Fall 2010 Guide: Leave Your Troubles Outside...

A history of the German cabaret.

Liza Minnelli in stockings and bowler, Joel Grey smeared with greasepaint—that’s what many of us see when we think of Weimar cabaret. This impression is accurate, up to a point. But German cabarets were far more diverse than Hollywood movies depict. From palatial theaters to seedy beer halls, these different venues offered an amazing variety of artists. Their competition to win Berliners’ Deutschmarks created an era of innovation whose legacy lives on.

Germany erupted into an industrial superpower in the late nineteenth century, making Berlin a center of hustle and alienation. Artists expressed this sense of chaos and fragmentation in French-inspired café revues. Unlike their French counterparts, however, Germany’s kabaretts attempted to create more than liquor-soaked variety shows; they aspired to be a cultural salon for the new century.

German artists worried about Germany’s cultural landscape. Theater attendance was dwindling: only insipid comedies and variety shows drew large audiences. Seeing that serious theaters—and their jobs—were in peril, artists turned to the variety-show style of kabaretts, hoping its popular appeal would renew German theater. Their goal was to edify with art and literature, not just entertain with song and dance.

Germany’s theatrical renewal was not easily won. In 1902, Berlin’s first kabarett, Ernst von Wolzogen’s opulent Motley Theater, closed one year after its debut. Audiences wanted entertainment, not stuffy art songs and poetry. To Wolzogen’s dismay, audiences ignored his gilt playhouse and gravitated toward off-beat pub-kabaretts, which had begun to spring up all around Berlin that same year. Pub-kabaretts offered all strata of Berliners a thrilling night of theater. The Hungry Pegasus was one such place, bringing bohemian artists together in the cramped back room of an Italian restaurant where artists experimented with ideas that would make polite Germans gasp. The atmosphere was electric, the crowd eclectic: artists, millionaires, workers, and scholars packed the seats. Like the schnapps, the camaraderie between rich and poor flowed freely.  Pub-kabaretts edified, entertained, and were outrageously successful. From these first attempts, later cabaret producers learned valuable lessons.

Germany’s defeat in World War I spawned the cabarets we are most familiar with. In the new Weimar Republic there was no censor, and kabaretts plunged from bohemian hotspots to dens of iniquity. To combat this artistic degradation, producers began opening “cabarets.” German artists again needed to save their jobs by rising above the common fare, and the French spelling emphasized this ascent. What followed was nothing less than a renaissance.

What developed from the attempts of Wolzogen and successes of The Hungry Pegasus were places like Wild Stage and Cabaret Megalomania. Producers shifted the look and appeal of the cabarets as they fought for every patron with creature comforts and envelope-pushing acts. Sitting at tables, imbibing cocktails, audiences indulged in parades of cross dressers, queers, skits, jokes, and other offerings that playfully mocked ineffective government, sexual rigidity, and a post-war world that made little sense. The energy of this exploration and redefinition was infectious. Cabaret artists sparked a cultural renaissance that expanded well beyond Germany.

Today’s productions of Shakespeare in the Park owe a debt of gratitude to the Weimar cabaret. During the Weimar period the legendary producer Max Reinhardt broke down the walls of the theater to produce the Oresteia in a circus ring. His ability to see beyond the proscenium arch was born in his early kabarett work. Cabaret’s heterodoxy was spreading.

The sexually enigmatic beauty of Marlene Dietrich would never have graced the silver screen had she not stumbled onto a cabaret stage. She worked as a chorus girl in Friedrich Hollaender’s upscale cabaret and in 1928 made her star turn with the lesbian anthem “When My Special Girlfriend.” Before long, her husky voice and provocative glamour lit up films like The Blue Angel and Blonde Venus, sharing with the world the wit, sophistication, and sexual allure of cabaret. In Morocco, Dietrich plays a cabaret artist who sings a cynical French song about the end of an affair. Wearing a man’s tuxedo and top hat, she kisses a woman and then throws a flower to Gary Cooper. This turn sums up the sprit of Weimar: breaking down boundaries.

Interrogation lies at the heart of the work by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and it was in the cabaret that these two artists learned to question. Weill contributed music to cabaret performers; Brecht wrote sketches. Brecht once sang at the Wild Stage, and his song about the German army digging up a dead soldier to send his corpse to the front so enraged the audience that a riot almost broke out. The cabaret style—with the conférencier (known today as the Emcee) breaking up the action to comment and interact with the audience—sowed the seeds of Brecht’s epic theater. After Brecht and Weill honed their skills separately in cabaret, the two came together in 1927 and began a revolution in theater.

With the rise of the Nazis in 1930 the days of cabaret were numbered. Intolerance and violence grew, and many artists left Germany. The cabarets had changed from artistic refuges to targets because the Nazis viewed cabarets, and everyone associated with them, as degenerate. While Reinhardt, Dietrich, Brecht, and Weill came to America, other cabaret artists fled to other parts of the world. This diaspora of talent took with it the cabaret spirit of inventive chaos.

Joseph Pindelski is a second-year dramaturgy student in the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.

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