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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Dark Cabarets of the Belle Époque

L' ère sombre de cabarets 

This Era in French and European history started in 1871 and ended when World War I began in 1914. Occurring during the era of the French Third Republic (beginning 1870), it was a period characterized by optimism, peace at home and in Europe, new technology and scientific discoveries. The peace and prosperity in Paris allowed the arts to flourish, and many masterpieces of literature, music, theater, and visual art gained recognition. The Belle Époque was named, in retrospect, when it began to be considered a "golden age" in contrast to the horrors of World War I.

In the newly rich United States, emerging from the Panic of 1873, the comparable epoch was dubbed the Gilded Age. In the United Kingdom, the Belle Époque overlapped with the late Victorian era and the Edwardian era. In Germany, the Belle Époque coincided with the reigns of Kaiser Wilhelm I & II and in Russia with the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II. (Wikipedia)

After reading and learning more about the Belle Époque, I must say that French people were feeling so powerful and indestructible, care free, to make fun of death and sorrow. You probably know that during this period in time fashion, art, technology and bohemian culture entered new chapter. It was time for the “Joie de vivre”, the Parisian bourgeoisie wanted to have fun, spend money and play with their fortune but also they were trying to say to the poor, the degenerates who were inferior, that they still got the power by spending more money than the rest. The Age to live demanded new amusements, new entertainment and new behaviors.

But a new counter-culture movement was born, the bohemians of the Belle Époque, who to the contrary of the rich people, didn’t have enough money or “class” to be accepted in certain clubs. Because of this, the pubs and cabarets where the places to be for the artists, musicians, writers, etc.
Places a lot darker and less mainstream were also created for the public who liked the creepy and macabre.


The Cabaret of Nothingness also known as the Cabaret of Death was a themed club in Paris dedicated to the death. A dark building, imitating the catacombs look, had a goth-ish dark decoration. With coffins used as tables, a chandelier made of a skull it’s not hard to tell that people who people attending this establishment had very different tastes to the rest of the French or were simply curious.

William Chambers Morrow and Edouard Cucuel (Bohemian Paris of To-Day 1899) described:
“(…) The chamber was dimly lighted with wax tapers, and a large chandelier intricately device of human skulls and arms, with funeral candle held in their fleshless fingers, gave its small quota of light.”
“Enter mortals of this sinful world; enter into the mists and shadows of eternity! (…)”

I could only imagine how it would feel to enter one of this places, when outside the mood is different; cheerful music, dance, cafés and more but nothing about death.

“Death, carnage, assassination were the dominant note, set in black hangings and illuminated with mottoes on death.”


These two cabarets were found side by side at Boulevard Clichy.
The cabaret of Hell entrance was a demon head with large, bulging eyes. A big mouth open wide (The door) was ready to swallow sinners.

For this kind of cabarets, the theatricals were essential to set the mood. People wearing capes would greet you, screaming:

“ Ah ah ah! Still they come! Oh, how they will roast”

Morrow and Cucuel also describe that a gentleman, Mr. Thompkins, always stood up from the group of friends… hence, proper gentlemen didn't used to attend this kind of cabarets.

(…) Satan made a low, mocking bow.
“You do me great honor, Sir “, he declared, unctuously. “You may have been expecting to avoid me, but reflect upon what you would have missed! We have many notables here, and you will have charming society. They do not include pickpockets and thieves, nor any other of the weak, stunted, crippled, and halting. (…)”

Of course, the devil is making fun of the gentleman and if you read the book, you can realize that some of these individuals are amongst the Bohemian society of the night.

(…) and he and his wife passed out while the roysterers (an especially noisy and unrestrained merrymaker) sang: “Tout le clients sont des chonchons “

Basically people were on a cavern, with flames and alcohol. The devil himself made guest appearances to the sound of the band’s music. It was not hard to imagine how hell looked like with all the fake bodies coming out of the walls. Like many other cabarets there was another room waiting for the new arrivals of the night to present a show on a stage.

In the cabaret Le Ciel, things were not much different, logistically speaking, the scenery was much different. We were in heaven! Instead of being greeted by the devil, people were greeted by cherubim with blond wig and crowns, dressed in white robes invited them to the great hall of the heaven.

The clients would drink beer, syrup or cherry brandy from a sacred cup. The place idol was a golden pig, before which the actors bow down.  They would also witness a parody of the liturgical ceremony. Finally St. Peter would show up carrying the golden key that guided the visitor into another room.  The waiters used white robes, sandals and halos above their heads.

The place was grand and full angels. Le Ciel had a church decor and obviously a parody of what heaven it's supposed to be for these bohemians.
“The ceiling was an impressionistic rendering of blue sky, fleecy clouds, and golden stars, and the walls were made to represent the noble enclosure and golden gates of paradise.”

Oh! the most exciting nights the ones of La Belle Époque!

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