The end of World War I in 1918 brought radical change to a defeated, disillusioned Germany. The entire population had experienced hunger, death, and violence. In October of that year, as the Americans brought renewed vigor to the fighting on the Western front, a largely communist revolt against the Kaiser and the war spread across Germany. Top military leaders showed no confidence in the monarchy. In early November, the Kaiser abdicated, and a leading socialist party declared a republic, thus bringing the Weimar Republic to power. The November 11 armistice was signed soon after. The war with the world had ended, but Germany's internal war was just beginning.
Between November 1918 and the summer of 1919, competing groups of Communists, ultra-nationalists, and former soldiers (Freikorps) clashed in a series of bloody urban street wars. Then, the young republic was forced to agree to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In it, they accepted full responsibility for starting the war, gave up land and the right to a standing military, and agreed to pay a huge sum in reparations to the Allies. The Treaty was hugely unpopular in Germany and weakened support for the Weimar Republic. It also worsened Germany’s already difficult financial situation. Support for radical right and left wing parties increased as ordinary citizens sought a solution to Germany’s problems.
Early on, the Weimar Republic ended censorship and enacted liberal social policies. These new policies, combined with an incredibly favorable exchange rate for foreign money, attracted artists, scientists, and “outsiders” such as gays and lesbians from around the world. Christopher Isherwood, author of the source material for Cabaret, was one such outcast. Berlin quickly became the cultural capital of the Western World.
Traditional rules about gender and sexuality were also being challenged. Magnus Hirschfeld, the German doctor who coined the term “transvestite,” founded the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin in 1919 and openly advocated acceptance of homosexuality. Gay and lesbian bars appeared. Women, who had entered the workforce during the war and recently gained access to some forms of birth control, were no longer defined by marriage and child-bearing.
Weimar Berlin was a city in chaos. The old rules no longer applied. New ideas about art, money, gender, and sexuality arose and were brought to life on the cabaret stage. Berliners sought out cabaret as a wild way to process their difficult, changing lives.
Two kinds of cabaret were present in Berlin in the early 1920s. “Literarisches Kabarett” were small music halls that strove to present work with literary value. “Wilde Buhne” (Wild Stage), the most famous of these, was founded in 1921 by singer and actress Trude Hesterberg. A young Bertolt Brecht (known for creating Mother Courage and Her Children and The Threepenny Opera) performed his own songs there in 1922. He sang “The Ballad of the Dead Soldier,” a song about World War I that describes how the German Army, running out of soldiers, digs up a dead soldier, revives him with schnapps, covers his stench with incense, and sends him back into the war. “Wilde Buhne” closed in 1924, at the height of Germany’s financial instability. The era of the literary cabaret was over, but the influence of cabaret songs and style can be seen in Brecht’s later works.
“Kabaret der Komiker” (Cabaret of Comedians), or KadeKo, was the most famous of Weimar Berlin’s later cabarets. KadeKo featured populist entertainment with a left-leaning political slant. A typical night would feature an hour or so of cabaret songs followed by a one-act parody or play, all hosted by a witty conférencier (emcee). In the mid ‘20s, KadeKo produced an operetta parodying Hitler’s megalomania that ran for 300 performances. The KadeKo often booked international stars as performers, a shrewd business move, as they had 950 seats to fill each night by 1928.
In contrast, other cabarets, like the fictional Kit Kat Klub, were more nightclub than artist’s pub or theatre. The “Resi” (Residenz-Casino), an enormous dance hall, was an important feature of Weimar nightlife. In addition to a dance floor that could accommodate one thousand, an indoor carousel, a geyser of colored water, and mirrored ceilings, the “Resi” featured table-to-table telephones like those in Cabaret. The “Resi” also had a system of pneumatic tubes through which patrons could send notes or have gifts (selected from a long menu of items, including cocaine) delivered to other tables.
As Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in the early thirties, cabarets were forced out of business or turned to creating nationalist propaganda. The golden era of the Weimar Republic was over. It was no longer safe to be gay, Jewish, or to oppose the government, let alone to do so in song.
This article features in our Upstage playgoer guide for Cabaret.
Cabaret plays at Studio 54 through January 4, 2015. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2013-2014 Season, Cabaret, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage