Features EssaysPerformance Published 30 June 2014

What is Cabaret, Anyway?

Ahead of another edition of Come With Me If You Want To Live, Ben Walters attempts to pin cabaret down.
Ben Walters

What is cabaret, anyway? It’s a question I’m often asked when I tell people it’s something I spend a lot of time watching and writing about. I never know quite what to say but my usual answer is that it depends who you ask. One of the things I love about cabaret is how protean and wrigglesome it is as a form, how difficult to pin down to any categorical definition. It’s a very broad, very deconsecrated church in which preachers, pilgrims and sinners of every stripe can find a nook or nave to suit their ends.

But still the question lingers… what is cabaret? Could we attempt a definition based on aesthetic form? Is it to do with singing songs of a certain kind – perhaps from a repertoire of familiar material by notable songwriters past and present? Well, vital as such work is in the cabaret lineage, this can’t be the case if we also consider performers of variety, burlesque, circus and drag welcome under the cabaret umbrella, which I do. Cabaret incorporates not only music but comedy, theatre, dance, video, visual art and more.

So is cabaret a matter of ambience or atmosphere – must it be louche, luxurious, decadent and smokey (the last being harder to pull off in these smoking-ban days)? This might be the tone that the word ‘cabaret’ initially conjures but if we took that as gospel we’d have to rule out nights that are more lightheartedly playful, or defiantly stripped-back and lo-fi, or outrageously adrenalised, and any of these might be among the best you could see.

Does the definition lie in the subject matter, then? Must cabaret be satirical and political? Or about love and sex? To do with bodies, genders, alienation, desire…? All of the above and plenty more. It can be about anything. If it’s about anything, perhaps it’s about being without definitions or boundaries of form or content or sensibility – about transgression itself. Perhaps – but that’s not a definition you can take to the bank.

Is it about the physical venue? This, I think, is getting closer to the heart of the matter. You sometimes hear cabaret identified as live entertainment that takes place somewhere that serves food and drink – a pleasingly catholic definition, and one that acknowledges how valuable alcohol can be in getting a good cabaret fired up. But this definition would exclude the many excellent venues that decline to offer a menu, and could, if we wanted to stretch a point, be made to include a football stadium.

As an etymologist at heart, I’m drawn to the deep roots of the word. To the French of the middle ages, a cabaret was a tavern or a little inn; follow the word further back, through Holland and before that France again, and you find its roots in cambret and camberete, the diminutive form of the word cambre in the old Picard language spoken in the north of France before the year 1000. Cambre means room – like camera, or chamber.

So cabaret can be defined simply as a room. This seems right to me. If we really want to get to the essence of what makes cabaret cabaret, rather than a subset of some other form of performance, I think we could do worse than think of it as what happens in a given room on a given night with a given set of people. The aesthetic form of the show is, in the end, secondary to the fact of its arising from the collaboration between those present – on stage and off it – and the unique interaction they enjoy on that specific occasion. The lack of a fourth wall, the necessity of eye contact, the openness to accident, the will to converse – that’s where cabaret lives.

And this (brace yourself, here comes the plug) is the animating idea behind Come With Me If You Want To Live, the show I put together for Chelsea Theatre every few months. It’s a live cabaret, which to my mind means it must be fun, it must make you laugh, gasp, moisten your eyes and perhaps other body parts too. But at its heart it’s about communication and fellow-feeling.

At our next edition, on July 11, Barb Jungr, simply one of the best in the world at connecting her stunning voice with the meaning of a song’s words and the souls of her audience, sings her own material and – a first, this – experiments with storytelling. Miss Behave is sideshow royalty, a glimpse of Betty Boo run off to join the circus – and ringmistress of a DIY gameshow that demands you get your phone out. Lynn Ruth Miller is tonic for the soul, an American who started performing at 70 and hasn’t stopped for ten years: stand-up, singing, burlesque and sanitary pads ahoy. The LipSinkers will be bringing queer exuberance of the highest calibre, rocking sick looks, busting fierce moves, grinning all the while. We’ll have a pop-up art show from the beautiful Paul Kindersley, who’ll be on hand to talk about his witty and sensuous work. We’ll have locally sourced couture from the World’s End Exquisite Needleworkers – half a dozen designers modeling their own brand new pieces, made at Chelsea Theatre’s very own couture class, led by the extraordinary Maria Fidalgo, whom Lily Allen has on speed-dial. And we’ll also have the Anxiety Box – a happy repository for whatever ails you.

They’ll be in the room. So will a hundred other people. One way or another, we’ll all be in conversation with each other. Exactly what will happen we just don’t know. That’s the point. That’s cabaret.

Come With Me If You Want To Live is at Chelsea Theatre on 11th July and the Not Television Festival is at Chelsea Theatre from 29th – 31st August 2014 

Ben Walters blogs at Not Television and tweets at @not_television. His ebook on critical writing is published by the Guardian on July 14.

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