Humor and cabaret in Berlin #1. The introduction the new arts, the year 1901.

In the next series of articles, Joep writes about the history of Berlin’s Kabarett (cabaret). In this, Kabarett stretches from political motivated humorous songs till trends in the dancing venues, which were actually not that humorous at all. In this first article will be explained how cabaret is introduced in Berlin. It was the year of 1901 when different initiatives definitely changed Berlin’s entertainment world. Where did it come from? Where would it lead to? Who were the masterminds of these new forms of entertainment? And how much can we find back of this history?

Poster for Hans Hyan, around 1901/2

Every history of modern cabaret starts in the Parisian district of Monmartre, to be exact – in the bar le Mirliton. Its owner was Rodolphe Salis, who asked all chansonniers (singers) to pass by and entertain his audience. When a certain Aristide Bruant passed by in 1885, a new form of art was introduced. Standing on the tables, fully dressed up, Aristide would make rude jokes and scolded at his bystanders. At his first performance, his audience of three men drank so slowly that Aristide scoffed them and kicked their drinks from the table – telling them to bugger off. Initially, the courteous Salis thought his new bar was without a chance. The result couldn’t have been more different. Aristide became an attraction, his success guaranteed an expanding audience and the innkeeper changed his mind. Besides his brutal presentation, Aristide also offered a seriously interesting content in his songs. He sang about the poverty, the prostitution and the social weak which Paris hosted those days. In these social misfits and drop outs, Aristide still saw a human which can and shall be understood. Therefore, Aristide is often seen as a bohemian with a socialist message. One anecdote which characterises Aristide could be his meeting with a Russian grand duke, who he welcomed with “So, old fucking Cossack. You felt like passing by?”

Ernst von Wolzogen's "Buntes Theater" at the Alexanderstraße 40. Photo from 1901 by Georg Bartels. ©Expired.

Still, this was Paris in its 1880s. It took about fifteen year before also the German capital would offer more than Varieté (Music Hall) which was common since the 1860s. Within a single year, four venues which pretended to provide Berlin in cabaret would open their doors. The honour is for Ernst von Wolzogen: he opened his Buntes Theater (colourful theatre) at the Alexanderstraße 40 – a stage with seats for an audience of 650 men. As a conservative noble man, Ernst von Wolzogen secretly disgusted from the cabaret’s ‘proletarian’ Parisian ancestor. Still, Von Wolzogen took over the Parisian satire, eroticism and usage of songs. During its premier at 18 January 1901, Das Buntes Theater showed a theatre play about hypnosis, followed by a pantomime play, a shadow play, a bunch of subtle poets and chansons (songs). After the break came a parody which made a fool out of Gabriele d’Annunzio – a dandy and poet who became famous around those days. The highlight which the premier in Das Buntes Theater ended with, was a very cheesy song about a married couple who are in love and do a dance. In the meanwhile, Ernst von Wolzogen hosted the evening. Not as Aristide Bruant would do -stirring up an audience- but as a gentleman who knows it all. In despite of economic challenge Von Wolzogen opened another Buntes Theater at the Köpenicker Straße in 1902. In despite of his effort to lift up the level of entertainment, Von Wolzogen’s retirement later that year would introduce a revival of Varieté in Das Buntes Theater again.

Schall und Rauch playing their Serenissimus act, early 1900s

At January 23rd, only five days later as Ernst von Wolzogen’s initiative, the Schall und Rauch group played its premier. In this, Max Reinhardt and a group of intellectuals and artists would play some parodies on theatre plays. In the meanwhile, songs and poems altered with satirical commentaries on the monarchy. Unfortunately, the German police attended the premier as well. When Christian Morgenstern made a parody on a certain court poet – the police made an end to the theatre play. So to speak: Schall und Rauch‘s premier was too much of a success. In despite of many censorship by the German police and state, Schall und Rauch would continue making parodies on other literature. Their main success was the figure of Serenissimus (Serenity man), a typical nobleman of the German Empire who now they could make a fool of. The only one which protected Schall und Rauch from closing down immediately was its widespread popularity.

Poster for Max Tilke's "Zum hungrigen Pegasus" (1901/2)

At October 1 1901, a new venue opened its doors. Zum Hungrigen Pegasus, factually the  was Berlin’s foremost copy of Aristide Bruant’s idea of cabaret. Initiator behind the weekly event in a restaurant at the Potsdamer Brücke was Max Tilke, a certain painter. Zum Hungrigen Pegasus supplied a stage for talented artists who would again become famous up till a few decades later, such as Peter Hille, Erich Mühsam, Georg David Schulz, Elsa Laura Seeman and Hans Hyan. Unfortunately. Nevertheless, the joy came to a rapid end. Max Tilke quited the weekly event already after half a year, since he wanted to focus on painting again. In the meanwhile, Tilke’s guest Hans Hyan had a venue around the corner: named Zur Silbernen Punschterine, which opened in November 1901. Hans Hyan, who composed his songs together with his wife Käthe, was an absolute master in the usage of Berlin’s dialact and criminal slang. His songs would’ve had names as ‘Das Lied vom Staatsanwalt‘ (The song of the States’ lawyer) or ‘Der bestohlene Commerzienrath‘ (The bestolen council of commerce), – which were most of all anti-authoritarian in their message. In the ‘Lied der Arbeitslosen‘, Hyan sings

“Brot und Arbeit! Jeden Tag wird’s schlimmer:
Das Kind ist krank, die Frau kann nicht mehr fort,
ich gehe weg, ich sitz in der Destille,
Arbeit, die gibt’s nicht, schade um das Wort!
Vom Morgenrot bis in die Nacht,
Wir hungern, wenn ihr schmaust und lacht.
Verdammt nochmal! Wir wollen wissen,
Warum ihr satt seid und wir hungern müssen!”

Which can be translated by the following:

“Bread and labour! Every day it’s more hard:
the child is sick, the woman can’t move any further,
I am leaving, I am at the liquor bar.
Labour – there is none, in despite of that word!
From red morning sky until the night,
we starve – while you feast and laugh bright.
Damn it! We want to know,
why you are stuffed while we will die!”

Georg David Schulz

A trend was born. Three months later, Georg David Schulz would open his Poetenbänkel zum siebten Himmel (Poet songs towards the seventh heaven) at the Kantstraße. His melody of recognition was the following:

“War die Stunde süß, als zum Paradies
Die Mansarde ward, wo ich gehaust!
Als ich mit Jeanette, frei von Etiquette,
Von verbotenen Früchten hab’ geschmaust.
Zwar zuweilen schlich auch ein Mißton sich
In die süße Liebesmelodie,
denn Jeanettchen war
manchmal sonderbar,
aber küssen, küssen konnte sie.
Ob auch die strenge Bourgeoisie entrüste
uns verfeme
Jeannette, dich vergeße ich nich!
Viva la Boheme!”

Which can be translated as:

“The hour was sweet as at paradise,
my attic was – where I had my life,
when I had sex with Jeannette – without etiquettes
and was stuffed of the forbidden fruits.
Although every now and then, there was a false note
in the sweet lovely melody.
The Jeanette she was,
without a day to pass,
good in kissing – and so did we.
It alarmed the strict bourgeoisie
which banned us.
Jeannette, I won’t forget you!
Long live the bohemians!”

Poster for Danny Gürtler (between 1902 and 1907)

Without Berlin, though with more success throughout whole Germany was Danny Gürtler – who copied Aristide Bruant’s costume and named himself the ‘King of the Bohemians’ and ‘the last Romanticist’. He would propagate against established organisations such as the army, the church and the royal family. Between 1902 and 1907, Gürtler was by far the most succesful German comedian in this tradition. In one of his songs, Gürtler postulated:

“Die Welt soll durch mein Lied erfahren
Dasz ich nicht umsonst gelebt,
dasz ich für Warheit, Freiheit, Recht
gekämpft, gelitten und gestrebt!”

Or in English:

“Trough my songs, the world will encounter
that I haven’t been only alive.
For truth, freedom and justice –
I’ve battled, suffered and strived.”

Nevertheless, Gürtler would spend his exquisite income in a decadent way. As a way of his protest, he made a statue of Heinrich Heine – the francophile poet from jewish descent. As an unwanted figure in the Wilhelmian Empire, Heinrich Heine’s statue was not accepted by any German municipal. Even after Gürtler bought some land, he was forbidden to place his statue of Heine here. Gürtler’s end was one of a romanticist indeed. When he played a show in 1907, one of his spotlights broke. In front of his audience, Gürtler took a piece of glass and tried to cut through his veins. The last ten years of his life, he spend in a psychiatric hospital.

Buste of Max Reinhardt nearby the Deutsches Theater. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

Anyway, this history of Danny Gürtler all passed outside Berlin already. In article two of this series will be written about Berlin’s cabaret phenomenons from 1905 onwards. Taken everything into account, we have to conclude that Berlin’s cabaret venues drastically changed in the shortest amount of time imaginable – albeit not in full Parisian tradition. I think it’s strange that Ernst von Wolzogen’s premier on January 18th is considered as the introduction of Berlin’s cabaret up till nowadays. The evening was extremely well-behaved and was still not far from music hall. In October that year, it was Max Tilke who provided a stage for the bohemian style of cabaret – inspired by the Parisian ancestors. But most of all it was Hans Hyan who started to write songs in the tradition of Aristide Bruant. Unfortunately for the ones who admired his songs, Hyan focused on writing criminal novels soon again. And although a new initiative was taken already, it is legit to say that Aristide Bruant’s provoking form of cabaret only stuttered into Berlin slowly. There is literally no single memorial in dedication to Berlin’s ancestors of cabaret. Only Max Reinhardt is given a modest buste, or could this be for his later merits? In the following series will be written about the further culture of songs and humour in Berlin.

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One thought on “Humor and cabaret in Berlin #1. The introduction the new arts, the year 1901.

  1. Great article! Really useful. However, there’s a mistake. Rodolphe Salis founded Le Chat Noir, not Le Mirliton. Aristide Bruant performed in Le Chat Noir and later founded Le Mirliton.

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