Spoilers for Cabaret
Back when the West-End revival of Cabaret premiered in November 2021 there was some controversy around the casting of Eddy Redmayne – a straight chap – in the role of the Emcee, who had previously been played by queer icons Alan Cumming, Julian Clary, Will Young, Neil Patrick Harris and Joel Grey. Redmayne defended the decision and went on to knock it out the park and win an Olivier award. At the time I was disappointed, thinking yet another queer role had yet again gone to a straight person. Meanwhile, the posters for the show depicted numerous queer-presenting folks (but not Redmayne) and that just felt like rubbing salt in the wound. Zoom forward to last week and I’ve now seen Cabaret. And while it’s a blast one thing it really ain’t is queer.
Clifford Bradshaw is a young, American novelist who arrives in Berlin in 1929. On the train he meets Ernst, a friendly German chap who suggests Cliff seek lodgings at the house of Fraulein Schneider, a lonely, cynical woman. After securing a room Cliff goes to the Kit Kat Klub – a raucous, seedy nightclub full of all sorts and presided over by the mysterious and somewhat menacing Emcee. There, Cliff meets the one and only Sally Bowles, a cabaret performer. It’s not long before they’re living together in Cliff’s room and soon after that Sally realises she’s pregnant, although she’s not sure who the father is. Romance even blossoms for the world-weary Schneider as she falls for her tenant Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. Act 1 ends with their engagement party which is ruined when Ernst reveals himself to be a Nazi. In Act 2 things go from bad to worse as the Nazis rise to power. Fraulein Schneider breaks off the engagement, Herr Schultz leaves the boarding house, Sally gets an abortion and Cliff leaves Berlin. Life is most decidedly not a cabaret.
It’s a brilliant and tragic musical about anti-Semitism, the Nazis and people’s different reactions to tyranny – particularly those of denial and wilful ignorance. But one thing this musical is not about is queerness, especially as its central relationships are heterosexual – between Sally & Cliff, and Schneider & Schultz. However, in this version Cliff’s sexuality is briefly explored. At the Kit Kat Klub he’s approached by Bobby, a man who he had some sort of relationship with back in London (but it’s all quite vague). Cliff no longer seems keen to pursue things but the pair do briefly share a kiss on stage – the history of this kiss dates back (I think) to Sam Mendes’ West End revival of the show in 1993 and is very much not in the original 1966 version. Later Sally asks Cliff if he’s a homosexual, a question which makes him uncomfortable and he doesn’t answer, leading Sally to take back the question. Beyond this the nuances of Cliff’s sexuality are not explored and Bobby is largely forgotten – making their kiss feel more tokenistic than meaningful, as if the production really wanted to get something ‘gay’ in there despite how straight it is. Talking of straight, let’s not forget the Emcee, about whom there was all that fuss. Tbc!
In my previous blog You Don’t Own Me I cited the work of anthropologist David Graeber and his very big book Debt: The First 5000 Years. It’s not quite 5000 pages long but in his tome he explores the origins of money in debt, war and slavery. He suggests that debt existed before money and human societies have been divided between debtors and creditors for a long time. Debt peonage is when someone has to pay off their debts by working for someone else (i.e. if they can’t afford to pay off their debt with cash). It’s also known as debt slavery and people have been doing it throughout history – the priests of Sumerian temples would make peasants work the land and pay with produce in return for being able to live on the land and the Romans would often enslave those they captured and make them work in their houses. Slavery is the ultimate form of ‘ownership’ whereby someone has complete power over someone else’s life (the slave ‘owes’ their life to the their master). However, slavery wasn’t the only way to increase one’s power, money was also a good mechanism.
Let’s say the Roman Empire is expanding and they’ve just conquered Britain, the Roman Emperor won’t want to kill all the Britons because not only will many of them make good house slaves but they can also be used to ensure the British economy keeps going. Of course, that’s a British economy that now serves Rome. What the Emperor does is issue all his soldiers with Roman coins which he can let them spend in Britain. The soldiers will be expected to pay tax and they have to do that with Roman coins, so coinage in this regards is a good way of ensuring the soldier’s money goes back into the Roman Empire’s economy. Meanwhile, the Britons that haven’t been enslaved will want to attract the custom of the soldiers so they’ll get busy making and selling stuff for the soldiers, which will be paid for with Roman coins. Furthermore, the Emperor might also wish to impose a debt on Britain – the war machine costs a lot of money and invading Britain proved quite expensive, so he’ll make them pay it back. Yup, the conqueror is enforcing a debt on the people he just conquered. He can do this because he’s the winner and he’s got all the power in terms of brute military strength (the soldiers) and economically (in terms of all the Roman coins). So this is how you grow an Empire – conquer people, expand your currency and force your conquests into debt. It adds a twist to the famous phrase “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”…or in debt perhaps.
And so on and so on for thousands of years argues Graeber. Even now we still live in a time of debt – whether it’s the banks offering giant loans to help people buy houses or it’s the World Bank loaning money to developing nations to help them get on their feet whilst ensuring they’ll be in debt for years. However, things are different now because the value of a currency is no longer defined in terms of some underlying precious material (i.e. gold) for which it could be exchanged. It’s not as if for every £5 we have there’s a £5 amount of gold hidden in a vault somewhere. We don’t have real money anymore, instead we have virtual money that exists as numbers on a screen. Sure, we still use coins and notes but those things themselves are worthless, it’s what they stand for that counts. However, as money is virtual it theoretically means there is no limit to how much money we can have – numbers on a screen are limitless after all. So we can keep spending more and more and getting in bigger and bigger amounts of debt for longer and longer, hurrah!
But why this brief history of money? Because money has been and continues to be a big deal – it makes the world go round, or so Liza Minelli sings in Cabaret. Currently, the US dollar is the most powerful currency in the world and the States put a lot of effort into ensuring it remains so (read that as military force, foreign policy and diplomatic effort). Money is one of the most important numbers we’ve got – it’s how we value almost everything, from the price of a lemon through to the price of an hour of someone’s labour. And because money has been such a big part of our societies for so long its effects have reached far beyond the economic realm into the political and personal realms as well. To be continued…