Entertainment doesn’t get much more thrilling than raucous and risqué cabaret. It’s the variety show favourite that mixes the weird with the wonderful. From music to horror and burlesque, cabaret is intimate table-top entertainment that comes with a little bit of everything.
The tradition began in 19th-century France but has shapeshifted across nations and decades. So, how has it changed over the years?
Le Chat Noir: Cabaret was born
The word ‘cabaret’ initially referred to any tavern serving alcohol in 19th-century Paris. But when Le Chat Noir opened in Paris’ bohemian Montmartre district in 1881 the meaning began to shift. With this unique venue a new type of entertainment was born: one where guests sat at tables to be entertained by a range of acts. The performances were introduced by a master of ceremonies – or MC – who would interact with well-known people in the audience. The very first such host was club founder Rodolphe Salis.
Over time, these hosts became comedic performers in their own right and helped to forge stand-up comedy as we know it today. The shows resisted censorship like never before and this tradition still holds strong. Today uninhibited comedy and cabaret speakers even play host at corporate events.
With its artistic reputation and iconic posters – which you can still see on display in the Museum of Montmartre – Le Chat Noir became a favourite among artists, writers and journalists of the day.
The Moulin Rouge Era in Paris
Cabaret soon took the Parisian scene by storm and, in 1889, the now-famous Moulin Rouge opened its doors. This saw the invention of the French can-can dance which shaped a new era of raucous cabaret.
By the turn of the century there were dozens of cabaret venues across Paris and they had expanded their repertoire to include circus, theatre and dance. Though still associated with the bawdy underground entertainment scene, these glitzy clubs were soon visited by British royals and played host to some of the world’s highest-paid entertainers.
A global legacy
Cabaret didn’t stay secret for long – as soon as Le Chat Noir and Moulin Rouge were born, the rest of the Western world sat up and took notice. Clubs sprang up in the prohibition-era USA, where they became intertwined with speakeasies and jazz culture, while Austria and Germany used cabaret to mock politics in their postwar societies.
London’s first cabaret club was The Cave of the Golden Calf, opened by Frida Strindberg in 1912. The venue closed with the outbreak of the First World War, but its reputation for decadent entertainment shaped 1920s nightlife in the capital.
1970s Stockholm embraced something of a cabaret renaissance, with the Fattighuskabarén paving the way for a new form of decadent entertainment.
The modern day
Today the glamorous and gaudy shows remain as boundary-pushing as ever. The high-end London Cabaret Club features acrobatics, pole dance and seasonal shows.
There are also offshoots of the original art: burlesque has evolved to become the even racier sibling of cabaret, while specialist comedy cabaret clubs focus on laughter over dance and
music. Yet, while it has a modern twist, the spirit of the original pioneers lives on.