Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Cabarets du Ciel et de l'Enfer

A legendary case of rivalry in Montmarte during the fin de siècle was, perhaps, not entirely unexpected given the subject matter: Cabarets du Ciel et de l'Enfer. This pair of cabaret were more in the series of sideshow "trick" cabarets like the Cabaret du Neant, and like Neant, both were described once more by William Chambers Morrow in his 1899 book Bohemian Paris of To-day.

Presently we reached the gilded gates of Le Cabaret du Ciel. They were bathed in a cold blue light from above. Angels, gold-lined clouds, saints, sacred palms and plants, and other paraphernalia suggestive of the approach to St. Peter's domain, filled all the available space about the entree. A bold white placard, "Bock, I Franc," was displayed in the midst of it all. Dolorous church music sounded within, and the heavens were unrolled as a scroll in all their tinsel splendor as we entered to the bidding of an angel.

Flitting about the room were many more angels, all in white robes and with sandals on their feet, and all wearing gauzy wings swaying from their shoulder-blades and brass halos above their yellow wigs. These were the waiters, the garcons of heaven, ready to take orders for drinks. One of these, with the face of a heavy villain in a melodrama and a beard a week old, roared unmelodiously, "The greetings of heaven to thee, brothers! Eternal bliss and happiness are for thee. Mayst thou never swerve from its golden paths! Breathe thou its sacred purity and renovating exaltation. Prepare to meet thy great Creator and don't forget the garcon!"

A very long table covered with white extended the whole length of the chilly room, and seated at it, drinking, were scores of candidates for angelship, mortals like ourselves. Men and women were they, and though noisy and vivacious, they indulged in nothing like the abandon of the Boul' Mich' cafes. Gilded vases and candelabra, together with foamy bocks, somewhat relieved the dead whiteness of the table. 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.

"Brothers, your orders! Command me, thy servant!" growled a ferocious angel at our elbows, with his accent de la Villette, and his brass halo a trifle askew. Mr. Thompkins had been very quiet, for he was Wonder in the flesh, and perhaps there was some distress in his face, but there was courage also. The suddenness of the angel's assault visibly disconcerted him, he did not know what to order. Finally he decided on a verre de Chartreuse, green. Bishop and I ordered bocks.

"Two sparkling draughts of heaven's own brew and one star-dazzler!" yelled our angel. "Thy will be done," came the response from a hidden bar.

Obscured by great masses of clouds, through whose intervals shone golden stars, an organ continually rumbled sacred music, which had a depressing rather than a solemn effect, and even the draughts of heaven's own brew and the star-dazzler failed to dissipate the gloom.

Suddenly, without the slightest warning, the head of St. Peter, whiskers and all, appeared in a hole in the sky, and presently all of him emerged, even to his ponderous keys clanging at his girdle. He gazed solemnly down upon the crowd at the tables and thoughtfully scratched his left wing. From behind a dark cloud he brought forth a vessel of white crockery (which was not a wash-bowl) containing (ostensibly) holy water. After several mysterious signs and passes with his bony hands he generously sprinkled the sinners below with a brush dipped in the water; and then, with a parting blessing, he slowly faded into mist.

"Did you ever? Well, well, I declare!" exclaimed Mr. Thompkins, breathlessly.

The royal cortege of the kingdom of heaven was now forming at one end of the room before a shrine, whereon an immense golden pig sat sedately on his haunches, looking friendly and jovial, his loose skin and fat jowls hanging in folds. Lighted candles sputtered about his golden sides. As the participants in the pageant, all attaches of the place, formed for the procession, each bowed reverently and crossed himself before the huge porker. A small man, dressed in a loose black gown and black skull-cap, evidently made up for Dante, whom he resembled, officiated as master of ceremonies. He mounted a golden pulpit, and delivered, in a loud, rasping voice, a tedious discourse on heaven and allied things. He dwelt on the attractions of heaven as a perpetual summer resort, an unbroken round of pleasures in variety, where sweet strains of angelic music (indicating the wheezy organ), together with unlimited stores of heaven's own sparkling fire of life, at a franc a bock, and beautiful golden-haired cherubs, of la Villette's finest, lent grace and perfection to the scheme.

The parade then began its tour about the room, Dante, carrying a staff surmounted by a golden bull, serving as drum-major. Angel musicians, playing upon sacred lyres and harps, followed in his wake, but the dolorous organ made the more noise. Behind the lyre angels came a number of the notables whom Dante immortalized, at least, we judged that they were so intended. The angel garcons closed the cortege, their gauzy wings and brass halos bobbing in a stately fashion as they strode along.

The angel garcons now sauntered up and gave us each a ticket admitting us to the angel-room and the other delights of the inner heaven. "You arre Eengleesh?" he asked. "Yes? Ah, theece Eengleesh arre verra genereauz," eyeing his fifty-centime tip with a questioning shrug. "Can you not make me un franc? Ah, eet ees dam cold in theece laigs," pointing to his calves, which were encased in diaphanous pink tights. He got his franc.

Dante announced in his rasping voice that those mortals wishing to become angels should proceed up to the angel-room. All advanced and ascended the inclined passage-way leading into the blue. At the farther end of the passage sat old St. Peter, solemn and shivering, for it was draughty there among the clouds. He collected our tickets, gave the password admitting us to the inner precincts, and resented Bishop's attempts to pluck a feather from his wings. We entered a large room, all a glamour of gold and silver. The walls were studded with blazing nuggets, colored canvas rocks, and electric lights. We took seats on wooden benches fronting a cleft in the rocks, and waited.

Soon the chamber in which we sat became perfectly dark, the cleft before us shining with a dim bluish light. The cleft then came to life with a bevy of female angels floating through the limited ethereal space, and smiling down upon us mortals. One of the lady angel's tights bagged at the knees, and another's wings were not on straight; but this did not interfere with her flight, any more than did the stationary position of the wings of all. But it was all very easily and gracefully done, swooping down, soaring, and swinging in circles like so many great eagles. They seemed to discover something of unusual interest in Mr. Thompkins, for they singled him out to throw kisses at him. This made him blush and fidget, but a word from Bishop reassured him, it was only once in a lifetime!

After these angels had gyrated for some time, the head angel of the angel-room requested those who desired to become angels to step forward. A number responded, among them some of the naughty dancing-girls of the Moulin Rouge. They were conducted through a concealed door, and presently we beheld them soaring in the empyrean just as happy and serene as though they were used to being angels. It was a marvel to see wings so frail transport with so much ease a very stout young woman from the audience, and their being fully clothed did not seem to make any difference.

Mr. Thompkins had sat in a singularly contemplative mood after the real angels had quit torturing him, and surprised us beyond measure by promptly responding to a second call for those aspiring to angelhood. He disappeared with another batch from the Moulin Rouge, and soon afterwards we saw him floating like an airship. He even wore his hat. To his disgust and chagrin, however, one of the concert-hall angels persisted in flying in front of him and making violent love to him. This brought forth tumultuous applause and laughter, which completed Mr. Thompkins's misery. At this juncture the blue cleft became dark, the angel-room burst into light, and soon Mr. Thompkins rejoined us. As we filed out into the passage Father Time stood with long whiskers and scythe, greeted us with profound bows, and promised that his scythe would spare us for many happy years did we but drop sous into his hour-glass.

We passed through a large, hideous, fanged, open mouth in an enormous face from which shone eyes of blazing crimson. Curiously enough, it adjoined heaven, whose cool blue lights contrasted strikingly with the fierce ruddiness of hell. Red-hot bars and gratings through which flaming coals gleamed appeared in the walls within the red mouth. A placard announced that should the temperature of this inferno make one thirsty, innumerable bocks might be had at sixty-five centimes each. A little red imp guarded the throat of the monster into whose mouth we had walked; he was cutting extraordinary capers, and made a great show of stirring the fires. The red imp opened the imitation heavy metal door for our passage to the interior, crying, "Ah, ah, ah! still they come! Oh, how they will roast!" Then he looked keenly at Mr. Thompkins. It was interesting to note how that gentleman was always singled out by these shrewd students of humanity. This particular one added with great gusto, as he narrowly studied Mr Thompkins, "Hist! ye infernal whelps; stir well the coals and heat red the prods, for this is where we take our revenge on earthly saintliness!"

"Enter and be damned, the Evil One awaits you!" growled a chorus of rough voices as we hesitated before the scene confronting us. Near us was suspended a caldron over a fire, and hopping within it were half a dozen devil musicians, male and female, playing a selection from "Faust" on stringed instruments, while red imps stood by, prodding with red-hot irons those who lagged in their performance.

Crevices in the walls of this room ran with streams of molten gold and silver, and here and there were caverns lit up by smouldering fires from which thick smoke issued, and vapors emitting the odors of a volcano. Flames would suddenly burst from clefts in the rocks, and thunder rolled through the caverns. Red imps were everywhere, darting about noiselessly, some carrying beverages for the thirsty lost souls, others stirring the fires or turning somersaults. Everything was in a high state of motion.

Numerous red tables stood against the fiery walls; at these sat the visitors. Mr. Thompkins seated himself at one of them. Instantly it became aglow with a mysterious light, which kept flaring up and disappearing in an erratic fashion; flames darted from the walls, fires crackled and roared. One of the imps came to take our order; it was for three coffees, black, with cognac; and this is how he shrieked the order: "Three seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier!" Then, when he had brought it, "This will season your intestines, and render them invulnerable, for a time at least, to the tortures of the melted iron that will be soon poured down your throats." The glasses glowed with a phosphorescent light. "Three francs seventy-five, please, not counting me. Make it four francs. Thank you well. Remember that though hell is hot, there are cold drinks if you want them."

Presently Satan himself strode into the cavern, gorgeous in his imperial robe of red, decked with blazing jewels, and brandishing a sword from which fire flashed. His black moustaches were waxed into sharp points, and turned rakishly upward above lips upon which a sneering grin appeared. Thus he leered at the new arrivals in his domain. His appearance lent new zest to the activity of the imps and musicians, and all cowered under his glance. Suddenly he burst into a shrieking laugh that gave one a creepy feeling. It rattled through the cavern with a startling effect as he strode up and down. It was a triumphant, cruel, merciless laugh. All at once he paused in front of a demure young Parisienne seated at a table with her escort, and, eying her keenly, broke into this speech: "Ah, you! Why do you tremble? How many men have you sent hither to damnation with those beautiful eyes, those rosy, tempting lips? Ah, for all that, you have found a sufficient hell on earth. But you," he added, turning fiercely upon her escort, "you will have the finest, the most exquisite tortures that await the damned. For what? For being a fool. It is folly more than crime that hell punishes, for crime is a disease and folly a sin. You fool! For thus hanging upon the witching glance and oily words of a woman you have filled all hell with fuel for your roasting. You will suffer such tortures as only the fool invites, such tortures only as are adequate to punish folly. Prepare for the inconceivable, the unimaginable, the things that even the king of hell dare not mention lest the whole structure of damnation totter and crumble to dust."

The man winced, and queer wrinkles came into the corners of his mouth. Then Satan happened to discover Mr. Thompkins, who shrank visibly under the scorching gaze. 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 that you would have missed! We have many notables here, and you will have charming society. They do not include pickpockets and thieves, nor any others of the weak, stunted, crippled, and halting. You will find that most of your companions are distinguished gentlemen of learning and ability, who, knowing their duty, failed to perform it. You will be in excellent company, sir," he concluded, with another low bow. Then, suddenly turning and sweeping the room with a gesture, he commanded, "To the hot room, all of you!" while he swung his sword, from which flashes of lightning trailed and thunder rumbled.

We were led to the end of a passage, where a red-hot iron door barred further progress. "Oh, oh, within there!" roared Satan. "Open the portal of the hot chamber, that these fresh arrivals may be introduced to the real temperature of hell!" After numerous signals and mysterious passes the door swung open, and we entered. It was not so very hot after all. The chamber resembled the other, except that a small stage occupied one end. A large green snake crawled out upon this, and suddenly it was transformed into a red devil with exceedingly long, thin legs, encased in tights that were ripped in places. He gave some wonderful contortion feats. A poor little white Pierrot came on and assisted the red devil in black art performances. By this time we discovered that in spite of the half-molten condition of the rock-walls, the room was disagreeably chilly. And that ended our experience in hell.


Russell said...


I've enjoyed your blog for quite some time now, but this month has been one of my all time favorites!

Thank you!

ArtSnark said...

what fun! Great post & wonderful blog

Cory Gross said...

Russell, thank you very much! I'm glad you enjoyed this French-themed Halloween month!

And thank you for the compliments as well, ArtSnark!