01 September 2015

The Uses of Enchantment

    The spotlight hits the shiny silver tinsel curtain. Out steps the master of ceremonies. He leers at us with thick mascaraed eyes, gender-bending costume of tight black pants, black army boots, tightly laced corset, white tank top undershirt. I know this character. He lives inside me and has for a long time.

    “Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome…" he sings, “Fremde, enchantre, stranger.” It's our local civic theatre’s production of the stage musical Cabaret. The setting is the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin. The Nazi Party is coming to power and the main characters are oblivious. Life is a cabaret, after all.

    For the audience, too. In an oily voice the emcee tells us, “Leave all your troubles outside. Here, life is beautiful." And so it seems. Singing, dancing, laughs and love stories muffle the drumbeat of approaching horror.

    It comes as a shock to us watching, the first appearance of the swastika, that black-on-white-on-red symbol. We cringe when we hear the Nazi Party’s anthem sung with gusto, watch others go on with their lives as if they haven’t a care in the world. We know what they are not able or willing to see. It’s playing out before our eyes. And theirs.

    As the evening progresses, the emcee’s role grows more and more sinister. Grinning his death mask grin he openly mocks Jews, throws a brick through the window of a Jewish shopkeeper. For most of the play the main characters act like nothing out of the ordinary is happening. As the close, Cliff, a writer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, decides to write a novel about his experience: There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies in a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany, and it was the end of the world. I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both fast asleep.

     “Life is a cabaret, old chum, come to the cabaret.” Sally doesn’t fool us with her celebrated song. It’s obvious to us her life is anything but a cabaret. It’s unraveling. Hitler’s reach extends to the doors of the Kit Kat Klub. Death, destruction and doom are in the offing. We know this. What to do with our knowledge, that’s the question.

    One dance number includes a Rockettes-like kickline. We have our hands apart, ready to clap and cheer—but the performers finish with a Heil Hitler salute and goose-step off stage. Into the awkward silence a man behind me asks, “How are you supposed to applaud that?”

    We audience members are not innocent bysitters; we’re implicated by what we know. We know life is no cabaret—not for them on stage, not for us in our padded seats. Yet we act like it is. Here we are at the theatre, forgetting our troubles for an evening. 

    What are we avoiding?

    The emcee—the whole show—keeps telling me something I already know, a message that came mixed in with my baby formula: it takes a lot of work not to see what's in front of your face, not to hear what's being said, not to know what you know . . . but if we all work together we can make it happen.

    With concerted effort, I grew up unaware I am gay. My family valued denial and avoidance as coping mechanisms. Too few years ago my parents worked hard to ignore the cancer then ravaging my dad's body. His "sudden" death genuinely surprised my mother.

    Denial permeates our culture and our country’s politics. Elected leaders vie to lead the parade of their constituents pooh-poohing the latest bad news. The call to avoidance is everywhere. Pretend. Deny. Escape.

     How well I know it. Almost every day an oily voice deep within promises a comfy chair, speedy internet connection and plenty of eye candy—easy entertainment to numb the gritty pain of living fully alive.

    Bienvenue stranger.

    Stranger? He and I are old friends.

photo credit: Otto Dix, Metropolis 1928