Cabaret: When Voltaire met the Black Cat


By Dave Riley

Cabaret in popular usage generally conjures up visions of strip joints, sleazy bars or nightclubs where the meagre stage fare hardly compensates for the high drink prices. To these images the film Cabaret added the grim aura of decadence matched with a sentimental fondness for pre-Hitler Germany.

These versions of cabaret are only what Lisa Appignanesi, in her book on cabaret, called "impoverished distant relatives of the literary cabaret that emerged in France in the last century and blossomed into the unique medium of cultural and political satire in the German Kabarett of the twenties and thirties".

In the cabaret patrons were offered, along with the performance, an intimate space in which they could smoke and talk, eat and drink. It was a raucous and rumbustious environment, with little form and much spontaneity. Staging was not handicapped by producers or investors; there were no classic texts and even less money. In the main, performers presented their own work before audiences more noted for their radicalism than their bank balances.

The word itself is derived from the French term for wine cellar or tavern. As far back as the 15h century, such cabarets served as meeting places for artists, where an enterprising host would allow his premises to be used by performing balladeers, jugglers, strolling players and the like.

In the late 19th century, the song or chanson became the major form of entertainment provided by the French cafes or bistros. Without radio or television, in a world where the print media were controlled by the ruling class, the chanson was one of the few means by which people could record their daily history and voice their reactions to contemporary events.

Out of these developments, the first modern cabaret was born in 1881. In a Paris still being rebuilt after the bloody suppression of the Commune 10 years previously, a more intellectual and self-

consciously artistic form was integrated, though laughter and entertainment were its essence.

Its birth was sparked by a literary society known as the Hydropathes, which met weekly to recite poetry, sing lyrics and perform monologues and short sketches. Their venue, the Black Cat, soon became the explosive home of the Parisian bohemia, full of sparkle, wit, esoterica and satire.

In time, the Black Cat was copied at other Parisian establishments, and the style and substance of the cabaret soon migrated east so that by the outbreak of the first world war, there were vigorous cabarets in Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Moscow.

The touch of bohemia fostered the cabaret as a vehicle for the new artistic vanguard; futurism and expressionism — written, spoken or painted — took to the cabaret in search of spectacle and to ruffle the feathers of the bourgeoisie.

With the outbreak of the war, only one small country provided shelter for dissidents and pacifists. To Switzerland they flocked, escaping the butchery or internment. Two German emigres, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, on fleeing to Zurich, convinced the owner of a seedy bar to run a cabaret on the premises. Ball's promise was that the sales of beer, sausages and rolls would rise dramatically. This is how the Cabaret Voltaire was born.

Perhaps the most famous of cabarets, the Voltaire attracted poets and artists from all over Europe. Almost overnight a new movement arose: Dada. Hans Arp, one of its founders, wrote years afterwards that the Dadaists "were seeking an art based on fundamentals, to cure the madness of the age, and a new order of things that would restore the balance between heaven and hell".

Another exile, Vladimir Lenin, who was living across the street at the time, probably would have agreed, although he was never one for the local night-life. Performances at the Cabaret Voltaire were marked by audience provocation and protest. These were rowdy evenings, full of surprise and shock, as the Dadaists created their happenings and expanded on their manifestos.

Rough, boisterous, pretentious and absurd, Zurich Dada was a spent force by 1919, and the Voltaire was closed down by the authorities within a year of its opening.

But Dada spread to enliven Paris and Berlin, grafting itself onto the local cabaret society and taking on the new political radicalism. It was in postwar Germany that the political edge of cabaret was honed and sharpened, and its artistic preoccupations were turned to social ends.
[First of a series.]