Glossen 26

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: On the Question of Satire in East German Kabarett 
Michele Ricci Bell, Ph.D.

“Wir müssen lernen, bessere Fragen zu stellen!” With this provocatively simple opening line, the venerated East German cabaret performer Gisela Oechelhaeuser began her solo performance, “Nichts Böses. Einfach mal Rübe ab!” in July 2005 before an impressive crowd. This new venue, a converted barn situated in the bucolic north Brandenburg town of Zedenick, hosted vacationers from the former East and among them, several long-time groupies who knew Oechelhaeuser from GDR times. The setting seemed worlds away from the place where the public first became acquainted with Oechelhaeuser and her colleagues – namely the Press House on bustling Friedrichstrasse, home to East Berlin’s premiere cabaret Distel, where Oechelhaeuser launched her career. Indeed, on that sultry July evening one could sense a paradox: This distinctly socialist art form, along with one of its most talented emissaries, for the moment found itself relegated to the provinces, far removed from the energy and controversy of a city that had for so long both shaped and constrained it. This fact was compounded by a gentle irony: The venue was not just a barn. Rather, the event took place on the grounds of an old monastery. That is, Oechelhaeuser performed in the shadow of a chapel, with its towering spire – a sublime and yet quizzical proxy for the imposing smokestacks that were long synonymous with another, more familiar ideal.

Though nearly all of the GDR’s professional cabarets survived the Wende to continue to play in their hometowns, and hence were spared the kind of displacement illustrated in the preceding example, the circumstances affecting these institutions, once mandated and supported by the SED as a part of a socialist program of education and entertainment, changed almost as dramatically once the Wall fell. East German cabarets were forced to confront all that the market economy and democracy had to offer. Material conditions had changed considerably, such that privatization was inevitable, giving rise to the need to find private sponsors, hike ticket prices and cut jobs – in sum, to manage. Apart from testifying to the skill and versatility of these cabarets to carry out this major structural shift, the continued existence of these former GDR institutions begs another, far thornier, question: Did the East German cabaret tradition survive along with these cabarets? Or did modes of humor and satire change as quickly as did business structures?

Political satire, whether referring to its Weimar variant, described most succinctly by Tucholsky’s credo, “Was darf Satire? -- Alles!” or its GDR version of “positive Satire,” as formulated by Erich Brehm, seeks to uncover discrepancies between reality and an ideal. The satirists Tucholsky and Brehm knew, just as Oechelhaeuser knows today, that a cabaret text – however biting its satirical content -- is only at home in the times of its creation. “[S]atire is a function of the historically defined moment of reception” (Weidauer 60). A fact that can in many ways be seen as its strength, the political cabaret text is not ephemeral. It is written for today, and expires as new objects of attack enter the arena, and new audiences present themselves to be addressed. In a sense, both reality and ideal are a function of these historically-contingent factors. Gauging the evolution or stability of modes of satire over time therefore means not only considering the target of the writer’s critique, but also the means and goals of his/her attack. This paper analyzes an enduring element of the political cabaret text, namely the question, in its use in texts written by the preeminent cabaret writer Peter Ensikat, both before and after unification. Beginning with the premise that satire is preoccupied with one essential question -- How do we bridge the gap between reality and the ideal? -- I assert the centrality of the question as both a textual form that serves in fulfilling didactic goals, and as a theme, contrasting the formal and topical uses of the question among cabaret texts over time. Underlying the enduring topicality of questioning and the question before and after the Wende is their important function in revealing attitudes toward truth and individual agency.

“We must learn to ask better questions.” Oechelhaeuser’s statement might have a refreshing ring to us as listeners, but the didactic, if not revolutionary spirit behind it is as old as the institution of GDR cabaret itself. The establishment of the first professional cabarets in the GDR, including the Distel in 1953, has been understood by many scholars as a calculated effort by the SED to use satire for the purposes of entertaining and educating. “From the outset, cabarets in the GDR were in a difficult and paradoxical situation. They were supposed to employ satire, which is normally aimed against those in power, to advance the goals of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED)” (Jelavich 164). Put another way, cabaret was believed to serve as a Ventil, “to give a degree of expression to the public opinion, while at the same time channeling this opinion” (Jäger 199). Though recent reinterpretations of the role of satire in the GDR suggest that the SED tolerated rather than embraced satire as a means of reaching its public (Klötzer 15), GDR cabaret evolved, nonetheless, in no small measure as a didactic, instructive form. For their part, East German political cabarets almost always successfully struck a balance between critique and survival, wisely tempering Tucholsky’s inspiring, if not worn credo with consideration for the Abnahmekommittee, who stringently previewed every show. Indeed, the few exceptions to this rule, when Party officials intervened to forbid a program, now survive to evidence a pervasive subversiveness within the East German cabaret.

Whether a product of the willful harnessing of the cabaret form to suit contemporary ideology (via censorship), or a genuine outgrowth of socialist goals, satire on the East German cabaret stage unquestionably bore a didactic component, lending naturally to the use of the question as formal devise and theme. Long before Oechelhaeuser’s appeal, questioning (Befragung), as a part of the GDR cabaret text, was advocated as a means to feed information and insights to the audience. “Eine andere Form . . . ist die Befragung.  Verschiedenen Personen, die zufällig vorbeikommen, wird die gleiche Frage vorgelegt, und die nach Inhalt und Ausdrucksweise unterschiedlichen Antworten reichern das behandelte Problem mit Wirklichkeitsstoff an” (27-8). In a handbook of tips for GDR cabaret text writers, the experienced author Karl-Heinz Tuschel cites this kind of repeated question-posing as a way for the cabaret player to break through to his public, to illustrate “einen komplizerten Gedankengang” (27).

When used repetitively, as Tuschel suggests, or with a variety of questions, in a form common to the reportage skit and the informal dialog, the question form allows the cabaret writer to overcome the information gap between audience and writer. The writer can thereby provide new insights or point up a common limit to knowledge about or understanding of a subject – what Richard Bland characterizes as “the cabarettist’s play with the knowledge and beliefs of the audience” (272). Here, the promise of a definitive answer, however difficult to voice, is held out. If used with a keenly perceptive audience, the question form also allows the writer to experience with his audience a shared moment of catharsis, when the blatantly incorrect answers provided by the characters appease the censor, while signaling to the audience that “we all know better.” Likewise, the question may be employed in the conférence form, when the audience is posed questions that remain uncomfortably unanswered. During the GDR years, as Ensikat put it “Unsere Hauptaufgabe bestand darin, das auszusprechen, was die Leute im Publikum selbst dachten, aber nicht auszusprechen wagten.” At the same time, he noted, “Gerade das, was nicht ausgesprochen wurde, erzeugte das fröhlichste Lachen, den freudigsten Beifall.” (Ensikat, “Hat es…” 127-8). The unanswered question served precisely this function.

Not only the answer begged by these types of Befragung afforded a didactic moment for the GDR audience, but also the form of the question itself was a focal point for contemplation. Teaching the audience to ask better questions, as Oechelhaeuser now puts it, means providing examples of proper form, as well as of the appropriate objective of the question. In as much as satire constitutes a relationship between audience and author, who take as their target an object worthy of exposure and transformation, the process of questioning becomes a means by which this exposure takes place. The GDR cabaret employed the interrogatory mode to do double duty in the text, serving both programmatic and subversive purposes through its work. Namely, the question became a recurring trope in pre-1989 cabaret texts, used both formally and topically.

The following Ensikat text, published in the early 1980s and entitled “Antwort gut – alles gut!” illustrates the way that the question features as both topic and form (54-55): 

Sohn: Papi! Papi! Sag einmal, Papi – darf ich dir stellen eine Frage?

Vater: Natürlich darfst du, mein Sohn. Aber sag einmal, lernt ihr das neuerdings in der Schule?

Sohn: Was denn, Papi?

Vater: Fragen stellen.

Sohn: Wie kannst du so was denken, Papi? Haben wir gelernt in der Schule natürlich zuerst die Antwort.

The first segment of the skit establishes a tentative hierarchy between father and son, the former in the position to clarify, the latter to be enlightened. Yet, this balance is rendered fragile by the anticipation of a second authority – the teacher – whose alternate position will either prove the father’s interpretation false, or reinforce it. Notably, before the nature of the question or answer is posed, the topic of inquiry itself already attracts attention. Indeed, the form and content of the son’s initial question – syntactically incorrect – suggest that posing well-formed questions is not a priority in this school. Indeed, the answer’s precedence in the boy’s curriculum implies that inquiry is of secondary importance. Because of its laughably incorrect form, along with the startling negligence (or repression) it evidences, the boy’s first lines establish a humorous tone, while dealing with a sensitive subject.

In the second passage of the skit, the son expresses dismay about his own failed exercise in inquiry:

Sohn: Papi, ist mir aber auf dem Heimweg trotzdem noch eingefallen eine Frage dazu.

Vater: Soso, ist dir eingefallen – einfach so! Was brauchst du dir einfallen lassen eine Frage, wenn du die Antwort schon gelernt hast, he?!

Sohn: Papi? Ist mir aber eingefallen eine Frage, auf die die Antwort nicht gut paßt.

Vater: Nun, mein Sohn, dann mußt du eben stellen die Frage so, daß die Antwort paßt, oder gar nicht erst fragen, sondern gleich sagen die Antwort. 

In light of this second section, the son’s opening lines now read as more than a polite way to attract a father’s attention. Indeed, they express a basic doubt about the son’s own right and capacity to pose questions. Syntactical errors pervade the text, to reinforce the father’s inane response by suggesting that he too was not properly schooled in the art of inquiry. The only lesson the father is able to provide is that an answer (read: any answer) suffices. Also evident in this passage is the fact that the text thus far is still about questioning per se. Neither the answer nor its antecedent question have yet been introduced, as if to prioritize the questioning itself as the central topic. Once the father is finally told the particular answer that has triggered his son’s agitation, the skit’s self-reflexive message quickly emerges:

Sohn liest aus seinem Heft vor: Es gibt auch bei uns noch Widersprüche. Dies sind aber nur nichtantagonistische Widersprüche.

Vater:  Na, siehst du, mein Sohn: Nichtantagonistische Widersprüche sind Widersprüche, die sind nichtantagonistisch, weil es sind unsere Widersprüche.

Sohn: Aber sag einmal, Papi, was sind das für welche?

Vater: Sohn!

Sohn: Ja, Papi?

Vater: Das ist keine Frage mehr, das ist Widerspruch! 

To monitor and thematize the ability to pose questions emerges at once as vital and as paternalistic. That the very answer itself points to those grey spots -- the issues not fully reconcilable within the socialist framework -- underscores the point that it is in the direction of the illusive, not the definitive, that the individual’s inquiry moves. Ensikat employs a deliberately confused, repetitive form in the dialog between father and son, which can read at once as a fulfillment of Tuschel’s suggestion, and as a case of the blind leading the blind, when loaded words are void of meaning.

After a comical attempt by the boy’s father to illustrate the meaning of “nichtantagonistische Widersprüche” using a confused example involving himself and his pregnant wife, the text adopts a seemingly deliberate clumsiness in finding its resolution.

Sohn: Aber Papi, soll ich vielleicht dumme Fragen stellen in der Schule?

Vater: Das wäre ja noch dümmer! Fragen hat der Lehrer zu stellen, weil – er hat gelernt, was man fragen kann, damit kluge Antwort auch paßt.

Sohn: Und was gilt für Schüler?

Vater: Antwort gut – alles gut! 

Ensikat’s early text, distilled as a reformulation of satire’s essential question, “How can one bridge the gap between reality and the ideal?” adopts the topics of inquiry and questioning to suggest competing conclusions. If treated as a subversive piece, the skit reads as a thinly-veiled effort to reveal what an ignorant public can allow itself to become, when it leaves the questioning to others. Moreover, in the skit’s pivotal lines, as the answer is announced, we learn that the answer is a paradox, shedding doubt on the possibility of definitive answers within this society. Yet, if we ask ourselves how it was possible to get such a text past the censors, we can either imagine a slip, or rather a second, more politically acceptable reading. In this interpretation, the skit is to be taken at face value, meaning that to question requires intelligence, and that some questions are simply foolish. The paternalistic spirit of this second reading may make it unsavory, but it does make sense, in a context where it is believed that inquiry is an art that calls for a certain kind of intellectual maturity.

In Ensikat’s unification texts, the question retains importance as more than a rhetorical means of advancing the plot. His 1990 piece “Die Mutter packt dem Sohn den Schulranzen,” posits a situation as historically-specific for the Wende as the previous skit was timeless for the GDR, speaking very much to a German audience who was confronting the unification’s effects and attendant revelations about the GDR’s legacy. The text again features parent and child, whose discussion centers on the topic of questioning – though this time with very different stakes (36):

Mutter:  Mei Junge, wenn de gefragt wirst in der Schule – wir ham von nischt was gewußt, klar?

Sohn: Klar. Wovondn.

Mutter: Nu von der ganzen Politik von dein Papa. Kein Wort hat er zu Hause gesagt, daß er im ZK war.

With far more sobering opening lines tempered only by Saxon dialect, mother begins to delineate how her son should cope with questions, though now the discussion focuses on the ways to field questions, rather than to pose them. Instead of confronting an absolute answer for which no question is worthy or fitting, this son is enlightened to the ways that answers are quite relative and dependent upon perspective. 

Sohn: Aber ich kann doch von mein eignen Papa nich schlecht redn.

Mutter: Mußte ja ooch nich. Mußt bloß von nischt was gewußt haben.

Sohn: Aber die andern wissen doch….

Mutter: Nischt wissen die. Heute weiß keiner mehr, was gestern war, schon weil keiner weiß, was morschen wird. [. . . ]

The mother advises her son to confront questions of the past by pleading ignorance, which she intimates is acceptable in these transitional times. Society does not know the answers anymore, because it is too distracted by the uncertainty that lies ahead, or so goes the argument. The mother’s statement implies that true, definitive answers are a function of stability. Question and answer become decoupled once the future is no longer predictable.

As the son continues to press, trying to make sense of this sudden change of worldview required, the mother rehearses new answers that reframe rather than deny history.

Mutter: Laß Papa ausm Spiel. Der sitzt ja nu . . . in München.

Sohn: Im Westen?

Mutter: Nu klar. Hier könntn doch einer wiedererkennen. [. . .] Passe mal auf, wir sind doch alle Opfer des Stalinismus.

Sohn: Und Papa?

Mutter: Nu der is ein besonders hohes Opfer. Denke mal bloß an die großen Autos, die er geopfert hat und die Villa….

Sohn: Wo mir im Urlaub immer. . .[. . . ] Aber es war doch schön da im Urlaub.

Mutter: Natürlich. Aber es war Zwangsurlaub. Mir haben immer unter Zwang gelebt. Und das is nu endlich vorbei. Nu is Freiheit.

In perhaps the most ironic use of satire, mother tells son that reality and the ideal – that is, the objects that satire aims to distinguish and juxtapose – are now reversed. What was beautiful and pleasurable before must now be defined as oppressive. Ridiculing this way of thinking by his use of the asinine formulation “Zwangsurlaub,” Ensikat shows the mother’s new answers to be transparent and inadequate. In the position to take up this lesson, the son, who, like many GDR citizens during unification, is reeling in confusion, is forced to reevaluate too hastily all that he believed to know. Notably, while humorously depicting the real challenge for individuals’ own understanding of their GDR histories during the Wende, Ensikat is careful not to overlook the hypocrisy of greedy Bonzen like Papi. Ironically, this information is revealed to the audience precisely in the process of trying to reframe and cover up this history. While denying the possibility for truthful answers, Mutter fills her son’s backpack with them.

In Ensikat’s “Altlasten” (1991) the act of inquiry proves once again essential in framing the skit. Stage directions indicate that it is New Year’s Eve, and the scene features a family of four sitting together. Satire arises from the unexpected, as the audience finds mother and father, rather than drinking and celebrating, filling out questionnaires (18-19):

Mutter:  Übt ihr Ehegatte eine Erwerbstätigkeit aus? Falls ja, welche? Was setz ich ‘n da nu ein Paul?

Vater: Nu, das, worauf wir jetzt alle gesetzt sind – Warteschleife.

Mutter: Aber das ist doch eher eine Erwerbslosentätigkeit, warten, bis sie dich schleifen.

Tochter: Mensch, könnt ihr nicht wenigstens zu Silvester mal aufhören mit den blöden Personalfragebogen?

Vater: Ruhe! Erst muß die ehemalige DDR abgewickelt sein, bevor sich hier wieder was entwickeln kann. Was du heute tust verschweigen, werden sie dir morgen zeigen.

Mutter: Man macht sich ja richtig verdächtig, wenn man gar nie in einer Partei war. Ob ich mich nich’ wenigstens nachträglich noch in den DFD schmuggle?

Sohn: Voriges Jahr habt ihr immerzu auf die Einheit getrunken, jetzt schluckt ihr bloß noch an den Fragebogen.

Mutter: Nu das ist eben der Preis der Einheit – Geld oder Lebenslauf. Die drüben bangen um ihr Geld, wir um unsern Lebenslauf.

Tochter: Aber habt ihr euch denn selber irgendwas vorzuwerfen?

Vater: Nu, selber vielleicht nicht. Aber wer heutzutage Stasiakten nachmacht oder fälscht, dem winken hohe Geldprämien. 

For this unemployed couple, the New Year becomes a day to make a new start. Rather than celebrate, they seek to change their situation after the unification. Yet, more than serving merely as the catalyst for discussing the family’s woes, the questionnaire introduces an intriguing element of confusion to the skit’s form. In the first few lines, the skit challenges the audience to determine whether the questions posed are read aloud, or whether they issue naturally from the characters’ own thoughts. Though the characters’ use of slang and dialect helps distinguish their authentic speech from the survey’s formulations, and visual cues further aid in signaling whether a character is reading or speaking, the survey’s questions provide a forum for forces unseen on the stage to enter and manipulate the discussion, given voice by the unwitting parents as they read aloud. Moreover, the survey, as read from the mouths of those who must answer, functions to alienate the interrogation from the interrogator, allowing the questions instead to circulate among the family members as if they found their first expression there.

Once oriented to the function of the questionnaire in the flow of the skit, the audience finds that its content serves as a trigger for the parents to reveal the absurdity of their own situation. Cumbersome bureaucratic formulations and seemingly irrelevant questions occupy the unemployed. For instance, in contrast to the mother in the previous skit, this mother errs in the other direction, fearing that truth might seem false. Perhaps most significantly, these stilted, formulaic questions lead the children to engage in their own, more earnest inquiry. In one case, as if to rearticulate the core question that the survey struggles to ask directly, the daughter asks pointedly whether her parents have something to hide. The father’s answer, no longer consistent in tone with the flip banter that accompanied form-writing, provides some knowledge to his children – and perspective to the audience. Such authentic questions become Ensikat’s vehicle for both unmasking the disparity between bureaucratic sidestepping and authentic inquiry, as well as for suggesting more specifically the kinds of fraud and manipulation to which East Germans were subject after 1989, where the honest were made to look like liars, and were sometimes even enticed to lie, when certain lies seem ironically more credible than the truth.

Ensikat’s pre- and post-Wende cabaret texts draw attention to the process of questioning, always seen as a challenging act. Perhaps inquiry cannot be taught, but it nonetheless must be learned. At stake in this use of the question common among these texts are not only the facts to be learned by asking particular questions, but also the lessons that derive from thinking about the questioning process. That the latter aim might be the most important is implied by Ensikat himself: “Auf der Kabarettbühne werden immer wieder die alten Klamotten gezeigt. Auf unsern Bühnen stehen keine Models. Wir zeigen Falten und Bauchansatz. Wir haben keine alten oder neuen Botschaften zu verkünden. Wir stellen diese allenfalls in Frage” (“Hat es” 131). Notably, Ensikat’s post-Wende texts distinguish themselves by an increased focus upon response. That is, they also problematize the answering of questions, as well as of reformulating questions posed from without, such that freedom does not seem to make things any easier. A reorientation to the answer is synonymous with a reorientation to truth itself, and to the possibility and hope for clarity after 1989. Indeed, satire may be the form best equipped to pose an alternative to the definitive answer, by offering what is perhaps the most honest option– one that holds no promise of finality but does comfort – the punch line.


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