I finally got around to watching the movie Christopher and His Kind. Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical account of his time in Berlin features Gerald Hamilton, who is a character in Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, and I felt that I ought to see it. So it has sat there in my watch list for ages like unfinished homework. It was worth seeing in the end. The story is familiar if you have seen the musical Cabaret. It is more or less the story of the real life inspirations for Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. (Although some of featured friends were reportedly less than thrilled with their literary depictions.)
Watching Christopher led me to re-watching Cabaret, which led me to Youtube videos about the production. In this video Joel Grey, the original MC, discusses his creation of the role and his opinion of Alan Cumming’s interpretation.
What gave me pause for thought in this interview was the part where Grey expresses his frustration that the newer production was said to be more daring and risque than the original.
It reminded me of a quote from Montagu Pyke, the king of early cinema in Britain. (He was a business partner of Maurice Schwabe’s for a time.) Pyke wrote, “If the nineties were ‘naughty’ the Edwardian era was a worthy successor to the nineties. The young moderns think they know how to live today, but I don’t think they could have taught the young men and women of those days anything; rather the contrary. I know of wild midnight parties and scandalous orgies among the best people of several lands, and I hardly think these have their counterpart today.”
It seems there is a constant tendency to view previous generations as more innocent. Yet the decadent, the unsanctioned, the promiscuous and the underground have always existed.
As I wrote in the introduction to my book, “The period in which Maurice Schwabe lived, from 1871-1915, exists in the popular imagination as an innocent age. On closer inspection, that buttoned-up era was a time of rebelliousness, ambition, corruption, religious and sexual experimentation and political machinations.” In other words, it was just like every other era.
.Why is it, then, that the past can seem so, well, sexless?
I have a couple of theories. One is that parents and other adults are authority figures to young people. Generally, they hide their youthful indiscretions from the next generation. They are destined to move from being rebels to being the people the young rebel against. The parent’s generation is bound to be viewed to some degree as old fashioned, dull, moralistic and their time, by extension becomes a more innocent age.
Another possibility is that to be daring you must be shocking. Any art or culture that is successful becomes familiar and by definition what is familiar is not shocking. The counter culture of one time becomes the oldies radio and high school musicals of the next. Two years after the musical Hair caused a stir with its on stage nudity, obscene language and trippy acknowledgement of drug culture, the epitome of family friendly bands, the Cowsills had a hit with the musical’s title song. Cabaret was such a cultural phenomenon that it brought Joel Grey onto the set of The Muppet Show. (By the way, have you seen Jim Henson’s surreal 1965 short film Time Piece?)
As I think about Cabaret, however, it strikes me that there is something unique about it. Its story expresses nostalgia for a less innocent era. The world it depicts is one that might not, in reality, be comfortable to many members of the Broadway audience. Yet the sense that they are bearing witness to a world that is on the verge of being destroyed imbues the Kit Cat Club with nostalgia for a different sort of innocence, the innocence of people who cannot yet see the future we know is coming, innocence of impending disaster. (A bit like when Facebook reminds you of a picture taken with your arms around a bunch of your friends at a party in January 2020.)
There is, in fact, a type of wild and wicked innocence– the innocence that leads a young person to experiment with life, sample the forbidden, with a naive confidence that the cost of any rebelliousness or vice can only be small. “When we mocked grief and held disaster cheap,” as Lord Alfred Douglas, who knew whereof he spoke, put it in a sonnet. (George Bernard Shaw described a particular quality Douglas possessed as “blazing boyishness.” I have always liked that description.) In the 1990s, The Verve Pipe called back to this form of innocence in the song “The Freshmen,” “For the life of me I cannot remember/
What made us think that we were wise and we’d never compromise.”
When Walter Pater’s Renaissance was published in 1873, the Bishop of Oxford attacked it for its neo-paganism and hedonism. Renaissance sparked the imagination of a young Oscar Wilde. Years later, he called it “that book which has had such a strange influence over my life.” The controversial Conclusion had such an impact on Wilde that he commanded it to memory. But there was such a backlash that Pater left it out of the second edition in case it be “misunderstood.” The phrase that particularly piqued Wilde’s youthful imagination was “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
The flame of the forbidden and the hidden, the wild and the decadent continues to burn in all its luminous glory with each generation. There is always a moral campaign against it. When it gets too strong and temporarily silences those impulses, we are all poorer for it.