Cabaret inherited its name from the French wine cellar. The tavern owners – hoping to attract customers – allowed singers, balladeers and jugglers to perform on their premises. This custom likely evolved from the medieval troubadours who traveled around performing as wandering minstrels and poets. By the end of the nineteenth century literary cabarets began to develop in Paris, allowing for an experimental staging of their works. The chanson or French song grew as a form of entertainment, including reporting on political events. With shadow plays, mime, poetry readings and one-act plays, cabaret became a venue for satire and the avant-garde.
In 1818 a black cat placing a disdainful paw on a defeated goose became the emblem of the first Parisian cabaret – Chat Noir. Claude Debussy was often seen here conducting with a spoon and improvisations were accompanied on the piano by Erik Satie. Soon a new cabaret Le Mirilton (reed pipe) was started by Aristide Bruant, made known to us in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters as the man with the red scarf and black cape. Bruant brought street poetry and the social-critical song to its zenith in argot – the French dialect of the streets. Yvette Guilbert, one of the few female cabaret performers at this time, took up Bruant’s songs. After her concert tour through Germany in 1902, a German counterpoint to the Parisian cabaret was sought, one that would bridge the gap between the wondrous art songs – Lieder by composers such as Schubert and Schumann – and the frivolous nature of Tingeltangel, a popular variety show – think Goldie Hawn and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
The highly-charged political shape of cabaret is seen especially in Germany during the two world wars. Frank Wedekind was jailed for six months due to his ballad that spoofed the Kaiser’s trip to the Holy Land. Erich Mühsam was a cabaret revolutionary, jailed for refusing alternate labor service as a pacifist in World War I and incarcerated in the same prison that later held Hitler. Here Hitler wrote Mein Kampf and Mühsam wrote a proletarian drama Judas. With the general amnesty in 1924, Mühsam was released and resumed his cabaret appearances.
However cabaret in Europe was not just bitter satire against political and social evils. The Parisian cabaret Le lapin agile served as a meeting place for Picasso, Apollinaire, Max Jacob and Utrillo and witnessed the rise of Cubism and Expressionism. At the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, the Dada movement was born. Dadaism shocked good Swiss burghers taking its stand against war and propagating liberation through laughter.
Then came The Roaring Twenties. The hot-shot cabaret in Paris was Le Boeuf sur le toit (the steer on the roof) involving Brancusi, Braque, Poulenc and Cocteau. Le Boeuf sur le toit played a particularly historical role in European music, bringing to Paris the American bar and its music – blues, jazz, tin pan alley – all of which went straight to the heart of cabaret.
It was in war-ravaged Germany that Amusierkabarett sprang up, a sleazier entertainment form capitalizing on profiteering and the death of censorship. This was what was glorified in the film Cabaret. But this was also the period that saw Bertolt Brecht’s Legend of the Dead Soldier that exposed the real value the authorities placed on human life. For this he ended up on the Nazi blacklist and then was deprived of his German citizenship. Cabaret artists such as Kurt Weill chose to move to the United States out of fear for their lives.
It has been cabaret’s adaptability and its love of the small art forms that has enabled it to resist defeat. In this start of the 21st century, cabaret is continuing its love of an intimate setting to take on the world.
To read more about cabaret please refer to my sources: Lisa Appignanesi’s The Cabaret; Peter Jelavich, The Berlin Cabaret; Harold B. Segel, Turn-of-the-Century Cabaret.
And purchase my CD Cabaret Sauvignon and DVD Cabaret au jus to hear music with political satire, tongue-in-cheek wit and amour!