The 1899 book Bohemian Paris of To-day, by William Chambers Morrow, included an account that captured the goings on at this unique and morbid enterprize:
As we neared the Place we saw on the opposite side of the street two flickering iron lanterns that threw a ghastly green light down upon the barred dead-black shutters of the building, and caught the faces of the passers-by with sickly rays that took out all the life and transformed them into the semblance of corpses. Across the top of the closed black entrance were large white letters, reading simply:
CAFE DU NEANT
The entrance was heavily draped with black cerements, having white trimmings, such as hang before the houses of the dead in Paris. Here patrolled a solitary croque-mort, or hired pall-bearer, his black cape drawn closely about him, the green light reflected by his glazed top-hat. A more dismal and forbidding place it would be difficult to imagine. Mr. Thompkins paled a little when he discovered that this was our destination, this grisly caricature of eternal nothingness, and hesitated at the threshold. Without a word Bishop firmly took his arm and entered. The lonely croque-mort drew apart the heavy curtain and admitted us into a black hole that proved later to be a room. The chamber was dimly lighted with wax tapers, and a large chandelier intricately devised of human skulls and arms, with funeral candles held in their fleshless fingers, gave its small quota of light.
Large, heavy, wooden coffins, resting on biers, were ranged about the room in an order suggesting the recent happening of a frightful catastrophe. The walls were decorated with skulls and bones, skeletons in grotesque attitudes, battle-pictures, and guillotines in action. Death, carnage, assassination were the dominant note, set in black hangings and illuminated with mottoes on death. A half-dozen voices droned this in a low monotone: "Enter, mortals of this sinful world, enter into the mists and shadows of eternity. Select your biers, to the right, to the left; fit yourselves comfortably to them, and repose in the solemnity and tranquillity of death; and may God have mercy on your souls!"
A number of persons who had preceded us had already pre-empted their coffins, and were sitting beside them awaiting developments and enjoying their consommations, using the coffins for their real purpose, tables for holding drinking-glasses. Alongside the glasses were slender tapers by which the visitors might see one another.
There seemed to be no mechanical imperfection in the illusion of a charnel-house; we imagined that even chemistry had contributed its resources, for there seemed distinctly to be the odor appropriate to such a place. We found a vacant coffin in the vault, seated ourselves at it on rush-bottomed stools, and awaited further developments.
Another croque-mort a garcon he was came up through the gloom to take our orders. He was dressed completely in the professional garb of a hearse-follower, including claw-hammer coat, full-dress front, glazed tile, and oval silver badge. He droned, "Bon soir, Macchabees! [This word (also Maccabe, argot Macabit) is given in Paris by sailors to cadavers found floating in the river] Buvez les crachats d'asthmatiques, voila des sueurs froides d'agonisants. Prenez done des certificats de deces, seulement vingt sous. C'est pas cher et c'est artistique !"
Bishop said that he would be pleased with a lowly bock. Mr. Thompkins chose cherries a l'eau-de-vie, and I, une menthe.
"One microbe of Asiatic cholera from the last corpse, one leg of a lively cancer, and one sample of our consumption germ!" moaned the creature toward a black hole at the farther end of the room. Some women among the visitors tittered, others shuddered, and Mr. Thompkins broke out in a cold sweat on his brow, while a curious accompaniment of anger shone in his eyes. Our sleepy pallbearer soon loomed through the darkness with our deadly microbes, and waked the echoes in the hollow casket upon which he set the glasses with a thump.
"Drink, Macchabees!" he wailed: "drink these noxious potions, which contain thvilest and deadliest poisons!"
"The villain!" gasped Mr. Thompkins; "it is horrible, disgusting, filthy!"
The tapers flickered feebly on the coffins, and the white skulls grinned at him mockingly from their sable background. Bishop exhausted all his tactics in trying to induce Mr. Thompkins to taste his brandied cherries, but that gentleman positively refused, he seemed unable to banish the idea that they were laden with disease germs.
After we had been seated here for some time, getting no consolation from the utter absence of spirit and levity among the other guests, and enjoying only the dismay and trepidation of new and strange arrivals, a rather good-looking young fellow, dressed in a black clerical coat, came through a dark door and began to address the assembled patrons. His voice was smooth, his manner solemn and impressive, as he delivered a well-worded discourse on death. He spoke of it as the gate through which we must all make our exit from this world, of the gloom, the loneliness, the utter sense of helplessness and desolation. As he warmed to his subject he enlarged upon the follies that hasten the advent of death, and spoke of the relentless certainty and the incredible variety of ways in which the reaper claims his victims. Then he passed on to the terrors of actual dissolution, the tortures of the body, the rending of the soul, the unimaginable agonies that sensibilities rendered acutely susceptible at this extremity are called upon to endure. It required good nerves to listen to that, for the man was perfect in his role. From matters of individual interest in death he passed to death in its larger aspects. He pointed to a large and striking battle scene, in which the combatants had come to hand-to-hand fighting, and were butchering one another in a mad lust for blood. Suddenly the picture began to glow, the light bringing out its ghastly details with hideous distinctness. Then as suddenly it faded away, and where fighting men had been there were skeletons writhing and struggling in a deadly embrace. A similar effect was produced with a painting giving a wonderfully realistic representation of an execution by the guillotine. The bleeding trunk of the victim lying upon the flap-board dissolved, the flesh slowly disappearing, leaving only the white bones. Another picture, representing a brilliant dance-hall filled with happy revellers, slowly merged into a grotesque dance of skeletons; and thus it was with the other pictures about the room.
All this being done, the master of ceremonies, in lugubrious tones, invited us to enter the chambre de la mort. All the visitors rose, and, bearing each a taper, passed in single file into a narrow, dark passage faintly illuminated with sickly green lights, the young man in clerical garb acting as pilot. The cross effects of green and yellow lights on the faces of the groping procession were more startling than picturesque. The way was lined with bones, skulls, and fragments of human bodies.
"O Macchabees, nous sommes devant la porte de la chambre de la mort!" wailed an unearthly voice from the farther end of the passage as we advanced. Then before us appeared a solitary figure standing beneath a green lamp. The figure was completely shrouded in black, only the eyes being visible, and they shone through holes in the pointed cowl. From the folds of the gown it brought forth a massive iron key attached to a chain, and, approaching a door seemingly made of iron and heavily studded with spikes and crossed with bars, inserted and turned the key; the bolts moved with a harsh, grating noise, and the door of the chamber of death swung slowly open.
"O Macchabees, enter into eternity, whence none ever return!" cried the new, strange voice.
The walls of the room were a dead and unrelieved black. At one side two tall candles were burning, but their feeble light was insufficient even to disclose the presence of the black walls of the chamber or indicate that anything but unending blackness extended heavenward. There was not a thing to catch and reflect a single ray of the light and thus become visible in the blackness.
Between the two candles was an upright opening in the wall; it was of the shape of a coffin. We were seated upon rows of small black caskets resting on the floor in front of the candles. There was hardly a whisper among the visitors. The black-hooded figure passed silently out of view and vanished in the darkness.
Presently a pale, greenish-white illumination began to light up the coffin-shaped hole in the wall, clearly marking its outline against the black. Within this space there stood a coffin upright, in which a pretty young woman, robed in a white shroud, fitted snugly. Soon it was evident that she was very much alive, for she smiled and looked at us saucily. But that was not for long. From the depths came a dismal wail: "O Macchabee, beautiful, breathing mortal, pulsating with the warmth and richness of life, thou art now in the grasp of death! Compose thy soul for the end!"
Her face slowly became white and rigid; her eyes sank; her lips tightened across her teeth; her cheeks took on the hollowness of death, she was dead. But it did not end with that. From white the face slowly grew livid... then purplish black... The eyes visibly shrank into their greenish-yellow sockets... Slowly the hair fell away... The nose melted away into a purple putrid spot. The whole face became a semi-liquid mass of corruption. Presently all this had disappeared, and a gleaming skull shone where so recently had been the handsome face of a woman; naked teeth grinned inanely and savagely where rosy lips had so recently smiled. Even the shroud had gradually disappeared, and an entire skeleton stood revealed in the coffin. The wail again rang through the silent vault: "Ah, ah, Macchabee! Thou hast reached the last stage of dissolution, so dreadful to mortals. The work that follows death is complete. But despair not, for death is not the end of all. The power is given to those who merit it, not only to return to life, but to return in any form and station preferred to the old. So return if thou deservedst and desirest."
With a slowness equal to that of the dissolution, the bones became covered with flesh and cerements, and all the ghastly steps were reproduced reversed. Gradually the sparkle of the eyes began to shine through the gloom; but when the reformation was completed, behold! there was no longer the handsome and smiling young woman, but the sleek, rotund body, ruddy cheeks, and self-conscious look of a banker. It was not until this touch of comedy relieved the strain that the rigidity with which Mr. Thompkins had sat between us began to relax, and a smile played over his face, a bewildered, but none the less a pleasant, smile. The prosperous banker stepped forth, sleek and tangible, and haughtily strode away before our eyes, passing through the audience into the darkness. Again was the coffin-shaped hole in the wall dark and empty.
He of the black gown and pointed hood now emerged through an invisible door, and asked if there was any one in the audience who desired to pass through the experience that they had just witnessed. This created a suppressed commotion; each peered into the face of his neighbor to find one with courage sufficient for the ordeal. Bishop suggested to Mr. Thompkins in a whisper that he submit himself, but that gentleman very peremptorily declined. Then, after a pause, Bishop stepped forth and announced that he was prepared to die. He was asked solemnly by the doleful person if he was ready to accept all the consequences of his decision. He replied that he was. Then he disappeared through the black wall, and presently appeared in the greenish-white light of the open coffin. There he composed himself as he imagined a corpse ought, crossed his hands upon his breast, suffered the white shroud to be drawn about him, and awaited results, after he had made a rueful grimace that threw the first gleam of suppressed merriment through the oppressed audience. He passed through all the ghastly stages that the former occupant of the coffin had experienced, and returned in proper person to life and to his seat beside Mr. Thompkins, the audience applauding softly.
The skeleton trick and how it was done,
using the Pepper's Ghost effect.
A mysterious figure in black waylaid the crowd as it filed out. He held an inverted skull, into which we were expected to drop sous through the natural opening there, and it was with the feeling of relief from a heavy weight that we departed and turned our backs on the green lights at the entrance.
Unfortunately, like the Gran-Guignol, the Cabaret du Néant did not outlast the Second World War.