Dramaturgy Note: CABARET at the Theatre Institute at Sage, Troy NY, October 2017
To express disbelief in the phenomenon of Nazism is to ignore human nature and the rhythms of civilization. Lingering poverty, weak government, disillusioned citizens, and aggressive censorship exist now and have always existed. Combine two or more of those conditions, turn up the heat, and a leader like Hitler could always stand a fighting chance of taking charge. And so it was in 1930s Germany, the time and place in which Cabaret is set: a hothouse of violence, suppression, and the sinister beginnings of a truly staggering genocide. Sally, Cliff, Fraulein Schneider, the especially ill-fated Herr Schultz, and the connective element of the Emcee whirl through a dreamlike German underworld of drink, sex, and increasingly desperate political satire. But we all known how it ends. The joke never lands, the laughter dies, and the Nazis envelop a country doomed to fifteen years of hatred and horror.
Cabaret’s origins lie in Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, a collection of vignettes from the author’s time in the city circa 1931. His experiences ran the gamut: from a wild New Year’s Eve party with a dominatrix, to raucous Communist party meetings, to street skirmishes with brownshirts, aka early Nazi stormtroopers. One of his featured characters is, of course, the “fascinating” Miss Sally Bowles. While Isherwood treats her as just another sad and strange figment of his fragmented reality, letting her slip from the narrative when her time is spent, John van Druten snatched her up and made her a theatrical staple in his 1951 play I Am a Camera. With a fixed parlor set and quips galore, it plays more as a drawing-room comedy than anything, plus a few mentions of Nazis and an abortion thrown in for good measure. The stage musical Cabaret premiered in 1966, and has since been produced countless times all around the world. The 1972 film Cabaret handed Sally off to the formidable Liza Minnelli; she gave an unforgettable performance, though many would say she did not quite disappear into the role.
Cabaret most recently reentered the public consciousness due to the 1993 revival at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee. Mendes presented a very different take on the now-classic story, trading the glitzy extravaganza of Harold Prince’s original production for a seedy nightclub, and the Emcee’s spiffy suit and sparkly chorus girls for suspenders and barely-clad backup dancers. The Donmar reimagining was widely celebrated and revived twice, once in 1998 and again in 2014, with Cumming returning as the Emcee both times. Although some reacted negatively to this version’s grungy feel and ramped-up sexuality, most praised it for its unflinching and quite accurate portrayal of the 1930s Berlin underworld, and the time’s pervading fog of apathy and despair.
However different each iteration of Isherwood’s original story might be, their tragic thru line remains the same. It was stated aptly by none other than I Am a Camera director Harold Clurman. “Everybody is adrift,” he said. “The fact that these people are basically nice, that their sin lies in their lack of any moral anchor, that they are cut off from one another, from society and even from themselves…makes the political violence outside them a result and a reflection of their inner disarray.” Self-awareness, genuine connection, and respect for others are powerful weapons against the sort of evil Hitler peddled. If Sally and Cliff ultimately failed to stand up to their own era’s demons, perhaps we can- in pitying them- find our own courage to fight this millennium’s monsters.
Study Guide: CABARET at the Theatre Institute at Sage, Troy NY, October 2017
CABARET, The Berlin Stories, and Christopher Isherwood
Cabaret premiered on Broadway in 1966 at the Broadhurst Theatre in NYC, starring Joel Grey as the Emcee and Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles. It ran for 1,165 performances before closing on September 6th, 1969. Judi Dench herself portrayed Sally in the first London production in 1968. It has been revived on Broadway and on the West End several times, has enjoyed myriad successful tours, and is produced frequently at colleges and by community theaters around the world to this day. Harold Prince’s original production featured not only the now-classic Bob Fosse moves and costume swastikas, but also a large mirror facing the audience as they took their seats before the show began. One could speculate that he meant for its members to see themselves in the cast of characters and the tumultuous time period. The German people were angry and vengeful, with generations of hatred and poverty looming behind them; Hitler and the National Socialist Party took full advantage of that desperation. Cliff is the audience avatar, the quintessential everyman; what might they have done in his place? What might any of us have done?
Cabaret’s literary origins lie in Christopher Isherwood’s collection of vignettes from his time living in the Weimar Republic, titled The Berlin Stories. One of its sections, “Goodbye to Berlin” (in which Sally makes her first appearance), begins with the famous line, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking…some day, all of this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” As much as the author described himself as “passive”, his exciting life- full of creativity, travel, and affairs- was anything but. Christopher Isherwood was born to wealthy parents in England in 1904. He attended several different schools in the United Kingdom for varying lengths of time, but repeatedly gave up his studies to pursue writing. In his mid-twenties, Isherwood rejected his upper-class background and embraced his attraction to men; he was drawn to Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s because of its reputation for sexual freedom. After leaving Berlin in 1933, he traveled the world, published a handful of his own works (like The Berlin Stories in 1939), and collaborated on other projects with fellow artists like W.H. Auden.
Isherwood eventually left Europe just ahead of World War II and settled in California, where he met Truman Capote, Aldous Huxley, and eventually the young Don Bachardy. Christopher and Don would share a strong bond that lasted thirty-three years, until the former’s death in 1986. Isherwood’s life was not without controversy, as he was mocked for the thirty-year age difference between him and Don, and for allegedly fleeing danger and not standing his ground against the Nazis with the rest of England. However, the author, playwright, and pioneer still left behind an impressive body of work, and gave the world a vivid view of just what was happening on the ground in Germany as Hitler gained power. That view was transformed into a play, two films, and a world-renowned musical that continues to entertain and educate people fifty years after it first premiered.
The Rise of the Nazis, and the Fall of Cabaret
Fritz Grünbaum was the toast of Austria and Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. Called by some “the Groucho Marx of Vienna”, he performed in music halls and cabarets in Vienna and Berlin, wrote popular songs and operettas, and appeared in several motion pictures. He is described by Lady in Gold author Anne-Marie O’Connor as “wicked, irreverent, and an astute mimic.” One cannot help but think of the Emcee in Cabaret while watching Fritz wink his way through the film My Wife the Impostor, or when listening to his recitation of the comic poem “Klein Elschen und die Viere.” Grünbaum also happened to be Jewish. In 1938, he was captured by the Nazis and sent to the now-infamous concentration camp at Dachau, where he entertained his fellow prisoners with imitations of the ruthless guards. After a brief time in the camp at Buchenwald, Grünbaum was returned to Dachau and was murdered in 1941.
This horrifying portrait of Nazism at its most baffling and violent- the systematic annihilation of Jews and other peoples considered “un-German”- originated long before Hitler took power in 1933. Germany operated under a rigid and militaristic patriarchy since its beginning as a unified country in 1871, when Otto van Bismarck brought together the Germanic territories by “Blood and Iron”. Ideas such as eugenics and defects passed down by heredity ran rampant in the sciences, public policy, social work, and medicine. A clear line was drawn between those who were valuable to the state and those who were not; that line could be determined through strict laws, tests, and “racial hygiene.” The ideal society for many Germans was a male Aryan utopia bound by a spiritual elitism, free of any “undesirables”, with women kept only for breeding purposes. World War One seemed like an opportunity to spread that fledging vision to the world, but Germany’s crushing defeat only pushed the country deeper into the dirt.
In the nightmare of hunger, inflation, reparations, and bitterness that followed the Great War, the art form eventually known as cabaret slowly took shape. First conceived as Kleinkunst (“little art”), it began as small, literary gatherings meant to elevate the minds of the middle class. Performers gathered in basements and other intimate environments to perform poetry, songs, and lectures. Most pieces were not political in nature, although those themes did increasingly infiltrate the medium as time went on. Unfortunately for Kleinkunst’s originators, the lowest popular culture also made its way onstage, leading to more cheap comedy and sexually explicit acts. Even if the art became less intellectual, the spaces got bigger. Stars like Fritz Grunbaum performed in grand locations like the Hummingbird Party Hall and the Femina-Palast Berlin, which featured a glass-domed ceiling, telephones on the tables, and transvestite waiters. Kleinkunst gave way to the term Kabarett, and eventually to the French-inspired Cabaret. As an art form, many considered cabaret irretrievably lost by the early 1930s. Paul Nikolaus said, “The cabaret ails from the uncritical attitude of the audience, from the lack of discipline and apathy of the performing artists, from the ‘consumption’ industry which the directors have made out of it.” But people were suffering under the struggling Weimar Republic; they did not want to think- just to drink, smoke, laugh, and satisfy every desire. Cabaret, for better or worse, fit the bill.
A popular German play of the early 1930s inspired the saying, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun!” Indeed, the retribution against the free art world was very swift as the Nazis fully took power. Some artists saw the writing on the wall and got out early, but most did not have the means. The Nazis considered cabaret- particularly “Negro Jazz”- degenerate and dangerous. They encouraged “positive cabaret” that mocked enemies of National Socialism, but many performers just tweaked their music and lyrics to poke fun at both the Nazis themselves and the social conditions they were decrying. This trend is reflected in the musical Cabaret with songs like “If You Could See Her” and “Money”. For many who stayed late, the danger ultimately became too overwhelming; Paul Nikolaus, founder and master of the Kadeko Club in Berlin, killed himself on March 30th, 1933 in Lucerne, Switzerland. In the same month, the Reichstag granted Hitler emergency governing powers. By the next year, after the death of President von Hindenberg, Hitler’s ascension to power was complete. He told British press in 1934, “At the risk of appearing to talk nonsense, I tell you that the National Socialist movement will go on for 1,000 years!” The war on “degenerate” culture was won, for the moment; the war on the free people of the world would be underway in less than a decade.