Saturday, January 12, 2019

I Am a Camera by John Van Druten: Not Just Cabaret Without Music

In the past few years I've discovered how much I enjoy the theater. I do love movies, but there is something indescribable about seeing a live performance. I've been trying to see at least one play whenever I visit my daughter in New York, and since we've lived in Europe I've made a few trips to London, and I try to see shows on the West End as well (you can get half-price tickets the same day as a performance, and everything is first-rate). There is an excellent English-language theater in Frankfurt, which is just over an hour's drive away from me, and every season one of the four or five plays they perform is a musical. This year it's Cabaret, which I had never seen. I got tickets for myself and my daughter and we went to see it after Christmas. 

I also realized that my reading of classics is woefully lacking in plays, so I decided to add that category this year to the Back to the Classics Challenge. Written in 1951, I Am a Camera is the original play which was later adapted as the musical version of Cabaret. I was really quite surprised to see how much the musical differed from the original play (which was itself adapted from Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin). 

The original play is in three acts, set in Berlin in 1930. All of the action takes place in a boarding house owned by Fraulein Schneider, in a room first rented by a struggling writer named Christopher Isherwood. The title of the play comes from the first line of the novel Christopher is trying to write:

I am a camera, with its shutter open, quite passive. Some day all of this will have to be developed, printed, fixed.

Isherwood takes English-language pupils to pay the rent, but since he's nearly broke he moves to a smaller room. Through one of his students, Fritz, he meets Sally Bowles, an English cabaret singer. She's looking for a new place to live and takes over his old room, and they become friends. 

Sally lives a rather fast life, and always seems to be hungover, struggling for money, and though she and Christopher never become romantically involved, he's always there for her. He observes the highs and lows of her life over the course of about a year, with the looming backdrop of growing anti-Semitism and the Nazi party. 

If you've seen the musical, you might be surprised at how it's changed from the original play. Some of the major plot points about Sally are there, but in the musical, she and Christopher become lovers. All the scenes in the original play take place in the boarding house -- there's nothing in the cabaret and in fact, Sally is hardly working as a singer at all. 

In the musical, the landlady has a sweet but probably doomed romance with one of the boarders, a Jewish fruit-seller, which isn't in the story at all -- she's actually anti-Semitic. There's also a sub-plot in the play about Christopher's student Fritz, and his love for a Jewish girl Natalia, the daughter of a department store owner; and there's an interesting plot twist about Sally in the third act. 

Despite the changes, I do feel like the musical captured the characters of Sally and Christopher, and their struggles and feelings of desperation in prewar Berlin. The growing threat of the Nazis and the rise of Fascism is equally present in both versions -- it's not exactly the focus of either story, but it's definitely an important factor. I really liked both versions -- the English Theater in Frankfurt is first-rate, and I'm hoping to see more plays there this year before I return back to the U.S. 

Here's the video preview of the production in Frankfurt. 

I was also very happy to find an online version of the script for I am a Camera through a website called -- anyone can sign up for an free account and check out digital content, from libraries worldwide. I've just started using it but I've been able to get some items that I would normally have found through Inter-Library Loan, which is tough to get overseas. I highly recommend it if you have trouble finding rare items. 


  1. I love live theater too, though I go all to seldom despite living in or close to large cities most of my adult life.

    This was a really great review/comparison of the book/play/movie actually. You didn't give anything away and now I want to experience all three! The relationship between Christopher and Sally in the play makes me think a little of the relationship between Paul and Holly in the Breakfast at Tiffany's novella (as compared to the movie which made it a romantic paring).

    1. I still haven't read Breakfast at Tiffany's! I'm not a huge fan of the movie though I know people love it. I haven't seen it for years but I just thought it was sad. (I do love Audrey Hepburn but I much prefer Roman Holiday). I definitely see a comparison between Sally and Holly Golightly, great catch!


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