Barry Humphries, the Nazis and the revealing generation gap

Every so often you start on a project believing to be about one thing, and end up miles past your original destination having discovered a totally different story. I had that pleasure when I saw advertised a programme of music that had been banned by the Nazis. If the works had been that amazing, I reasoned, we’d know about them. Wouldn’t they just be a handful of curiosities, of their time? After all, we know so much about the Third Reich, the Nazis’ toxic obsession with racial “purity” and the diabolical Holocaust that followed. What was there still to learn?

Yet music provides a new lens through which to view Europe’s darkest hour. Not only did the Nazis ban some of Germans’ most loved home-grown compositions, such as the Wedding March by Mendelssohn (too Jewish, despite his being baptised); they also silenced a generation of contemporary song-writers and composers whose egalitarian ideas were way too out-of-the-box for their stifling worldview.

The Gate Theatre’s shows open tonight

Hitler’s election in 1933 followed a short-lived burst of artistic flourishing that produced cabaret hits like Spoliansky’s Lavender Song (“We’re not afraid / To be queer and different”) and Kurt Weill’s Song of the Brown Island, that mocks both racism and the obsession with newly discovered petroleum. Spoliansky and Weill, like many of the Weimar-era cabaret composers, were Jewish.

Researching the article I’ve written for the current issue of Index on Censorship, I discovered that the best-known champion of this music is Barry Humphries, who had a personal reason for wanting to give them voice. There’s always more to the characters who fill our screens and it’s a treat to discover what cause animates them. Since the 1960s, when not in lilac-wigged drag as the brilliantly outrageous Dame Edna Everage, Humphries has been diligently collecting sheet music and art that the Nazis labelled “degenerate”. (This sweeping term covered anything with Jewish, “Negro” or gypsy influences.) As a boy Humphries was transfixed by the Jewish refugees filing off boats from Europe into his native Melbourne and the horrific stories they brought with them. (Humphries was 11 when the war ended.) “They were a hell of a lot more interesting than the average Australian,” he told me.

Peter Brathwaite
ENO baritone Peter Brathwaite is performing in Effigies of Wickedness at the Gate Theatre

Humphries is performing a selection of these songs this July, at London’s Barbican Theatre with cabaret singer Meow Meow. But they’re not the only ones. A collaboration between young singers the ENO and the Gate Theatre in London’s Notting Hill has resulted in the wonderfully named three-week show Effigies of Wickedness, which opens tonight.

The two productions will communicate very different messages. For artistic director Ellen McDougall, the censorship the songs rail against today lies in “invisible structures” such as gender-binary language, and her show will have a consciously diverse line-up of artists.

Not so for Humphries, who has described men who undergo gender reassignment as “mutilated”. Aside from his formative memories of Jewish refugees, he argued that today censorship exists in the form of “a new Puritanism … absurd political correctness.”

These artists, a generation apart, seem to espouse parallel values systems that may be at odds with each other. The first time we saw political consequences of the generation gap was the Brexit vote, when 60 per cent of over 65s voted to leave the EU and 73 per cent of 18 to 24s, who will have much longer to live with the consequences, voted to remain. The New Statesman this week described the generational divide as “one of the most contentious” in British politics. Who is being silenced? Who needs to be heard?

These fundamental questions suggest that the two forthcoming shows, which I am greatly looking forward to, are about more than musical curiosities, or even the lessons about anti-Semitism and race that the wreckage of Nazism left us. They have highlighted a generational values divide and we have yet to see how it will be reconciled.

Effigies of Wickedness runs from 12 May to 9 June at the Gate Theatre.

Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret runs from 11 to 29 July at the Barbican Theatre.

Read my full article in the current issue of Index on Censorship, which you can buy here.

Top photo: Brian Anderson

Author: Abigail Frymann Rouch

Abigail Frymann Rouch is a religious and social affairs journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, and Deutsche Welle. As a commentator she has appeared on Sky News, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service, BBC World News, and regional radio. For nine years she was foreign editor, then online editor, of The Tablet.

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