September 19, 2009

Kabarett der Namenlosen, or Cabaret of the Nameless, was one of the wildest and most taste-defying venues of the great Weimar Republic circa 1926 to 1932. And its iconoclastic brilliance is every bit as relevant today as it was then.

The Cabaret's artistic director and emcee, Erwin Lowinsky (under the pseudonym "Elow") sought out some of the worst and weirdest aspiring entertainers in Europe, and booked at them at his show. The participants were amazed and thrilled to be chosen, especially when Elow would assure them that this was their "big break". Elow would explain to them that many previous performers at Kabarett der Namenlosen had gone on to great showbiz success, and that the audience was always filled with talent scouts, Broadway and Follies executives, phonograph label reps, etc.

It was all a lie.

The truth was, the entire cabaret was designed to deliberately showcase these raw talents in a freak-show context, totally unbeknownst to the hapless performers. Think of it as if American Idol contestants ended up being submitted to a tacky and jeering Gong Show treatment.

As Mel Gordon's Voluptuous Panic puts it:

"Typically, the clueless entertainers try to imitate the work of established Cabaret personalities, and proceed to humiliate themselves completely in their numbing attempts. While audience members drunkenly interrupt and boo the wretched losers, Elow unctuously takes the part of a kindly uncle or philanthropist and encourages the amateurs to ignore the vicious Philistines and continue their rotten singing, juggling, storytelling, impersonations, or poetry recitals."

And as Erich Kästner wrote in 1929:

"The more incompentent and ignorant the poor artist-to-be is, the more welcome he is to the producer. And the more hospitably Elow's public accepts him. For the whole point here in the Cabaret of the Nameless is to laugh oneself silly at stupid and pathological human beings.... the ancient Romans turned their thumbs down when the vanquished was to be dealt the death blow. Here, they scream: "Keep him up there, Elow! He's soooo good!! Let him start over from the beginning!"

The real subtext of Kabarett der Namenlosen, however, was its subversive ability to eat away at the accrued socialization that builds up like plaque on any given person's sense of aesthetics. In the very act of regularly presenting so-called "bad" entertainment as "good", a gradual wearing down of these definitions occurs, slowly and subtly and on a gradient scale. Gradually, one develops a more mature, all-inclusive view of the concept of "entertainment"; one that steps back and takes into account the whole of existence.

With this comes a greater willingness to embrace so-called "difficult" music and theatre, which is something that is still sorely needed in our present-day society.

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Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at .