The French word cabaret originally meant simply a place where alcoholic drink could be consumed or obtained. Musicians and other entertainers often found that such places provided a context where some money might be earned. In Lyon of the 1850s, some Guignol performers set up their stages in the Caveau des Celestins or the Passage de l’Argue, both pubs where the regular clientele consisted largely of members of the artisan class. These were possibly the first puppet cabarets and the shows themselves, improvised around a basic scenario (to the worry of the Imperial censors), provided a sort of living newspaper comment on events of the day.

In the later 19th century, some cabarets were virtually clubs frequented predominantly by artists, intellectuals and members of the middle-classes. Some of these developed entertainment to accompany the eating and drinking and this gave birth to the modern notion of a cabaret as a show to accompany the consumption of food and drink often, but not necessarily, in a “club” atmosphere. The show in the beginning was often provided by those who frequented the cabaret rather than by professional entertainers, and in some cases puppetry was employed. The cabaret offered an occasion for experiment and innovation and provided a context for the development of a new aesthetic of puppet theatre in which the aesthetic quality became more important than the simple fact of making money or earning a living.

Cabaret and Puppetry

The cabarets at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries differ from those of the 1920s which were more political in tone. Whereas Le Chat Noir (which opened in Paris in 1881 and served as a model for future establishments) exhibited Charles de Sivry and his puppets, the cabaret Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats) created in Barcelona in 1897 by Pere Romeu (painter, puppeteer and gymnastic teacher) presented concerts, exhibitions, puppet shows and Chinese shadow theatre (brought from Paris by Maurice Utrillo). This cabaret operated until 1903 and during four years presented puppet shows by Julio (Juli) Pi Olivella for whom the “quick-change” artist, Fregoli, wrote two dialogues.

The first of many German cabarets of that time was the Überbrettl (On the Stage), established in 1901 in Berlin by Ernst von Wolzogen who presented Der tapfere Cassian (Gallant Cassian, 1904), one of the parts of Arthur Schnitzler’s Marionettes trilogy. This example of “meta-theatre” which explored this interplay between live theatre, variety actors and puppets was typical of cabarets of this period. In 1901, the Schall und Rauch (Sound and Smoke) was created in Berlin by Max Reinhardt. This was hosted by author Richard Valletin, who was attracted to puppetry and directed several shows, including Kasperltheater (Theatre of Kasperl), a text directly inspired by puppetry. During the same year, the cabaret Die Elf Scharfrichter (The Eleven Executioners) opened in the bohemian ambiance of Munich. Playwright Frank Wedekind was a frequent visitor. The “opening march” of the shows featured a puppet implying the performance would explore the current elite and power structure. On the bill were puppet dramas that were parodies, such as Prinzessin Pim und Laridah, ihr Sänger (The Princess Pim and Her Singer Laridah), a “tragedy of potatoes, radishes, turnips and apples for puppets performed with their own fruits and vegetables”. In this political drama by Paul Larsen, directed by Otto Falckenberg and Leo Greiner, the puppets were manipulated from below, and the puppeteers were set up in the orchestra pit in place of musicians.

In Vienna in 1907, the Cabaret Fledermaus (The Bat) opened and in the same vein presented dramas for pumpkin puppets (Kurbispuppen). The painter Oskar Kokoschka created the décor of the cabaret and designed a mechanical theatre – L’Œuf à pois (The Polka-Dotted Egg). In 1908, a cabaret opened in Moscow under the same name Letucaja Mys (The Bat). It became the rendezvous of actors from the Moscow Art Theatre (Moskovskiy Hudojestvenny Akademicheskiy Teatr, МHАТ), who would show up after their performances to parody contemporary works, very often using puppets. In a notable parody of Maurice Maeterlinck’s L’Oiseau bleu (The Blue Bird), the puppets represented Russian actor and theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski and director, playwright and librettist, Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko seeking the little blue bird (a metaphor for happiness) in a forest of muscovite newspapers symbolizing obstacles put in their way by the critics. In Krakow, under the direction of the “bad boy” of Polish literature, Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, the Zielony Balonik (The Green Balloon), opened in 1905 and notably fostered the satirical szopka in which recognizable real-life characters were substituted for biblical ones in topical sketches.

Shadow theatre was also favoured by cabaret artists. The most famous Chinese shadows at the end of the 19th century in Europe were those of Henri Rivière, Louis Lemercier de Neuville, and Caran d’Ache which could be seen at Rodolphe Salis’ Le Chat Noir. Other establishments like the Schall und Rauch or Die Elf Scharfrichter also took up the tradition of shadow theatre. However, the Schwabinger Schattenspiele (Schwabing Shadow plays), created in 1907 by Alexander von Bernus and Karl Wolfskehl at the Die Elf Scharfrichter, favoured romanticism and this distanced them from the comedy and satire of the Le Chat Noir. The opening stage show of the Überbrettl (or “super-cabaret) in Berlin’s “Kabarett”, founded in 1901 by Ernst von Wolzogen, included a shadow play on the ballad of Lilienkron, König Kagnar Lodbrog (King Kagnar Lodbrog). Shadows accompanied by poetry recitals were also projected at Vienna’s Cabaret Fledermaus. Moreover, Henri Rivière and the musician Georges Fragerolle from Le Chat Noir were welcomed in 1901 at Felix Salten’s Wiener Kleinbühne (Vienna Small Stage) with their drama Ahasver.

Other cabarets where writers, artists, theatre people and their friends met to discuss literature, hold poetry readings, and perform theatre, including puppetry, were established during the period before World War 1. Opened on New Year’s Eve 1911 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the Podval Brodyachey Sobaki or Stray Dog Café (also known as Stray Dog Cellar, Stray Dog Cabaret and the Society for Intimate Theatre) was a literary and artistic night café located in a cellar near the Mikhailovsky Theatre. It attracted figures such as writers Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Acmeist poets Nicolai Gumilyov, Mikhail Kuzmin, painters Sergei Sudeikin and Nikolai Kulbin, and theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold among its following. In its original form the café existed until 1915.

Another wave of cabarets can be found from 1915 onward and throughout the 1920s. In 1916, Simultanische Krippenspiel (Simultaneous Nativity Plays) was created at the birthplace of the Dada movement, the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, founded by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. The performance consisted of a raucous concert in seven tableaux accompanied by the text from the Gospel and a depiction of the Nativity in the tradition of the Polish szopka. In 1919, the Schall und Rauch was reopened and Walter Mehring directed a Dadaist Oresteia with puppets by Georg Grosz and John Heartfield, produced by Waldermar Hecker. Known as Einfach Klassisch: eine Orestie mit glücklichem Ausgang (Simply Classical: an Oresteia with a Happy Ending), this was a parody of Aeschylus’ Oresteia which had recently been directed by Max Reinhardt at the Grosses Schauspielhaus.

Cabaret and puppetry found common ground with material imbued with grotesque elements – traits that have always been favoured by satirical authors – bravado fitting in perfectly with the spirit of subversion against the established cultural or political order. This spirit of satire and parody has always inspired cabaret. Mechanization and the reduction of man to the state of puppet express the intention of this caricature and the willingness to denounce the grotesque aspect of humanity, powerless against the automatisms imposed by the moral and mental habits of the culture currently in force. Cabaret and variety are defined as “anti-naturalists”, which puppet theatre is at its outset since its artificial actor can imitate man only in terms of emphasis and stylization. Cabaret is also based on discovery, on the approximation of unlikely images, and refuses the logical sequence of realistic plays. This applies to both individual acts as well as for the creation of an entire piece – “conference”, verse, song, solo acts, puppet shows, dance, shadow theatre which are all juxtaposed without a predefined order, a choice that evokes the recitative aspects of the commedia dell’arte actor. This fragmented structure encompasses a multiplicity of languages whether in puppet theatre or cabaret, and several types of theatre mutually “contaminate” each other. The cabaret actor always presents a specific status, and if he plays a role it is one that remains the same, that of  “cabaret artist”, but he does not play a “character” per se. The same can be said for traditional puppetry figures and masks. In both cases, the show is based on conventions using privileged modes of expression such as metaphor, ellipsis, allusion and double entendre. The public is invited to “complete” the performance reflecting on these conventions.

Cabarets occupied more intimate spaces than variety and music hall theatre, which had become a significant part of the entertainment industry at this time. Cabaret became places eminently suited to experimentation, much of which found its way back into the mainstream puppetry of the 20th century in Europe and the United States of America. Puppetry became part of the avant-garde movement, most notably in the work of the Bauhaus, where the artist Oskar Schlemmer’s Figural Cabinet (1923) was even described as a “mechanical cabaret”. Indeed, avant-garde artists saw in these genres of so-called lesser entertainment, models for a revitalization of spectacle: once such example being Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s manifesto, Il Teatro di Varietà (Variety Theatre, 1913).

Performance in the cabaret environment led to many performers abandoning any sort of formal theatrical framing or concealment and appearing directly in front of the audience with their puppets. Most performances were relatively short and often consisted of a series of numbers. The use of a nontheatrical space opened up further possibilities whilst the visible puppeteer now became a part of the show, thus resulting in a completely new dynamic. This in itself created a new style of performance that extended itself to many professional performers even when appearing on the stages of theatres or music halls and led to a number of celebrated solo performers such as Albrecht Roser.  Although not strictly a cabaret performer, Sergei Obraztsov developed a number of solo acts for small intimate performances such as the baby, where his own arm became the puppet.

Cabaret, Music Hall, Cafés Chantants, and Variety

There is much overlap of definition among cabaret, music hall, variety, vaudeville (as variety is also called in the United States), the café chantant, and the like. Even though less involved in the new theatre movement at the beginning of the 20th century, music-hall theatre was born in England at the end of the 1840s (see Music Hall, Variety Theatre and Vaudeville).

In France, the first music-hall entertainments were called cafés chantants (singing cafés) or cafés-concerts (concert-cafés). The café chantant was originally an outdoor café where small groups of performers performed popular music or short acts for the public. The music was generally lighthearted, sometimes risqué, even bawdy but, as opposed to the cabaret tradition, not particularly political or confrontational. These were establishments where one could come and go and eat and drink. Actors and the general public intermingled in close proximity to the performance space featuring singers, ventriloquists, jugglers, acrobats, magicians, dancers and, more occasionally, puppeteers. In Spain, the café chantant were known as café cantante and became the centre for professional flamenco performances from the mid 19th century to the 1920s. In Turkey, these establishments were called kafeşantan. Earlier versions appeared in the mid 16th century in Istanbul during the Ottoman era, and many kafeşantan were opened in the Beyoğlu/Péra district of Istanbul in the early years of the 20th century. During the period of the Russian Empire (1721-1917) the term “café chantant” in the Russian language was kafe-shantan; Odessa was the city best known for its many establishments.

At the end of the World War I, the concert-cafés had been replaced by true music halls, the rows of seats filling up the space where tables used to be. This caused performances to become more complex and structured, and influenced the nature of the show. Variety artists, including puppeteers, now face-to-face with the public, were forced to focus more on scenic effects.

Most puppeteers performing on British variety stages after World War I adopted the style appropriate to cabaret. That is to say they performed in view of the audience. Two notable performers were Eric Bramall and John Dudley. In the United States, puppet performances in the nightclub or cabaret setting became relatively common by the 1930s. With the marionette artist exposed to the audience this new style stressed the demonstration of technique and a new intimacy, which could prove unexpectedly tender or poignant. Frank Paris (1914-1984), and Bob Bromley (1907-1981) were very effective practitioners of this style.

During the 1950s, Vittorio Podrecca’s Teatro dei Piccoli toured all over the world with its Varietà show that included among its characters the figures of Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier. During that same era, many cabaret as well as music-hall puppeteers performed “numbers”, short forms which we would nowadays call sketches. In France Yves Joly, Louis Valdès, André Tahon, Georges Lafaye were launched by the vogue of Parisian “left bank” cabarets, whereas in Switzerland, Fred Schneckenburger’s cabaret provided an artistic model of great influence.

The virtuosity of these solo artists fostered new understanding of the dramatic possibilities of puppetry. These possibilities could be seen in the relationship between the puppet and the puppeteer – for example, when Louis Valdès’ Pierrot realizes that he is being manipulated. They were apparent in the metaphorical use of objects and materials, such as direct manipulation performances or Yves Joly’s deft umbrellas at the Rose Rouge cabaret. They also advanced technologies such as those used in Georges Lafaye’a play of light and colours at the Fontaine des Quatre Saisons cabaret and at the Centre Georges Pompidou.

An area in which the cabaret style of performance had a special development was the cruise liner and this provided an outlet for such distinguished performers as the Mumfords (Frank and Maisie Mumford) in the second half of the 20th century and more recently for the American marionettist, Phillip Huber.

During the early 1950s television proved a strong competitor for the variety theatres, and they began closing. This forced variety performers to adapt their work for the small screen or nightclubs. The items traditionally presented are a song-and-dance or “personality act”, a transformation or “trick” figure or a circus turn, usually accompanied by recorded sound. Among cabaret acts, English string marionettists, such as Eric Bramall, Roger Stevenson and Ian Thom, were sought after internationally. Today’s cabaret artists are more likely to perform with live voices and music, and sometimes displaying a mixture of techniques. Several notable contemporary British performers are Matthew Robins (shadows), Nathan Evans (animated body parts), Mark Mander (humanettes) and Nina Conti (ventriloquism and glove puppets). In the United States the Ed Sullivan show and other “talk” shows presented puppeteers as “guests” including Jim Henson and the Muppets, and these reached millions of viewers weekly.

(See Music Hall, Variety Theatre and Vaudeville.)


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