ESP Readings to Continue 1/6 with John Van Druten's I AM A CAMERA
Most of ESP's recent outings have been stories written directly for the stage. For our January 2014 reading (the last to be held at our beloved NSCC before we move to ACT), we turn to a master playwright's take on (apparently) undramatic material - John Van Druten's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, I Am a Camera.
John Van Druten was a British playwright who, after being educated as a solicitor, found much success writing for the London theatre in the 1920s and '30s; his plays featured John Mills and Gertrude Lawrence (and later, he would direct the first production of star Lawrence's last show, The King and I). He relocated to the United States in 1940, and became a naturalized American citizen in 1944. His Broadway hits included Old Acquaintance (later the basis for the Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins movie), The Voice of the Turtle, and the stage adaptations of I Remember Mama and, ESP's current selection, I Am a Camera.
Van Druten read Christopher Isherwood's memoir-ish tales, later gathered and published as The Berlin Stories, and claimed he saw a play in them immediately, though it took fifteen years for him to find the time and a way to make a play from them. Having received Isherwood's blessing, Van Druten resisted building a plot on which to hang the stories. As he wrote in his introduction to the script, "I have never been good at either inventing or writing plots, and I have done my best work without them... Two other things seem to have become necessary - characters and mood." And these two things are vividly present in I Am a Camera. It introduced to theatrical audiences one of the great character parts of the century: Sally Bowles. This is the play upon which the musical Cabaret - both the stage version and the radically different Bob Fosse movie - are based. And though dozens of actresses have played Sally Bowles, it was a star-making role for the late and truly great Julie Harris; she received her first Tony award for playing this fascinating, impetuous, would-be worldly character.
But I Am a Camera is not only Sally, but a sidelong picture of a time - Berlin in the 1930s - and a somewhat sly portrait of Isherwood himself. One of the interesting effects of the play 62 years later is watching Van Druten spell out Isherwood's homosexuality without directly stating it. In 1966, Joe Masteroff's book for the musical Cabaret transformed Van Druten's version of Christopher into a heterosexual American named Cliff; in the 1972 movie he's a British and bisexual. In many respects, and especially given the coded requirements of the 1950s, Van Druten gets at more of the actual Isherwood than might be expected. Most important, he captures Isherwood's fierce determination to be truthful, which is often at odds with the young author's poetic prose. Since Christopher effectively narrates the play - by "thinking out loud" rather than direct address - it would be easy to criticize it for this ever-so-slightly awkward tone.
And it was so criticized - Walter Kerr's famous bon mot about I Am a Camera was "Me no Leica." Funny, but quite unfair. Van Druten had written about writers before - the monster hit I Remember Mama covers similar literary terrain - and he was no fool. The "plotless" story depicts the first steps of a young writer - not presented from the point of view of an older, practically experienced man, but a nascent artist who is learning as he goes. After all, no man or woman really can be a camera; all experience is colored reality. And the setting - Berlin on the verge of catastrophe - both points up the follies of youth and ennobles them, as the young people in the play tumble headlong into their times - or is it the times that tumble into them?