‘Two glasses cholera, one gangrenous leg and two consumptions!’ The patrons laughed, loving how the change of names made their experiences all the more gruesome, but Kathleen hadn’t laughed. She saw these things in real life and knew the devastation these illnesses brought. She’d looked about the room at the laughing patrons and detected a reckless desperation in that laughter that had made her uneasy.’ [‘Orphan Rock‘, Transit Lounge, March 2022]
The above scene from my forthcoming novel takes place during World War I, in the Cabaret de L’enfer [the Cabaret of Hell] on the on the Boulevard de Clichy, Montmartre. Since the 1890s, Paris actually had three cabarets dealing with death and its aftermath on that boulevard. At number 34 was the Cabaret du Néant – the Cabaret of Nothingness, or Death. A little further along, next to each other at number 53, were the Cabaret du Ciel [the Cabaret of Heaven] beside the Cabaret de l’Enfer [the Cabaret of Hell].
Arriving at the Cabaret du Néant, you would be greeted by a pallbearer in a top hat, who would separate the black crape funereal curtains to guide you into the Salle d’Intoxication [drinking room]. The room would be lit by candles on the coffins, and by a large candelabra hanging from the ceiling called the Lampadaire funéraire. This candelabra was made of three different sized human skulls and other human bones – the first was a small foetal skull connected to a small spine, which was then connected to a larger foetal skull. Then came an adult sized femur with two more femurs crossed at the front of it. An adult-sized head was attached to the bottom of this femur. From the bottom of this head sprouted the bones of three arms, the fingers of which held the candles.
Here, you would be seated at a coffin on trellises and offered a drink – all named after deadly diseases – and served by sullen monks and undertakers who would call you ‘Macchabées’ [the name Parisian sailors gave cadavers found floating in the Seine] and advise you to drink your glass of deadly poison with simple resignation. And while you drank, the Master of Ceremonies would tell you stories of death, and point with a femur at beautiful large paintings of revellers at the Moulin Rouge or scenes of battles, or even an execution by guillotine, where suddenly these pictures would glow and the revellers or soldiers or guillotine victim would turn into skeletons. And all the while bells tolled in the distance and the funeral march played softly. And if this wasn’t enough for you, you could then go to other rooms where, with the use of mirrors and special effects, ghosts would appear and you could watch a young woman wrapped in a shroud decompose to a skeleton, then slowly come back to her normal form.
Leaving the Cabaret du Néant, you would then need to decide whether you deserved Heaven or Hell. A white and blue entrance decorated with angels and up a flight of stairs brought you to the Cabaret du Ciel, where you would be greeted by angels and priests. Saint Peter would sprinkle you with holly water as you entered, and here the drinks had heavenly names like ‘star-dazzler’, and the waiters responded to your order with ‘Thy will be done’. But before being seated you were expected to go to the statue of a giant golden pig seated and decorated with flowers. It would be surrounded by candles, and you were expected to bow to it and make the sign of the cross before it. Once seated, near naked angels would dance around you, re-enact scenes from Dante’s Inferno, and ask you to listen to their naughty confessions. Throughout the night, guests would be asked if they’d like to be angels, and would be suspended from wires and flown above patrons, then Father Time would appear with his scythe to collect tips.
If you felt you belonged more in hell, then you would go downstairs instead, through the red, fanged open mouth of a devil, into the Cabaret de l’Enfer. The doorman, dressed as the devil, would greet you with ‘Be damned!’, and here, indeed, the walls and ceiling were covered with the bodies of the dammed, and with rocks and crevices from which flames and thick smoke issued that smelled of sulphur. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and musicians dressed as devils played music from Faust. Drinks had names like ‘molten sins’ or ‘brimstone intensifier’, along with the names of deadly diseases, and when brought to you your drink would be glowing. Throughout the evening a man dressed as the devil would come and ask you which of your sins had brought you here, then invite you to go to the ‘hot room’, where you could watch a contortionist turn into a snake and back again.
The Cabaret Néant closed in the mid-1950s, and the Cabaret du Ciel and Cabaret de l’Enfer were demolished in 1950 to make way for a Monoprix supermarket. #HistoricalFiction #OrphanRock #AussieLit #histfic #cabaret #Paris