[ Home | Publications | My Facebook Page ]

I researched this as a labor of love, fueled by a fascination for Broadway musicals. I meant to sell it to a scholarly magazine, and therefore cast it in a fairly staid style. Of course the magazine rejected it, and I couldn’t think of where such a narrowly focused piece could be placed. In the end, Terry Ponick bought it for his small press magazine.

Prairie Oysters in Hell: Interpretations of Isherwood in Dramatic Media

©1992 Brenda W. Clough
published in The Reston Review, first quarter 1992 issue

An analysis of the recent Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret offers a fascinating case study in the evolution of a creative concept. This widely-known musical and the movie of the same name are both based upon a play, which was in turn founded upon some short stories by Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986). As an examination of the various version demonstrates, Cabaret on stage bears only a quirky resemblance to its original source.

In 1929, Christopher Isherwood first visited Berlin. In his autobiography, Christopher and His Kind (1976), Isherwood describes the visit as “one of the decisive events of my life.” Enchanted by the city’s sexual and artistic opportunities, he immediately began studying German. At the end of the year he returned to Berlin, to live there until 1933. He planned to write an enormous semi-autobiographical novel about the city and its people entitled The Lost. However, he was unable to complete it, and only some vignettes and character sketches from the proposed book appeared in magazine form. A longer fragment, “Sally Bowles,” was printed in a separate small volume. All these pieces were collected and published in 1939 as Goodbye to Berlin.

The most important piece in the book is “Sally Bowles.” In it Christopher himself appears as “Chris.” Sally Bowles is a would-be demi-mondaine with emerald-green fingernails, a second-rate singer in a nondescript bar. She boasts of her lovers and spends most of her time trying to make reluctant men pay her bills, a daring mode of existence in the Thirties, but one that strikes the modern reader as emotionally disordered. A room is available in Chris’s boarding house, and she moves in.

The two become friends but not lovers. Chris offers sympathy when Sally’s lover Klaus leaves her. Together they drink Prairie Oysters -- raw egg with a dash of Worcestershire sauce, usually mixed up with Chris’s fountain pen -- and scrounge for funds. They meet a rich American who invites them to accompany him on a luxurious trip. Both Chris and Sally are thrilled. But the very next day the millionaire is gone, leaving them only a small tip.

Then Sally discovers she is pregnant by Klaus. She goes into a nursing home for an abortion. Their relationship flags, as Sally becomes involved with other men and other transparently vague schemes. When Chris meets an inept con man in search of an actress, he refers him to Sally. Chris is astonished when the con man, whom he describes as unable to deceive a baby, relieves Sally of all her cash. In the excitement and embarrassment of pressing charges at the police station all petty disagreements dissolve.

Before its publication, Isherwood expressed dissatisfaction with “Sally Bowles,” denouncing it as trivial. He even considered excluding it from his Berlin collection. The other pieces were graver in tone, dealing with real Germans. It is true that the character of Sally is hard to take seriously -- a wide-eyed innocent aping deepening dissolution, amoral as a child is amoral, a child so absorbed in her make-believe grown-up play that even a disaster like abortion fails to rouse her. Isherwood complained, “Sally wasn’t a victim, wasn’t a proletarian, was a mere self-indulgent, upper-middle-class foreign tourist who could escape from Berlin whenever she chose.”

She did however enchant readers. When John Van Druten read “Sally Bowles,” he said he immediately knew there was a play in it. His I Am A Camera opened in New York in 1951.

In this stage version Chris and Sally appear at first almost unchanged. The abortion episode, the rich American, and the lull in friendship all survive unaltered. At the height of this quarrel, however, the playwright introduces a character of his own invention -- Mrs. Watson-Courtneidge, Sally’s mother. “That’s my real name,” Sally confesses. “Only you can’t imagine the Germans pronouncing it.”

Mrs. Watson-Courtneidge has come to Berlin to meet Chris. It seems that about the time of the abortion episode Sally wrote to her mother that they were engaged. Mrs. Watson-Courtneidge disapproves of Sally’s rackety life and rapidly renovates it, even lending Sally her own respectable clothing. She announces that Sally is coming home to England, returning to her conventional past. Chris complains to Sally, “You’re disappearing, right in front of my eyes.” Mrs. Watson-Courtneidge wants Chris, as Sally’s fiance, to come too. But Chris tells her the engagement is off. Mrs. Watson-Courtneidge is not displeased, and carries Sally off in triumph.

In the last scene, however, Sally makes a triumphant return, dressed again in her Bohemian finery. Having tricked her mother into returning to England alone, she has already met an exciting new man who may get her into films. Chris is leaving also, to write his book. So they part, affectionally but finally.

The addition of Mrs. Watson-Courtneidge energizes the plot of I Am A Camera considerably, forcing Sally to make a conscious choice and committment that she never made in “Sally Bowles.” Another modification Van Druten made supplies a love story. Fritz and Natalia, two characters from Goodbye to Berlin who never even met in that book, fall in love and marry in I Am A Camera. Fritz is “almost the gigolo,” a young Berman on the make. Natalia is a Jewish department store heiress. They fall in love, but Natalia’s family wishes her to marry a Jew. Then Fritz confesses to Chris and Sally that he too is a Jew. He has lied about his origin just to make life simpler for himself. Having “come out” about it, he marries Natalia at the end of the play.

This subplot does more than counterpoint the more casual relationship of Chris and Sally. It introduces for the first time the spectre of Nazism, which becomes such a powerful theme in later incarnations of the concept. The word “Nazi” is never even mentioned in “Sally Bowles.” Only one character makes an off-handed anti-Semitic remark.

In I Am A Camera, Chris’s landlady Fraulein Schneider admires more and more of the Nazi party line as the play progresses. “That is what all the speakers say,” she declares in Act III. “...Only then can Germany be saved.” Meanwhile, Natalia and Chris get into a scuffle with some party members. When he returns home, Fraulein Schneider protests that he was in the wrong, since Jews are at the bottom of the trouble. Chris loses his temper, saying, “I’ve always been fond of you. Now I’m ashamed of you. And everything you say is horrible and dangerous and abominable.”

Although a film record was made of I Am A Camera, not until the opening of Cabaret in 1966 did the concept evolve further. The musical version (book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Fred Ebb, music by John Kander) added another entire level of emaning by creating the character of the Emcee. As portrayed with chillingly evil energy by Joel Grey, the Emcee sings a razor-edged three-way commentary: on the internal story of Cliff (as Chris is renamed) and Sally, on the external political deterioration of Germany, and on the audience itself. In token of this, the first thing the audience saw on stage was a huge mirror, reflecting their own connivance in the Cabaret.

The relationship between Cliff and Sally is also altered. The two now live together in Cliff’s room. Cliff is (probably) the father of Sally’s child. Sally’s abortion is moved to nearly the end of the show, thus making it a blow to Cliff’s self-esteem as well as an affirmation of her Bohemian life. Since Christopher Isherwood himself was an avowed homosexual who confessed to only one sexual experience with a woman, we can see how far the concept has moved from its source.

Sally’s nightclub, now dubbed the Kit Kat Club, is far removed indeed from the shabby-genteel bar (called Lady Windermere’s Fan, no less) in “Sally Bowles.” The element of sexual and moral decadence which underlaid Goodbye to Berlin is now displayed openly on stage, with Sally usually clad in red garter belts or fishnet tights. Tihs is actually a return to the Berlin experienced by Isherwood. “Paris had long since cornered the straight-girl market,” he explained in his autobiography. “So what was left for Berlin to offer its visitors but a masquerade of perversions?”

Masteroff dropped the Fritz-Natalia subplot completely, adding instead the character of Herr Shultz, the Jewish merchant. Herr Shultz woos and wins Fraulein Schneider, the landlady. But the engagement collapses when Fraulein Schneider decides that marrying a Jew might endanger her business.

Lastly, the element of Nazism comes well to the fore. Few people who see Cabaret on stage or screen do not shiver when “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is sung. In this anthem, clean-cut young Nazis hail the glory of the coming Fatherland in glowing, Wagnerian -romantic terms. A can-can dance by the Kit Kat girls imperceptibly metamorphoses into a goose-step. And, most horrifying of all, the Emcee sings an adoring song to a gorilla in a pink dress, “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes.” As written the song ended, “She doesn’t look Jewish at all!” But the creators felt this was too controversial in 1966, and a more ambiguous word was substituted.

For the screenplay of Cabaret, Jay Presson Allen reworked much of the material yet again. Cliff (ne Chris) is renamed Brian, and becomes an English university student. Since Liza Minnelli was cast as Sally Bowles from the start, Sally had to be an American.

In spite of all this, Allen professed a wish to get back to Goodbye to Berlin. She dropped Fraulein Schneider’s amours and returned to the Natalia-Fritz subplot. The romantic and conventional union of this couple now balances very pleasingly against the more lurid Brian-Sally connection. The viewer gets a failed romance and a successful one, the latter achingly poignant because of what the viewer knows is to come for Jews in Germany.

The concept of homosexuality is not very evident in Goodbye to Berlin. No doubt social pressure in 1939 kept Isherwood from more than oblique allusions to his sexual orientation in print; at the time homosexual acts were punishable in Germany by prison or even concentration camp. But with the advantage of hindsight, the film Cabaret introduces Brian’s bisexuality. Max, the rich German baron reworked from the American millionaire in “Sally Bowles,” seduces both Sally and Brian before leaving town.

The movie creates an almost total split between the musical portio, as represented by Cabaret numbers in the Kit Kat Club, and the actual plot. Of the “story” characters only Sally, for instance, sings. To see her dance cheek to cheek with the devilish Emcee in numbers of the utmost sleaziness (“The Money Song,” for example) casts a new light on Sally’s character. The emotional spin of I Am A Camera is reversed. At the end of the play, when Sally returns dressed once more in her ratty finery, it’s felt as a triumph -- despite everything, Sally is being true to herself. In the movie, when the story ends and Sally belts out the title song, she seems to be embracing her damnation. The earlier Sallys only played adorably at corruption; this one is finally claimed by it.

In 1987 the stage Cabaret was successfully revived, reuniting the old creative team. Songs were cut and new songs added. The softening and concessions to popular taste were removed. Cliff is plainly bisexual; a reviewer described his affair with Sally as the last hterosexual fling of an essentially gay man. “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” also comes out of the closet. The entire effect is darker, more somber. In an interview the songwriter expressed the message: “We must never let our guard down or allow the very real and constant presence of prejudice and hate to take over.” To see how much the concept has evolved, we need only compare this statement to Isherwood’s famous words at the beginning of Goodbye to Berlin: “I Am A Camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

In surveying the various incarnations of the work, some trends become plain. The first is the way the plot is steadily strengthened by polarizing the elements of the story. Isherwood’s camera was deliberately set to record in shades of gray. Other creators stepped in to paint the blacks darker and bleach the whites. As they do, the story acquires far more power. The swastika haunts Cabaret like an evil dream; it is never so much as mentioned in “Sally Bowles.” Chris and Sally are mere friends in the short story, but lovers in the movie.

Part of this polarization is a result of the shifts from medium to medium. Film images are inevitably more simplistic than words on a page. But part of the process was entirely deliberate. Jay Allen complained that it took her ten months to impose structure on the Berlin stories and pull them together into a screenplay. Popularization does not always mean “dumbing down.” In this case, every heightened contact is an improvement. The chief complaint of reviewers when I Am A Camera opened was its unfocused quality: “...the harum-scarum antics of a couple of immensely likeable English people fooling around,” one drama critic disparaged. Such a criticism could not be made of later versions. Cabaret on film is manifestly a more gripping work than “Sally Bowles.”

That this is so implies some intrinsic flaw in Isherwood’s original work. We cannot imagine, for instance, needing to make Hamlet a more zestful musical by salting it with bits from the sonnets and some love interest from As You Like It. But this quality of plasticity may actually have ensured the continuing life of Goodbye to Berlin. Certainly it is best known today for being the source of Cabaret.

Isherwood’s story falls into an interesting and very small middle class of artistic works. At the top end, the masterpieces and their makers stand alone. Both Homer and Shakespeare are likened by later poets to wonders of nature: mountains or islands. At the bottom, there is no dearth of abysmal creations -- flaccid plays, dreadful poems, unfocused novels -- that sink rapidly and mercifully into justified oblivion. It seems “Sally Bowles” is bad, but not quite bad enough to be forgotten. Geniuses inspire awe and veneration. Isherwood inspired reworking.

“Sally Bowles” may be likened to a strudy canvas with some roughed-out images upon which a succession of other artists may paint over. To search for these basic images is enlightening. What actually forms the enduring appeal of “Sally Bowles”? Is it the plot? Not really, not if anxious mothers or assorted love subplots can be plugged in so readily. What about theme? The most powerful ones have all been added by later hands. It never occurs to Chris to worry about prejudice or anti-Semitism. Setting? I Am A Camera was confined to one set, Sally’s unappealing room. The most striking locale of stage and screen, the Kit Kat Club, has no place in Goodbye to Berlin.

Only when the characters are examined do we strike gold. Sally Bowles approaches archetype status, the good girl who flirts daringly with badness. Her spiritual sisters range from Holly Golightly to Madonna. Her appeal is the appeal of the tightrope walker. Will we see her fall off, Prairie Oyster in hand, into hell tonight -- or not?

It is significant that Sally’s name never alters, while poor Chris/Cliff/Brian acquires a name with every incarnation. He lives only through Sally. Isherwood intentionally made Chris a cipher, and everyone who works with the character complains about that. “His part is almost a feed part,” Van Druten said of Chris in the play. Even in the 1987 revival, the musical creators felt a need to make Cliff “more of a person.”

Finally, after nearly fifty years, has Isherwood’s long-enduring concept been sucked dry? One entertainment observer noted that Goodbye to Berlin has appeared in film, stage, print -- every medium except television. The mind reels at the thought of a mini-series. Sally Bowles, call your agent.

©1996,1999 Brenda Clough Last modified 15 March 1999