Wednesday, October 12

Cuttings 20 - Cabaret

I'll continue calling the research entries 'cuttings' cause its simpler that way..

Here is an old essay i wrote on Cabaret in Paris at the turn of the century...
I think there is definately issues which are relevant, especially in terms of performance space, intimacy, contact with the crowd, style of delivery, purpose of song...


What kinds of theatrical variety constituted the cabaret artistique and to what extent did these forms of theatrical variety engage with, and offer a critique of, the cultural, political and social conditions of fin-de-siècle Paris?

‘The contemporary city dweller has vaudeville nerves; he seldom has the capacity of following great dramatic continuities, of tuning his senses to the same tone for three hours. He desires diversity - variety.’ – Otto Julius Bier Baum, Stile (1897)


Paris at the fin-de-siècle was a city experiencing the thrills and demands of modernity. The accelerating changes in technology, industry and politics provoked a direct response in culture and the arts. Aesthetically, sensually and ideologically the urban metropolis which was materialising made redundant much of what had been valued before and provided a space for new exciting possibilities of expression. The cabaret artistique was one outlet in which the new concepts developed at the fin-de-siècle manifested themselves in an artistic form. This essay will explore how the theatrical variety offered at the cabarets in Monmartre reflected the cultural, political and social conditions at the end of the nineteenth century, focusing in particular on the form of French chanson. It will examine how, through its lyrics and music, chanson engaged with the new voices and ideas of fin-de-siècle Paris but also provided a strong critique of the practical problems and social issues which accompanied the newly emerging society.
Modern Paris was a concoction of cutting edge innovation and deeply rooted tradition. With developments in technology, media and transport the bustle of every day life soon became mandatory. The first Parisian shopping mall ‘Bon Marché’ opened in 1852 inaugurating consumer culture and for the first time people were bombarded on a daily basis with advertising, images, lights, colours and sounds. Urbanisation was forceful: ‘Houseman’s vast replanting of Paris…resulted in the isolation of the middle and upper classes in an exclusive area of the city…’
and was a psychological as well as aesthetic phenomenon. 1889 saw the completion of the Eiffel Tower as part of the International Exhibition of Paris, marking the centenary of the French Revolution, a symbol of the city’s strength as well as a technological triumph. With increasing spectacle and possibility available, the citizen’s experience became increasingly diverse and urban life became fragmented and cacophonous. This disjointed social experience was directly mirrored in the cabaret artistique, both ironically and pragmatically.
Despite the domineering influence of modernity however, the French proved resistant to letting go of their distinct cultural identity. Improvements in communication, trade and travel meant that modernity was inevitably accompanied by the early phases of globalisation. A strong international dialogue grew between the artistic movements happening in different countries and the International Exhibition of 1889 brought in flocks of tourists. Cabaret was flourishing not only on the hill of Monmartre but throughout Europe, especially in Berlin. When examining the French chanson and the intentions of the cabaret artists, a sense of worldliness is apparent. Yet there is also a definite emphasis on the protection of French culture; the songs strive to hold onto what remains of the unique French and Parisian characteristics. We will shortly see how the theatrical variety of the cabaret reflected not only the diverse aspects of modernity, but also the elements of tradition which equally contributed to the fabric of fin-de-siècle society.
The cabaret-artistique emerged in the late 1870s/ early 1880s and growing from the seeds planted by the café-concert it offered a similar intimacy of space. Usually taking place in one small room, the venue inevitably helped break down the physical and psychological barriers between performers and the audience. The close proximity and direct eye contact offered (or forced upon!) the audience by the performers were a crucial factor in forming the heated atmosphere. The cabaret artistique has parallels with Vaudeville Theatre or Music Halls as they were called in England. The presentation format of the latter was that of many short and varied pieces assembled together to form an entire spectacle, including music, song, dance, theatre and circus acts. The cabaret artistique also provided such diversity, with chanson, dance pieces, short scenes and the highly successful shadow theatre. In chapter three of his novel Satie the Bohemian: From Cabaret to Concert Hall, Whiting states of the cabaret artistique that ‘The novelty of the place lay in the combination of ingredients…’
placing great significance on the theatrical variety that it featured.
This diversity is what Bierbaum refers to when he describes ‘The contemporary city dweller’ as having ‘vaudeville nerves’
. The city dweller is used to being constantly entertained by fast paced and ever changing acts - a reflection of the busy, noisy and impressive streets which are the theatre of an urban city. Bierbaum explains how, due to the contending display of sights and sounds found in a metropolis, the modern man has lost the ‘capacity’ for watching a piece of traditional theatre with ‘great dramatic continuities’. Dissatisfied with long three-act plays that previously dominated the French conventional stage, it is as though his boredom threshold has been reduced, his perception shifted and the ‘tuning of his senses’ altered by the daily city life to which he is exposed. It seems therefore that the cabaret artistique, music hall and the café-concert were not only a natural response to changing times, but also very much in demand as a suitable replacement for the classical theatre genre which no longer appealed to the fin-de-siècle Frenchman.
Having established the roots of cabaret in the café-concert and its similarities with Vaudeville and music hall performance, it is now important to distinguish what it was that set the cabaret artistique aside from its contemporaneous theatrical forms. Despite its long-lasting legacy and far reaching influence, the cabaret artistique was not at its high point a form of mainstream popular culture. Organised by and featuring members of the artistic elite and intellectual bourgeoisie, the cabaret artistique was always a sub-culture – an underground and exclusive venture, cherishing the qualities resulting from its bohemian and ‘alternative’ appeal. Though its intimacy was reminiscent of the café-concert and its programme was comparable in its variety to music hall, what the cabaret did which the others did not was take its work onto a radical platform and into highly intellectual realms.
The Chat Noir opened by Rodolphe Salis in December 1881 is probably the most famous cabaret club of fin-de-siècle Paris and will be taken here as an effective example of the cabaret artistique for analysis purposes. Attracting singers, actors, writers, artists and dancers, all of whom devised their own work, the venue engaged with those members of the public who were at the heart of the modern revolution and were actively involved in critiquing the latest innovations as well as debating the political changes that the country was experiencing. A society of ‘artists, writers, poets and performers’ called The Hydropathes were a major influence on The Chat Noir, frequenting the club and transporting there their ideology in an ‘arena of diverse artistic voices’
. The lively and eccentric group also brought forth their strong literary tradition, ensuring that The Chat Noir established a high intellectual framework amidst a light-hearted atmosphere from the start.
Variety was key to the cabaret’s success as a melting pot of contemporary ideas. Whiting writes, for example, how ‘The authors who read at the Chat Noir…represented virtually every literary tendency in Paris.’
7 One key form within the theatrical variety at the Chat Noir was the chanson, where ideas could be communicated through voice, language and performance simultaneously. Suiting to the requirements of fin-de-siècle artistic entertainment, the chanson allowed for much variety within its genre, engaging with and allowing for a complex critique of contemporary society. Tim McArthur, a contemporary cabaret artist, stressed in a recent master-class the importance as a chansonnier, (a cabaret singer), of ‘bringing the audience into your living room’; holding just thirty people, the Chat Noir space would have helped to do literally this. He went on to explain that within the intimate format of cabaret it is impossible to hide behind a character like an actor in traditional theatre; you present yourself on the stage, not a false persona. Though this advice was not specific to the Chat Noir it will become clear that its origins lie in the cabaret artistique and emerged as a reflection of the fin-de-siècle society.
With increasing fragmentation and subjectivity came a growing emphasis placed on ‘the individual’ and ‘the artist’; people became interested in how individuals, especially artists, see the world, and the differing perspectives which could be gleaned. At the same time, with the emergence of psychoanalysis and the works of Sigmund Freud there was increasing significance granted to human psychology, how it can be linked to people’s personal experiences and what insights it might provide into wider society. Individual chansonniers were given a structure in which to present themselves and voice their views, exploiting the intensity of the intimate cabaret space in their individual way and conveying their personal responses to the diversifying culture.
Perhaps the most famous chansonnier of the original cabaret artistique was Aristide Bruant. Interestingly, though born in 1851 to a middle class family, Bruant brought to the Chat Noir a genre that came to be known as chanson réalistes in which he sang with blunt humour about the grim reality of life on the streets. In his book Chanson, Hawkins stresses ‘how much of a gap exists between the persona of Bruant and his real self, and how much complicity and irony were at work in the image that he presented to his petty-bourgeois audience.’
Situated in Monmartre, a permissive quarter where prostitution and poverty were common, the Chat Noir attracted middle class audiences who wanted to experience something of the low-life. Bruant was notorious for the way in which he related to his audience, being purposefully rude, vulgar and insulting. Audience loved this behaviour for its thrilling shock factor and provocative charm, and continued to come back for more; this experience took them as far as they could get from their civilised society within the safe confines of the bourgeois cabaret space.
In his book Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930, Seigel explains how ‘The new establishments testified to a new kind of symbiosis between la Bohème and the bourgeoisie…’
. Bruant illuminated a community where ‘Robbery and prostitution are a way of life, the streets are home and comradeship is a replacement for fragmented and unstable family relations’; the tense relationship between the bourgeois audience and (largely middle class) performers inside the Chat Noir, and working class characters portrayed by Bruant who lived outside the Chat Noir on the streets of Monmartre, was characteristic of fin-de-siècle Paris. It was reflective of the variety of experiences which existed within the hierarchical class system.
For several reasons Bruant tended to sing his lyrics to well known melodies, such as children’s songs, operas, military songs or popular tunes. In an essay by Steven Moore Whiting entitled ‘Music on Monmartre’, he explains how ‘…any tune known to the audience was fair game for retexting…’
, allowing for effective parody, reference and irony when juxtaposed with the newly written text. By using ‘deliberately unobtrusive’ music, the text could be focused on; the chanson réalistes was literary first. Whiting also suggests that ‘melodic adornment would have been out of keeping with the street folk [Bruant] aimed to portray.’ Hawkins writes of ‘Rue Saint-Vincent’, a chanson réalistes, that ‘The bluntness of the account, seasoned with slang, popular diction and the local colour of the Monmartre district, gives the lyric considerable dramatic power. The skilled use of language would jar out ironically when sung over a familiar tune from a different social scene, engaging with the audience and constructing a very effective format for critique.
The following extract from the penultimate verse from Bruant’s chanson ‘Dans la Rue’ (Out in the Street)
, is a cutting portrayal of street-life illustrative of his chanson réalistes:
So now what’m I supposed to do!
Want me to go to work? Sez you!
I cou’n’t do’t…I was never taught…
Guess I gotta steal or kill t’eat…
Big deal! Screw it, I won’t get caught…
Out in the street.

The colloquial and aggressive language used, such as the word ‘screw’, exemplifies how Bruant engages with the reality of social conditions through the slang of Monmartre. The way the words are written in slang, for example ‘cou’n’t do’t’, illustrate his use of local dialect to further evoke the lives of the local characters he depicts. The phrasing also adds a comical and light hearted tone to the chanson, punctuated by the exclamation marks which no doubt alludes to the passionate physicality with which Bruant performed.
An accusing critique of society lies in the darker undertones and morals of the chanson: The line ‘I was never taught…’ places the blame for the character’s life of crime on the political system, which denied him an education. In this light, the previous line, ‘Want me to go to work? Sez you!’, would make the bourgeois audience feel guilty and uncomfortable, implying that the middle classes regard the character as lazy and incompetent. At the end of the song the social problems depicted remain unresolved, perhaps suggesting that it is in the audience’s hands to become socially active, or at least end their apathy. Sung as a reflection of contemporary Monmartre, the subject of the chanson dealing with poverty, theft and murder is shocking and disturbing. This would have been a novelty to a public used to associating art with ‘noble’ subject matters; hierarchy and canon in culture were subverted by the chanson of the cabaret artistique.
Yet despite his critical stance Bruant was also a patriot and, as discussed earlier, one of the many figures keen to defend the French national identity. By using familiar tunes he comments on modern problems and satirises French cultural heritage while simultaneously reinstating it. He subverts the expectations of the complacent middle classes, juxtaposing safe and loved melodies with harsh lyrics, but at the same time consolidates the absolutely intrinsic part that these musical traditions play in even the most cutting edge society. Whiting describes how in the Chat Noir, ‘For all its variety, the music was not cosmopolitan. Unlike the cafés-concerts and the music halls, which readily welcomed musical imports…the cabarets championed la bonne chanson française: folk songs and its latter day imitations.’
It is the love of French culture which is the crucial distinctive ingredient of Bruant’s chanson réalistes, engaging with the audience’s sensibilities as well as their intellect.
A second leading figure at the Chat Noir was Jules Jouy, a chansonnier d’actualité, whose legacy is that of the ‘macabre chanson’. A former member of the Hydropathes and singing to established tunes, Juoy ‘wrote poems with “dark” subject matter, unrelieved by any humour except of the blackest sort.’
The following extract is the last half of the second verse of Jouy’s chanson ‘Fille d’Ouvriers’ (The Working Girl). Inspired by an actual newspaper report and set in a factual context its macabre style becomes even more effective.
Of strong stock, away she’ll pine.
If she’s sweet,
She’s raped after closing time,
Boss’s Meat.

There are no euphemisms used in the depiction of this vile scene, using words such as ‘raped’ and describing the girl as ‘meat’. The mixture of this brutality with the word ‘sweet’ and the child-like rhyming scheme make the lines even more shocking and insulting. With both language and subject matter macabre, this chanson is a severe political attack on a hierarchical ‘Boss’s’ world, in which women are abused by men of higher status.
A third variety of chanson which featured in the Chat Noir was the sentimental chanson. Here a distinction must be drawn between the chansonniers who we have been examining and the chanteurs who generally sang the romantic sentimental chansons. Whereas the chanteurs were professional singers, the chansonniers were poets first, who wrote their own text, and who’s vocal skills did not so much matter. The chanteurs were not as highly regarded as artists unless they themselves composed the music they sung; the least intellectual variety, the sentimental chanson ‘was the least provocative and the most widely appreciated’
. The expectations of the crowd, unlike from the recycled melodies which they came to expect from the chansonniers, was to hear new compositions that effectively elevated the emotion of the song. In the episode ‘Hear my Chanson’ from the South Bank Show, Melvin Bragg explains how singers in the cabaret artistique, giving evocative and engaging recitals, were distinct from those singing in the Music Halls who refused to get emotionally involved in their performances.
By examining some of the different varieties of chanson and exploring the role of the chanson within the wider theatrical event of the cabaret artistique, it has become evident that the Chat Noir and similar institutions in Monmartre were actively engaged with the temperament and concerns of fin-de-siècle Paris. Through contemporary or traditional music, juxtaposed with realistic, macabre or sentimental lyrics, the chanson delivered a highly ironic, critical and touching critique of the life in an urban metropolis. This exploration of the cabaret artistique exemplifies how the artistic and cultural developments which occurred at the end of the nineteenth century are in direct correlation to the political, social and technological advances of the period.