Lisa Appignanesi's The Cabaret

by Charles Marowitz

Book Review

November 15, 2004   


Lisa Appignanesi, The Cabaret, Yale University Press, November 2004, ISBN 0-30010-580-0, 265 pages, cloth, $35.00.

(Swans - November 15, 2004)   The effectiveness of political satire is in direct ratio to the oppressiveness of the government it is satirizing. When the Weimar Republic passed repressive legislation which caused wide-spread poverty and a clampdown on free speech, satirists such as Kurt Tucholsky, Walter Mehring, Paul Wedekind and George Grosz, in cabarets and periodicals throughout Berlin, began to draw blood from German parliamentarians. When the Nazis gained control of the country and the repressions grew more brutal, drawing artists like Bertolt Brecht and Erich Kästner into the fray, satire had become so dangerous to the country's rulers that satirists were exiled or executed.

In the general election of 2004, the specters of Michael Moore and Al Franken so terrorized the Republican elite, it necessitated the creation of a horde of ideological defenders (Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, John E. O'Neil, Richard Miniter, etc.) to combat the effects of what was construed as a powerful liberal insurrection. And if anyone doubted the efficacy of satire, one need only point to Jon Stewart, both on Comedy Central and in his best-seller "America, The Book." The Daily Show, it was reliably reported, was the source from which most young people obtained their information about current events, with 'political commentators' such as Jay Leno and David Letterman coming close seconds. Barbed comedy, it had to be acknowledged, could alter perceptions, de-charismatify charismatic politicians and sway the electorate. H.L. Mencken put it in a tight aphorism eighty years ago: "One horselaugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms."

The progeny of satire necessarily takes us on a long and winding journey and Lisa Appignanesi's chronicle The Cabaret is both an intelligent guide and a consistently entertaining companion. From the Satyr plays through Elizabethan and Jacobean broadsheets and plays, from Parisian highpoints such as Chat Noir and Lapin Agile to its heyday in the Berlin cabarets of the twenties and thirties, we see avant-gardists and political dissenters regularly coalescing to produce wit, gaiety, insolence and artistic innovation. It is impossible to define the rise of the European cabaret without acknowledging the pioneers of Dada and Surrealism, the Futurists in Italy, the Cubists in France, the Expressionists in Germany, segueing into the Beats and Hippies in this country, mashing together the styles and genius of artists as dissimilar as Aristide Bruant, Pablo Picasso, Mistinguette, Max Reinhardt, George Grosz, Vladamir Mayakovsky, Bertolt Brecht, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Nichols & May, George Carlin, Jon Stewart, etc., ad infinitum. A certain spiky irreverence unites them all; a refusal to accept the banalities and moral strictures of the status quo, an irresistible impulse to 'cock a snook' while everyone else is standing at attention and intoning the National Anthem.

Cabaret, as Appignanesi vividly demonstrates, was an enclave where a more ebullient minority could take refuge from a humorless and usually oppressive mainstream population. It provided an outlet for alternative views and idiosyncratic life styles. It was a rough and rudimentary counterculture. It welcomed gays, drifters, crooks, gamblers, esthetes and individualists of every stripe and, in its finest manifestations, generated the kind of elation we look for but almost never get from office parties or meticulously-organized national celebrations. Where the Respectable offered diversion, cabaret offered bacchanalia, which is why its bitterest foes were the bourgeoisie and its greatest stalwarts, unfettered bohemian artists.

What The Cabaret in its bizarre chronicles and excellent illustrations offer is a world where 'good times' were predetermined because of the natural freedom that bound together all its participants; a number of small, disreputable cabals that shamed the greater society for being square, materialistic and too easily intimidated.

The book is sprinkled with loony and refreshing anecdotes. In the Belle Epoch, for example, Roland Dorgeles, an habitué of the Lapin Agile and a bitter foe of the Cubists, wanting to take revenge for the pretentiousness that pervaded their exhibits, tied a paint-brush to a donkey's tail, placed a canvas with pots of paint behind it and, allowing it to swish colors at will, conjured up an abstract painting. The work was then exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. "The public and the critics," Appignanesi writes "were divided as to the value of the painting, but their comments on it did not differ appreciably in kind from those directed at the work of Van Dongen, Matisse and Roualt, all of whom exhibited at the same Salon." Dorgeles then dropped his bombshell into the local papers and the headlines read: "Donkey Heads Artistic School." It was the kind of deflationary joke from which serious critics and pseudo-connoisseurs cannot easily recover, and it was par for the course in cabarets such as the Lapin Agile, Cabaret Voltaire or Le Boeuf Sur le Toit.

The highpoint of the book is the description of the 1920s and '30s in Berlin by which time Cabaret had integrated many of its multi-media elements and become almost indistinguishable from its rustic French origins. Although updated and hand-carried into the 21st century, the newer and more important satirists -- such as Robin Williams, George Carlin, Garrison Keiller, Jon Stewart and the late Sam Kinison are absent altogether, and the crop of Saturday Night Live comedians -- Belushi, Radner, Curtin, Martin and company -- get short shrift. There is also a sense of "....and then we wrote" about the book with the author piling up satirist upon satirist without sufficiently delineating their personalities. But that said, there is a collective impact in describing the way satire regularly throttled the 20th century glorifying amorality, heterodoxy and political effrontery. What Appignanesi does best is to create the atmosphere of the dives and makeshift taverns in which the art form first flourished making us painfully aware that, despite newer and fresher faces in comedy clubs and on TV, there is a dynamic communal togetherness that the electronic media have banished from our lives forever.

Lisa Appignanesi, The Cabaret, Yale University Press, November 2004, ISBN 0-30010-580-0, 265 pages, cloth, $35.00.

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Book Reviews on Swans


Charles Marowitz is a writer whose work has appeared in The NY Village Voice, The New York Times, L.A. Times, L.A. Weekly, Sunday Telegraph (UK), London Times (UK), The Observer (UK), Sunday Times (UK), and many other newspapers and magazines. He has written over two dozen books, the most recent being The Other Chekhov, the first English-language biography of the actor-director and theorist, Michael Chekhov, published by Applause Books, NYC.

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Published November 15, 2004
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