05/06/2015

Popular Political Culture and the Carouge Revue

Generations around the world have been entertained by musical classics such as Oklahoma! and West Side Story as well as more recently The Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia! The combination of story-telling with catchy tunes is a universal crowd-pleaser. What is less popular and less well-known is a tradition of political, musical satire, the mixture of popular tunes with specific lyrics designed to poke fun at local politicians. Parts of Switzerland have this tradition.


These shows are done on a small scale. Geneva has its annual R’vue Genevoise. The composition of the show, direction and performers are all professionals and the R’vue’s run lasts for several months. While not a Broadway spectacle, or even Off-Broadway, the R’vue does attract quite an audience, especially in years when the political bite blends well with the theatrical talent.
What is even more unusual are the Swiss revues that are written, directed and acted by the local politicians themselves. Elected members of Parliaments, such as the Cantonal Geneva Parliament or the smaller parliament of the municipality of Carouge in the Canton of Geneva, poke fun at themselves every four years after a new legislature has been elected.
The Carouge Revue recently had a run of two nights, June 3 and 4. Nine elected officials performed 30 different numbers, singing and dancing before a rapt audience of 300. While the quality of the performers may not have been up to Broadway standards, the audience reacted with enthusiasm and a decided appreciation that elected officials, some with rather limited vocal talent, would wear all kinds of costumes and perform before those who had elected them.
When one talks of democratic culture or consensus, what better demonstration than seeing two people who had campaigned against each other holding hands and signing a duet about their mutual weaknesses? There are humorists in the United States, such as Jon Stewart, who thrive on mocking politicians. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington is an annual affair during which the President is supposed to make fun of himself, if not the opposition and the press. It is a widely reported event, but the jokes are written by professionals and the event mixes eminent personalities within the Beltway with Hollywood stars. It has very little to do with ordinary citizens.
What makes revues like Carouge’s so impressive is its communal basis. Almost all the officials who perform are part of Switzerland’s tradition of having regular citizens serve part-time in a government. Throughout the evening, there was no obvious embarrassment on anyone’s part; notes were missed, some very badly, but it didn’t matter. The jokes were across the political spectrum, evenly dished out between left and right. The performers had spent a great deal of time preparing – no doubt it helps their consensus-building – and they obviously enjoyed the experience, as did the audience.
Perhaps I enjoyed the evening differently from the rest of the audience. Many of the jokes were extremely local, and I’m not sure my French caught all the subtleties. What I did enjoy most was the effort of the performers to be on stage and to make fun of themselves before their constituents.
I do like humor, but political humor has become more and more difficult. The humorist and singer Tom Lehrer (who himself staged one-man revues in the 1960s) stopped performing when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Jon Stewart does get in his jabs and Patrick Chappatte's cartoons are consistently on the mark. The Borowitz Report in the New Yorker regularly makes me smile.
The Carouge Revue made me smile less for the actual performances and jokes, but mostly for its successful demonstration of popular democratic culture. Bravo.

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