Oh, Calcutta! premiered at the Eden Theater in New York City on June 17, 1969, and in London the following year. Originally devised by the drama critic, author, and journalist Kenneth Tynan, as “an evening of elegant erotica,” it was conceived and directed by Jacques Levy during a period in America when sexuality was being extensively explored, both in the arts and the general population. As an enthusiastic admirer of the nightclub performances of Lenny Bruce, Tynan had always been a vociferous opponent of the theater censorship that existed in England from the mid-eighteenth century. In 1965 he wrote that governments effectively control artists in two ways, through direct censorship, and through withholding subsidies, thereby forcing the playwrights “to turn out lovable, undisturbing after-dinner entertainment.” Tynan believed that erotic stimulation was a legitimate function of art, good or bad.
Oh, Calcutta! was basically a musical revue consisting of sketches and group musical numbers by various writers. However, the show included blatant nudity, simulation of sexual intercourse, and libidinous humor, all of which shocked the New York critics, who described it as hard-core pornography, brutalizing, degrading, tedious, and witless, but also “shatteringly effective.” Audiences flocked to see the show. Besides enjoying long runs in New York and London, it was performed in cities throughout the world, though in Australia’s South Australia and Victoria states performances were banned.