Touch

Cabarets


Cabarets have always been one of the reasons why British artists come to Berlin. Cabaret is about the body, about performance, about touch. In the station of “touch”, you will get to know what cabarets were like in Weimar Berlin and how British artists experienced Berlin cabarets as the performers and spectators respectively.

What is your first thought when you hear the word “cabaret”? Does it conjure up images of wild nude shows, or political satires? The meaning of the word is always ambiguous, and in the Weimar period it could refer to both of these types of shows. To clear the linguistic confusion, since the 1950s, in the German language Kabarett has referred to “social criticism or political satire”, while Cabaret revokes the image of a strip show.1 This in turn reflects the two key themes of cabaret shows: politics, and sexuality and gender. In the Weimar era, some left-wing critics regarded the cabaret stage as a medium for “exposing and satirizing the storm and stress of German society”, and aimed to “oppose the nation’s militarism and glorification of war.”2 Sexuality and gender were also prominent themes on cabaret stages. Cabarets would address what had not been usually touched upon in popular music or theatre: “prostitution, homosexuality, lesbianism.”3

Where could people living in Weimar Germany enjoy cabaret shows? Different types of cabarets were available for both locals and foreign visitors who wanted to taste Berlin’s decadent and racy nightlife. John Chancellor wrote in his book How to be Happy in Berlin published in 1929,

“The cabarets of Berlin can be divided roughly into two classes – The Family Cabarets, and The Cabarets Which the Family Ought to be Kept Well Away From.”4 He recommended Casanova on Lutherstrasse, Kabarett der Komiker on Kurfürstendamm, Alkazar on Behrenstrasse, and Faun on Friedrichstrasse as ideal places for families, and listed Bonbonière on Friedrichstrasse/Leipzigerstrasse, and Jägerstraße as places where people could find wilder cabarets, such as nude shows.5

Other cabarets places like Weiße Maus on Jägerstrasse 18 (1919-1926), Alexander-Palast on Landsbergstrasse 39 (1921-1930), Monocle-Bar on Budapester Strasse 14 (1929-1933), Toppkeller on Schwerinstrasse 13 (1923-1932), Red Mill Cabaret on Mühle Strasse (1919-1929), Eldorado on Lutherstrasse 29 (1926-1932) and new Eldorado on Motzstrasse 15 (1928-1932) were also popular in the Weimar period, and each of the cabaret’s spots had its own characteristics. For example, Toppkeller was renown for its “dangerous, fun, sexy and bohemian” atmosphere, Red Mill Cabaret was infamous for “lots of drunken behaviour, culminating in shouting and insane threats to the cabaret performers”, and Eldorado was famous for its transvestite performances.6 As aforementioned, sexuality and gender were prominent themes on cabaret stages.7 The abolition of censorship after the war led to flourishing nude dancing shows in Weimar Germany.8

Masquerade ball in cabaret and supper club 'Weisse Maus' in 1920s Berlin.
Figure 1. Weisse Maus

The Ballet Celly de Rheidt was famous for its nude shows in 1919 but suffered backlash for lacking aesthetic distance between audiences and performers due to the extremely close distance between audiences and performers as well as its nudity display. Ballet Celly de Rheidt was put on trial and convicted and the conviction then “allowed the police to impose stricter regulations on the dancers’ attire”, the female performers were ordered “to have their breasts and pelvic areas fully covered, otherwise the troupe would be banned permanently from Berlin.”9 Between 1924 to 1929, cabarets stepped into the “relative stabilization”, different from the “Kurfürstendamm public” addressed by Nelson, in the revues like Admiralspalast owned by Herman Haller, Grosses Schauspielhaus by Erik Charell and Komische Oper by James Klein, three thousand spectators could sit and watch the performance in theatres.10

The Weimar Period

British cabaret performers in the Weimar period


Tiller Girls was the popular dance troupe created by John Tiller in Manchester, England, in 1889. The Tiller Girls, named Lawrence Girls in America, were hired by Herman Haller, and came to Berlin to perform in Admiralspalast. The nationalities of its group members were still unknown to the public, although most people living in Berlin at that time thought they were American. Tiller girls’ performances were regarded as sexless and their motions were usually mechanical. Herbert Ihering, the theatre critic of the Weimar period, commented on their performances:

Beauty on stage, not through nakedness, but through motion.

Another well-known British cabaret performer in the Weimar period was Jean Ross, known to the public as the fictional character Sally Bowles in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. Before heading to Berlin, she took courses in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and was cast in Why Sailors Leave Home (1930), a low-budget British film comedy. When she arrived in Berlin, she supported herself by singing and modelling. Jean Ross and her literary counterpart portrayed by Isherwood share some similarities but there are also differences between them. The similarities lie in that they were both an “actress with limited musical talent”11, “sexually liberated [women] with a penchant for talking about their numerous lovers, and had an illegal abortion.”12

Here is the recollection of Jean Ross from Stephen Spender: 

her career as an actress — or singer or disease — or whatever she was trying to be — was a failure. In my mind’s eye I can see her now in some dingy bar standing on a platform and singing so inaudibly that I could not hear her from the back of the room where I was discreetly seated.13

The representation of Jean Ross as Sally Bowles, however, is one-sided, Sally Bowles’s sexualised representation of Jean Ross cannot represent Jean’s whole life. Isherwood later explained that the Sally of fiction is not entirely Jean Ross. Jean Ross had “a long, thin handsome face, aristocratic nose, glossy dark hair, large brown eyes,” and was “more essentially British than Sally; she grumbled like a true Englishwoman, with her grin-and-bear-it grin. And she was tougher.”14

According to Jean Ross’s daughter Sarah Caudwell, “it was in Isherwood’s life, not hers [her mother’s] that Sally Bowles remained a significant figure.”15

20-year-old Jean Ross photographed in around 1931.
Figure 2. Jean Ross

British spectators of Berlin Cabarets  


John Chancellor’s introduction of Cabaret in
How to be Happy in Berlin:

A cabaret is any sort of hall, room, or cellar, large or small, well-decorated or not, brightly-lit or dim, moral or immoral, expensive or cheap, in which people congregate to amuse themselves with wine, women, and song. There is always a spot of floor for dancing on, the spot being as a rule as small as can be arranged without making it necessary to hang a signboard above it, marked “Dancing Floor.” Every inch that the proprietor concedes to the dancing floor means an inch taken away from the table-space, and table-space is made of gold. People sit at tables in cabarets, drink good or bad wine or beer (usually at incredibly high prices), dance a good deal, flirt a good deal, and watch a reduced music-hall programme, consisting of singers, dancers, and comedians.16

The nightlife and cabarets of Berlin in the Weimar period also fascinated and drew British visitors to Berlin, especially the Bloomsbury groups, who wanted to leave suppressive British society and experience the more liberal Berlin culture. Despite mostly enjoying Berlin nightlife, Isherwood wrote scathingly about cabaret scenes in Berlin.

Christopher Isherwood in 1938.
Figure 3. Christopher Isherwood
Vita Sackville-West between 1910 and 1915.
Figure 4. Vita Sackville-West

Isherwood’s description of his visits in Cabarets in The Berlin Stories:

The Salome turned out to be very expensive and even more depressing than I had imagined. A few stage lesbians and some young men with plucked eyebrows lounged at the bar, uttering occasional raucous guffaws or treble hoots—supposed, apparently, to represent the laughter of the damned. The whole premises are painted gold and inferno-red—crimson plush inches thick, and vast gilded mirrors. It was pretty full. The audience consisted chiefly of respectable middle-aged tradesmen and their families, exclaiming in good-humoured amazement: “Do they really?” and “Well, I never!” We went out half-way through the cabaret performance, after a young man in a spangled crinoline and jewelled breast-caps had painfully but successfully executed three splits.

At the entrance we met a party of American youths, very drunk, wondering whether to go in. Their leader was a small stocky young man in pince-nez, with an annoyingly prominent jaw.

“Say,” he asked Fritz, “what’s on here?”

“Men dressed as women,” Fritz grinned.

The little American simply couldn’t believe it. “Men dressed as women? As women hey? Do you mean they’re queer?”17

In contrast to Isherwood, Vita Sackville-West showed her interest in Berlin’s cabaret scenes in her letters to Virginia Woolf. Vita was unhappy living in Berlin, but the entertainment and sleazy fun in cabarets made her life in Berlin bearable. Nevertheless, both Vita and Isherwood remarked on the sexual freedoms in cabarets, where lesbians and transvestites often performed. 

Vita’s Letters to Virginia Woolf

Oh, and I’ve got so much to tell you: about Berlin, and Else Lasker-Scueler, and Schwichtenberg, and the n****r who was really a man not a woman; but had all the graces of a cocotte, and the temper too; all an ocean in my head.18

April 3rd, 1928

Personally, I should like to renounce my nationality, as a gesture; but I don’t want to become a German, even though I did go to a revue last night in which two ravishing young women sing a frankly Lesbian song.19

August 31st, 1928

Nowadays…

How about Cabarets nowadays in Berlin? What can we observe about British cabaret performers in Berlin? And how do British visitors perceive Berlin Cabarets? Just as it had been described earlier in the Weimar period by Isherwood and Vita, sexuality is still a key theme explored in cabaret acts today. Drag queens and kings play an important role in showing freedom of sexuality in cabaret performances. 

Some British artists also revisited cabarets in Berlin. The British writer Louise Welsh in her journey to Berlin had visited several Berlin cabarets: Kleine Nachtrevue, Winter Garten, and Chamäleon Varietoné. You may get inspiration from her comments  on these three Berlin cabarets:

Kleine Nachtrevue We rang the bell and the shutter on the Judas window snapped back speakeasy style. A glimpse of made-up eyes, glitter lips, then the shutter slammed, the door opened and we were admitted.20
Winter Garten The Winter Garten is conscious of its 100-year history – its auditorium is lined with glass cases displaying memorabilia from former days, Harry Houdini’s trunk, Glock the clown’s The Winter Garten is trad, dad, but it’s a fine tradition, if you like that kind of thing.21
 
Chamäleon Varieté The Chamäleon is cabaret as circus.  A young troupe link acts by pretending the show is part of a circus school. The conceit allows performers to observe each other from the stage, adding a frisson of voyeurism that reached its peak when a topless male aerialist plunged repeatedly into a bath of water, to the accompaniment of In the Heat of the Night. He was watched from the edge of the stage by a young acrobat, who couldn’t quite hide his giggles. The act was a boon for fans of physical culture which brought a table of men next to us to their feet in a resounding ovation.22
 

Have you been to one of the Berlin Cabarets? Was that experience different from what British artists experienced in the Weimar period or Luisa Welsh’s observation of Berlin Cabarets? Feel free to share with us your interesting experience of Berlin Cabarets. 

    Figure 1. Weisse Maus © Feral House
    Figure 2. Jean Ross © Galcha
    Figure 3. Christopher Isherwood © National Media Museum
    Figure 4. Vita Sackville-West. George Grantham Bain Collection © Library of Congress
    Gallery images: 1-2 © Stadtmuseum Berlin, 3-5 © Feral House

    Jelavich, Peter. Berlin Cabaret. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996, p.1.
    Garebian, Keith. “Cabaret Ambience.” In The Making of Cabaret. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2011. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2011.
    Jelavich, p.5.
    Chancellor, John. How to be Happy in Berlin. London: Arrowsmith. 1929.
    Ibid.
    Gordon, Mel. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (Expanded Edition). Los Angeles: Feral House, 2008
    Jelavich, p.5.
    Jelavich, p.1.
    Jelavich, p.162.
    10 Jelavich, p.166.
    11 Tropiano, Stephen. Cabaret: Music on Film Series. Maryland: RowmanLittlefield, 2011.
    12 Tropiano, Cabaret: Music on Film Series.
    13 Spender, Stephen. “Come to the Cabaret.”  The Observer 28 November 1993: 74.
    14 Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and His Kind, 1929–1939. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976, p.52.
    15 Tropiano, Cabaret: Music on Film Series.
    16 Chancellor, p.104-105.
    17 Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin stories: The last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin. New Directions Publishing, 1963.
    18 Leaska, Mitchell and DeSalvo, Louise (ed.). The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2001, p.221.
    19 The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, p.256.
    20 Welsh, Louise. “Right this way your table’s waiting…” The Observer 11 August 2002: 98.
    21 Ibid.
    22 Ibid.

    Chancellor, John. How to be Happy in Berlin. London: Arrowsmith. 1929.
    Garebian, Keith. “Cabaret Ambience.” In The Making of Cabaret. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2011. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2011.
    Gordon, Mel. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (Expanded Edition). Los Angeles: Feral House, 2008.
    Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin stories: The last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin. New Directions Publishing, 1963.
    Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and His Kind, 1929–1939. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976.
    Jelavich, Peter. Berlin Cabaret. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
    Leaska, Mitchell and DeSalvo, Louise (ed.). The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2001.
    Spender, Stephen. “Come to the Cabaret.”  The Observer 28 November 1993: 74.
    Tropiano, Stephen. Cabaret: Music on Film Series. Maryland: RowmanLittlefield, 2011.
    Welsh, Louise. “Right this way your table’s waiting…” The Observer 11 August 2002: 98.