Berlin in the 1920s — between the two World Wars — was a hedonistic metropolis enjoying an era of creativity and sexual freedom that was unprecedented in modern world history. Theaters, bars and nightclubs attracted thousands of visitors every night, enjoying songs, dance and glamorous cabarets.
Boundaries of reality and illusion, social and political differences and the sexes — even gender — blurred. The “Golden Twenties” was a period of cultural enrichment, shortly before the Nazis came to power and destroyed the diversity of Berlin’s nightlife, indeed Germany itself.
Jeremy Lawrence, a New York artist, brought that era to life in a performance of “Lavender Songs – A Queer Cabaret in Weimar Berlin,” held Oct. 13 at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world’s first queer synagogue founded in 1972. For more than 20 years, Lawrence has worked to translate the songs of Weimar Berlin into English, performing them in New York. His BCC performance was an exclusive preview of the East Coast premiere of his new show, calling the synagogue his “spiritual home.”
Lawrence, who transformed himself into Tante (aunt) Fritzy, took the audience on a stroll through some of Berlin’s hot spots of queer life: Tiergarten, the legendary city park where anonymous sexual encounters were commonplace; gay bars where Tante Fritzy met all kind of men – from communists to national-socialists; and a ménage à trois in the bedroom of a married couple.
Tante Fritzy, a “sucker for happy endings,” sang about her quest for the enjoyment of desires and the sadness of unrequited love. Berlin was a fast-moving city, where lusty encounters were quick and easy and Tante Fritzy lived it.
She delighted the audience with her salacious humor, her charm and her lust for life. Her songs, characterized by distinctive simplicity, were deeply moving and soulful. One audience member said Tante Fritzy’s journey made vivid how vibrant and open Berlin was 90 years ago, something that seems almost unimaginable considering what happened when Hitler rose to power.
The parallels to today’s America are obvious.
For Jeremy Lawrence, the 1920s are a reminder for a democracy’s fragility, yet as much as it is a political system that fosters cultural freedom it can change quickly.
“In the face of the Trump ascendency,” he says, “it couldn’t be more important to show today’s audiences how the cabaret artists of the Weimar Era responded fearlessly to the rise of Hitler with subversive satire and ebullient sexual naughtiness.”
In a Q&A that followed the performance, Lawrence emphasized the role of satire in resistance.“Resist!” he proclaimed. Queers and Jews, after all, shared the same plight during the Nazi era and were also the writers and performers of German political cabaret. At the end of the performance, Tante Fritzy went back to her Berlin apartment and transformed back into a regular, working-class man.
Wistfully moved by current political events, he concludes with a sentence with a double meaning — relevant in the 1920s and again today.
“Be careful out there, he is not going away.”