What is Cabaret?
Cabaret is a form of entertainment featuring music, song, dance, recitation, or drama. It is mainly distinguished by the performance venue, which might be a pub, a restaurant or a nightclub with a stage for performances. Unlike a traditional night club, the audience are usually seated at tables where they can dine and drink whilst enjoying the entertainment, rather than socialising on the dance floor; however this obviously varies depending on the establishment. Performances at the club are usually introduced by a master of ceremonies or MC, who interacts with the punters visiting the club. The entertainment is usually performed by an ensemble of performers and is catered towards an adult audience, although this is not always the case. In some cultures Cabaret clubs are often seen as being associated with Burlesque, Drag Shows, strip and other similar forms of entertainment, as they are often advertised as ‘Cabaret’; however it is more often that Cabaret clubs in this day and age feature solo vocalists with pianist accompaniment or such like.
Types of Cabaret
From my research it is clear that there are lots of sub-genres and types of Cabaret performances, which can roughly be divided in 10 different categories . However these are obviously not set in stone and more often than not cabaret shows feature a mixture of elements from the different types.
- The cabaret performer plays with language, sometimes poetic, but often is he or she rock hard and hateful.
- The cabaret performer analyses in his/her stubborn manner actual, social and political topics.
- The cabaret performer tells an often slightly absurd story with a moral packed in it.
- The cabaret performer plays with music, for example by twisting or combining familiar melodies.
- The cabaret performer tells (seemingly) nonsensical and absurd stories and plays idiotic types.
- The emphasis is less on text in the show of this cabaret performer, and relies more on acrobatic stunts and jokes with props and devices.
- Here the cabaret performer eludes on his ‘liberating through laughter’ role. By bypassing on laughter and applause, is the cabaret performer waving his unloading function away and refers the audience to himself, by which the audience stops being his audience and is led back to independence.
- An iteration of storytelling cabaret
- The cabaret performer quickly switches between the different styles/types of cabaret, types, or songs.
- In this the cabaret performer is a guest at a government, institution or a company, and he/she directs his/her satire to the subject on location.
History of Cabaret Clubs
While the contemporary American cabaret came into being in the 1970’s, its traditions reach back more than a hundred years.
In France, the word ‘cabaret’ initially referred to any business serving liquor. However, the history of cabaret culture began in 1881 with the opening of Le Chat Noir in the Monmartre district of Paris. It was an informal saloon where poets, artists and composers could share ideas and compositions. Performers got to test new material, audiences enjoyed a stimulating evening for the price of a few drinks, and owners could count on a steady flow of regular customers. Le Chat Noir attracted such notables as Maupassant, Debussy and Satie. Soon many other Cabarets started being set up all over Paris, and by 1900 similar establishments were beginning to appear in several other french and German cities. These clubs soon began featuring scheduled entertainment (ranging in size from a few musicians to full floor shows), but with the same intimate and informal feel. Audience members were usually sat at tables consuming food and drink whilst the performers entertained them; inevitably involving audience members with the show and their acts due to the close proximity between the performers and the audience. It wasn’t until after World War I that Cabaret became increasingly popular and began spreading all across Europe, particularly in Germany where the Wiemar government essentially ended all forms of censorship from the war. After the overthrow of the Kaiser (which lead to the establishment of the social democratic republic), cabaret artists were able to flourish as the public sort refuge during the struggles of inflation period. During this time Berlin soon became a hub for Cabaret, sucking in the energy, talent and excitement from the rest of Germany – much like the Speakeasies and Jazz clubs for New York in the 1920’s.
“What New York in the 1920s was to jazz and speakeasies, Berlin was to cabaret.”
–Laurence Senelick, Cabaret Performance, Volume II: Europe 1920-1940 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 25.
A good example of life in a 1930’s Berlin Cabaret club is shown in Bob Fosse’s film version of the musical ‘Cabaret’ (1972); featuring satirical sketches, showgirls, transvestism, all presented by the club’s MC. As previously mentioned these shows were an opportunity for the audience members to push aside the harsh realities of life and escape their problems by immersing themselves in the entertainment with the help of a few drinks. Similarly, the classic German film ‘The Blue Angel’ with Marlene Dietrich gives an accurate insight into the Weimar-era cabaret performances. Although, within a few years of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the Nazi’s effectively suppressed all hints of Cabaret subculture in Germany.
In the United States, Cabaret had developed in a far more glamorous but less intellectually ambitious way. In New York during the 1910’s, several large cafes provided singers and these soon came to be known as Cabarets; with clubs such as Delmonico’s, Reisenweber’s, Palaise Royale and Shanley’s all became legendary night spots. Although Cabaret clubs were originally only expected to feature a singer and pianist, within a few years (as they began to develop) dance floors became a required part of the cabaret environment. In 1913 a law was introduced which required all of Manhattan’s Cabaret spots to close by 2:00 AM, so members only clubs were set up as no limitations could be put on closing times if these were private establishments, so these members only clubs consequently stayed open for dancing all night – thereby introducing the first ‘night clubs’.
In 1915 America set up its first Parisian-style Cabaret club: ‘Sans-Souci‘, a 42nd Street establishment owned by the popular dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. Despite this, these early American forms of Cabarets were not exact copies of their European ancestors, as political and social satire were nowhere in sight (unlike in the clubs in Paris and Berlin), however the late hours and sophisticated audiences meant boundaries could be stretched regarding the explicitly and types of acts featured. The new Cabaret club’s made few pretences about being family friendly or suitable for children; rather, advertising the adult themes and being an escape where the desires of adult men and women could be met.
“Women and men could stretch the night into hours of pleasure for themselves, away from home, business, children, and other obstructions to their own mutual enjoyment.”
– Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 114.
Due to the risky nature of these clubs, alongside the public mixing of sexes, social classes and races on cabaret dance floors, many preachers and journalists started to condemn these establishments as centres of moral degradation and were often seen as a sin to attend these clubs.
While one would assume that the introduction of Prohibition, via the Volstead Act (which made the sale of liquor illegal in late 1918) would force America’s Cabaret clubs out of business, it essentially did the opposite – boosting the demand for secretive and intimate places where people could drink. Naturally punters demanded music and entertainment to accompany their drinking, and so performers were brought in, thereby forming the boom of the Cabaret club across America – albeit in an illegal format! These illegal bars became known ‘speakeasies’ and rapidly multiplied, being set up in people’s basements and backrooms. Owners tried to get around the law by calling these establishment’s ‘clubs’ and claimed that they only severed alcohol to card-carrying members, however in reality anyone who could afford the price of the bootleg was severed. Most of these Speakeasies were controlled by gangsters, who supplied the illegal booze to the owners.
Owners believed that by having singers and live entertainment in the establishments it made the clubs appear more legitimate, and by having female singers performing often boosted the bar sales dramatically. Consequently, these performers, known as ‘saloon singers’ soon became a standard part of American nightlife for years to come.
Some well known female performers from the time even went on to find huge success after starting of their careers in small Cabaret clubs, with names such as the future Show Boat star Helen Morgan starting their journey as a singer. In some larger clubs, the audiences could also cheer on floorshows, which future Warner Brothers star Ruby Keeler first started as a speakeasy chorine, working for the outrageous hostess Texas Guinan.
Women were not only present as performers, but as a key part of the audience.
Miss Morgan, Tex Guinan, Belle Livingston were among the more notable women who dominated the nightclubs and other rendezvous of revelry in the twenties. But the pattern persisted all over the country — speakeasies and “intimate” spots featured women torch singers and piano players. That is what the night-life public wanted.. And in the Lawless Decade the nightlife public was no longer predominantly male. The women wanted their fun too, their share of the whoopee — a word that’s almost obsolete probably because the wild, hectic and abandoned sort of gaiety it described is also almost obsolete now.
– Paul Sann, The Lawless Decade (New York: Bonanza Books, 1957), p. 190
By the mid-1920’s, resentment of Prohibition laws was so overwhelming that New Yorkers voted to suspend enforcement by local officials. This left only a meager federal force that could not hope to shut down more than a small fraction of the city’s speakeasies. Some states and cities clung tenaciously to Prohibition long after the rest of the country had woken up.