The Culture of Cabaret

Blog: The Culture of Cabaret

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Despite the general political and economic climate of Berlin in the 1920’s, the city’s cultural life thrived; expressionist art flourished, cinema boomed and live performance halls were scattered throughout the city. Revues and cabarets offered an escape from the hardships of everyday life. Caught between two world wars, the German people tried to escape the impending doom by enjoying themselves as best as they could. As time passed, however, not even entertainment could provide adequate escape from the harsh realities of the modern world.

A Renaissance of Culture

During the era of the Weimar Republic, Germany became a center of intellectual thought at its universities. Most notably, social and political theory (especially Marxism) was combined with Freudian psychoanalysis to form the highly influential discipline of critical theory.

Many foundational contributions to the science of quantum mechanics were made in Weimar Germany. Albert Einstein rose to public prominence during his years in Berlin, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. He was forced to flee Germany and the Nazi regime in 1933.

Physician Magnus Hirschfeld established the Institute for Sexology in 1919, and it remained open until 1933. Hirschfeld believed that an understanding of homosexuality could be arrived at through science. Hirschfeld was a vocal advocate for homosexual, bisexual and transgender legal rights for men and women. The Institute, museum and the Institute’s library and archives were all destroyed by the Nazi regime in 1933.

The fourteen years of the Weimar era were also marked by explosive artistic productivity. German artists made significant cultural contributions in the fields of literature, art, architecture, music, dance, drama and the new medium of the motion picture.

A City of Decadence

With the rise of cultural capital and a tumultuous political economic scene, the seedy underbelly of Germany was no doubt poised to curdle and develop some less than reputable associates. Following World War I, areas in Germany and Europe as a whole that were ravaged by the war, saw the rapid increase in prostitution. This means of survival for desperate women, and sometimes men, became more normalized in the 1920s. During the war, venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea spread at a rate that warranted government attention. Soldiers at the front contracted these diseases from prostitutes, so the German army responded by granting approval to certain brothels that were inspected by their own medical doctors. Soldiers were rationed coupon books for sexual services at these establishments. Homosexual behavior was also documented among soldiers at the front. Soldiers returning to Berlin at the end of the War had a different attitude towards their own sexual behavior than they had a few years previously. Prostitution was frowned on by traditional Berliners, but it continued to the point of becoming entrenched in the city’s underground economy and culture. First, women with no other means of support turned to the trade, then youths of both genders.

Crime in general developed in parallel with prostitution in the city, beginning as petty thefts and other crimes linked to the need to survive in the war’s aftermath. Berlin eventually acquired a reputation as a hub of drug dealing (cocaine, heroin, tranquilizers) and the black market.

Apart from the new tolerance for behavior that was technically still illegal, and viewed by a large part of society as immoral, there were other developments in Berlin culture that shocked many visitors to the city. Thrillseekers came to the city in search of adventure, and booksellers sold many editions of guide books to Berlin’s erotic night entertainment venues. There were an estimated 500 such establishments, that included a large number of homosexual venues for men and for lesbians; sometimes transvestites of one or both genders were admitted, otherwise there were at least 5 known establishments that were exclusively for a transvestite clientele.

Boiled down into its purest form, Weimar culture was the creation of outsiders, propelled by history into the inside, for a short fragile moment in history. For more information on Cabaret please call the Signature Theatre Box Office at 703 820 9771 or visit our website here.