III Method & Research: Synthesizing Inspiration

While Senelick and Appignanesi outline the origin and trajectory of the ephemeral idea of “cabaret’ performance, my primary aim is to expand upon this foundation to create my own persona and to root my performance endeavors in resonant source material.  Though I am personally disappointed in the lack of women Senelick includes in his compendium, particularly in the nascent stages of the German cabaret, I nonetheless found a lot of joy in some of the texts contemporary to these German venues.  From lists of House Rules to a parody of A Doll’s House (performed 3 ways, with different endings in different styles of famous theatre directors) to a singular woman named Margaret Beutler who performed feminist poems and songs under the psyeudonym “Revolver Mitzi,” it is clear that the ingenuity and lightness of spirit in conversation with sharp, satirical performance art was rooted in a burgeoning sense of existentialism.  A number of pieces outline this existentialism and communal expectation of ironic detachment, particularly Ernst von Wolzogen’s House Rules for the Buntes Theatre (70)  and the tongue-in-cheek “How to be a Humorist” by Otto Reutter, which outlines advice on how to get started in cabaret.

Senelick’s second volume begins by outlining a general social context on continental Europe for cabaret to thrive within.  He quotes Russian poet Aleksander Blok in a 1908 diagnosis of “what is wrong with society today” and comes away with the central culprit of Irony.  The parallels of Blok’s criticism to Kierkegaard’s tirade against apathetic consumption of mass media draws a golden thread from 1838 Denmark to 1908 Russia. Kierkegaard’s perennial relevant work “On Media” resurfaces at major culture shifts throughout time since its publication, and its core argument is on the blase, uncritical yet voracious consumption of media while still maintaining an ironic detachment.  A similarly strong thread reaching through time from 1908 to the 21st century is the ironic detachment found in the manic arrested development of Millenial/Zillenial humor and the unaffected, precise criticism on socio-economic/political institutions and structures by Gen Z.  The “omnivorous” quality that Senelick attributes to the cabaret is an imperfect analogy to the voracious appetite of social media performance subjects, particularly on platforms like the extinct Vine, TikTok, and the dissemination of screenshotted hot takes on Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit.  The bounds to topics explored or iterated on do not exist.  Subject matter from literary modes/genres to gender representation/inclusion to tirades against capitalist systems/the redefinition of labor exist here among our non-physical corridors of intellectual exchange.

Though Senelick’s main point about the non-discriminate appetite of cabaret was primarily defining the bounds of what type of artistic experimentation flourished there, a more tightly parallel art form that mirrors our own prolific and broad sphere of discourse is that of dance.  Senelick defines an absolute “craze” for dance halls and the activity.  Part of this proliferation so agitated conservative citizens that one person ended up postering Berlin’s advertising kiosks with a flier reading, ” ‘Berlin, your dance is death.'” (7)  This dance craze took off post-World War I and extended the expressionistic exploration of the body by seeing an uptick in nude public dancing, which Senelick analyzes as a product of three factors, two of which he does not elaborate on: healthy living groups and a juvenile reaction against Wilhelmine moralism.  However, his third, most stirring analysis deals with veterans returning from war: “maimed war veterans were to be seen begging on every street and prostitution of all kinds throve as an economic necessity, the body objectified was regarded as a fitting medium of entertainment.” (7)  This ‘body objectified’ analysis demonstrates disillusionment and danger when it comes to a nihilistic integration of observable realities.  Anita Berber, a young silent film actress and model who ultimately died incredibly early due to drug use, is a prime example of these dangers.  The tales of her life suggest a model for which to base the anecdotal character ‘Elsie’ off of in the Kander & Ebb song “Cabaret” featured in the titular 1970s musical.

However, the treatment of the “body objectified” as a reclaimed source of power has been a contentious and painful paradigm shift that we in the Millenial-and-younger generation are triumphing.  Within the last few months, we saw a parallel outrage to the 20th century Berlin nude dance craze in the Top-40 hit WAP by Cardi B & Megan thee Stallion, produced during a time when bodily connection was discouraged due to a global pandemic.  The fetishization and perceived degradation of the female body and source of self-esteem is a criticism public-facing, famous women must contend with no matter what their artistic aims.  Artists who embrace this type of body objectified power receive heavier negative criticism than others.  I draw inspiration from Anita Berber, Josephine Baker, Cardi B, and Megan thee Stallion because the power to claim and control one’s body is a postmodern revolution in the way of female agency.  This inspiration helps to serve as a foundation for my persona’s costuming trajectory.

In the early 20th century, we see the iteration on Morgenstern’s Gallows Songs and the invention of the cabaret song, with a few cheeky and unique theatrical conventions, such as the Advertising Agency Affair by Nikolay Agnivtsev.  This performance art piece, written by a Russian ex-patriot, highlights a few parallels we can make between our respective centuries.  First, the refugee status all over the world was and is consistently on the rise.  Second, the capacity for advertisements to mimic art has been integrated into such media platforms as YouTube, TikTok, and Spotify that this play by Agnivstev parallels quite comparably.  It is an interesting critique on the proliferation of advertising materials, and it eerily predicts their integration into venues that encourage artistic exploration. 

A second experimental theatrical piece I found particularly interesting and useful in my conceptions of a modern performance was The Neighbor by Hans von Gumppenberg (110-116).   This semi-symbolist piece consists of a singular sentence, where a neighbor proclaims the taboo and shameful secrets the family have been living out to comedically dramatic effect, that ends up killing the members of the family through embarrassment.  My approach will use a similar structure yet detail the contraction and ultimate death of someone who has gone through COVID-19.  The Neighbor also highlights the general interest of artists in bodily experience and expression that allows for an exposing of hidden social taboos or mores that, when taken to the logical extreme, become clearly contrived and position us in an existentially reflective mode.   There’s a paradigm shift within these experimental sketches that divorces explicit meaning from the visual and verbal content being watched that I shall explore. My initial instinct is to divorce  the musical content from the spoken, verbal content that Velonia will perform.

The frenzied artistic movements of the early 20th century envisioned a “better world,” but it is impossible to separate that dream from the inherent racism and sexism defining the western world these artists were dreaming of.  In particular, Wedekind’s work (and in even further particular, Spring Awakening) highlights the disparity between conceptions of sexual liberation as related to education offered to boys versus girls.  The tragedy of the women he displayed calls into question whether the utopia envisioned could have been egalitarian toward all human life or was more likely reactionary and firmly under the conceptions of social hierarchy as outlined by race and sex.  More accurately, the manifestoes and interests offered by many male cabaret artists simply lamented the futility of change rather than proposed any concrete visions for an egalitarian future.

The Futurists and Dadaists offer an interesting examination of the limits and boundaries of humor and comedy.  By examining the trajectory of my persona’s performance and how I may define and propose any type of concrete change or shift in individual perspective, it’s curious to consider how the seedlings and sprouts of surrealism attempted to denote freedom in the world.  By the time the Nazis began gaining power in Germany, the censorship applied to such movements was a top priority to reinforce cultural homogeneity.  Allowing for a meandering and sometimes nonsensical approach will honor and utilize the philosophies laid down pre-Third Reich. With the current state of the country out of the Trump Administration and on its way toward majority population vaccination, it seems that the potential for joy, slight distraction, and decrying potential political ruin is more useful to Velonia’s development than waxing on about the parallels between the Third Reich and Trumpism.

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