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The Wild Stage. Literary Cabarets of the Weimar Republic.

Alan Lareau presents his book as a necessary corrective to the notion that German cabaret of the Weimar period was predominantly avant-garde and political in character. His findings are based on a thorough investigation of the actual programmes of Berlin cabarets between 1919 and 1935, in so far as these can be reconstructed from documentary evidence. His claims, on the other hand, should perhaps have been expressed more cautiously, partly because the evidence he finds of a distinctly unradical cabaret culture is less surprising than he makes it appear, and partly because he tends to de-politicize the radicalism where he does find it.

Lareau rightly emphasizes the commercial basis of cabaret enterprises, the 'Neppbetrieb' of Berlin nightclubs in particular, and the strong influence on audience expectations of popular music hall and variety theatre in general. His descriptive approach enables him to convey the feel of performances, and to bring out the importance of particular artistes in carrying shows which may well have been based on indifferent material. The evidence he has assembled does, in a general way, support his view that there was something deeply ambivalent about Berlin cabaret art: it was helping citizens to adjust to new and disconcerting circumstances in the post-war years, rather than providing them with clear critical perspectives on those circumstances. The weaknesses in his claims are more apparent when he applies them to particular examples.

The main chapters of the book are devoted to three well-known cabarets which did (up to a point) provide a supportive cultural ambience for the literary avant-garde, and which did (on occasions) nurture elements of political protest. They are Max Reinhardt's Schall und Rauch, Trude Hesterberg's Wilde Buhne, and Werner Finck's Katakombe. Readers who are familiar with the cabaret-style verses of Walter Mehring or Kurt Tucholsky, of Kastner or Klabund (to say nothing of their more trivial contemporaries Friedrich Hollaender and Marcellus Schiffer), will not be particularly surprised that Lareau is able to find examples of their work which are certainly not overtly political. But when Lareau cites Tucholsky as a prime example of a political writer de-politicizing his text in order to satisfy the cabaret audience's 'desire for enjoyable entertainment' (p. 32), he undermines his own case because he has missed the elaborate ironies of context in his chosen text, 'Der alte Motor' of 1919. (His translations of lyrics, too, though generally reliable, sometimes raise doubts about whether he has grasped the contextual nuances accurately.)

Lareau provides an informative and readable account of three major examples of Berlin cabaret culture, which contains salutory reminders of how even these well-remembered institutions led a precarious existence between critical reflection of prevailing circumstances and a descent into repetitive and often vulgar cliche. But whenever he draws attention to the fact that the bolder political verses of Mehring, Tucholsky or Kastner were not used in live cabaret, then his argument carries an implication which he does not make explicit - namely that the active heritage of the 'cabaret lyric' in German culture is to be found in the publication history rather than the performance history of the Weimar period.


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Author:Midgley, D.R.
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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