Life is a Cabaret

Bertolt Brecht (with clarinet) performing with Karl Valentin at the Munich Oktoberfest.

Germany’s Weimar era was a time of cultural and intellectual proliferation, due to liberal social policies and the end of censorship. These fourteen years saw a huge expansion of artistic productivity in nearly every field. Art created in the Weimar period was fiercely political, and was often at odds with the (still relevant) issues of authoritarianism, big-business and bourgeois society. These values fueled the spread of German cabarets – where a combination of sex, drugs and politics created an environment ideal for social criticism and civic participation.

Cabaret had existed before this period; however it was much more focused on trite entertainment than political commentary. With the more relaxed censorship laws of the Weimar Republic, artists were allowed more freedom to explore taboo topics, the most popular of which were politics and sex.  This is the era represented in the musical Cabaret, where scantily clad dancers parody the Nazi salute amidst a cross-dressing emcee.  (Sidenote: it was during this period that the term transvestite was first coined and the opening of the first public gay and lesbian bars occurred.)

Bertolt Brecht, our illustrious playwright, frequented the “Literarisches Kabarett” —smaller cabarets that were dedicated to literary events. In 1922 he performed his song “The Ballad of the Dead Soldier”, in which the German Army unearths a fallen soldier and sends him back to the front so that he may again die a ‘hero’s death’. 

Berlin's famous El Dorado cabaret, in 1932 (above) and 1933 (below)

“The bitter work, which also attacked military doctors, churchmen, and chauvinist citizens, caused a scandal at its first performance, and Hersterberg had to drop the curtain until the audience quieted down. “—Peter Jelavich

It was his first and only cabaret performance. I’d consider it a wild success.

Cabaret was particularly effective because it successfully struck a balance between entertainment and political commentary. Performances were entertaining while at the same time thought-provoking. The combination of music, food and drama created an intimacy between performer and audience that encouraged participation. Cabaret performances often reflected public opinion, and were a powerful cultural indicator of public taste. 

Is it possible for the theatre of today to provide the same intellectual and social commentary? Do audiences want to see a satirical representation of the ‘welfare queens’ that the state of Kansas created legislation against earlier this year? (You should let us know if not.) And if so, well, who is going to pay for it?

Early in the BrechtFest process, Ryan Dunn, designer extraordinaire, was asked how he has felt that the game is rigged. His response – “There are people willing to pay a lot of money to create and attend the theatre. How come so many of us are here in the trenches, working for free?” I keep coming back to this. Do we need another multi-million dollar production of a multi-million dollar movie that did little to elevate our thinking in the first place? 

No. What we need is more cabaret.

Katherine Bicknell is a founding company member with the Horse in Motion and Audience Development Director with Annex Theatre. She loves to cook and until recently thought she did not like seafood.