I was about eighteen years old when I first heard a song sung by Peggy Lee, called "If That's All There Is..." In this song, she sings about having a number of incredible experiences, such as seeing a really huge building on fire, going to the circus, and being in love. And at the end of each experience, she feels a great disappointment and sings, "Is that all there is? Is that all there is to a circus/fire/love?"
When I heard this song, I was in shock. I couldn't make any sense out of the fact that something which was such an important and unique part of myself had been put into a song and sung over the radio. (I'm not even sure that it occurred to me that the song hadn't actually been written by Peggy Lee. Until recently, I had no idea of who the songwriter was. However recently someone named Judy Harris was nice enough to inform me that it was written by Stoller & Lieber.)
Either someone else in the world felt exactly the same way I did -- which seemed obviously impossible -- or someone had managed to write down those words without understanding what they really meant.
I've just discovered that the song "Is That All There Is?" (written by Stoller & Leiber) is actually taken from a story called "Disillusionment" by Thomas Mann (written when he was twenty). The following summary, taken from Colin Wilson's book The Craft of the Novel, makes this absolutely unmistakable.
The narrator is sitting in St Mark's Square in Venice when he falls into a conversation with a fellow countryman. The man asks, "Do you know what disillusionment is? Not a miscarriage in small unimportant matters, but the great and general disappointment which everything, all of life, has in store?" He tells how, as a small boy, the house caught fire; yet as they watched it burn down he was thinking, "So this is a house on fire? Is that all?" And ever since then, life has been a series of disappointments; all the great experiences have left him with the feeling: "Is that all?" Only when he saw the sea for the first time, he says, did he feel a sudden tremendous craving for freedom, for a sea without a horizon... And one day, death will come, and he expects it to be the last great disappointment. "Is this all?"
The song sung by Peggy Lee leaves out the part about the sea, but ends, just as Thomas Mann's story does, with the idea that death will be just one more disappointment.
The verse to this song is actually spoken rather than sung. The refrain, the only part which is sung, goes
Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friend,
Then let's keep dancing,
If that's all
My first thought in learning about the short story was that it was almost unbelievable that Thomas Mann could have written something with this sentiment at the age of twenty. But then, as I've just pointed out, it was roughly at that same age that these feelings were so powerful for me.
Now that I think of it, though, I do think it's quite incredible that this little piece of existentialism could have made it onto the white popular music charts of the late 1950s. And it's especially amazing that it was written by songwriters who were known for such classic rock classics as "Yakety Yak," "Jailhouse Rock," "Hound Dog," and "Charlie Brown."
The song was intended to be in the style of German cabaret songs, best known to Americans through the movie version of the musical Cabaret, starring Liza Minelli. The song in fact conveys the German cabaret flavor extremely well, at least in my opinion.
It was Jerry Leiber's wife, Gaby Rogers (a German who grew up in the Netherlands), who persuaded him to read the Thomas Mann story. Gaby Rogers established a reputation for herself in the movies by starring in the cult classic Kiss Me Deadly, directed by Robert Aldrich, and written by Mickey Spillane. Rogers was subsequently offered a 10-year film contract by Selznick, but turned it down because there were aspects of being a B-movie star that she didn't care for. (See the article on Wes Clark's site for further details.) She went on to do theatre directing and criticism.