Perry Brass: The Manly Pursuit of Desire: Life Is A Show, Old Chum!

(Alan Cumming as the Em-Cee in Cabaret, courtesy Polk and Company.)

I went to see Alan Cumming in Cabaret at the Roundabout Theater Company's venture at Studio 54 last night [July 3; Michelle Williams was unfortunately absent for this performance]. Cumming was spectacular--as ever. He is one of the real divas of our era, and it always makes me wonder why we have no male term for "diva" since the other divas of this era are also very much men, and I don't mean simply Neal Patrick Harris, but also Hugh Jackman and of course Mandy Patinkin, and I could even include Justin Vivian Bond, who bridges both genders. Frankly, I'd love to see Cumming and Patinkin in one show: pure stratospheric testosterone-powered overdrive. The most beautiful thing about Allan Cumming is that though he has huge egoism, that is, as an artist, he is very invested in himself, he's without an ounce of hammyness. Inside he's a self-effacing Scotsman with still enough self to go around the vast spaces of Studio 54, plus Yankee Stadium if necessary.

What seeing Cabaret always does is bring me back to Christopher Isherwood. After all I am a writer, and for decades Isherwood, like many of his fellow English writers (J. R. Ackerley, V. S. Pritchett--why do they always have to have two initials for a first name?) was really a writer's writer. Isherwood, or "Chris" as his long-time, pre-gay-marriage companion, Don Bachardy called him, was no household name. Unless your household happened to be headed by two extremely close, unrelated guys who might be taken as brothers on overseas trips.

As a kid-writer in my early twenties, I was crazy about Isherwood. I was lucky that his books started to become available in mass-market paperbacks when I was still in my late teens, so I got to read A Single Man, and the Berlin novels from which Cabaret was taken in that easy-to-find format, as well as my favorite of all Isherwood creations, Prater Violet which might still be called one of the most deliciously evocative and romantic short novels in the English language. Isherwood haunted me, like he did many young gay writers. I still remember whole passages from his books, and I wanted like hell to be able to write like he did: exquisitely detached, wry, with that crisp, English, upper-middle-class, self-deflecting humor that made people of a "certain sort" gravitate to you, and made others, well, disappear.

(Of course I realized I was a Southern, Jewish gay writer who came from close to "white-trash" poverty, and this was just not going to happen.)

I was lucky to be able to read Isherwood in mass-market paper, because for decades in the U.S., it was hard to get his books. There was something a little too "lavender" about them, and they were often either not published here or quickly went out of print. You had to go over to London to find small volumes of them brought out by even smaller presses there. Chris never made much money from his writing, until he hit the jackpot with A Single Man, which did well in paperback, and also later with the royalties from Cabaret. For years he worked in Hollywood somewhat as a screenplay writer, actually more as a story writer. What people don't realize is that in the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the 1930s until into the 1970s, studios paid real money for a story, that is, an extended "treatment" of an idea that they could then farm out to in-house writers who wrote dialogue. You see this happening at the beginning of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, when Joe Gillis, played fantastically by William Holden, is trying to sell a story through his agent who's obliviously playing golf. Isherwood did not do well in Hollywood, but he could keep himself kicking around by co-writing stories, contributing to dialogue, teaching, and being charming.

He was good at that, as I learned later from reading his journals, the first volume of which (Christopher Isherwood: Diaries, Volume One, 1939-1960, edited by Katherine Bucknell) may be the best thing he ever wrote.

In the second volume (Christopher Isherwood, The Sixties, 1960-1969, also edited by Bucknell) Isherwood revealed his huge disappointment in Cabaret as it appeared on Broadway--"It sounds Jewish beyond all belief and I now have scarcely any desire to see it." He hated the movie taken from Johnny Van Druten's (as Isherwood called him) play "I Am a Camera," the original dramatization of the Berlin novels, calling it "a truly shocking and disgraceful mess. . . . everything is awful--except for Julie [Harris], who was misdirected." "I Am a Camera" came out in 1951, at a point where any queerness had to be shoved hard under the moth-eaten Berlin-cum-Nazi-polka rug, but the play did connect Isherwood for life to the superb actress Julie Harris who became one of his closest friends and who inhabited "Sally Bowles," Isherwood's greatest single literary creation aside from himself, very closely to how Isherwood imagined her as a real woman. Because although "Sally Bowles" had been modeled on a real, miserably untalented English chanteuse he'd met in 1930's Berlin named Jean Ross, she was very much put together and confected by Isherwood out of himself--another "lost" Englishman desperate to push himself out of his own inhibitions. (In fact, Isherwood concocted her name from his friend Paul Bowles, the American composer/novelist living in Tangiers and very queer husband of writer Jane Bowles).

So Cabaret in the past always took me back to Isherwood, except for last night, when sitting up in the cheaper bleachers at Studio 54, I realized something: what keeps bringing people back to Cabaret, and to Isherwood's Berlin, is that we're young in it.

Isherwood always had this boyish youngness in him even as he approached his eighties. And life is not so much a "cabaret, old chum," as much as that inside all of us is a place where we suddenly realize it's a show. And we're either in it, looking at it, or desperate to be included in it. And the show itself is real. Or, as Isherwood said in his first volume of journals, "Write, live what happens: Life is too sacred for invention--though we may lie about it sometimes, to heighten it." (The itals are mine here, Chris.)

We've all had that Cabaret moment someplace, and it stays inside us. Sometimes it was at a club, a bar, or even at a particular beach--Isherwood was crazy about beaches and lived in Santa Monica, where he met Don at the local gay beach--and I have that same feeling. Beaches are theatre, just as much as bars or night clubs, or anyplace else where you see life suddenly as a spectacle, one that won't go on forever--the curtain will come down; but you'll always keep the high points with you.

And that will keep you young, no matter how old you are.

Thank you, Chris, for writing those Berlin novels, and John Kander and Fred Ebb for turning Johnny Van Druten's play "I Am A Camera" into Cabaret, and of course Alan Cumming as the M.C. of the KitKat Club for being shot straight out of a cannon every performance directly at us. And making us all feel so . . . fabulously young again.

Perry Brass's latest book is Carnal Sacraments, A Historical Novel of the Future, Second Edition. He has published 17 books, including the ever-popular The Manly Art of Seduction, and can be reached through his website and followed on Twitter and Facebook.