William Grange, professor of theatre in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, has recently released his 13th book, “Cabaret,” which is part of the Forms of Drama series from Methuen Drama in London.
In the book, Grange brings into one place for the first time the range of practices now associated with the form of cabaret. Beginning with its origins in northern Paris as poetry readings, cabaret soon spread to German, Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Russian specialty theatres. The development both of the sheet music industry and disc recordings spurred the growth of cabaret, which Grange tracks from the late 19th century to the 1950s.
“I had no idea cabaret was such a multinational thing in Europe,” Grange said. “Because it starts off in France, then goes to Germany, but then spreads very quickly throughout Europe and even to the United States. There’s a little bit that goes on in New York, but that’s during the Prohibition period.”
Grange and other scholars define cabaret as a nightclub where patrons sat at tables with alcoholic drinks and enjoyed variety acts on stage, which a master of ceremonies introduced and who interacted with the audience.
Grange also defines it as “the small space that involves an acquired set of coherencies.”
“That is, people go into the cabaret recognizing the targets of the cabaret artists,” he said. “They made fun of politicians, entertainers, pop songs, ways of dressing, ways of speaking. It’s very close to the pulse of the countries in which it blossomed and prospered.”
Its birth in Paris dates from the moment when a liqueur salesman named Rodolphe Salis invented the master of ceremonies. He was the creator, host and owner of the Le Chat Noir cabaret, the first cabaret venue in Montmartre, a village located in the far north of Paris.
“Salis really started what we now think of as cabaret,” Grange said. “Before him, it was just poets who came and read their work for free, but Salis charged audiences a ‘cover’ (admission fee) while offering beer, wine and especially liqueur at grossly inflated prices. His father was a distiller who provided the liqueur.”
While sexual innuendo is a hallmark of cabaret, Grange found through his research that it’s also intellectual.
“Cabaret artists often subjected politicians and other Establishment figures to abuse, as if they were abstract pinatas,” Grange said. “But in cabaret, it’s much more intellectual. The impact depended on the collectively acquired sentiment of coherency among the audience. To do cabaret, you’ve really got to be topical because if you do a set of jokes about a politician, who is doing something this week, everybody will have forgotten it a month later.”
“Cabaret” and his other recent book, “The Business of American Theatre,” were both published during the pandemic.
“’Cabaret’ really saved me because it was more fun than anything I’ve ever written,” Grange said. “All these books I’ve written are very academic. This is a little more on the lighter side. You can laugh while you read it.”