It is from these cabaret spaces and the sense of play, and consequently, a more concentrated divorcing of spectacle and unified theatrical storytelling developed. Further serious-minded artistic movements were born out of these modernist techniques. Three such movements include the Futurists, the early Expressionists, and the Dadaists. The Futurists began in Italy at the behest of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and his 1913 manifesto. In line with Bierbaum’s introductory manifesto from just over a decade before, it purports the virtues and theoretical soundness of variety theatre. Giving public audiences distraction in the form of humor, eroticism, and highly imaginative creative spectacle, the manifesto encouraged a philosophical dismissal of ” ‘worn-out prototypes of the Beautiful, the Grand, the Solemn, the Religious, the Ferocious, the Seductive and the Terrifying, the Variety Theatre … destroys the Solemn, the Sacred, the Serious, and the Sublime in Art with a capital ‘A.'” (85) A breakdown between audience and entertainer highlighted these aims in the Futurist movement with the new expectation that popular/low culture could be the subject of “serious artistic experiment and socio-political critique…” (85)
An aggressive quality in Futurist performance reflected the dissonance that distraction as a fundamental component of performance art demanded. Between cluttered visual components and cacophonous sonic elements, Futurist aims and philosophical alignments can be found amongst many modernist art movements (examples include music compositions like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the experimental literary forms utilized by James Joyce’s Dubliners). The evenings organized by the Futurists included manifesto declamations, outlandish costumes, mobile and static works of visual art, polemics and “quasi-political action.” (86) These evenings would encourage participation and ultimately utilize surprise to agitate crowds of spectators which would only be comparably replicated by the Dadaists in years to come (86).
A kind of foil to the Futurists in Italy were the early Expressionists in Germany and other European countries further north. Their interest in promoting a heightened appreciation for art and authentic, rich culture was exemplified by Kurt Hiller’s manifesto of the Neopastische Cabaret: “…it is especially because philosophy for us is not an academic discipline, but something with vital meaning…an experience, that it seems to us infinitely more suitable to cabaret than to lectern or quarterly journal…” (105) Appignanesi assesses their self-proclaimed aim as strictly high-brow and “self-consciously modernist.” (105) Appignanesi notes that “Through art and literature, these young Germans…were trying to bring a new world into being, turn the unjust old order topsy-turvy and create a revolution of the spirit which would give the sexualized body a home.” (106) Expressionism in literature, drama, and visual art shifted the paradigm of artistically valid subject matters that could be appropriately termed culturally relevant. Rather than strict adherence to classical motifs or the “universality” being linked to a Platonic ideal of truth, the expressionists and modernists repositioned “universal” as relating to human lived experiences and the values observed in and derived from human endeavor. Thus, the human endeavor of creating within an artistic medium forces a philosophical unification by enabling artists to consciously and inclusively validate their subjects. This focus on unification of philosophy and practice ends up necessitating “self-conscious” as a label.
As we contemplate the shifting landscape of the early 20th century, we cannot look away from the ultimate modernist performance-meets-art movement: the Dadaists. They were born out of the Futurists and were aggressively anti-war, illusory, and of-the-moment, which meant their technical aim was to provoke the audience into action through the creation of raucous, over-the-top happenings and to attempt revolution through laughter. The name origins of “Dada” rival that of modern slang:
“Who invented the name? What did it mean? The answers are as different as the members of the group. Dada, the Slavic affirmation, a grand ‘yes’ to life to life and to freedom? Dada, ‘c’est mon dada,’ the French hobby-horse, and individualized pursuit for individualistic enthusiasts? Dada, daddy? Dadadadada, a madcap, nonsense syllable, a child-like discarding of any attributable meaning? Dada was all these thing, an incarnation of the unsystemizable spirit of creativity.” (109-110)
Dada stepped into the limelight in Berlin amidst an increased tension between governmental indecision and complete cultural nihilism in the wake of post-WWI inflation and unemployment. While German civic structures were breaking down and attempting a rebrand, German Dada would attack the propaganda machine, and anti-bourgeois sentiment would develop into a more “militant” approach to agitprop than the later surrealists. The battle cry of these Dadaists was “‘Death to German culture.’ Battling against a mental attitude that could accept and rationalize the carnage of war, Dada unleashed its weapons of aggressive nonsense.” (117) Ultimately, the shock-value that these avant-garde movements had upon their contemporary audiences dwindled with the dissent of a vocal population to make room for new extremists (i.e., the Nazi party in our German case study).
As the German cabaret moved on through the 1920s and into the 1930s, the coarsening Senelick mentioned earlier began to take place after the fall of the Kaiser and ending of WWI. WWI left most of the western world disillusioned and downtrodden, and in Germany that disillusionment broke down to a middle-class crisis and embrace of moral ineptitude and taboo social practices. Senelick notes, “[amid] this breakdown, the cabaret, once regarded as the haunt of a certain type of liberated individual, now lured a bourgeois as well as a bohemian audience. What New York in the 1920s was to jazz and speakeasies, Berlin was to cabaret.” (24) This loosening of what was “acceptable” made way for public consumption of avant-garde art forms and cults of personality (Trude Hesterberger ends up claiming the ultimate spot as the chanteuse of the Kabarett, rivialing Yvette Guilbert in audience adoration and charisma). Senelick early on asserts that the cabaret allowed for new audience consumption of the avant-garde. Though the avant-garde was a short-lived form of resistance analogous to our 21st century redefinition of identity politics to encompass more esoteric forms of self-identification, Senelick’s assertion can be considered within the context of the 20th century audience’s access to such spaces, and it begs the question: what marks avant-garde creative expression, and is it possible to anticipate those markers as successful or definable? The “new” forms explored and developed in cabaret spaces included: “shadowgraphy, puppetry, free-form skits, jazz rhythms, literary parody, ‘naturalistic’ songs, ‘bruitistic’ litanies, agitprop, dance-pantomime, and political satire.” (9) The conventions Senelick outlines here that translate through time as forms still in use that we can observe today in the social media spheres include free-form skits, musical experimentation, literary parody, aggressive grass-roots agitprop, and political satire. Through the last year and a quarter, new modes of performance that parallel puppetry (such as filters that alter the user/performer’s appearance or a redefining of commonplace items to puppet parody/recreate culturally relevant selections from radio, TV or film) came into play as we retreated into our homes (Sourpatch kids, 2019). Similarly, popular social dance-crazes on TikTok, reframed compositions by companies of dancers to be distributed on managed social media accounts, and new interpretations of culturally relevant works all parallel the dance-pantomime experimentation Senelick mentions as finding its footing in cabaret spaces (Scribner & Rowe, 2020).