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The Impact Of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories

Christopher Isherwood likely could not have predicted as to the impact of his novel, Berlin Stories, upon the various media of plays, musicals and film. It is even more doubtful that he could have foreseen its various adaptations throughout the years would so reflect the LGBT+ community, considered then illegal, immoral and above all remained unmentioned in “polite company.

Although the initial media based on Isherwood’s work mentioned non-heterosexual deviances only in rare and subtle forms, so as to remain in distribution and not face censorship; later variations added more LGBT+ relevant lines, characters, and even plot-central references to rest alongside their own individual dissimilarity in each work. In chronological order, each work bases itself not only on Christopher Isherwood’s book, but also on the previous adaptations that occurred beforehand. Adaptations borrow and manipulate songs, lines, and characters to better suit the current era of creation and used for their own originality.

These works, implicit or blatant in their “historical representation” of LGBT+ themes, not only develop and grow these topics as a whole, they also create a “dialogue between the past and present” of the time period these adaptations center on, and when they were available for public consumption. This allows new approaches and revelations concerning time periods and the cultural standards of the time. Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and its numerous adaptations, which include their varying levels of LGBT+ presence within them, each reflect the society’s contextual views at the works’ date of creation.

In the year 1945, Christopher Isherwood published his novel Berlin Stories, a collection of events during Isherwood’s Germany in the early 1930’s that, unbeknown to its author, would later gain incredible influence on theatrical culture. Before its publication, the stories reflected upon also echo the views of the 1930’s. This is visible not only in the book, in which German characters casually speak with growing anti-Semitist ideology, but also in the cultural and moral standards of the society when the creation of Berlin Stories transpired.

Christopher Isherwood, a gay man, could not accurately tell of his true Berlin lifestyle in his book, involving trysts with other men, as society considered homosexuality not only illegal but also a serious moral discrepancy. In addition to this already heady hatred of non-typical relationships, there grew in the “late 1930’s” a large scale “legal and moral crusade” against homosexuals, a veritable witch hunt that made even the most oblique reference to homosexuality an enormous danger.

Such a strong movement would no doubt leave the freedom of Berlin, with its near public deviancy, to appear as a refuge for many like Christopher Isherwood. Nevertheless, “by the mid to late 1940s,” when Isherwood published Berlin Stories, these campaigns against homosexuality had changed the dialogue of public society, with words like “child molester,” “sex psychopath,” and even “communist” all becoming used as interchangeable with the term homosexual.

As such virulent anger and fear of such “deviancy” existed, those searching for such subtle references could only have found the few implications that Isherwood could produce. This “condemnation,” though holding as an “object of fascination” in its apparent bizarreness to others, continued on throughout the years in many places not associated with the tolerance known of in “urban areas” like Berlin.

Isherwood, alongside the adaptations of Berlin Stories, would have to wait for the sexual revolution of the 1960’s to “come out,” as it were, though that did not stop them from pushing against the boundaries of acceptable society. The first adaptation of Isherwood’s novel came only a few years later with I am a Camera, the 1951 Broadway play produced by John Van Druten that centered on the relationship between the characters Christopher Isherwood and Sally Bowles.

While the creator did copy lines straight from Isherwood’s novel, many of the scenes and characters were original or reformed to suit the needs of the producer. Again, however, there occurred no mention of LGBT+ themes, subtle or otherwise. Even when reading into the play script, searching for such a reference elicited little to no fruition. This likely happened due to the societal standards of the time, which no doubt would have completely rejected allusion to such an unacceptable public topic.

As a Broadway play, the public at large could easily respond, through protest and defamation of the work. In the 1950’s, LGBT+ presence in anything would elicit this response, reflecting the beliefs of this time. Despite the common belief that 1950’s society comprised of “traditional family life” backed with “well-meaning conservatism,” homosexuality at that time remained not “unspoken” of, existing as representing a being deeply feared, but instead had become a concept America became progressively “obsessed with.

This occurred due to the publication of the scientific report entitled the Kinsey report, which while at times the public largely misconstrued, forever changed what modern society understood about homosexuality, as well as sexuality in general. This report “was a media sensation” a scientific report that concluded a much higher than expected level of “homosexual contact” between men of all ages, of all kinds, that left Americans with the understanding that homosexuals lived “everywhere,” even if they did not look or at overtly so.

The Kinsey Report remained a topic to often mention, a public topic to joke about and discuss as both controversial and an advancement of the study of humanity. If perhaps to further this discourse, the later 1950s and 1960s had an “unparalleled outpouring” of debate and depiction concerning homosexuality, with “mainstream publishing houses” announcing “hundreds of novels” that included themes and characters of homosexual origin.

This literary representation likely influenced the outpouring of later protest for equal rights in the 1960’s, as well as more widespread representation, such as in movies and the like. In 1966, at the beginning of the Broadway musical revival era, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and its adaptation the play I am Camera became the inspiration for a new Broadway musical entitled Cabaret, which centered on the adventures of Cliff Bradshaw and Sally Bowels during the rise of the Nazi power in Berlin, Germany 1931.

Also featuring an elderly couple facing complications in their romance due to anti-Semitism and the Kit Kat Klub, an unsubtle reference to the Ku Klux Klan, this musical discussed radical notions of abortion, sex outside of marriage, and issues of race and anti-Semitism of the respective times of 1930’s Germany and 1960’s America that mirrored each other.

The producer desired this to have literal exemplification, and so used a giant mirror in replacement of a stage curtain, to force audience to be aware of the similarities between the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 1960’s America, despite how much no person sought to admit such a thing.

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