is taken to the castle of a Satanic priest who performs a bizarre ritualistic ceremony. Another possible inspiration can be found in The Manipulator in 1970 (with Mickey Rooney!), complete with a madman who kidnaps women and forces them to co-star in imaginary movies with him. Well into the mid-1970s, the “drive-in” genre still had plenty of room for lots of sexy, gory horror films for horny teenagers, though most would be quickly forgotten.
Rocky Horror also follows in the footsteps of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, using its metaphors to express our anxieties about our culture and our sexuality. Even the aliens’ home planet in Rocky, usually the metaphor for the roots of whatever evil was coming at us, is called Transsexual. And like Dracula, Rocky Horror deals with issues of alternative expressions of sexuality (including scenes of group sex in both sources), advances in science, women’s independence, and foreigners. In Dracula, Stoker was thinking about the changes in women’s roles in Victorian England, their changes in clothing and social independence, as well as widespread fear of the implications of Darwin’s new theory of evolution, the greatly increased influx of foreigners into England, and perhaps even his own (suspected) homosexual relationship with actor Henry Irving. All those things scared Stoker and his readers and he gave them an outlet for those fears in his mysterious Count. In Rocky Horror, O’Brien was thinking about the sexual revolution and how it was changing western society, the women’s liberation movement, nuclear proliferation and the paranoiac fear of communism, growing drug use among mainstream society, and again, his own very fluid sexuality.
Rocky Horror’s roots can also be found elsewhere. Richard O’Brien says Frank N. Furter is based on Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I and on Disney’s Cruella DeVil. The “Time Warp” dance was inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s film Bande à part (1964). The words “love” and “hate” written on Eddie’s knuckles were taken from Night of the Hunter (1955). The scene in the film in which Rocky emerges from the water tank is taken directly from Hammer Films’ The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), apparently even using the same prop tank. Dr. Scott is at least partly based on Peter Sellers’ masterful comic character Dr. Strangelove, the wheelchair-bound German scientist in the film Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Also, interestingly (and in a break from its sci-fi roots), Rocky parallels Mutiny on the Bounty, with Frank as the crazy, abusive, power-mad Captain Bligh and Riff Raff as the kinder, saner (!) Fletcher Christian. Frank/Bligh mistreats those under his command until Riff Raff/Christian can’t take it anymore and commits mutiny. Parallels range from the fact that both sets of characters are on long journeys, to the fact that both captains are sadists who whip their underlings. There’s even a little taste in Rocky Horror of the 1930s “scare” film Reefer Madness, which tried to convince audiences that just one puff on a marijuana cigarette turns the user into a sex-crazed, homicidal maniac; certainly a possible target of O’Brien’s satire, when one whiff of Frank’s LSD-like spray (in the stage version) turns Brad, Janet, Rocky, and Columbia into sex-crazed glam rock performers.
In a less obvious tribute, Rocky Horror also pays homage to the early television “horror hosts,” to “shock television,” and to the live “spook shows” that often accompanied showings of horror movies in theatres. Touring magicians provided shocking, scary, sometimes very gory magic shows called “spook shows” before screenings of late-night horror movies. That tradition morphed during television’s early days into the “horror hosts” like Vampira, A. Ghastlee Ghoul, Baron Daemon, Chilly Billy, Crematia Mortem, Svengoolie, and later, Elvira, among many others (the documentary American Scary explores all this). These local TV hosts emceed late-night, usually low-quality horror films – “shock theatre” – that local TV stations bought in inexpensive packages to fill up late night programming hours. In many cases, the films they were introducing were so bad, the hosts became the real reason viewers tuned in, returning every fifteen minutes or so throughout the films for jokes, sarcastic commentary, even sketch comedy. Some hosts were costumed as horror movie monsters themselves; others were not. The narrator in the stage version of Rocky Horror is likely modeled on these characters.|
Usually sci-fi films of the thirties expressed through metaphors (either explicit or not) the American public’s anxieties about advances in science and technology, and sci-fi films of the fifties expressed the American public’s anxieties about communism and the atomic bomb. It was in the 1920s, after World War I, that the first science fiction feature films appeared, films like Metropolis (1926), cautionary tales about the excesses of science. In fact, we can see parallels between Metropolis’s mad scientist and the beautiful, seductive robot he creates, and Rocky Horror’s Frank and Rocky. The parallel is even more striking today because in 1984 this classic silent film was re-released with a hard rock score. Frank N. Furter and his fellow aliens victimizing the poor, dumb humans, find their earliest ancestors in the many space/alien movies of the 1930s and 1950s, like The Things from Another World, War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, This Island Earth, and others. Aliens were often metaphors for those un-American, godless Communists. But there were also alien films that took the opposite point of view. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien was a peaceful visitor with an anti-nuclear war message. There were also sci-fi films throughout the 1950s that warned of the dangers of man playing God, of science going too far, inspired primarily by panic over advances in nuclear science. Films in this genre included The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and These Are the Damned.
But there are also explicit Biblical references as well. Rocky is the result of a virgin birth, after all. In “The Charles Atlas Song,” Frank promises, “In just seven days I can make you a man,” echoing the actual promises of Charles Atlas’ comic book ads, but also making a clear God reference, which also references Frankenstein. And Frank plays the role of serpent in the Garden of Eden (“innocent” pre-Sexual Revolution America), suggesting to Janet’s “Eve” that she taste from the “tree of knowledge,” and Janet in turn corrupts Rocky as an innocent “Adam” figure. (This interpretation is supported by the album cover of the original London cast album, which pictures a serpent winding around Frank’s body.) Later, after “the fall,” Brad begs Frank to take this dream away, in parallel to Christ’s plea to “Take this cup away.”
Rocky Horror followed in the footsteps of many sci-fi films which sometimes contained Biblical references, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, whose peace loving alien Klaatu has come to Earth to bring a message of love and peace, takes the name “Mr. Carpenter” and then dies and is resurrected.
Where There’s a Will…
Rocky also has surprising parallels to Shakespeare’s plays in general, and The Tempest specifically. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise since the show was created by classically trained British actors and director. And if anyone thinks it’s sacrilege to compare Rocky Horror to the Bard, let him not forget that Shakespeare’s plays were full of dirty jokes, improbable plots, supernatural events, and lots of drag.
Rocky Horror employs the Shakespearean theme of innocent young lovers going off into the woods (or an exotic island) where rules don’t apply, where sex and gender roles are fluid, where characters are changed, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. It’s all about transgression, crossing lines that normally cannot be crossed, but doing it all away from polite society, out in the woods. And as in many Shakespearean comedies, Rocky Horror uses the devices of gender-bending, surprises at the end, arrogance deflated, and the idea of servants becoming masters. Like Shakespeare’s comedies, Rocky blurs the line between sanity and insanity, good and bad, love and lust. There are even similarities, most notably, between Brad Majors and the earnest but not too bright Orlando in As You Like It. And the LSD-spray that Frank has Riff Raff spray on nearly everyone in the lab before the Floor Show has its parallels in the drops that Oberon has Puck drip onto the eyelids of the four lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a drug to make them lose their inhibitions and arouse their desires. And when As You Like It and Twelfth Night were first performed, in each play a boy actor played a girl pretending to be a boy. Sounds a bit like Rocky Horror, doesn’t it?
The classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet frankly acknowledged its debt to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the parallels extend to Rocky Horror as well. The themes shared among all three pieces include the opposition of reality and illusion, untamed nature versus civilization, and ideas about performance of gender and identity. Specific parallels between Rocky and Tempest abound. The Tempest starts with a shipwreck amidst thunder and lightning, while Rocky begins with a car breaking down amidst thunder and lightning. Frank N. Furter and Prospero both act as magical ringmasters manipulating everyone around them. Caliban and Rocky serve as the untamed, primitive creatures controlled by Frank/Prospero; and there is the attempted rape of Miranda by Caliban versus Janet’s seduction by Rocky. Prospero also puts on a small performance, the Masque of the Goddesses, in parallel to Frank’s floor show. In Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen’s article, “Prospero’s Dream: The Tempest and the Court Masque Inverted,” he writes:
The court masque played a crucial role in the way Renaissance monarchs chose to think about themselves. Masques served essentially as images of the order, peace and harmony brought about by the monarch's mere presence, and expressed didactic truths about the monarchy. Lavishly spectacular and visual, designed to enchant the eye, they formed a genre fundamentally different from the drama performed on the public stage.
Sounds a lot like Frank and his floorshow. Shakespeare used a play-within-a-play in many of his shows. The Rocky Horror floorshow also owes a debt to the play in Hamlet, in that both are staged in order to reveal hidden truths.
Both Prospero and Frank also make plans to return home at the end, though only Prospero of his own will, and Prospero must give up his powers in order to return, just as Frank’s power is taken from him. Frank and Prospero both even indulge in metaphors about death. Prospero says, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” Frank sings about going home, an unwitting prediction of his own imminent death, when he will return metaphorically to the earth. It’s also noteworthy that The Tempest has more songs than any other Shakespeare play (even though it’s fairly short), as well as references to instrumental music. If any of his plays were ripe for making into a musical, this one was it. And as luck would have it, Bob Carlton did turn The Tempest into the rowdy rock musical Return to the Forbidden Planet in the early 1990s.
Erotic Nightmares and Sensual Daydreams
Here in the upside-down world of Rocky Horror, Brad and Janet, two people who’d be considered normal under almost any other circumstances, are the weirdos, the outsiders, the unusual ones. The yardstick for what is and isn’t normal is shattered, just as the same thing was happening in America. What was normal in the 1950s – Ozzie and Harriet and the like – was no longer the norm. As the 1970s began, the hippies of the sixties were having children and starting families. Now parents were smoking pot. Adults were having wife swapping parties. Normal wasn’t normal anymore. And what was even more frightening to certain people – the idea of normal wasn’t just changing, it was falling apart entirely, in some parts of the culture.
Brad and Janet come to Frank’s castle as two entirely different people and they will have two entirely different experiences, Janet’s ultimately positive (in some ways), Brad’s clearly negative. It’s clear that both are looking for something as the story begins, both hoping for something they can’t quite name. The narrator’s second monologue describes metaphorically what is to come:
…It seemed that fortune had smiled on Brad and Janet and that they had found the assistance that their plight required – or had they? There was certainly something about this house… that made the both of them uneasy. But if they were to reach their destination that night, they would have to ignore such feelings and take advantage of whatever help was offered.
Though this paragraph seems straightforward enough on its surface, it’s easy to see below the surface. What is Brad and Janet’s inner plight and their inner destination? What feelings will they have to ignore? And what kind of “help” will be offered? Janet will find Frank’s assistance a lot more helpful than Brad will.
As early as “Over at the Frankenstein Place,” Janet is prepared to some degree for what’s to come, for her sexual “coming out.” Though she may or may not know it consciously, she’s using sexualized language – velvet and burning – and we might wonder if she’s been listening to the hippies more than Brad has, as she trusts that life will take her where she’s meant to go.
Brad’s verse (left out of the film) tells us that he’s hoping for something as well, but though Janet is sure she has a guiding star, Brad only hopes, maybe even tries to convince himself, that good things are ahead. Brad clearly references the two of them as a couple, but Janet does not. Janet is ready for an individual journey, while Brad is hoping for a dual journey. Janet is ready for sexual experiences, and she clearly revels in the experience she has with Rocky during “Toucha Toucha Touch Me.”
Later, in the floor show Janet declares her new life, while Brad can only be terrified. There’s a role reversal in the floor show; Janet and Brad have traded places. Whereas Janet was the “weak” woman who needs protection at the beginning of the story, now she is the strong one. She has gotten power from expressing her sexuality so freely. She’s in charge of her life now (although she’s still presumably under the influence of LSD drug spray used on her in the previous scene). And just as Janet has gained power, Brad has lost all his. He has gone from the being the dominant, hunter-gatherer-protector to calling for his mommy. He is lost in this world, the same world in which Janet is finally finding her way. Just as real American women did during and after World War II and into the 1960s, Janet has discovered there’s more to life than being a housewife, and she can never again go back to the way things were before.
Of course, that reversal of traditional gender roles is most obvious in the cross-dressing of Frank and other characters, but its real import is felt in Brad and Janet’s relationship. What is “naughty” and transgressive in one context brings about the disintegration of an engaged couple in another context. What is funny and ridiculous in the form of a transgendered alien is sad and tragic when Brad and Janet sing “Super Heroes” and we see that their lives have been devastated. Rocky Horror could see ahead to the crumbling of the Sexual Revolution. In 1980, Cosmopolitan magazine reported that “So many readers wrote negatively about the Sexual Revolution – expressing longings for vanished intimacy and the now elusive joys of romance and commitment – that we began to sense there might be a sexual, counter-revolution under way in America.” In 1982, New York magazine published an article called, “Is Sex Dead?” Esquire published the article, “The End of Sex,” which said, “As it has turned out, the Sexual Revolution, in slaying some loathsome old dragons, had created some formidable new ones.” Brad and Janet have been through the Sexual Revolution and found it not just unsatisfying but destructive.
Brad’s lyrics in his big torch song “Once in a While” (unfortunately and carelessly cut from the movie) reveal more about him than any other moment in the show. He believes in love just as innocently, just as passionately, just as fully as Frank believes in physical pleasure. Brad tells us that Janet’s infidelities have broken his heart, and have ended their relationship. And yet, despite the fact that Janet’s behavior goes against every moral precept in which Brad believes, still his love for her is stronger, and he knows that if she just apologizes, if she still loves him, they can be alright again. He’ll take her back, apparently no questions asked. We have to understand just how huge that is for this very straight-laced guy who sees the world entirely in moral black and white. Perhaps it’s his own transgression (passive though it was) that has mellowed him, humbled him, that has taught him the world isn’t as black and white as it once seemed. Unfortunately, Brad seems to think that once the apology is made, once forgiveness is granted, he and Janet can go back to the way things were before all this happened. Of course, they can’t. They’ll never be the same again. They’ve lived in blissful ignorance – metaphorical darkness – all this time, blind to the dark side of life, of sexuality, of lust, of betrayal, but that light “Over at the Frankenstein Place” has been turned on in their lives, and once they’ve seen this side of themselves and each other, they can’t hide in the dark anymore.
So what will Brad and Janet be like when they get home? Will they stay together? Will they get married? Brad seems to be destroyed by his experience, but Janet is empowered by hers. Is this telling us that we can choose how we react to the excesses of our culture, that the culture itself is not dangerous, but merely how we interact with it?
Their last words, in the song “Super Heroes,” tell us a lot about what they’ve gone through and offer some insight into where they go from here. Brad has tried to live the life he was expected to live, tried to find the right wife, get the right job, plan the right future. Like most Americans, he believed that some deceit was justified in the climb up the social and corporate ladder. But even though he’s done everything he was supposed to do, his life has now taken an unexpected turn and nothing he was taught prepared him for this. Polite adults just didn’t talk about homosexuality, about drugs, about “experimentation,” so he has come to this adventure completely ill-prepared.
Janet regrets her actions to some extent, but she will not deny her feelings. Her sexual appetite can no longer be set aside, ignored, denied in favor of living a “decent” life. Janet has been sexualized and she will not refuse these new feelings, even though they scare her, even though they go against most of what she was taught about “proper young ladies.” Her innocence has been taken by the “super heroes” who have come to feast on her flesh, the icons of pop culture: movie stars, rock stars, and self-constructed cultural icons like Timothy Leary, Andy Warhol, Goldie Hawn, Hugh Hefner, and others, who present their overly sexualized personas as the only real alternative for the hip cultural elite and those who aspire to that hipness.
The Rest of the Family
Unlike Rocky in the film version, the stage Rocky actually speaks, and is a very different character. Rayner Bourton, the original Rocky from the first London production, hated the film presentation of his character. He says, “Rocky is the noble savage, the feeling beast. The beast within everyone. Rocky is the character whom we all either want to be or take care of or advise or have as our best friend. Something untamable.” Bourton sees Rocky as a Pinocchio figure, a good boy who is tested. He doesn’t like that Rocky was reduced to a nonverbal “thing” in the film, rather than the fully formed character he was on stage. Bourton says, “My Rocky had an incredible amount of truth, and an immense amount of naiveté.”
Considering Rocky Horror’s obvious parallels to The Tempest, Rocky is a strange mixture of Caliban the savage and Miranda, Prospero’s innocent daughter, while Frank is both Prospero and the violent Caliban. But Caliban can also be seen as the unwilling slave, just as Rocky is slave to Frank. Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda is often interpreted as a brutal act, but it can also be seen as his innate – and yes, primitive – desire to “be fruitful and multiply,” to people this island that belonged to him long before Prospero showed up, just as God intended, some might say. We can see Rocky’s attraction to Janet in somewhat the same way. He is Natural Man (despite his unnatural origins), propelled entirely by primitive drives not yet civilized out of him.
If Brad represents a too repressive reaction to the Sexual Revolution and Janet is a too permissive reaction, then Rocky represents the simple, natural state of sexuality. Maybe Rocky is what sex is supposed to be, a completely natural human impulse, free of baggage – not a sociological movement, not a political issue, not a source of guilt or sin, just an innate part of being human. With Rocky, sex is not a reaction to anything. There is no agenda. There is no ulterior motive. Rocky feels an attraction to Janet and he wants to have sex with her. Rocky represents a return to the Garden of Eden. Rocky – made by science, not born of a human mother – stands outside the “fall of man,” unstained by “original sin,” unfettered by human hang-ups and the labyrinth of Bible-based sexual dos and don’ts. Rocky represents human sexuality free from the insanity of 1970s America.
Also basically innocent, Columbia is a rock groupie, the kind of young girl who follows rock bands around, sleeps with the musicians, and worships them from either far or near. Frank “collected” her at some point in the past just like he did with Eddie, Brad, and Janet, just one more toy, one more playmate (or is it “plaything”)? in Frank’s collection. Unfortunately for her, she fell in love with Frank, as groupies often do. She loved him and he grew bored with her pretty quickly (as he does with all his playthings), and moved on to Eddie. Then, when Frank tosses Eddie aside in favor of Rocky, Columbia tells us that she very nearly loved Eddie, in one of the show’s saddest lines. Very nearly. Maybe if she had actually loved him, the two of them could have left the castle together. But as much as she wanted to love him, she didn’t. She only nearly loved him. It’s interesting how much we know about Columbia and Eddie, despite how few words are said about or by either of them. We know Columbia tried to rescue Eddie – at least emotionally. In the midst of the craziness of this freakish commune of aliens and humans, Columbia tried to keep Eddie from falling apart. Apparently, it didn’t work. Of course, we don’t know if she tried before or after Frank removed half of Eddie’s brain.
If we see Frank as the Sexual Revolution, if Brad is the part of America that freaked out and tried to retreat into greater puritanicalism, if Janet is the part of America that went crazy with sexual abandon, if Rocky is sexuality in its natural state, then Columbia represents those who tried Free Love and found it unfulfilling, those who followed the craziness of the Sexual Revolution but discovered sex without love wasn’t right for them. Columbia can’t separate her heart from her loins. She couldn’t enjoy the sexual circus that is Frank’s world because she fell in love with Frank, and maybe that’s why Frank discarded her, when the fun became serious for her. Like the title character in Pippin, written just one year earlier, Columbia tries sex without rules and it leaves her feeling empty and hollow, just as many of the Sexual Revolutionaries did in the late 1960s and early 70s.
The Floor Show
The floor show is not only the culmination of all the themes in the show, it’s also a little capsule history of the sexual revolution in America, and it operates on more than one level. Is it a comment that “free sex” is unnatural and can only be maintained when participants dress up “in costume” and “play a role”? In other words, was the Sexual Revolution really just a “performance” of this new freedom, in contradiction to the deeper human connection, intimacy, trust that people wanted? Or is the floor show a stripping away of the rules of “polite society” that reveals humans in their most natural, unencumbered sexual selves? In The Century of Sex, Petersen writes, “Porn offered one form of public sex. Couples learned that sexual energy was a movable feast, that watching sex was a turn-on. For some, the cinematic version wasn’t enough. They wanted to break the fourth wall, to participate. The seventies unleashed an unprecedented wave of exhibitionism, of public sex, of shared sex.”
Now as masked performers in Frank’s freaky sex show, Brad and Janet more explicitly explain their responses to the events of the night, once again mirroring the two halves of America at that time. Brad’s feelings of sexuality are overwhelming to him, uncontrollable, and decidedly mysterious and unwelcome. He doesn’t want to feel this way, but he can’t turn back this tide. Once he has become sexually active (and more to the point, bi-sexually active), he can never go back to being a virgin again. This has been Brad’s rite of passage into adulthood, however unconventional, and no matter how loudly he cries for his mother, he cannot go back to being a boy again. He can never undo the sex he has had with Frank, just as America could not undo and/or forget the sexual revolution once AIDS hit and it came time to pay the price for the freedom we had enjoyed. On the other side of the equation, Janet is reveling in her newfound sexuality, and even offers a prayer to the stripper Lily St. Cyr. Janet is a long way from Denton, and like Brad, she can really never go back to her old life. The difference is, she doesn’t want to.
So what is the message of Rocky Horror? Is there a statement beyond its satire of America’s sexual insanity? What about the kids who devote their lives to the film, hanging on desperately to the words, “Don’t dream it, be it.” Are they missing the dark underbelly of those words? Do they just ignore the three deaths only minutes after those words are sung? Or is the lesson of the story that freedom is good and sex is healthy, but mindless gluttony, of whatever sort, is dangerous? Both Brad and Janet experience sexual freedom and they both survive, though it’s unclear in what state. Maybe if we knew how their story ended, we’d know better what Rocky Horror is saying. Maybe Richard O’Brien’s proposed sequel will give us some clues, although it’s interesting that in several interviews he has admitted that he has no idea what happens to Brad and Janet after this story ends.
In O’Brien’s sort-of sequel, Shock Treatment, we do meet Brad and Janet again, sometime after their nightmare in the castle. They’re married now, the Sexual Revolution is over, and they’re living a basically normal life, but they both bear the scars of their adventure. Brad is damaged, weak, passive, while Janet has become dominant, powerful, active. Though the narrative doesn’t follow Rocky Horror, these two characters have a clear through-line connecting back logically to the events of The Rocky Horror Show.
If Rocky asks all these questions, can there be any doubt that it’s far more than the silly, oversexed rock musical that too many people assume it to be? This is smart, insightful satire, that asks us to think about our culture, our appetites, our relationships, and the way we live our lives. It ranks comfortably with the best social-issue musicals, Company, Assassins, Cabaret, Chicago, Rent, Urinetown, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The Rocky Horror Show is about sex and death. And what could be more important, or more central to the human experience, than that?
Richard O’Brien has been working on a stage sequel, tentatively titled Rocky Horror: The Second Coming (continuing Rocky’s religious imagery), in which Frank N. Furter comes back from the dead, with a song called “Frankie Phoenix.” O’Brien also wrote a film sequel called The Revenge of the Old Queen (the title refers to Frank’s mother, Queen of the Planet Transsexual), which was never produced.
Copyright 2002. Excerpt from Scott Miller's book Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll, and Musicals.
. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of
Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre
Deconstructing Harold Hill
Rebels with Applause
Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR