New Version of Cabaret Hits the Tel Aviv Stage

Christopher Isherwood wasn't particularly elated when his book 'Goodbye to Berlin' morphed into a Broadway musical; how would he like the Israeli version?

Christopher Isherwood did not go to see the musical "Cabaret." "I've never seen it ... Everybody warned me that I wouldn't like it," he said in a 1970 interview with Otto Friedrich, author of "Before the Deluge: a Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s" (Harper & Row, 1972 ). But was the writer really never tempted to see the stage version of his successful book, "Goodbye to Berlin"? "Oh, I've seen vulgarities so often," he answered. "They always manage to find out you're in the theater, and then there's the question of going backstage. Why pull a long face, and be nasty and ungracious? It pays me money, so why fight the goose that lays the golden egg?"

Olla Shor-Selector, Aki Avni, Itay Tiran, Miki Kam, Gadi Yagil and the actors appearing in the Cameri's new production of "Cabaret" in Tel Aviv, directed by Omri Nitzan, will also not have to suffer criticism by the blue-eyed British-American writer, who was born in 1904 and died in 1986. But the "Cabaret" goose - appearing on stages all over the world, made into a successful movie and added to the 20th-century pantheon of popular culture - continues to lay golden eggs, despite the reservations voiced by Isherwood. The writer did agree to see the film, whereupon he declared that its makers had exaggerated the decadent lifestyle in pre-Nazi Berlin, were unfaithful to the book's restrained tone and some of the political messages it contained, and approached the subject of homosexuality as if it were an embarrassment.


"No. Even now I can't altogether believe that any of this has really happened," Isherwood wrote in the closing lines of "Goodbye to Berlin." But even if the book did blend truth and fiction with impressive virtuosity, there is no doubt that it is based on Isherwood's own experiences and acquaintanceships in the turbulent years he spent in Berlin at the twilight of the Weimar Republic, between 1929 and 1933. The stage and film versions of the book only served to augment interest in the questions of how much of what was recounted really happened, and who were the real people in whose image Isherwood created the central characters in his work.

"Goodbye to Berlin" was first published in 1939, although some chapters, beginning with "Sally Bowles," had appeared earlier in magazines. In effect, the book contained fragments of a wide-ranging novel called "The Lost," which Isherwood had intended to write about Berlin and its residents as soon as he left the city. But he was unable to write the novel, and only fragments remained - or, in the author's words, "a series of loosely connected impressions and diary excerpts."

At the end of World War II, the book was reissued as "The Berlin Stories," with the addition of a short novel entitled "Mr. Norris Changes Trains," written in 1935. The collection of impressionistic pictures that fill this volume - including "lost" characters dancing over an abyss - were thought to be a representative portrait of life in Berlin at the end of the Weimar period. George Orwell described it as consisting of "brilliant sketches of a society in decay." More than anything else, the book rang with the "laughter of those condemned to death" (a comment ostensibly overheard by Isherwood in a gay bar he visited in the first days of the Nazi regime ). Many of the characters in the book belonged to groups pursued by the regime: Jews, communists, gays, intellectuals and the mentally disturbed.

In 1951, the play "I am a Camera" by John Van Druten, based mainly on the Sally Bowles chapter, was produced on Broadway. Its title was taken from one of the most quoted lines in "Goodbye to Berlin," which appears on the very first page: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking ... Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed and fixed."

For its part, Haaretz reported to its readers in 1952 that "the play exposes the bestial cruelty of the Nazis not only toward the Jews, but also toward other citizens," and depicts Bowles as "a young British woman of high birth, but low morals."

The character of Sally, a cabaret singer just starting out, who dreams of world stardom - or at least of a man with whom to spend the night - is to a large extent based on Jean Ross, a young British woman Isherwood knew in Berlin. When Ishwerwood saw "I am a Camera," he was enthusiastic, not only because his personal memories had become part of the public domain, but also because of the highly pitched performance of the star, Julie Harris, who he said was "more essentially Sally Bowles than the Sally of my book and much more like Sally than the real girl who long ago gave me the idea for my character."

Harris also starred in a movie adaptation of the play, with the same title, directed by Henry Cornelius.

The next incarnation was "Cabaret," the musical written by Joe Masteroff based on Van Druten's play and Isherwood's book, with the addition of songs by Fred Ebb and music by John Kander, debuted on Broadway in 1966. The show's original name was "Welcome to Berlin," but the producers worried that it would repel Jewish viewers and it was changed.

In 1972, "Cabaret" appeared on the silver screen, in a film directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minelli as Sally, Michael York as the writer Cliff (the Isherwood character ), and Joel Grey as the cabaret's master-of-ceremonies. The film garnered eight Oscars, including best director and best actor for Grey and Minelli. The question of which of them executes a more wonderful rendition of the theme song, "Life is a Cabaret," has remained the subject of ongoing argument by generations of "Cabaret" fans.

Due to the success of the stage and film versions of the book, the real stories behind Cabaret and "Goodbye to Berlin" began to arouse curiosity over the years; Isherwood was repeatedly asked to supply details on the sources of his inspiration. He revealed that the character of the youth Otto Nowak, son of a poor proletarian family, was based on two young German men who had been his lovers in Berlin.

Furthermore, there are echoes of the Jewish businessman Wilfrid Israel (owner of the large Berlin department store N. Israel ) in the character of Bernhard Landauer - a young Jewish businessman, portrayed as a noble, tragic aesthete, who finds it hard to grasp the political dangers lurking outside his door. Israel, who was involved in smuggling thousands of Jews out of Nazi Germany, was killed in a plane crash in 1943 in which the British actor Leslie Howard also died.

Israel's large art collection, including works from the Far East, was bequeathed to the members of Kibbutz Hazorea. In keeping with his will, in 1951 the kibbutz established the Wilfrid Israel Museum, which operates to this day. It may be assumed that the antique sculpture of the head of Buddha on view at the museum is the same "12th-century head of Buddha from Khmer which stood at the foot of his [Landauer's] bed," according to Isherwood's book.

Another tangible reminder of "Goodbye to Berlin" has found its way to Santa Monica, California, where Isherwood settled in 1939, wrote Hollywood screenplays, became a Buddhist, enjoyed a long and celebrated relationship with the painter Don Bacardy, and even wrote a few more novels (including "A Single Man," adapted into a touching and melancholy film two years ago by Tom Ford, starring Colin Firth ).

In 1952, when Isherwood returned to Berlin for the first time after nearly two decades, he met a certain Ms. Thurau, owner of the apartment at 17 Nollendorf Street in the Schoeneberg district, where he lived during most of his stay in the city, and where he met the tenants who inspired the characters in the book. (A plaque hangs on the building today, noting Isherwood's residence there. )

Thurau - who is called Fraulein Schroeder in the book - told Isherwood how she survived during the war; at the end of their visit she gave him a brass dolphin with a broken clock in its tail. The statue is mentioned in a new introduction he added to "Goodbye to Berlin" in 1954. Isherwood describes the small brass objects on his writing table and wonders what will happen to them if the day comes when they will be melted down to make weapons for a war.

It turned out that the dolphin was only slightly damaged during wartime ("a bomb-blast had hurled it across the room and only slightly scratched its green marble base" ), but for Isherwood, the gift stood for everything in his Berlin world that had not been destroyed ("a symbol of that indestructible something in a place and an environment that resists all outward change" ) - and he placed it on his desk in his Santa Monica home. It was apparently also a symbol of past experiences that went on to "live" a long life of their own, thanks to their artistic rendering in the book that made Isherwood famous and in the various forms it assumed on stage and in the cinema.

In the introduction he added to his book in 1954, Isherwood recalled that while staying in a small hotel in Tenerife in 1934, working on his writing, he relinquished the tempting amusement offered on the island's beaches. The manager of the hotel "used to laugh at my industry and tell me I ought to go swimming, while I was still young. 'After all, old boy, I mean to say, will it matter 100 years from now if you wrote that yarn or not?'