Taken from “Hell“ Out into the Whole World

Der Standard (02/10/2009)

One hundred twenty years of Jewish cabaret in Vienna is currently being shown and celebrated in LEO (Letztes Erfreuliches Operntheater)

Vienna – Before the turn of the 20th century, an intellectual Jewish culture blossomed in Vienna which, beginning with enormous artistic energy with the creation of “Hölle” (“Hell”) and “Fledermaus” (“Bat”) conquered the stages of the entire German-speaking region, then finding exile in Paris and Shanghai during WW II. Vienna is celebrating its 120th anniversary of Jewish cabaret with a festival in Vienna’s LEO organized by the Armin Berg Society.

Directors of the Society, Marie-Theres Arnbom and Georg Wacks began already in 2003 researching the old cabaret programs while at the same time revitalizing performances of these largely forgotten works. At that time Wacks and Arnbom discovered an abundance of scores and texts, written by Viennese cabaret artists, which were lying dormant in old archives - works by Armin Berg, Fritz Grünbaum, Heinrich Eisenbach and others.

Yielding the most interesting information is the research material located in the archives of censored works held in Lower Austria’s Regional Archives, says Arnbom: “Every theater that wanted to perform a work had to submit their scores, which underwent meticulous scrutiny. Some of Grünbaum’s texts were discovered having numerous variations.” It’s astonishing “how texts were censored according to different criteria.”

One particularly valuable find for the Armin Berg Society was an index of archives detailing censored works that tells exactly when and where a program was performed, providing an important key as to the everyday lives of artists who often performed in different variety theaters within the same evening - not failing to mention that they often were previously performed in an operetta “I ask myself when they slept because during the day they were writing the scores and sat around in coffee houses!”, said Arnbom who is curator of the exhibition, “One Hundred Twenty Years of Jewish Cabaret” in LEO and at the same time has published a book with the same title.

Georg Wack is responsible for providing the more “practical” side of researching cabaret. He wants to perform the recovered texts “not in the manner of taking on a museum-like quality” but rather finding today’s kind of performance: “I would like to entertain the audience in terms of living the spirit of the times much like the original artist.” To do so means that the texts must be brought into a bit more modern context: daily political references have to be crossed out and sensitive topics have to be presented differently.

Wacks: “There are entire parts of texts which one would find today as racist or anti-Semitic, which reflect how it was and yet was received differently in those days. Jewish cabaret artists often made fun of themselves, along with their in largely Jewish audience. At that time everyone understood that, but today it would be problematical.” To what extent this balancing act is successful can be seen in numerous programs within the framework of the festival which runs until March 12.