Beckett goes nude: Breath, Oh! Calcutta! and the sexual revolution
Speaker: Dr Graham Saunders (University of Reading)
Title: Beckett goes nude: Breath, Oh! Calcutta! and the sexual revolution
Venue: Seminar Room 1, OLRC, Selly Oak Campus
Most theatre audiences first introduction to Samuel Beckett’s drama in the early 1970s come not from major works such as Waiting for Godot or Endgame, but a ‘dramaticule’ lasting less than forty seconds. The piece, entitled Breath reached mass audiences worldwide due it opening an erotic revue, Oh! Calcutta! devised by the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. Beckett’s contribution was one amongst a whole host of other luminaries from the period, including John Lennon, David Mercer and Sam Shepherd. The show itself was heralded as landmark cultural event in espousing the spirit of sexual liberation that came to define the late 1960s.
The show opened in New York, but its original conception and many of its themes and preoccupations where definably British and its impetus came out of the struggles against the system of theatre censorship that existed in the UK until 1968. Its premiere the following year can also claim to be one of the first pieces of theatre that actively celebrated the lifting of strictures on what could be presented onstage.
Yet to see Breath as somehow totemic for the ‘permissive society’ seems highly dubious, as would Beckett somehow advocating the new found sexual freedoms of the late 1960s. In fact, his work often seems to be in direct antithesis to its values, where human sexuality amounts to deep-seated feelings of shame, punishment, or one of impotence and sterility.
Drawing extensively on archival sources including the Kenneth Tynan and Harold Pinter collections at the British Library as well as the Beckett archive at the University of Reading, this article will look in detail at Beckett’s somewhat unwilling secondment into the mores of the late 1960s sexual revolution through his involvement in Oh! Calcutta! Beckett’s own seeming estrangement from the utopian ideals of the times will also be framed through many of the contradictions thrown up by Tynan’s erotic revue: on the one hand it functioned as a high profile beacon in proclaiming countercultural values; yet with its transfer to Broadway, and subsequently productions in many of the major theatre capitals around the world, Oh! Calcutta! provided a safe, not to say anodyne introduction for middle aged and middle class audiences to gingerly expose themselves for the first time to material that had formerly been seen as taboo.
Graham Saunders is Reader in Theatre Studies at the University of Reading. He is author of Love me or Kill me: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes (Manchester: MUP, 2002), About Kane: the Playwright and the Work (London: Faber 2009), Patrick Marber’s Closer (Continuum, 2008) and co-editor of Cool Britannia: Political Theatre in the 1990s (Palgrave, 2008) and Sarah Kane in Context (MUP, 2010). He was Principal Investigator for the five year AHRC funded ‘Giving a Voice to the Nation’: the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Development of Theatre & Performance in Britain 1945-1994’ and is currently co-investigator on the three year AHRC funded project 'Staging Beckett: The Impact of Productions of Samuel Beckett's Drama on Theatre Practice and Cultures in the United Kingdom and Ireland'.
He has contributed articles on contemporary British and Irish drama to journals including Modern Drama, Journal of Beckett Studies, Contemporary Theatre Review, Theatre Research International, New Theatre Quarterly and Studies in Theatre and Performance.
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