A Study And Definition Of Cabaret Drama Essay

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The term 'cabaret' is derived from the French word for wine cellar or tavern, and eventually was used to refer to any type of business that sold alcoholic beverages. However, as historian Lisa Appignanesi explains, popular usage 'conjures up visions of sleazy strip joints on dank city streets or nightclubs where the exorbitant price of cocktails is rarely linked to the meager stage fare' (2004: p. 1). Cabaret, since its emergence in the late 1800s, has been a popular form of entertainment, particularly during times of oppression.

This can be understood by tracing its early days in Paris, up through the German 'Kabarett', as it was known, in the 1920s and 1930s. The year 1881 is often thought of as the 'beginning' of cabaret, for this was the year in which Le Chat Noir (or 'Black Cat') came into existence in the Montmartre section of Paris. However, Appignanesi points out that in the mid-fifteenth century in France, the notion of cabaret was already in existence; wine cellars were frequently the locale for live entertainment: 'The two forms of artistic cabaret which were to emerge some centuries later were already there in germ: cabaret as a meeting place for artists where performance or improvisation takes place among peers, and cabaret as an intimate, small-scale but intellectually ambitious revue' (2004: p. 1).

The form of cabaret that came into existence in 1881 had a more intellectual and artistic atmosphere, perhaps in part due to the formation of a literary society known as the 'Hydropathes'. This was a group of artists, primarily writers and poets, who would convene weekly to share work with one another. Their popularity grew rapidly and their numbers increased. This, according to Appignanesi, was the start of the true nature of cabaret: 'It emerged either as a laboratory, a testing ground for young artists who often deliberately advertised themselves as an avant-garde, or as the satirical stage of contemporaneity, a critically reflective mirror of topical events, morals, politics and culture'(2004: p. 5).

II. French Cabaret

By the eighteenth century France, the tradition of offering food and drink had begun to take hold; however, it was not until the nineteenth century that the notion of 'cafes-concerts' was fully accepted. Rearick explains that 'live' singing was extremely common during the 1800s and up until the turn of the century; phonographs were not common to the masses, so live entertainment was the standard: 'In streets and courtyards, the fin-de-siecle French regularly listened to itinerant singers, as their ancestors had through the centuries' (Rearick, 1988: p. 46). In the 1880s and 1890s, these cafes-concerts continued to proliferate, so that by the turn of the century there were more than 260 establishments of the type (Rearick, 1988: p. 46). The music was uninterrupted, with song after song being performed, often to packed audiences.

Le Chat Noir

As stated above, 1881 is considered a landmark date in cabaret history, as this was the year in which Le Chat Noir (or 'Black Cat') came into existence in the Montmartre section of Paris. According to Appignanesi, the symbol of the black cat is derived from the work of Edgar Allan Poe, a clear indication of the strong literary tradition cabaret was associated with. 'The first cabaretists gave birth to an eclectic cat', notes Appignanesi. 'A cat who could sing, recite, dance, create shadow plays, write music, lyrics, farce, and above all, perform' (2004: p. 9). Le Chat Noir was the brainchild of Roldolphe Salis, also known as the Baron de la Tour de Naintre. Its initial home was a space of two rooms, but its popularity increased so rapidly that it soon took place in much more spacious and elegant surroundings. Salis is credited with having introduced the piano to the cabaret, an addition which greatly enhanced the popularity of cabarets among the public. Salis did this despite the existence of a government statute that prohibited music in cabarets. This disregard for authority has come to be associated with cabaret life as we have come to think of it today. Salis' next move was to invite more and more artists and musicians to spend time at his establishment. He had become acquainted with fellow artist Emile Goudeau, who was a Hydropath, and it was through Salis' influence that the Hydropathes moved from the Left Bank to Le Chat Noir in Montmartre.

Salis was also known for his self-aggrandizement; the cabaret soon began to publish a journalalso known as Chat Noir in which he wrote: 'The Chat Noir is the most extraordinary cabaret in the world. You rub shoulders with the most famous men of Paris, meeting there with foreigners from every corner of the world' (Chat Noir). In general, the style of the journal was often marked by macabre stories, not unlike the work of Poe himself. Humorous essays were also frequently featured. It also contained illustrations, and a number of posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, many of which can be seen on poster reprints from that epoch. In the 1880s, the primary illustrators of the journal included Adolphe Willette, Caran d'Ache, Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Henri Riviere and George Auriol (Chat Noir). Inexpensive and easily accessible, the four-page journal quickly grew in popularity (Krafft, 2006: par. 2). It was a form of expression that was open to everyone who wanted their voices to be heard.

Shadow Theatre: Forerunner of Cinema

It is often thought that the shadow theatre at Chat Noir was instrumental in the beginnings of cinema. Henri Riviere, whose illustrations appeared in the journal, was one of the key figures involved. Zinc figures were silhouetted against a backlit background, and music and sometimes narration would be included. The resulting spectacles were quite popular and attracted such famous people as Claude Debussy, Eric Satie, and Toulouse-Lautrec (Krafft, 2006: par. 6). Riviere also collaborated with George Auriol in the completion of a series of shadow books. These were heavily decorated in a Japanese style that soon became known as the genre art nouveau. The most famous work that came out of this time, however, was a volume known as Les Trente-six Vues de la Tour Eiffel, a series of prints, thirty-six in all, of Paris at the time. The Japanese influence is very apparent in this work, particularly the work of Hokusai in his depictions of Mount Fuji (Krafft, 2006: par. 8).

The Chat Noir's success was instrumental in making Montmartre the center of artistic life in Paris. Although it was not the only cabaret, it was by far the most famous. Other establishments included Cabaret des Quat'z' Arts, La Lune Rousse, Les Pantins, and the more famous Le Mirliton. Le Mirliton is French for 'reed pipe', but has the secondary meaning of 'doggerel'. The cabaret was actually located in the original home of the Chat Noir, and the artist most commonly associated with it was Aristide Bruant. Bruant was ardently political, and his songs are full of references to the despair and poverty of victims of social injustice. Prisoners, prostitutes, and outcasts in general were often subjects of his work. The lyrics were written in the language of the streets, and were often satirical. Bruant himself was made famous in a poster of him that was created by Toulouse-Lautrec. Appignanesi describes his lyrics as both bitter and hopeful: 'With his deep affinity for the subjects of his songs, yet without a trace of moralizing sentimentality, Bruant exposes the plight of the lower depths and the need for change' (2004: p. 27). His lyrics are often considered the root of the cabaret chanson tradition. Below are the lyrics of a song that Bruant composed in 1898 for his election campaign for the legislature, and one which represents the motivations and political themes that traditionally marked his work:

If I were your deputy,

Oho! Oho! One can only try

I would add the word Humanity

To the three of our revolutionary cry.

Instead of speaking every day

For the republic or the empire

Making speeches that leap into fire,

But have nothing to say

I'd champion the mewling babes

Of unwed mothers, the poor old folk

Who freeze in the wintry city,

They'd be as warm as a summer's day

If I were made deputy

In Belleville.

(Bruant, qtd. in Appignanesi, 2004: p. 27)

We can see in Bruant's lyrics the kinds of issues that were relevant and the political atmosphere at that time. It is no surprise that he sings of hungry children ('mewling babes'), unwed mothers, the impoverished, the homeless 'who freeze in the wintry city'.

These were the people who were unaccustomed to having a voice in society; cabaret offered them a forum, a mode of self-expression that would hopefully lead to the social reforms that were so desperately needed.

Women in Cabaret

Women were not actively involved in cabaret in these early days, but they were not completely unrepresented. Yvette Guilbert (1867-1944) was one of the few women of this time period who performed cabaret-type songs. She got her start in traditional theatre in Paris, but soon moved to Montmartre, which was truly the center of artistic spirit at the time. Her style was unique; she would both speak and sing her lyrics, a trait for which she was soon known as 'diseuse fin de siecle', or end-of-the-century teller. She appeared primarily in such venues as the Divan Japonais, the Moulin Rouge, and Les Ambassadeursthough she did not perform in cabarets themselves. In the early days of cabaret, however, women were a rarity: Appignanesi points out that 'the form had to travel to Germany and Austria before women became an integral part of its make-up' (2004: p. 29).

II. Cabaret in Berlin

Cabaret began to spread in popularity, moving far beyond the boundaries of Paris and France. It became even more popular all across Europe at the end of World War I, where it found a comfortable niche in which to flourish. Wilhelmine Germany, however, was not as free-spirited as Paris was: 'A hierarchical structure of authority prevailed, engendering a multitude of uniformed officials, encouraging yes-men and political disaffection' (Appignanesi, 2004: p. 36). During this time period, corruption was as widespread as it was treacherous. In addition, strict censorship made it difficult for any kind of art to flourish. Artists and writers who expressed ideas that were considered unacceptableand most ideas at the time werewould have their performances stopped, their work seized. In some cases, the artists themselves would be imprisoned. Around 1900, however, the atmosphere began to change. Thinkers like Nietzsche began to have more and more influence, and new ideas and thoughts began to circulate. Eventually, artists who had been kept down for so long were finally free to express themselves.

Roots in Munich

At the turn of the century, the city that was known as the center for the arts in Germany was Munich. This is where Simplicissimus got its start and continued to flourish. The Schwabing district was home to a number of artists and performers. The end of the censorship that had been rampant under the Wilhelminian era finally arrived, and the Weimar Republic had begun. At this point, the old order in Berlin ceased to exist, and it soon became the cosmopolitan capital of Germany.

Otto Julius Bierbaum and Deutsche Chansons

In 1900, Deutsche Chansons made its debut. This book, published by Otto Julius Bierbaum, was a collection of singable poems, including works by Richard Dehmel, Arno Holz, and Frank Wedekind. Bierbaum was interested in making art that was available to the people: 'his aim was to make art pervade the entirety of life', notes Appignanesi: 'Painters today... are making chairs for people to sit on, not for museums' (2004: p. 37). The movement inspired by Bierbaum's attempts to 'functionalise' poetry is known as Jugendstil. This movement had an important impact on the continuing development of cabaret. From this point on, it would be marked by its willingness to take on popular modes of expression: 'The adoption of popular forms, for whatever motive, cultural or political, was to remain a part of the cabaret tradition throughout, as well as one of the driving forces of modernism' (Appignanesi, 2004: p. 37). This merging of form and function may not seem surprising to society today, but during this period of Jugenstil, it signified a new way of looking at the world.

With the end of censorship that came through the Weimar period, it was an ideal time and place for cabaret to develop. However, cabaret in Germany would slightly shift its focus. It would become more serious. As it developed and became more widespread and increasingly popular, it would also mature and lose some of the playfulness it was accorded in Paris. According to Appignanesi, a number of factors, occurring almost at the same time, contributed to the birth of cabaret in Germany. The weekly magazine, Simplicissimus, was launched in 1896 by Albert Langen, and often contained contributions from writers who included Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. A satirical publication, it included not only writing, but cartoons as well, and was graphically quite innovative and bold. It frequently took on political issues, such as the 1897 law penalizing workers who went on strike.

After Deutsche Chansons made its debut, things began to change at a rapid pace. It soon became clear that Berlin accepted cabaret as a meeting place for artists and writers. The hub of activity at the turn of the century had been Munich, as stated earlier, particularly the Schwabing district. Appignanesi asserts that this confluence of talent along with a carnival atmosphere 'resulted in Munich's producing one of the most fertile and interesting of European cabarets' (2000: p. 42), and one that spread throughout the country during the Weimar years.

The Eleven Executioners

Lex Heinze was the name given to the strict law that gave police the power to interfere in artistic matters in Germany. The police took full advantage of this power, and in a number of ways. Confiscation of publications such as books or magazines was common. Even performance art was affected: parts of a performance could be deleted, sometimes entire acts. Furthermore, offending artists or writers could be imprisoned. A group of Secessionist painters, Simplicissimus staff members, and students and actors from the academic Dramatic Union, formed a protest group, eleven of whom would come to be known as 'the Eleven Executioners'. What they planned to 'execute', according to Appignanesi, was the very idea of social hypocrisy itself. She explains that 'these hangmen of the status quo knew that if they performed publicly they would be harassed by censorship, and so they called themselves a club which played only to invited guests, one night every week' (2004: p. 44). In this way, they were able to perform without interference. A sample of their songs is below:

It looms on high that black block

We judge heartily and pierce.

Blood red heart, blood red frock,

Our fun is always fierce.

Any enemy of the time

Will meet the executioner's axe

Any friends of death and crime,

We'll adorn with song and rhyme.

(qtd. in Appignanesi, 2004: p. 44)

As in the works of Bruant, themes of equality and fairness were commonly found in the songs performed by the Executioners. They were socially conscious and very much aware of the plight of those society held in little regard: the impoverished members of society, those who most needed to be heard but had little chance of having that happen.

Among the most famous of the Executioners was Frank Wedekind. Wedekind's dislike of authority was well established by the time he joined their ranks. He was known for writing spoofs and satires that mocked the hypocritical behaviors of those in power. In addition, he was known to have a strong stage presence, and would give long, raucous performances that would electrify audiences both in their dramatic delivery and their outrageous content. Below is an example of Wedekind's incendiary satires:

I have murdered dear Auntie Alice,

My Auntie so old and so frail.

Motivated by greed and malice

I went straight on the treasure trail.

Her little house was simply seething

With banknotes, with shares and with gold.

I heard my Auntie's heavy breathing

But that left me perfectly cold.

I just followed my intuition

In the dark I opened her door

And knifed her without inhibition

My Auntie sighed and breathed no more.

The golden coins were weighing me down,

Her body was heavy as lead,

But I dragged Auntie without a frown

Through the garden and into the shed.

I have murdered dear Auntie Alice,

My Auntie so old and so frail.

I'm young, so young, yet out of malice

They've sentenced me to life-long jail.

(qtd. in Appiganesi, 2004: p. 49)

The harsh irony and abrasive boldness of this and other ballad-type songs were one of Wedekind's trademarks, and it was not long before he extended this into parody. Nothing was considered sacred; he even wrote a parody of the national anthem, Deutschland, Deutschland Ã┬╝ber alles. In this case, however, he published the piece under a pseudonym.

In actuality, the span of time the Eleven Executioners were together as a group was not very long. However, the impact they had was huge. The group had all but disbanded by 1903. Yet, during that time, they were able to bring their message to all parts of the country, and they were considered instrumental in spreading cabaret itself. They are often credited with helping to popularize the genre and bring it to Vienna, the artistic capital of pre-war Europe.

IV. Later Cabaret

Christopher Isherwood

Christopher Isherwood's works include two semi-autobiographical novels that are an important part of cabaret history: Berlin Stories and Goodbye to Berlin. In fact, Bob Fosse's 1972 film Cabaret was inspired by Goodbye to Berlin. This collection of pieces is about life in Berlin during 1930 and 1931, at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power. 'More than making monsters, therefore, the Berlin novels account for how monsters are made when history itself becomes monstrous', notes Shuttleworth. (2000: p. 160). 'If the final sense of the texts is that the usurpation of life by art is disastrous, they are equally clear that the separation of art from life is impossible, and that the idea of an artless world, claiming authenticity or objectivity, is a delusion dangerous in itself' (Shuttleworth, 2000: p. 160).

Cabaret in Film: Cabaret

The film Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse, was released in 1972. Immediately popular, the film soon became a classic. In it, one can get an idea of what cabaret was like in 1932 Berlin. Cabaret was inspired by Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, a collection of pieces, some of which are autobiographical, about life in Berlin during 1930 and 1931, at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power. The pieces are valuable as a description of a significant period in German and world history, and the effect the changing political tide had on the world of cabaret. 'Isherwood's portrait of the Berlin demimonde and of the morally bankrupt middle classes has generally been taken to reveal a cultural condition, or let us say a widespread state of mind, which somehow explainsand perhaps even foretoldwhat was to happen in Europe and the world at large during the next fifteen years' (Bucknell, 2000: p. 13).

The story opens up with the Kit Kat Klub, in Berlin. It is set in the late 20s, before the oppression of Hitler had settled in. The Kit Kat Klub was an actual cabaret in Berlin during the 1930s. This is the common bond that links American Sally Bowles with several other colorful characters who are representative of society of the time. Among them was a wealthy German politician, a British teacher, and of course, the omniscient Master of Ceremonies. Enormously famous, the film is still considered a classic, and is often seen as a metaphor for the self-destruction that was later to follow as fascism engulfed Germany.

Cabaret in Film: The Blue Angel

The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich, is another classic in which the Weimar cabaret style is considered to be accurately depicted. It is loosely based on Professor Unrath, the novel by Heinrich Mann. Dietrich, who was relatively unknown at the time, played Lola-Lola , the star of the Blue Angel, a character known for her bold, brazen sexuality. Professor Immanuel Rath is a schoolmaster, known for his lack of a sense of humour and his puritan approach to life. Upon discovering that some of his students have been frequenting The Blue Angel, he decides to show up at the cabaret himself, hoping to catch students in the act. His visit opens up a new world to himthe sensual, free, loose world of cabaret lifeand after sampling this, it is clear that he will never be the same.

V. Conclusion

By tracing the development of the cabaret genre, from its early days in Paris, up through the German 'Kabarett', as it was known, in the 1920s and 1930s, one can see how it became firmly entrenched as a vehicle for the oppressed. The year 1881 is often thought of as the landmark date for the start of cabaret, for this was the year in which Le Chat Noir came into existence in Paris. However, as has been pointed out, the notion of cabaret was already in existence; wine cellars were frequently the locale for live entertainment as far back as the fifteenth century. Cabaret soon became known as a meeting place for artists, writers, and performers; it game them a common gathering place in which camaraderie was established, ideas were shared, and history was made.

The form of cabaret that came into existence in 1881 had a more intellectual and artistic atmosphere, influenced greatly by the literary group of Hydropathes. It spread, as we have seen, throughout Europe; with the end of the censorship that had been rampant under the Wilhelminian era, cabaret settled in Berlin, a home in which it flourished and matured. As the genre developed, it became more widely accepted as well as increasingly popular; it also matured and lost some of the playfulness it was known for in Paris.

Historically, cabaret has been the voice of freedom. It has represented progress and been both a vehicle for self-expression and an instrument of change. Throughout history, we have seen that disasters will occur, events over which we have no controlwe also have seen that we have, and will, rally from them. To that end, we have art. But if, as Appignanesi points out, 'the artist's metaphorical gun is no particularly potent weapon, it can still instigate shifts of awareness' (2004: p. 251). Art can remind us that there is another way of doing things, a fresh reality that we can hold onto and hope for. But 'art' has not always been known for its accessibility. Cabaret is, in that sense, the art of the people, a haven that has historically attracted those for whom society holds in little regard: the impoverished, the marginal, the less fortunatethose who most needed to be heard but have little chance of having that happen.


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