Seriously Funny

A Brief Look at Cabaret in Vienna, or How we Got Wherever the Hell We Are

On The Town | Michael Freund | September 2008

Cabaret in Vienna is alive and well. The Kabarett-Theaters are often packed to capacity, and while some did have to close, other have taken their place. The most popular of the comedians have made it to feature films and to cabaret-type shows on television, transferring the format and presenting it to a nation-wide audience, albeit sometimes losing the sharpness and spontaneity of the original performances.

So, Cabaret is doing well, even though they say that the worse the times, the better the comedy. This doesn’t hold true now – Austria is among the best-off countries on the globe. But it did apply in the rather harsh times immediately after the Second World War. Parts of Austria’s capital were in ruins. First comes the grub, then comes the morals, as Bertold Brecht would have it. People had to worry about food and shelter, about obtaining the basics at the black market. But they also wanted to be entertained.

As early as May 1945, the Russian Military Command ordered theaters to open. The small ones, the Kleinbühnen including the cabarets, were willing to oblige. They only had to find writers, actors and musicians (in other words, everything). Which they did, surprisingly fast, and in the summer of ’45 the first cabarets (re)opened to the public.

In the following approximately fifteen years, the "small art" (Kleinkunst) thrived on an unusual mixture of old and new talents. Some of the cabaret artists who had been expelled by the Nazis because they were Jewish or politically left-leaning or both returned to the scene. They were joined by a new generation of actors and writers. Several "schools" of cabaret emerged as a result.

Karl Farkas best represented the old-time school. Many older Austrians remember him, if not from his live performances at the Simpl (on Wollzeile in the 1st District), then from his monthly TV shows. His was a tradition of professionally timed, well-delivered performances more in the vein of feel-good entertainment than of biting satire.

Among the younger cabaret artists, one collaboration stands out the most: between Gerhard Bronner, a ‘remigrant’ to Austria and an extremely gifted musician/composer/writer, and Helmut Qualtinger, an incredible stage presence and certainly the best "impersonator" of characters and their speech peculiarities and accents. Together with a core group of half a dozen colleagues, they produced some of the most memorable songs and stage acts of the fifties.

In 1961, Qualtinger performed an hour-long monologue that transcended the cabaret format and defined a new level of political satire. As "der Herr Karl" (co-written with Carl Merz), he personified the Viennese opportunist who had survived the political and personal turmoil of the past forty years.

In the sixties, after the Bronner group disbanded, the Viennese cabaret scene went through an artistic and commercial crisis. When it re-emerged, it took various forms. One was an alliance – some would call it an ‘unholy’ one – with television. A few artists, like Georg Kreisler and Topsy Küppers, managed to subvert the medium for a while and use it for their own creative goals. Others, like Heinz Conrads (a legend in his own time), became hugely successful TV showmasters. And in the ranks, a younger, more political brand of cabaret artists became increasingly popular.

Among them were the Resetarits brothers. Lukas was, so to speak, the more straightforward of the two. His brand of political cabaret caught on with the students and the emerging bohemian scene of the city. Willi Resetarits, on the other hand, started out as a band member, went on to fill the phantom persona of Prof. Dr. Kurt Ostbahn (the blues rocker from Simmering) with life and in the course of this turned out to be a great Kleinkunst-entertainer in his own right.

In addition to them, there were and are innumerable others who have been filling the cafés and clubs at least since the eighties. Josef Hader deserves special mention here. Not only did he pay a kind of formal homage to Qualtinger’s Herr Karl by staging his own long monologue again in a basement and by transferring a saddening autobiography onto a more modern person (an ad agency yuppie).

Hader also created "Privat": again a monologue, but so multi-faceted, so unusual in its mixture of satire, self-parody, absurd theater, song intermezzos and dramatic loops that it leaves the "small" stage way behind. To see Privat is to experience a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk – certainly not in the way Wagner envisioned it, but in a very Viennese way. As feuillettonist Karl Kraus once captured so well:

"In Austria, things are hopeless but not serious."

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