Spit & Polish: 3 June 2012
The drama around the notorious portrait of President Jacob Zuma made me think of how one creative work can unexpectedly take on a life of its own that extends way beyond the work itself, and also beyond the range of the artist's vision.
Life is a cabaret, old chum - even here, even now, in this divided country
Whatever happens, the Zuma artwork will occupy a place in the social and political history of South Africa, because - love it or hate it - you can't just forget about it.
That, of course, left me thinking about how original works of art retain the power to challenge and engage people long after the work was created.
Here's an interesting example of that kind of cultural evolution. In 1931, author Christopher Isherwood was living in Germany. He was gay and at that time gay culture in Berlin was relatively open. He met a woman called Jean Ross, an aspirant cabaret singer, and wrote about his experiences with her in a short but iconic novel called Goodbye to Berlin (1939).
In it, Isherwood observed the rise of Hitler's Nazi party which led to the downfall of the Weimar Republic. It made way for Hitler's Third Reich. It was obvious that a British citizen with a German boyfriend was not going to be welcome under this regime.
Isherwood left Germany, travelled about, and returned to London. After that he went to live in the US and started a new facet of his writing career and that should have been that.
But genuine cultural icons generate their own dynamic of change. Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin was adapted in 1951 into a stage play by John van Druten and renamed I am a Camera. It was a great success.
Then, in 1966, came a musical re-vamp of Van Druten's play: Cabaret. Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb retained most of Isherwood's story about the writer and the cabaret singer, but they added a fascinating character in the form of the sinister master of ceremonies.
Once again the story captivated audiences and the show was a smash hit on Broadway. Two years later, in 1968, it took London by storm with Judi Dench playing Sally Bowles.
Then came the film version of Cabaret, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, with Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey. The film was nominated for 10 Oscars and won eight of them.
Now Cabaret is in South Africa, not for the first time, but with a sensational cast and - to return to my original point - it displays its ability to make audiences see what it means in the here and now.
I spoke to the show's director, Steven Stead, who pointed out how topical this show is for South African society right now. He referred to the Weimar Republic, which came about after the fall of the oppressive, war-mongering regime of the monarchy, which was overthrown by a people's revolution in 1917.
Weimar proclaimed itself to be a democratic government and it adopted the most liberal constitution in Europe at that time. It only lasted from 1919 to 1933, after which the Nazis became the majority party in parliament.
The result was widespread unemployment and poverty in the country at large, while the Nazi party, led by Hitler, prospered.
The Nazis promised the redistribution of land and wealth for its citizens and also promised "jobs for all", but all the power and wealth went to the ruling elite.
It imposed censorship on the press and also censorship of art and all forms of political satire and comment. It tampered with the constitution, making it toothless, which allowed the ruling party to disregard it.
"If any of this strikes you as resonant for a South African," said Stead, "it wouldn't surprise me. History has a way of doing that."
As I said earlier, the great creative works refresh themselves, and they have something to say to each successive generation. Now, more than 70 years after Isherwood wrote Goodbye to Berlin, it still has something interesting to tell its audience.
The new production of Cabaret opens this week, and it will be travelling around the country. I am keen to see just how - or if - this new production resonates in South Africa as it is right now.