If they keep doing versions of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, some day they’re going to get it right. The saga of Herr Issyvoo and Sally Bowles has turned up by now in every form but roller-skating ballet, for all the world as though it were one of the sturdy myths of the West, instead of a wispy nuanced memory that has to be told right or not at all.
Granted the dawning possibility that the original has no dramatic possibilities whatever, the movie musical Cabaret may be about the best that can be done with it—certainly better than the play I Am a Camera, the movie I Am a Camera, and the stage musical Cabaret—though still many moons from the book. Each of these versions reflects the period it was produced in much more than it reflects the period Isherwood wrote about (as if the story itself were a camera), and perhaps 1972 can see itself truer in Berlin of 1930 than previous years could; or, if not, we can at least make a Berlin in our own image that has its own entertainment possibilities.
Anyway, these purveyors of mutton soup, who make their living adapting things from the forms in which they belong into forms where they taste awful, are the quintessential hacks, so it follows that the Bowles cycle is a gruesomely instructive guide to our worst show biz conventions. John van Druten’s play reads like a ghostly parody of a Forties or Fifties Broadway hit. While managing with lunatic ingenuity to pack in as many lines from the original as possible, van Druten zapped every last one with an emotional cliché of his own period. For instance, when Sally, the aspiring nymphomaniac, has her abortion, she says, “It’s like finding that all the old rules are true after all.” The original Sally would have gagged on her Prairie Oyster over that one.
Later, van Druten’s Herr Issyvoo, the camera, waxes bittersweet on the same event. “It’ll seem like another of those nasty dreams. And we won’t believe or remember a thing about it. Either of us.” (He starts to put the cigarette in his mouth. Then he stops and looks at the door.) “Or will we?” Curtain. It’s all there in the script, even the unlit cigarette, left over from Call Me at 9 and My Heart’s in the Heather.
The play emphasized Sally at the expense of Berlin. Broadway reveres a big female part and will feed anything to the flames to build a roaring one. It also likes an eccentric it can identify with completely. Thus, the year being 1951, you get amoral Sally analyzing herself like a Rose Franzblau column. “Mother never stopped nagging at me. That’s why I had to lie to her. I always lie to people, or run away from them, if they won’t accept me as I am.” The original Sally only mentioned her mother in order …