Paris in the early 1900s was a special time and place. The Belle Epoque had transformed the City of Lights into a cultural hub of a new Europe. The very successful Paris Exposition had ushered in a new century and had confirmed Paris as a center of culture and progress.
Cabarets and theatres formed the center piece of Parisian nightlife and culture. Places such as the Follie Bergeres and the Moulin Rouge provided outlets for new forms of expression and morality. For a brief moment in time, it seemed that Europe was heading towards a prosperous and liberal future. All of this would be swept away by the horrors of World War 1 just 12 years later. But for now the habitues, the cabaret girls of questionable repute, and the high society ladies could all mix in this wonderful milieu.
Below is an article about the cabarets and nightlife of Paris, taken from an article published in a book titled “How Paris Amuses Itself”. Join us now for a guided tour back to the Belle Epoque.
Snug in the corner of an ancient alley called the Cite d’Antin is the “Thetre de la Robiniere.” Its official address is “3 (bis) Rue La Fayette,” that is, you are requested to enter there and, following your nose around the corner, grope your way in the obscurity over the cobbles and make a second turn to the right. At last a green lantern over the doorway glimmers ahead of you. It is the Robiniere now installed in what was once the Theatre Mondain.
The Robiniere once existed on the first platform of the Tour Eiffel; since then its proprietor,
Monsieur Francois Robin, has moved it to its permanent address, all of which speaks well for its success. It is filled nightly with Parisians of the vicinity.
Much of the success of this tiny theater is due to the indefatigable effort of its director, Monsieur Robin, who literally passes his life in his playhouse, assisted in its management by his wife. These two, without help, without even a secretary, run the theater, often working from early morning until long past midnight, writing their own posters, watching the rehearsals of their excellent small company (in which Madame plays), attending to press notices, receiving authors and artists, and, in short, making a success of this old “ Salle d’Antin ” where all its preceding owners met with ruin.
There is nothing elaborate about this stuffy little bandbox of a theater. Its narrow auditorium is plain, dingy and old-fashioned. A piano serves for the orchestra, but the comedies are clever and the acting excellent—two things which Parisians demand first of all.
The Robiniere is but one of a number of miniature theaters in Paris beginning at eight-thirty or nine o’clock, and producing each night four short realistic comedies, often with some clever chansonnier singing his creations during the entr’actes. No two of these theaters are alike, and in all of them there is good acting; even in the smallest of these so-called bouis-boais you will find the actors to be men and women who have worked patiently through the National Conservatoire studying their art under the best masters.
Fortunately in France the woman who has become suddenly notorious through her divorce or the latest scandal is not snapped up by theatrical managers as a star before the ink is dry on the Sunday papers detailing her disgrace. In Paris there are music hall revues to receive these meteors when they fall and where they may parade their beauty and their clothes, or their lack of them, with the rest of the demi-mondaines.
During the intervals between the plays at the Robiniere a single aged “garcon de cafe” takes the orders for the refreshments in the cold, stuffy little ” fumoir,” while behind the bar one of the leading ladies of the comedy graciously assists him by opening the bottled beer and attending to the drinks, very much as a good-natured woman would help by cutting the cake at a children’s party.
When the bell rings for the curtain Madame hurries out of her apron and back to her part in “Les Deux Jarretieres,” a farce so replete with amusing complications that the small audience is kept in a continual titter of good humor. In the comedy following, entitled “Le Sofa de Monsieur Dupre,” the story is even more simple. A respectable widow, Madame Dupre, living alone in her old age, is attended by her maid Pauline, whom she has come to regard as an indispensable companion. Pauline makes the old lady comfortable in her favorite chair, tucks under her feet her foot-warmer, and, leaving her mistress, goes out to post a letter.
In the interval which elapses before her return a neighbor calls and kindly informs Madame Dupre that the indispensable Pauline has been the mistress of Madame Dupre’s revered husband. When Pauline returns, Madame, in her indignation, turns her out of the house. The foot-warmer grows cold, the fire in the grate goes out, a thousand little comforts have not been attended to, and the old lady decides to send for Pauline and forgive her, preferring that her few remaining years should pass in peace and comfort.
Quite different is the Theatre de la Bodiniere, founded by Monsieur Bodin, the former secretary of the historic Comedie Francaise. The Bodiniere is devoted to interpreting the work of young authors by celebrated artists. It is a theater where respectable jeunes filles may be taken in safety. The plays are as harmless as the Rollo books.
The playwright, Aime Ducrocq, is the founder and manager of a cozy blue-and-gold bonboniere of a theater called the “Rabelais,” in Montmartre. Here, as the title suggests, the comedies and farces are thoroughly Rabelaisian. It might even be averred that they are more so than elsewhere, which is saying a great deal. Here farces like “La Vertu De Nini,” “La Journee d’une Demi-Mondaine ” and “ Le Corset de Germaine ” pack the small auditorium nightly. Many of these are written to a point where the curtain discreetly drops upon the situation, but none of them harbors a line or a gesture of vulgarity. It is not worth while having trouble with the police, and happily the French policeman is both broad-minded and discreet in enforcing an arbitrary rule. When you ask a policeman here why a thing is prohibited he will shrug his shoulders, stare at you in astonishment, and reply brusquely: “ It is prohibited because it is prohibited! ” and struck his brass-buttoned chest as he pronounced him a good man and a brave soldier; however, I regret that some of his views of La Fayette are unfit for publication, as he regarded him as a traitor to France.
“Oui, monsieur” he said, savagely; “a man who gave his strength and knowledge and power to another country when that man belonged to our army was a traitor.” He said other things, too, about the gentleman, but they will not bear a graceful translation.
Below the Rabelais, past an iron grill and at the end of a cobbled court in the Rue Chaptal, is the “Grand Guignol.” Its oak interior in carved Gothic was once the studio of the celebrated painter, Rochegrosse, and resembles at first glance, except for the boxes running beneath the low choir gallery, the lecture room of a modern Episcopal church. The prevailing tone of the room, gray corduroy and oak, is thoroughly restful. From the spandrelled ceiling hang iron chandeliers of ecclesiastical design. A paneled frieze of allegorical paintings, representing the human passions—envy, hate and jealousy—enrich the cove. Carved angels support the corbels of the ceiling beams, and a square of rare Gobelins tapestry enriches the wall back of the gallery. A simple proscenium, in keeping with the rest of this exquisite interior, fills the end of the room.
There is a small foyer, too, with a Gothic stairway, which contains a unique collection of steel engravings of players of bygone days. Snug in an alcove beside this interesting promenoir there is a tiny bar. At nine the boxes beneath the Sunday-school gallery are brilliant with women’s toilets, framed by the white shirt-fronts and sombre black of their well-groomed escorts. Such is this charming after-dinner theater, which has been so appropriately named “ The Big Punch and Judy,” where very cleverly constructed short plays are presented, such as “Scrupules,” “Une Affaire de Moeurs,” “La Cooperative” and “La Fetiche.”
They are plays of dramatic incident rather than of plots. Some of them are as risque as the most daring at the Rabelais. Some are full of pathos, others screamingly funny, and still others revolting in their realism.
Of the last class is “Une Affaire de Moeurs.” In this the identity of a famous judge of the high court is discovered by two demi-mondaines who are dining with him in a cabinet particulier. The judge has at one time sentenced the lover of one of the women and she threatens to expose him in revenge. He offers money, and finally half his fortune to quiet her, but the woman is determined to avenge her lover. Then his terror at the thought of scandal and disgrace brings on a stroke of apoplexy. The two women, now thoroughly frightened, send the old waiter out for a doctor. He hurries back with a young physician whom he finds carousing with his friends in the cafe below. The young man stands aghast as he recognizes the form in the chair; it is his father. He listens at the heart, then buries his head in his hands. The judge is dead. The women huddle in a corner terrified. The room is in disorder, reeking with the odor of cigarettes and spilled wine.
“Come, monsieur,” gently urges the aged garcon. “Pull yourself together, we must get the body into a cab unnoticed.”
The realization of the disgrace and publicity of the affaire when it will be known in the cafe below, braces the son to act quickly. He suggests to the garcon that the body be removed by the back stairs.
“ There is no back stairs, monsieur,” confesses the garcon. “ The only way out is by the main stairway and through the cafe. We will walk monsieur out and support him between us. I have helped to do it once before that way; no one will suspect—they will think monsieur is drunk.”
Together they put on the Inverness and, adjusting the opera hat of the deceased and supporting the body beneath the arms, walk slowly with it to the door leading to the stairs, the two women preceding them, singing hysterically the marche des pompiers!
As the curtain fell the audience seemed in a stupor. A woman beside me sat staring at the floor, crying. Men coughed and remained silent. Not until the pianist in the foyer struck up a lively polka did they leave their seats for a little cognac and a breath of air.
Just such realism is typical of the Grand Guignol.
Even smaller than the Grand Guignol is the cozy “Theatre des Mathurins,,, with a pretty foyer twice the size of its small auditorium, which scarcely holds two hundred.
Here short plays like “Monsieur Camille,” “Le Quadrille ” and “ Les Deux Courtisanes” are played with rare finish by De Marcy, Cora Lapercerie, and other famous beauties of the Parisian stage.
During the entr’actes a shutter over an archway of the foyer opens and the head of a celebrated singing satirist is thrust out from the dark closet like the punctual cuckoo in the clock. During the intermission he sings his original songs to the listening throng, a mixture of the grand- and the demi-monde promenading below.
Most diminutive of them all is the “Theatre des Capucines,” whose auditorium is no larger than a private salon. This intime playhouse is frequented by the most exclusive audience to be found in Paris. Before the curtain rises it resembles a drawing-room filled with a society gathering for amateur theatricals. The walls of yellow brocade, with a delicate decoration of nasturtiums, gives it even more the air of a private drawing-room, and the tiny stage seems to have been erected for the occasion. Only when the curtain rises is the illusion dispelled, for at the Capucines the short comedies are rendered by many of the most celebrated players of the French stage.
Here the great Gemier plays “Daisy,” in which his portrayal of a race-track thief, jealous over his sweetheart Lea (Mademoiselle Carlier), is a masterpiece of character acting.
Other little comedies, like “Au Temps des Croisees,” by Guy de Maupassant, with Gallo in the principal ro1e, and Viviane Lavergne and Max Dearly in “ Chonchette,” with charming Therese Berka, leave little to wonder that the tiny Theatre des Capucines is crowded nightly with the most intelligent of Parisian society.
I found my old friend the Baron after the play at Pousset’s beginning his midnight supper of “ecrevisses ” and beer, alone and in a grumbling mood.
“Ah! Ah! tant mieux! It is you, mon ami,” he said. “It is fortunate that I find you. Do you know,” he continued, motioning me to a seat beside him, “I have this evening been to such a bad play. Diable! It is a relief to get here. To rinse the eyes, as we say, from such a gloomy histoire! One goes to the theater to laugh, is it not, eh ? Not to have what you call him—zee, zee blues.
“For three hours, my friend,” he continued, frowning at the memory of it, “ for three hours, imaginez-vous, I have been following a lot of unhappy people into the horrors of Siberia. Those who survived until the last act were finally put to death or separated brutally from those dear to them. Many of them were blind. The heroine was forced to betray her lover, who was finally led to execution before her eyes. Sapristi! ” and the Baron pounded his great fist on the table. Then, choking with laughter over the humorous side of it so that he dropped his monocle, he continued:
“ It is to this I go to be amused, mon Dieu ! I would rather be at a funeral! ”
Here the garcon interrupted us with the cognac.
“Tell me, Baron,” I said, as we lighted our cigars, “what, in your opinion, has made the bouis-bouis become so popular with you Parisians ? I have just come from the Capucines. It was not gloomy there, I assure you; the little house was as gay as a tulip patch and bubbling over with merriment.”
“Listen,” replied the Baron, putting his forefinger to his forehead impressively. “ The success of the little theaters with short plays comes from the fact that nowadays a crisis has been reached in theatrical affairs. The public, as it is after all for them that plays are given, have put the author at his wits’ end to invent something new. The old actors who are too sure of themselves have become careless, and the young ones, in trying to create a personal genre, end in attaining a pose which, through its affectation, is always lacking in art.
“Then there are the critics, who are always watching for ‘the little beast,’ as we say, and who seem to discover only elephantine faults, and finally there are the directors of the theaters, who are constantly torn between their desire to please the public, satisfy the actor, protect art, and fill their purses.”
“It is different with us,” I replied; “we have syndicates in charge of our amusements. The personal desires of the players are not considered, and the managerial head of the enterprise rarely knows or cares about art.
“ It is purely a business with him, like the running of a series of big dry-goods stores, and so he hustles out on the road his companies number one, two and three, and sits twirling his thumbs in his office computing how much cash they will bring him back.
“And what were the conditions which brought this crisis you speak of?” I asked, returning to the main subject.
“Ah, then you have not heard,” he replied,
“ of the investigation made by Messieurs Allard and Vauxelles, who addressed themselves to the directors of the principal theaters: Messieurs Porel, Claretie, Antoine, et al., and to authors like Brieux and Hervieu. They explained clearly where the trouble lies. In the first place, it is a fact that the growing popularity of outdoor sports in France constitutes a real danger for the theater. The love of physical exercise, of bicycling, automobiling, of field sports and ballooning, increases daily with us.
“ It is excellent for the muscles, but when one has steered one’s “tuff-tuff” all day or been driven through the clouds in a balloon, the tired sportsman is in no condition nor frame of mind to enjoy in the evening: a serious play. Is it not so?
It is imbecile to expect it of him.
“Notice,” he went on, “that I am speaking of the Frenchman upon whom physical exercise has more effect than on the Anglo-Saxon who has been accustomed to it from his youth. With our impetuosity we overdo things. Besides, the athlete is not a good spectator, for what is won for the biceps is lost for the brain.
“ What our good man of the world returning from a hard day’s sport must have, is either his bed, or a light, gay revue with perfect brain rest during it. So he dines late and goes to the circus, or to the performance of a revue, or to one of the small theaters, or to the bouis-bouiis, where the lightest of farce comedies sends him home in a good humor. These latter miniature theaters have become so popular with us that nearly every quartier now has its bouis-bouis. They have sprung up like mushrooms and steal an important part of the audience of the serious theaters.
“ Then, too, the modern comforts we find in our restaurants and other public places are lacking in our playhouses, whose interiors have remained unchanged for more than half a century, and where one is badly seated or stifled in a
stuffy box. Again, the theater proper, once the most moderate-priced of amusements, has become with us so expensive that most bourgeois families or the average Parisian cannot afford to go.
“Besides, in the serious theaters the entr’actes have become interminably long, the acts ridiculously short. We begin to have enough, too, of what we term pornographie; of plays full of salacious intrigue and of moral degeneracy, which most of our young authors seem to revel in, and which they call ‘a slice of life (un bout de la vie),’” He added earnestly : “The Parisian wants gay plays, clever vaudeville, or little comedies full of sparkling wit and humorous situations. The Parisian wants it all the more because the stage lately has been too much under the influence of foreigners like Ibsen, Sudermann, Hauptmann, Tolstoy and the rest.” And the Baron added, with a wink:
“It is, after all, an eternal exchange. They have taken from us what we have taken from them. The Romantic school has nourished them, Georges Sand has deeply influenced Russian literature. The type of the Ibsenian woman is Georges Sand’s ‘Lelia’; even the last play of Dumas, that ‘Route de Thebes’ shows the influence of Ibsen. Dumas imitated Ibsen, but remained himself. These foreign writers are the sons of our French romantiques, who themselves were the sons of Schiller and Goethe, just as they in turn were the sons of the eighteenth century and were descended from Diderot and the Encyclopedists.
“ But the public revolts against all this modern pessimism,” continued my friend—“ against Monsieur Hervieu, for example, because he tries to prove in his plays that the stage of to-day is less pessimistic than of old. But he can say all he wishes,” affirmed the Baron, warmly, “and the dramatic world may insist that it used to be even sadder, that the old playwrights made people die, that Camille was dead! that the ‘Femme de Claude ’ was dead! that the theaters in bygone days were sumptuous slaughter-houses, becoming veritable battle-fields by the fifth act, as in ‘L’Etrangere,’ ‘La Princesse George,’ and so many others. But what do you want?” the Baron went on. “ The public like it better, for when the people in the play are killed off once and for all, the good spectator has no more to worry over.” And the Baron pushed aside his ecrevisses.
“Everything is settled! nothing to think about,” he continued. “ What fault then do the public find in the modern plays ? It is not that they finish badly, but that they do not finish at all!
“The ‘denouement’! Ah! There is a word,” cried the Baron, “that has the gift of exasperating all our young authors. They cannot resign themselves like Augier, Dumas and Sardou, to see on the stroke of midnight the hero marry the heroine and virtue get its reward.
“All this is to them old-fashioned. The denouement of Denise makes them smile, and Francillon, whose heroine has n’t really deceived her husband, seems to them a farce. So, to finish in a newer way, they do not finish at all. Voila! It is simpler, Hein! but confess that it isn’t any more difficult!
“It is this which depresses the bourgeois, who has come to the theater to amuse himself. He comes out at the end of the play with one more worry on his conscience. He leaves pensive and saddened and oppressed by the gloominess of it all.
“In ‘L’Envers d’une Sainte,’ Francois de Curel sends his heroine back to her convent, and Henry Becque ends ‘Les Corbeaux’ by a marriage which makes you foresee a loveless life of misery and oppression. And the proof of the growing distaste for these sad plays is, that when they played ‘Ties’ at the Francais lately, they felt obliged to give at the end a little play in one act full of gaiety, so as to dry the eyelids and expand the chest of all those who were going to bed.”
The hour had grown late, the cafe was deserted, and the Baron’s ecrevisses had become cold. Outside two nighthawk cabs stood waiting for a chance trip. Fog rose from the slime of the boulevard.
“ Come and dine with me tomorrow night at the Cafe Anglais,” said the Baron, as he tucked up the collar of his coat and entered his cab, “and we will go up to the Rabelais and see (Le Corset de Germaine.’ ”
You must not judge the Theatre du Chatelet by the melodramas which accompany the gorgeous spectacles given there; where the ballets are superb and the arts of scenic painting and stage mechanism are seen in their perfection.
The melodrama I saw at the Chatelet concurrent with the spectacle in twelve acts and twenty tableaux, was written especially for the chief actor. The hero finds himself, as the curtain rises, in the interior of India, where he soon falls in love with a beautiful princess, Zulema by name, the only daughter of a rich sheik.
It is love at first sight with Zulema and the hero, and, before the orchestra had played through a dozen bars, the lovers make hasty plans for an elopement, taking with them Zulema’s faithful maid.
The flight of the happy pair is fraught from that time on with an exciting series of hairbreadth escapes, but these little incidents do not seem to trouble the hero, he being constantly occupied with his personal appearance.
In the second act the hero led the princess, still in the jeweled tea-gown she wore when they met, up to the last barricade of an elaborately carved oriental city, which is besieged by the English.
Here the hero bids the princess and her maid sit down while he rolls a cigarette, and incidentally picks off with his gun, rested on the sill of a convenient window, the leaders of the advancing army.
During all this fighting his gray leather leggings remain as spotless as the flowing silk scarf heaving over his manly chest, sunburned by adventure. All of which win for him not only the heart of the beautiful Zulema, but of every other fellow’s sweetheart throughout the depth and breadth of the broad gallery.
At last the trio reach a ravine. As yet none of the princess’s jewels have been stolen; she still wears the decollete tea-gown and keeps her manicured nails well polished. In the ravine, behind a papier-mache rock, Zulema discovers her irate father, who, having been hot-footed up hill and down dale by the bloodthirsty Anglais, is glad enough to come out of his hiding place to give his blessing to the eloping pair, and bestow upon the powdered neck of his only child a talisman —whereupon our hero pounds his chest and swears to revenge their pursuers.
An old friend of mine who knows Fourteenth street better than I do tells me that most of the spirit mediums who rent a residence along it during the season when Coney Island is frozen over, never call upon a lesser personage for a spirit answer than Napol6on Bonaparte! For who would pay two dollars to hear Uncle John’s opinion of his only living relative ? It is surprising that the great Napoleon should make a beeline for Fourteenth street before even going to wash up at the club. But he does. “ Ting-a-ling-a-ling,” goes the bell, and the head of the First Empire tells from behind a turkey-red curtain all he knows as precisely as a museum dwarf does his age. And so it is with our hero when he stumbles across a witch in the ravine, who happens to be occupied at the time in boiling a puree of certain poisonous herbs. She gives him a morsel of her stew, which he straightway puts in his upper pocket, and becomes as invulnerable against the bullets of the popping enemy as a Sandy Hook target in front of a popgun. They fairly rattle off him. The princess thinks it nothing short of Providence, and says so. She and her serving-maid occupy themselves with their fancy work at the bottom of the secret fastness while our hero with the magnetic eye peers over an adjoining rock, and the father of the fair Zulema up stage keeps sharp watch of the enemy from beneath the folds of his voluminous cloak.
And so the day passes and night comes on apace and the stars glitter in pairs in the canvas heavens. No sound breaks the stillness of the night save the creepy titter of violins in the orchestra.
Now the ravine goes black as a solio print in the sun, and then pales to violet. The ballet has begun. In swinging rhythm a hundred shapely coryphees glide and pirouette towards the footlights, withdrawing among the pillars of a golden temple to give place to a hundred others advancing.
These ballet girls are French and can dance.
Calcium lights sizzle and hiss from the gallery and from the upper boxes. Simultaneously, their violet screens change with a click to azure, now to gold. Carmanillo, the premiere danseuse, is whirling in a circle as Amardi taught her to do so well years ago in Milan. When Carmanillo dances she scarcely seems to touch the stage, but when she walks on the flat of her feet, as all ballet women do, she has the awkward gait of an acrobat.
A veil midway down the vast stage lifts, disclosing an oriental city. A cortege of slaves advances, followed by another line of coryphees. Behind this barrier of grace and color, come the retinue of a barbaric court, gorgeously costumed, and headed by white Arabian horses, caparisoned in turquoise and gold. The favorite of the Sultan is borne past, reclining on a crimson velvet litter.
A second veil lifts, disclosing in the hazy distance the limits of the city; spires, domes and minarets are bathed in a glow of golden light.
The depth of the great stage has been reached, and in reality it is nearly the length of a Parisian block. Upon the topmost pinnacle of this apotheosis of color stands a woman, nude, her hair glittering in jewels.
In the royal box before which the cortege has passed rests the hero for whom the fete has been given. He is still in his spotless leggings. He accepts the homage of the conquered city condescendingly. With him it is a nightly matter of fact. The fair Zulema is by his side. Her maid has had time to don a Paris hat, but Zulema clings to her tea-gown and gazes in adoration at the hero. A delicious waltz swells up from the orchestra. The stage is swarming now with whirling, kicking coryphees; more horses clatter in over planking, followed by more swaying palanquins; the scene resembles a kaleidoscope of ever changing color, costume and light.
Trumpets blaze from the ramparts of the city, a red fire burns in the wings, and down comes the curtain.
Such is the Chatelet.
As a spectacle it is as perfect as the best choreographic brains can make it.
Half an hour later, in a nearby cafe, I came across the hero and Zulema slaking a tropical thirst with two tall steins of beer. The beautiful princess carried her stage shoes with her, wrapped in a newspaper. Presently I caught sight of the faithful maid hurrying to a cabinet particulier upstairs with a gentleman in a silk hat and a fur-lined overcoat. I afterwards learned that the maid and Zulema did not speak.
Alas, all is not gold that glitters!