If you think a typical Pole is a perfect embodiment of Slavic melancholy – dwelling on their country’s tragic history while sadly sipping on a shot of vodka – you might be surprised.
Poland actually boasts a long and very lively cabaret tradition.
That’s right. The Polish loved cabaret ever since the inception of that art form. Even today, the rooms where live cabaret shows are organized are bursting at the seams. Cabarets shown on the TV easily attract 5 million-viewer audiences!
On the global scale, the Polish prevailing fascination with the cabaret is an interesting phenomenon.
According to local media experts, cabarets occupy one third of the Polish cultural market while the most popular music events reach half of that level at best. Cabaret shows and festivals attract huge audiences.
If you’re planning to visit Krakow, you should know that you’re headed to the city where the tradition of the Polish cabaret was born. And yet many tourists miss out on cabarets and never get to discover that important part of Polish culture.
That’s why I’m bringing you a brief historical sketch of the Polish cabaret tradition together with some reasons why cabaret found such wide appreciation among Polish audiences since the beginning of the 20th century.
Polish Cabaret – When It All Began
The history of the cabaret as an art form dates back to the last decades of the 19th century. Cabaret was born in Paris, but soon practically all European audiences could appreciate cabaret shows all over the continent.
The most famous Polish cabaret that appeared in Krakow at the beginning of the 20th century was called Zielony Balonik (Green Balloon), with texts provided by a significant figure on the Polish literary scene, Tadeusz Boy Zelenski.
The cabaret was performed in one of the most famous locales in Krakow – Jama Michalika. Make sure to check out that place to get a feel of Krakow’s incredible cultural heritage and history.
During the first half of the 20th century, cabaret spread all over Poland. For instance, in Warsaw one of the most famous cabarets was a small show called “Qui pro Quo” with scenarios written by Poland’s most famous poets of the time, Julian Tuwim or Marian Hemar. Cabarets were performed by actors and actresses who were real celebrities during these years such as Hanka Ordonówna or Mira Zimińska.
That was the beginning of the Polish cabaret tradition. The art form prevailed till after the second world war, coming to rescue during the dark Soviet times.
Cabaret During the Soviet Era
It should come as no surprise that political cabarets where very popular in the times of political clashes and struggles when Poland was actually the Polish People’s Republic.
After the Second World War, cabaret artists provided their audiences with satirical representations of the political scene and sharp commentary on the activities of the Soviet authorities. No wonder that the cabaret attracted continuous censorship attacks!
During the postwar era, cabaret became an art popular among amateur student theaters as well. For example, the student-led satirical theater called Bim-Bom pleased crowds of people for many years. Let’s not forget that at the time, cabarets competed on the entertainment scene with programs that were imposed by the Soviet state.
The censorship of the 1960s was satirized especially by Janusz Szpotański whose jokes explicitly targeted the activities of the Polish government and politicians, eventually leading him to imprisonment.
During that period, satire and cabaret where an integral part of the widespread fight against the system. The Polish fought the enemy with humor.
When in 1979 the popular Tey cabaret led the famous Opole Music Festival with a series of veiled allusions to the contemporary politics, every single person in the audience quickly caught up with the joke and had a clear idea about what was really going on.
For many years, the Polish cultural scene had to rely on that unique line of understanding formed between the performers and the audience. Some things simply couldn’t be said out loud.
While many of these jokes and satires didn’t survive the trial of time and seem irrelevant today, at the time they played a crucial role because they allowed the Polish to actively oppose the Soviet government in the most enjoyable way.
Krakow’s Basement Under the Rams
Piwnica pod Baranami (Basement under the Rams) is the most famous spot in the Polish cabaret history. For the last 60 years, that underground locale has offered its audiences heaps of political and social satire, gossip, as well as jokes and funny poetry.
You can still catch one of the performances by famous cabaret artists today. Most of them recall the legendary cabaret shows, especially those created by Piotr Skrzynecki, whose flagship jokes, songs, and compositions still makes everyone laugh.
The Basement under the Rams is an excellent spot for music lovers – during one of the shows, you’re bound to hear plenty of humorous songs composed by local stars such as Zygmunt Konieczny or Zbigniew Preisner. And all that only makes these events even more special.
Attending a cabaret in the Basement under the Rams is a must if you find yourself in Krakow.
Contemporary Polish Cabaret
Today, the Polish are brought to happy tears by many active cabarets on the lively cabaret scene.
Every Polish cabaret has its own opinion about what really makes Poles laugh these days and many of them are able to gather loyal followings. Sometimes these different cabarets are brought together during festivals when audiences can laugh at satire and jokes from 10 or 12 different cabarets, featuring artists of different ages and representing different cabaret styles.
Cabarets such as Ani Mru Mru or Kabaret Moralnego Niekopoju (Moral Anxiety Cabaret) are an integral part of the Polish cultural scene.
So why is cabaret still so popular in Poland? The Polish cabaret scene is of high quality, but it is also very productive. The cabaret groups come up with new repertoires for practically every single event or festival, and the repeat episodes are widely watched on TV. Cabaret stars are celebrated almost like disco polo stars!
And the Polish tradition of political satire is still alive and well. The explosive fame of the comedy show hosted on YouTube, Ucho Prezesa (The Director’s Ear), proves that Poles are still willing to crack a joke about their politicians.
Visiting Poland without giving its local cabaret scene a go is a huge mistake.
Krakow is such an important place in the history of cabaret, so it’s definitely worth to trade a night of clubbing for one of the unique cabaret shows at the Basement under the Rams.