When I came up with the idea of performing the whole cycle on Zoom, as a contribution to lockdown culture and a defence against going stir-crazy, I still had two outstanding uncompleted projects (A Shot at the Future and Two into One) and one which hadn't even begun. This one.
I had read extensively around the period of the Weimar republic, but the actual writing has taken a week, at white hot speed. As a result, questions hang over it. Is it really a play rather than an opera libretto? Does that matter particularly, because plays have been set before, notably Salome and The Silver Tassie? Is it out of place in the cycle because it is set abroad rather than in this country?
After all, temporary escape from the repression of British law was part of the experience of the well-heeled homosexual throughout the century: Paris before World War One, Berlin in the 1920s/30s, Amsterdam post-war, New York or San Francisco in the 70s. These are questions I am hoping for feedback on in the next few weeks.
I approached the idea with some hesitancy, because the Weimar Republic has been mined extensively and there was a great risk of going over tired old ground. It has been covered with a patina of glamour and nostalgia because of its brief duration, and of in-built poignancy because we know the fate of so many people involved. Isherwood, and the Isherwood-derived Cabaret, was the benchmark, and its influence has continued down to the glossy HBOS series Babylon Berlin (2017).
I always found Mr Norris the most interesting character in Isherwood; he dominates Mr Norris Changes Trains, a shady dealer whose appeal lies partly in the mystery that surrounds him, his origins, and his activities. This is partly because Isherwood was constrained by notions of what was acceptable to a general readership in the 1930s, but also because the likes of Norris would be beyond the ken of a callow narrator.
When Isherwood went back to the subject in his autobiography Christopher and his Kind, he provided a lot more information about the model for Norris, Gerald Hamilton, and in the process destroyed much of the aura that made Norris so potent.
Reading the memoirs and biographies of Isherwood, WH Auden and Spender, I was struck most forcibly by the recognition that what we are really dealing with is what we now call sex tourism, with all its implications of sexual exploitation of the poor by the rich. Today it would be relocated to Thailand or the Philippines. It was this harder edge that I wanted to restore to the picture.
I also wanted to restore the politics. It exists in Isherwood/Cabaret, most obviously in the song Tomorrow Belongs to Me, but it is a kind of easy, almost picturesque, frisson. There is little sense that Fascism, or indeed Communism, arises out of the actions and opinions of ordinary people, including the protagonists. It is always something done by Them, Out There.
The truth is that many the rent boys described by Isherwood were involved, through Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Research, in mainstream politics, in communism, while yet others put their trust in Ernst Rohm as an openly gay man well known on the Berlin Scene to protect them from the rampant homophobia, of Himmler in particular, in other parts of the Nazi Party.
Do you flee? Do you hide? Do you collaborate? These are the choices for our German characters; we cannot judge them because we cannot possibly know how we would behave under similar circumstances.
I have kept the name Gerald Hamilton, but I did not read his biography The Man Who was Norris. All the incidents and attitudes here are imagined, though I hope in character. There was an additional model I had in mind. When I was starting out as a writer, I was given some advice by the late scriptwriter and comedy godfather, Dennis Norden. He told me that, when writing song lyrics, you should always do it to some pre-existent tune, even if only one in your head. You should never tell anyone what that tune was, and when it came out complete with music, it would be completely different, but at least you would know that it could be done, right from the start.
For plays and libretti it can work as well, but you do not need to conceal inspirations so much. The voice of Gerald I kept hearing was Sydney Greenstreet, the Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon and so many noir films of the 1940s. With music it will become something else, of course. For the moment, The Fat Man can hover over Berlin.
One other inspiration, The Blue Angel, the early Marlene Dietrich film in which a schoolteacher, Professor Rath, falls desperately for a showgirl, and follows her into showbiz. Humiliation piles on humiliation as he descends into a murderous madness. How ironic, I thought, to reverse the situation, and have a rent boy corrupted by the worldly charms and experience of a punter.
The arc of Professor Rath's degradation did not make sense for a boy, but the idea that a boy would become infatuated with the life and opportunities represented by a sophisticated and rich punter was entirely plausible. It happens all the time, and the outcome can be as tragic whether the young man goes with the older or stays behind.
While I have tried to avoid the Weimar clichés, I have nodded to them in two ways. Firstly, in making Lotte, the lesbian character, a cabaret singer. It is impossible to ignore the role of popular music in Weimar, and the role that lesbians and gay men played in it, even though that role was largely suppressed and ignored for seventy years. Lotte's songs also provide pointers to the themes of the libretto, in a scenario which is inevitably written in a kind of shorthand.
Secondly, in the finale I have used an emblem of the rise of Nazism, a Hitler speech, in a way which I used before in an anthology called Somebody Bin Usin' That Thing (2000). It may be a cliché, but by God it is an affecting one which bears repeating.
Whether The Berlin Boy makes it into the final cycle is at the moment under discussion, but I hope it will stand in its own right for the lockdown performances and may end up as a self-contained play elsewhere. We shall see.
Read the Script
All work is copyright of Peter Scott‐Presland and Robert Ely. Anyone interested in performing all or part of it should email firstname.lastname@example.org