Coming Up for Air

Turn-of-the-Century Cabaret: Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Cracow, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Zurich

by Harold B. Segel
Columbia University Press, 418 pp., $30.00

Paris: The Musical Kaleidoscope, 1870–1925

by Elaine Brody
Braziller, 359 pp., $19.95


Authors, publishers, and, presumably, readers show no signs of becoming bored with the cultural history of the decades before the First World War. And indeed the fin de siècle, the belle époque, remains fascinating because it can be seen both as the end of an age in Europe, the last years of a triumphant bourgeois liberalism, doomed, as we now see it, by the catastrophe of 1914, and as a period of unusual brilliance in the arts during which the foundations of twentieth-century modernism were being laid. However, the popularity of the period poses problems for the writer as the main topics become exhausted and as the principal centers of cultural life (Paris in the “banquet years,” Vienna 1900) have been intensively studied.

At first sight, then, Turn-of-the-Century Cabaret seems a subject to turn to when all others have been preempted. But even if the theme is a marginal one, Professor Segel has in fact written an interesting piece of cultural and social history that looks at the international artistic avant-garde from a new perspective. Verbal descriptions of past artistic events can only partly convey what they might have been like, but Segel has re-created something of the excitement and the sense of the new that gave rise to these ventures from Paris to Kraków and from Barcelona to Moscow.

It was of course nothing new for artists and writers to meet in a favorite coffee house or tavern; but, according to Segel, the cabarets of Europe between 1881, when the Chat Noir in Paris was founded, and 1916–1917, when the Dada movement emerged from the Café Voltaire in Zurich, were a unique phenomenon, “very much at the center of the upheaval in the arts then taking place in Europe” and something quite distinct from the cafés, café-concerts, music halls, and nightclubs that came before and after them. The prototype—literally so, since it was to be copied in many cities of Europe—was the Chat Noir in Montmartre. Starting as a meeting place for writers and artists where drinks were served, it provided entertainment, with poets reciting their work and chansonniers, of whom the best known is probably Aristide Bruant, performing songs that were tough, cynical pieces of satirical social criticism. He is still today a familiar figure from the lithographs and posters of Toulouse-Lautrec, even if his songs are forgotten.

Segel’s excerpts from the verses of the chansonniers show clearly how cabaret performers were contributing to the atmosphere of the 1890s in France, when artists and intellectuals had some sympathy with those anarchists who resorted to “propaganda by the deed,” expressing their hatred for bourgeois society by throwing bombs into the stock exchange or the parliament and even into popular cafés, on the grounds that no one was innocent in a corrupt and unjust society. The anarchist writer Laurent Tailhade, an habitué of the Chat Noir, proclaimed, “Qu’importe les vagues humanités, pourvu que le geste soit beau,” and in fact he became a victim of his own beliefs…

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