The Poetic Cabarets Of Paris by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Those who have not lived in France can form little idea of the important place the café occupies in the life of an average Frenchman, clubs as we know them or as they exist in England being rare, and when found being, with few exceptions, but gambling-houses in disguise. As a Frenchman rarely asks an acquaintance, or even a friend, to his apartment, the café has become the common ground where all meet, for business or pleasure. Not in Paris only, but all over France, in every garrison town, provincial city, or tiny village, the café is the chief attraction, the centre of thought, the focus toward which all the rays of masculine existence converge.

For the student, newly arrived from the provinces, to whose modest purse the theatres and other places of amusement are practically closed, the café is a supreme resource. His mind is moulded, his ideas and opinions formed, more by what he hears and sees there than by any other influence. A restaurant is of little importance. One may eat anywhere. But the choice of his café will often give the bent to a young man’s career, and indicate his exact shade of politics and his opinions on literature, music, or art. In Paris, to know a man at all is to know where you can find him at the hour of the apéritif-what Baudelaire called

L’heure sainte
De l’absinthe.

When young men form a society among themselves, a café is chosen as their meeting-place. Thousands of establishments exist only by such patronage, as, for example, the Café de la Régence, Place du Thé�tre Fran�ais, which is frequented entirely by men who play chess.

Business men transact their affairs as much over their coffee as in their offices. The reading man finds at his café the daily and weekly papers; a writer is sure of the undisturbed possession of pen, ink, and paper. Henri Murger, the author, when asked once why he continued to patronize a certain establishment notorious for the inferior quality of its beer, answered, “Yes, the beer is poor, but they keep such good ink!”

The use of a café does not imply any great expenditure, a consummation costing but little. With it is acquired the right to use the establishment for an indefinite number of hours, the client being warmed, lighted, and served. From five to seven, and again after dinner, the habitués stroll in, grouping themselves about the small tables, each new-comer joining a congenial circle, ordering his drink, and settling himself for a long sitting. The last editorial, the newest picture, or the fall of a ministry is discussed with a vehemence and an interest unknown to Anglo-Saxon natures. Suddenly, in the excitement of the discussion, some one will rise in his place and begin speaking. If you happen to drop in at that moment, the lady at the desk will welcome you with, “You are just in time! Monsieur So-and-So is speaking; the evening promises to be interesting.” She is charmed; her establishment will shine with a reflected light, and new patrons be drawn there, if the debates are brilliant. So universal is this custom that there is hardly an orator to-day at the French bar or in the Senate, who has not broken his first lance in some such obscure tournament, under the smiling glances of the dame du comptoir.

Opposite the Palace of the Luxembourg, in the heart of the old Latin Quarter, stands a quaint building, half hotel, half café, where many years ago Joseph II. resided while visiting his sister, Marie Antoinette. It is known now as Foyot’s; this name must awaken many happy memories in the hearts of American students, for it was long their favorite meeting-place. In the early seventies a club, formed among the literary and poetic youth of Paris, selected Foyot’s as their “home” during the winter months. Their summer vacations were spent in visiting the university towns of France, reciting verses, or acting in original plays at Nancy, Bordeaux, Lyons, or Caen. The enthusiasm these youthful performances created inspired one of their number with the idea of creating in Paris, on a permanent footing, a centre where a limited public could meet the young poets of the day and hear them recite their verses and monologues in an informal way.

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The success of the original “Chat Noir,” the first cabaret of this kind, was largely owing to the sympathetic and attractive nature of its founder, young Salis, who drew around him, by his sunny disposition, shy personalities who, but for him, would still be “mute, inglorious Miltons.” Under his kindly and discriminating rule many a successful literary career has started. Salis’s gifted nature combined a delicate taste and critical acumen with a rare business ability. His first venture, an obscure little café on the Boulevard Rochechouart, in the outlying quarter beyond the Place Pigalle, quickly became famous, its ever-increasing vogue forcing its happy proprietor to seek more commodious quarters in the rue Victor Massé, where the world-famous “Chat Noir” was installed with much pomp and many joyous ceremonies.

The old word cabaret, corresponding closely to our English “inn,” was chosen, and the establishment decorated in imitation of a Louis XIII. hôtellerie. Oaken beams supported the low-studded ceilings: The plaster walls disappeared behind tapestries, armor, old faïence. Beer and other liquids were served in quaint porcelain or pewter mugs, and the waiters were dressed (merry anachronism) in the costume of members of the Institute (the Immortal Forty), who had so long led poetry in chains. The success of the “Black Cat” in her new quarters was immense, all Paris crowding through her modest doors. Salis had founded Montmartre!-the rugged old hill giving birth to a generation of writers and poets, and nourishing this new school at her granite breasts.

It would be difficult to imagine a form of entertainment more tempting than was offered in this picturesque inn. In addition to the first, the entire second floor of the building had been thrown into one large room, the walls covered with a thousand sketches, caricatures, and crayon drawings by hands since celebrated the world over. A piano, with many chairs and tables, completed the unpretending installation. Here, during a couple of hours each evening, either by the piano or simply standing in their places, the young poets gave utterance to the creations of their imagination, the musicians played their latest inspirations, the raconteur told his newest story. They called each other and the better known among the guests by their names, and joked mutual weaknesses, eliminating from these gatherings every shade of a perfunctory performance.

It is impossible to give an idea of the delicate flavor of such informal evenings-the sensation of being at home that the picturesque surroundings produced, the low murmur of conversation, the clink of glasses, the swing of the waltz movement played by a master hand, interrupted only when some slender form would lean against the piano and pour forth burning words of infinite pathos,-the inspired young face lighted up by the passion and power of the lines. The burst of applause that his talent called forth would hardly have died away before another figure would take the poet’s place, a wave of laughter welcoming the new-comer, whose twinkling eyes and demure smile promised a treat of fun and humor. So the evening would wear gayly to its end, the younger element in the audience, full of the future, drinking in long draughts of poetry and art, the elders charmed to live over again the days of their youth and feel in touch once more with the present.

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In this world of routine and conventions an innovation as brilliantly successful as this could hardly be inaugurated without raising a whirlwind of jealousy and opposition. The struggle was long and arduous. Directors of theatres and concert halls, furious to see a part of their public tempted away, raised the cry of immorality against the new-comers, and called to their aid every resource of law and chicanery. At the end of the first year Salis found himself with over eight hundred summonses and lawsuits on his hands. After having made every effort, knocked at every door, in his struggle for existence, he finally conceived the happy thought of appealing directly to Grévy, then President of the Republic, and in his audience with the latter succeeded in charming and interesting him, as he had so many others. The influence of the head of the state once brought to bear on the affair, Salis had the joy of seeing opposition crushed and the storm blow itself out.

From this moment, the poets, feeling themselves appreciated and their rights acknowledged and defended, flocked to the “Sacred Mountain,” as Montmartre began to be called; other establishments of the same character sprang up in the neighborhood. Most important among these were the “4 z’Arts,” Boulevard de Clichy, the “Tambourin,” and La Butte.

Trombert, who, together with Fragerolle, Goudezki, and Marcel Lefèvre, had just ended an artistic voyage in the south of France, opened the “4 z’Arts,” to which the novelty-loving public quickly found its way, crowding to applaud Coquelin cadet, Fragson, and other budding celebrities. It was here that the poets first had the idea of producing a piece in which rival cabarets were reviewed and laughingly criticised. The success was beyond all precedent, in spite of the difficulty of giving a play without a stage, without scenery or accessories of any kind, the interest centring in the talent with which the lines were declaimed by their authors, who next had the pleasant thought of passing in review the different classes of popular songs, Clovis Hugues, at the same time poet and statesman, discoursing on each subject, and introducing the singer; Brittany local songs, Proven�al ballads, ant the half Spanish, half French chansons of the Pyrenees were sung or recited by local poets with the charm and abandon of their distinctive races.

The great critics did not disdain to attend these informal gatherings, nor to write columns of serious criticism on the subject in their papers.

At the hour when all Paris takes its apéritif the “4 z’Arts” became the meeting-place of the painters, poets, and writers of the day. Montmartre gradually replaced the old Latin Quarter; it is there to-day that one must seek for the gayety and humor, the pathos and the makeshifts of Bohemia.

The “4 z’Arts,” next to the “Chat Noir,” has had the greatest influence on the taste of our time,-the pleiad of poets that grouped themselves around it in the beginning, dispersing later to form other centres, which, in their turn, were to influence the minds and moods of thousands.

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Another charming form of entertainment inaugurated by this group of men is that of “shadow pictures,” conceived originally by Caran d’Ache, and carried by him to a marvellous perfection. A medium-sized frame filled with ground glass is suspended at one end of a room and surrounded by sombre draperies. The room is darkened; against the luminous background of the glass appear small black groups (shadows cast by figures cut out of cardboard). These figures move, advancing and retreating, grouping or separating themselves to the cadence of the poet’s verses, for which they form the most original and striking illustrations. Entire poems are given accompanied by these shadow pictures.

One of Caran d’Ache’s greatest successes in this line was an Epopée de Napoléon,-the great Emperor appearing on foot and on horseback, the long lines of his army passing before him in the foreground or small in the distance. They stormed heights, cheered on by his presence, or formed hollow squares to repulse the enemy. During their evolutions, the clear voice of the poet rang out from the darkness with thrilling effect.

The nicest art is necessary to cut these little figures to the required perfection. So great was the talent of their inventor that, when he gave burlesques of the topics of the day, or presented the celebrities of the hour to his public, each figure would be recognized with a burst of delighted applause. The great Sarah was represented in poses of infinite humor, surrounded by her menagerie or receiving the homage of the universe. Political leaders, foreign sovereigns, social and operatic stars, were made to pass before a laughing public. None were spared. Paris went mad with delight at this new “art,” and for months it was impossible to find a seat vacant in the hall.

At the Boite à Musique, the idea was further developed. By an ingenious arrangement of lights, of which the secret has been carefully kept, landscapes are represented in color; all the gradations of light are given, from the varied twilight hues to purple night, until the moon, rising, lights anew the picture. During all these variations of color little groups continue to come and go, acting out the story of a poem, which the poet delivers from the surrounding obscurity as only an author can render his own lines.

One of the pillars of this attractive centre was Jules Jouy, who made a large place for himself in the hearts of his contemporaries-a true poet, whom neither privations nor the difficult beginnings of an unknown writer could turn from his vocation. His songs are alternately tender, gay, and bitingly sarcastic. Some of his better-known ballads were written for and marvellously interpreted by Yvette Guilbert. The difficult critics, Sarcey and Jules Lema�tre, have sounded his praise again and again.

A cabaret of another kind which enjoyed much celebrity, more on account of the personality of the poet who founded it than from any originality or picturesqueness in its intallation, was the “Mirliton,” opened by Aristide Bruant in the little rooms that had sheltered the original “Chat Noir.”

To give an account of the “Mirliton” is to tell the story of Bruant, the most popular ballad-writer in France to-day. This original and eccentric poet is as well-known to a Parisian as the boulevards or the Arc de Triomphe. His costume of shabby black velvet, Brittany waistcoat, red shirt, top-boots, and enormous hat is a familiar feature in the caricatures and prints of the day. His little cabaret remains closed during the day, opening its doors toward evening. The personality of the ballad-writer pervades the atmosphere. He walks about the tiny place hailing his acquaintances with some gay epigram, receiving strangers with easy familiarity or chilling disdain, as the humor takes him; then in a moment, with a rapid change of expression, pouring out the ringing lines of one of his ballads-always the story of the poor and humble, for he has identified himself with the outcast and the disinherited. His volumes Dans la Rue and Sur la Route have had an enormous popularity, their contents being known and sung all over France.

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In 1892 Bruant was received as a member of the society of Gens de Lettres. It may be of interest to recall a part of the speech made by Fran�ois Coppée on the occasion: “It is with the greatest pleasure that I present to my confrères my good friend, the ballad-writer, Aristide Bruant. I value highly the author of Dans la Rue. When I close his volume of sad and caustic verses it is with the consoling thought that even vice and crime have their conscience: that if there is suffering there is a possible redemption. He has sought his inspiration in the gutter, it is true, but he has seen there a reflection of the stars.”

In the Avenue Trudaine, not far from the other cabarets, the “Ane Rouge” was next opened, in a quiet corner of the immense suburb, its shady-little garden, on which the rooms open, making it a favorite meeting-place during the warm months. Of a summer evening no more congenial spot can be found in all Paris. The quaint chambers have been covered with mural paintings or charcoal caricatures of the poets themselves, or of familiar faces among the clients and patrons of the place.

One of the many talents that clustered around this quiet little garden was the brilliant Paul Verlaine, the most Bohemian of all inhabitants of modern Prague, whose death has left a void, difficult to fill. Fame and honors came too late. He died in destitution, if not absolutely of hunger; to-day his admirers are erecting a bronze bust of him in the Garden of the Luxembourg, with money that would have gone far toward making his life happy.

In the old hôtel of the Lesdiguières family, rue de la Tour d’Auvergne, the “Carillon” opened its doors in 1893, and quickly conquered a place in the public favor, the inimitable fun and spirits of Tiercy drawing crowds to the place.

The famous “Tréteau de Tabarin,” which to-day holds undisputed precedence over all the cabarets of Paris, was among the last to appear. It was founded by the brilliant Fursy and a group of his friends. Here no pains have been spared to form a setting worthy of the poets and their public.

Many years ago, in the days of the good king Louis XIII., a strolling poet-actor, Tabarin, erected his little canvas-covered stage before the statue of Henry IV., on the Pont-Neuf, and drew the court and the town by his fun and pathos. The founders of the latest and most complete of Parisian cabarets have reconstructed, as far as possible, this historic scene. On the wall of the room where the performances are given, is painted a view of old Paris, the Seine and its bridges, the towers of Notre Dame in the distance, and the statue of Louis XIII.’s warlike father in the foreground. In front of this painting stands a staging of rough planks, reproducing the little theatre of Tabarin. Here, every evening, the authors and poets play in their own pieces, recite their verses, and tell their stories. Not long ago a young musician, who has already given an opera to the world, sang an entire one-act operetta of his composition, changing his voice for the different parts, imitating choruses by clever effects on the piano.

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Montmartre is now sprinkled with attractive cabarets, the taste of the public for such informal entertainments having grown each year; with reason, for the careless grace of the surroundings, the absence of any useless restraint or obligation as to hour or duration, has a charm for thousands whom a long concert or the inevitable five acts at the Fran�ais could not tempt. It would be difficult to overrate the influence such an atmosphere, breathed in youth, must have on the taste and character. The absence of a sordid spirit, the curse of our material day and generation, the contact with intellects trained to incase their thoughts in serried verse or crisp and lucid prose, cannot but form the hearer’s mind into a higher and better mould. It is both a satisfaction and a hope for the future to know that these influences are being felt all over the capital and throughout the length and breadth of France. There are at this moment in Paris alone three or four hundred poets, ballad writers, and raconteurs who recite their works in public.

It must be hard for the untravelled Anglo-Saxon to grasp the idea that a poet can, without loss of prestige, recite his lines in a public café before a mixed audience. If such doubting souls could, however, be present at one of these noctes ambrosianæ, they would acknowledge that the Latin temperament can throw a grace and child-like abandon around an act that would cause an Englishman or an American to appear supremely ridiculous. One’s taste and sense of fitness are never shocked. It seems the most natural thing in the world to be sitting with your glass of beer before you, while some rising poet, whose name ten years later may figure among the “Immortal Forty,” tells to you his loves and his ambition, or brings tears into your eyes with a description of some humble hero or martyr.

From the days of Homer poetry has been the instructor of nations. In the Orient to-day the poet story-teller holds his audience spellbound for hours, teaching the people their history and supplying their minds with food for thought, raising them above the dull level of the brutes by the charm of his verse and the elevation of his ideas. The power of poetry is the same now as three thousand years ago. Modern skeptical Paris, that scoffs at all creeds and chafes impatiently under any rule, will sit to-day docile and complaisant, charmed by the melody of a poet’s voice; its passions lulled or quickened, like Alexander’s of old, at the will of a modern Timotheus.

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