I Research: Origins and Development of Cabaret

Many texts documenting the people and events within the cabaret sphere exist.  One of the more amusing tasks in reading these texts is deciphering the attitude and reverence (or lack thereof) with which the author is approaching the subject.  Two of the more useful texts are Laurence Senelick’s Cabaret Performance dual volumes and Lisa Appignanesi’s The Cabaret.  Appignanesi takes a more linear, narrative-based approach while Senelick compiles extant materials, demonstrating core principles and personalities of popular performance in cabaret throughout Europe.  To begin the documentation of my persona creation, we must begin with the understanding of the cabaret spaces that served as a metaphorical watering hole where artists seeking community and philosophical unity sparked so much foundational creativity to the performing arts as a whole.
In his two volumes of Cabaret Performance, Laurence Senelick aims to provide both context and extant examples of the types of materials performed in the cresting art form/space known as the Cabaret Artistique.  He begins his series by noting how the end of the nineteenth century saw “an encroaching imperialism, a hardening nationalism, a swelling militarism” from most of the major countries playing on the global stage. (7)  This nationalism and consequent affinity for cultural identity and pride played out in the arts by a move toward representing specific, individualistic perspectives.  This expansion of centering new perspectives through both artistic subject and form was achieved by many groups of creatives, including the expressionists painters, modernist writers, and dramatists interested in naturalism and symbolism.  As Senelick succinctly puts it: “It condensed the artistic experience into a quintessence meant to have an immediate impact on the spectator.  The performance cabaret was an offshoot of this reaction.” (7)

We, as citizens in the 21st century, are experiencing a similar simultaneous imperialism and nationalism on our global political stages, and the social processing of the different manifestations of that imperialistic nationalism is apparent within the social media engagement we can observe in our present time.  Popular culture and technologies both reject and demand nuanced engagement with social processing.  A direct descendant from this intention of a “direct impact on the spectator” is the social media content that demonstrates this collective processing of demanded/rejected reckoning.  This content is molded by the complex off-shoots of advertising and marketing as they simultaneously leverage cults of personality and advance the state of performance modes to new, avant-garde usage. In particular, I am thinking of Chelsea Hart’s TikTok videos critiquing vaccine hesitancy, COVID misinformation, and the intersections of those things with sexism. The fast-paced, fact-based tone of her videos and anti-persuasion tone reject methods of advertising: she leans in to heavy criticism rather than appealing dialogue in responding to consumers who do not share her views. (Hart, 2020) In contrast, a number of social media personalities pair with brands to create content in alignment with those products. Both Hart’s rejection of advertising as form and the branded content provide opportunities for personalities to act as the primary draw to modern content. 

Senelick also quickly points out how the Cabaret totally embodied the zeitgeist and aim of most art forms taking shape and shifting at the turn of the century as: “art that is minor not in significance on intentions but reduced in scale to its essential components. It partook of the aesthetic atmosphere of its time to no small degree.” (8)  This assertion is explored by both Senelick and Appignanesi, and we see it paralleled in our own time.  From the origins of digital art at the turn of the 21st century rose the social media platforms that revolutionized “content creation” (a term for experimental performance art that can double as advertising and sponsored art aimed at a unified message).  These social media platforms came forth and developed in the second decade of our current century and, in no order of significance, include: Youtube, Vine, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram.

Senelick does a meandering job outlining the different groups of artists, establishments, and types of performance done in the Cabaret Artistique. He provides contemporary examples of scripts, reviews, and accounts of the cabaret spaces throughout continental Europe.  Lisa Appignanesi’s The Cabaret is a highly readable and engaging history of cabaret’s performance-meets-art space.  She outlines clearly, the trajectory of different countries’ engagement with cabaret venues, and how artists utilized these meeting grounds to experiment and connect together. Senelick begins with the Hydropathes – a group of artists who met and performed at the Chat Noir.  Their primary mode of performance was epic, employing extremely beautiful shadow plays accompanied by monotonous recitation of the plot, while underscoring and sometimes adding sung musical accompaniment.  These shadow plays became popular at the end of the 19th century and inspired groups of artists across Europe in a micro-cultural exchange. Appignanesi begins by detailing the Quatre Gats in Barcelona as an example of a precursor to cabaret focused primarily as an artist’s salon and gallery.  The Quatre Gats took form at the turn of the century between 1890 and 1910 for the shifting artistic movements launching out of the Catalonian Renaixena that lasted roughly between 1813 and the 1880s.  The artists who exhibited at the Quatre Gats served as the vanguards of the shifting visual art landscape in Spain, ushering in great works of impressionism and laying the foundation for the modernism exhibited by Pablo Picasso (who himself exhibited at the Quatre Gats in February of 1900) and the surrealism of Salvador Dali.  This example portends the impact of the nightlife spaces as containers for some of the most influential creative minds of the Western art tradition that will hold true through the first quarter of the 20th century.

Part of the cultural exchange that took place between Barcelona and Paris at the turn of the century included the interweaving of recitations, shadow plays, and live-painting that built the platform for performance art to expand and shift through the next 50 years.  These demonstrations not only made way for experimentation but also highlighted the propensity for broad, popular, and rough forms of art that led to heightened, somewhat fantastical subject matter frequently pitted against epic and/or satirical modes of storytelling.  In terms of making way for artistic experimentation, recitation and live-painting inherently expose the process of creation and revision.  Rather than revealing a work of art at the end of a process, displaying the act of selecting colors on a palette and their position on a canvas or reading out loud works that could be left for silent reflection opened non-theatrical artistic process up to an audience exchange.  An audience exchange opens new, blurred lines and an inherent incorporation of public reaction and discourse into artistic creation.  When public reaction and interest is introduced to an artistic process, more plebeian subject matter or interests become elevated to a new level of examination.  Shadow plays are an example of this; puppets as a primary technique for storytelling became increasingly interesting and useful to modernists/experimental artists for their ability to combine traditional visual elements from a given culture with innovative representation modes (35).  These elements suggest an interest in “low” or “popular” forms, influential to Picasso and emblematic of the atmosphere created by these artists:

“Like the rest of the group, part of Picasso’s modernism lay in his willingness to turn his hand to ‘poor’ and popular artistic forms, to allow the street with its crude colors, omnipresent signage and print, its speed, its raw energy (indeed vulgarity) to invade his ‘art.'” (34)

Throughout the early blossoming of cabaret performing venues, the creative collision ended up making way for experimental art movements that would set the stage for the paradigm shift that would lead to our current zeitgeist of digital performance and art.  Nowhere was this creative spark of the avant-garde more palpable than at the Lapin Agile: 

“The painters and writers who flocked to the cheap living quarters of Montmartre at the turn of the century extended the definition of artist so that it incorporated the entirety of the individual’s life-habits…With a humorous elan, they interiorized the cabaret spectacle and lived it out on life’s stage. The period’s headquarters for the planning of far-ranging artistic schemes was Le Lapin Agile.” (74) 

Apollinaire’s 1913 poem “Zone” illustrates the energy of that contemporary moment.  Truly, the Lapin Agile is the origin locus for such movements as the Futurists, Dadaists, and Expressionists. Apollinaire is famed for terming “Cubism” and “Surrealism” and demonstrates embodying his artistic principles utilized to create his life’s work as a writer poet. This legacy implies our 21st century freelance culture and the idea of an integrated, fully aligned life. Particularly within the last ten years, there have been myriad examples of tweets, tumblr posts, and generic meme forms redefining the way we understand a freelance “hustle.” There has been discussion about taking on work that aligns with personal values as well as the importance of setting boundaries. These meme forms are, from my view, 21st century manifestoes proclaiming the tools to live life in a way analogous to those early Expressionists and Surrealists.

The development of “variety” theatre – in the latter half of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century –  is frequently categorized in history classes down to specific genres (examples include ‘music hall’ ‘circus’ ‘vaudeville’ and ‘burlesque,’ to name a few).  This variety is the foundation on which cabaret is built – and became a genre that converged variety into one form under the philosophy that “…art did not have to be uplifting or earnest…”  This conviction carried Western experimental performance through the first 30 years of the 20th century, where theatrical innovation, the beginnings of popular music, literary parody and political satire all existed in a genre soup that allowed for personal anecdote to seed the beginnings of stand-up comedy, artists working quickly in noisy bars, and the roots of performance and installation art.

Senelick notes that this cultural climate and the artists working within cabaret spaces saw  that  “The components of pop art were to be the medium of high art.  And in the process, a new audience would be won for the avant-garde.” [sic] (pg)  This “stew,” if you will, mirrors our current moment to a T.   We find once again, the blurring of lines between low, medium, and high art.  Though the term “pop art” is a more modern one being applied to the past, the component parts that we have identified as hallmarks include reproducibility, cheap materials or time/effort matrix, and inflammatory/provocative subject matter/personalities.  We find those elements readily available to those of us engaging on social media out of a desire for creative self-expression.  “Avant-garde,” as a term, demands recognition of newness and innovation, and the very conception of newness becomes more nuanced as we move forward in time to include processes of reference and recombination.  This method of innovative recombination seems especially successful today as people are more and more situated in isolation and connection within digital platforms offers the tools to experiment with recombination easily.

Most of the parallels available to our examination of cabaret performance and modern experimentation within social media involves analyzing the highly adversarial position most public persons engaging in this type of performance took in the past or are taking today.  Though in the past, the adversarial position was directed firmly against the governmental establishment that (usually) coincided with the “bourgeois prejudices and values, conventional morality… and capitalist economy,” these aims translate over time to the users and creators active in our non-profit/community-based theatrical practices as well as on social media platforms (9).  Today, critique and call for the demolition of the establishment over reform end up becoming hyper specific rather than generic parody, likely due to the widespread dissemination of information and capacity to converse/connect across distances and platforms.  A particular inspiration for this project’s Persona development is Chelsea Hart, a comedian who found particular success on TikTok utilizing different performance modes to criticize COVID conspiracy theorists, sexist behavior, and vaccine hesitancy.

Senelick ends his introduction by exactly noting the arc that ends up dismantling not only the cabaret space as it flourished, but also certain social media platforms.  The homogeneity of the audience lent itself to the creation of cabaret spaces; it helped reinstate a heightened experimentation and exploration of art and entertainment (necessarily defined here as a convergence of performer and audience, creating a space of communal experience tied to a time and place).  As salons and early establishments began morphing into cabaret spaces, communities founded in common ideals and interests emerged to support the trajectory upward.  However, as Senelick notes, “The introduction first of guests and then of paying customers coarsened the ambience and, eventually, the technique of the cabaret; so that the cabaret’s avowed original intention of refining the music hall was betrayed as it turned into a music hall itself.” (10)  This coarsening of creative space parallels, from my perspective, the short-lived popularity and availability of Vine as a social media platform.  In review of Vine compilations on YouTube, it becomes clear that the community was undoubtedly homogenous in terms of age demographic (i.e youthful, ranging from adolescent to young adult).  Though there are many other factors that play into social media platform success, this particular correlation is worth mentioning.  A second pseudo-parallel correlation to the nascent dismantling can be found in the critique many social media platforms encounter when introducing new features either inspired by or in competition with other platforms.  This is frequently a marketing ploy and effort under capitalist expansion to provide supply to a perceived demand and thus expand user bases.  Specific examples here can be found particularly on YouTube, when the company launched a streaming platform for both music and TV/film produced externally to the independent content creators that YouTube is famous for.  They also recently launched a variation on the TikTok formula, allowing users to create “bite sized” content and sync music, filter backgrounds, and edit together multiple clips into videos no longer than 75 seconds.

The characteristics of early cabarets, as identified by Senelick, involved a conferencier and chanteuse, two personalities that would serve as the hallmarks of the Cabaret Artistique in Paris.  Chief among these founding archetypes were Alphonse Allais and Rudolph Salisas as leads/conferenciers, and Yvette Guilbert, a singer offering a refreshing counterpoint to the “usual music hall singer was a plump beauty with opulent curves and deep cleavage; [in opposition] Guilbert was scrawny, red-haired, chinless, and long-nosed.” [sic] (39)  Guilbert was not only famous for her ability to subtly and expertly perform songs but also for providing one of the famous faces of posters painted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  Though Guilbert did not go on to have a cabaret-fueled career, she did set the standard for the cabaret song through her charisma and timing rather than the technique and quality of her voice. 

The pinnacle of the host | variety act (which encompasses the popularity of cabaret singers alongside some of the more obscure theatrical endeavors) could be found in Germany as the micro-cultural exchange spread east.  Spain and France were fueled by a creative energy and tradition that had been born out of the different cultural revolutions each country experienced toward the beginning of the 19th century.  A somewhat parallel progression to these 19th century revolutions can be tracked through Germany’s socio-political trajectory nearly a century later and suggests a sort of counter-origin to Germany’s kabarett.  Appignanesi characterizes Wilhelmine Germany as highly structured and “disaffected.” (36)  For all of our modern humor surrounding German sensibilities (characterizing these citizens as humorless, rigid, austere, and repressed), the kernels of truth within these stereotypes likely come from the Wilhelmine socio-economic and political atmosphere:

“While a sombre sense of duty to family, church, business, and state was the prized attribute of the German burgher, this only thinly veiled that desire for material gain which constituted success. Kultur was something one recognized and respected when its high tone induced a state of incomprehending awe akin to boredom.” (36)

There was a common practice of censorship, so that most of the art and literature available was highly sincere, unironic, and far outside of the realm of satire.  By the turn of the century, however, humor and a certain amount of Dionysian abandon began to make their way into more seriously regarded Kultur.  A more wide-spread consumption of Friedrich Nietzsche’s prolific writing and critique of ironic detachment became foundational to artists seeking a more serious and deeply truthful kind of art.  This burgeoning shift toward existentialism coupled with an interest in the latest gossip/news from Paris about the types of salons (i.e the Chat Noir) helped to first inspire “Simplicissimus,” an experimental literary publication, first printed in 1896 and edited by Arthur Langen, that would later lend its name to a cabaret venue composed of a wine bar presided over by Kathi Kobus in 1902.

Between the first publication of Simplicissimus and the opening of the bar, Ernst Von Wolzogen and Julius Bierbaum founded the Buntes Theater or Überbrettl.  This space had a clearer delineation between the stage and audience, whereas the Chat Noir had everyone all together within a three-story smoky salon, with audience members and artists interacting boisterously with performers.  The artistic community in Berlin that made way for the Buntes Theater had quite a bit of overlap (for example, Christian Morgenstern debuted his ‘Gallows Songs’ at Buntes and just a few months later was the beneficiary of an inaugural performance orchestrated by Max Reinhardt to help balance out money needed to send him to a sanatorium – this group would later turn in to Schall und Rauch, another cabaret venue in Munich).  Bierbaum also published “Deutsche Chansons,” which served as a sort of hybrid indictment/manifesto in the preface before compiling the most current writings and documentation of performance art within the Berlin cabaret scene.  Appignanesi notes how Bierbaum’s assertion of “Applied lyric – that is our battle cry” is in opposition to the “perennial German tendency to look on culture as an orthopedic appliance…” (37-38)  The specific aim of “ennobling…’Tingletangle’ or popular variety show” ended up acting as an attack on the exact philistinism that Nietzsche criticized in German culture.  Variety, as a means of not only inclusion but attentive enjoyment and engagement, seems prevalent in Appignanesi’s assessment of the underpinnings inherent to German cabaret.  She notes that the popular saying went: “‘Freedom is tingeltangel,’ …linking artistic freedom with…variety spectacle.” (38)
While Berlin served as a pseudo-Parisian hotspot for artistic and social experimentation, Munich saw a different bend to Kabarette.  Appignanesi suggests that the underpinnings of the Munich cabarets were in Fasching, a carnival that took place before Lent with all of the inhibition and performer | voyeur ambiguity of carnival celebrations across the globe.  The exploration of the ambiguity between performer and audience member began with one of the most notorious performance groups called “Die Elf Scharfrichter” or “11 Executioners,” a group of artists performing in protest against the Lex Heinze (a set of morality laws serving primarily as a means to censor artists, with punitive measures that could extend to imprisoning artists).  Appignanesi notes 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 a week.” (44)  The clarity with which this ‘club’ communicated accessibility and an evening’s programme outlines the way performativity in acting as an audience member blurs the line between artist and spectator so that the creation of the event becomes the act of protest.  This groundwork would be built upon by the Futurists and Dadaists in the 1920s.

Die Elf Scharfrichter opened on April 13, 1901 (which, of course, was a Friday) and the opening playbill consisted of dramatic entrances and song contributions of the eleven core members, a giant puppet play, a parody of Maeterlink, and a notorious performance by Marya Delvard, made famous not only by her notoriety as a performer but also by her image appearing on many advertisements for the Executioners.  Appignanesi describes her on April 13th as the “…first stage vamp of the century. Thin, tall, pale, red-haired, wide-mouthed, wearing the expression of a grand tragedienne, and clad in a simple, high-necked, clinging black dress, she intoned with tired melancholy the words of Wedekind’s ‘Ilse.'” (46)

Frank Wedekind is one of the more famous figures who found his footing initially in the cabaret.  Wedekind, as a writer and performer, was interested in themes of sexual desire and subjects relating explicitly to the body, inviting into his purview the world of circus-like spectacle and alienation, examining people and places well outside of the realm of “Wilhelmine respectability.” (51)  Appignanesi describes Wedekind as “plastic, drastic, and above all diabolic…harshly ironic, satanic tone, brittle and abrasive,” which helps summarize the way Brecht described Wedekind: “[He had an] intense aliveness, the energy which allowed him to defy sniggering ridicule and proclaim his brazen hymn to humanity, that also gave him his personal magic.” (49-50)  Though the ethos of artistic liberation and satirical attack of social norms was purported to be the foundation of the German Cabaret Artistique, and is consequently aligned with much of Wedekind’s and Brecht’s contributions to the western theatrical tradition, most of the documentation and primary source examples Senelick provides are skewed toward male authorship and performance.  For a progressive community at the time, the participation of women seems highly limited or reserved for performance as symbolic embodiment of larger concepts of sexual liberation, destruction, beauty, moral failure, fragility, etc. 

The 11 Executioners disbanded by 1903, but many of the members traveled performing throughout Europe. Marya Delvard travelled with Marc Henry and composer Richard Weinhöppel to open the Nachtlicht in Vienna in 1906, which shifted its name to Feldermaus in 1907. Appignanesi says that: 

“Vienna was in many ways a ‘natural’ city for cabaret. In the nineteenth century with dramatists and actors…it had its own national tradition of popular comic theatre…and was [also] the city of the operetta and of song. And finally, aphorism, verbal wit and topicality – the very ingredients of cabaret – were also the elements of Vienna’s most popular written art form, the feuilleton.” (53) 

The written publication most popular for the feuilleton (an early example of an “op/ed” essay in a published work) was called the “Neue Freie Presse.”  Two of the most notable writers of the feuilleton were Peter Altenberg and Egan Friedell.  The natural evolution of the written feuilleton is a spoken-word version that is referred to by the same name (the spoken feuilleton preempted extemporaneous speaking as a form of entertainment).  Altenberg’s and Friedell’s writings and recitations highlight the observational parallels to our own interaction with social media writing and performance.  For Altenberg, “Existence for the modern man…consists of atomized glimpses into the lives of others and bits of conversation overheard,” (53) while Friedell “claimed that the philosopher begins to exist just at that juncture where the man ceases to take himself and life seriously.” (56)  The fragmented nature of our social media spheres mean that the “atomized glimpses” cauterize into the absolute hyperboles of existence represented for our consumption in digital space.  Altenberg’s attention to “bohemian loneliness” and Friedell’s unrelenting attention toward every demographic conceivable in Vienna implicitly underscores the potential for creative expression available at the time.  Freidell’s attention toward philosophical actualization and observation of diversity within the Vienna landscape highlight the social justice bend many social media users turn toward today, treating weighty subjects with irreverence (i.e., “ceasing to take life seriously”).  Appignanesi notes that “Cabaret as an art form encouraged native-language reclamation and a brand of rebellious, radical nationalism / cultural pride…”(58)  The “radical nationalism / cultural pride” is referring to the numerous ethnic and religious groups that lived in Vienna and other nearby cities the farther east the cabaret tradition moved.  Between Austian, German, Polish, and Czech nationals of either Jewish, Christian, Agnostic, or Aetheist faith mixing within these artistic spaces, this rich diversity and cultural exchange was ultimately redefined as a threat with the rise of the Nazi party. 

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