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Dance, Death and Dining in Early Twentieth Century Paris

by Mel Gordon and Joanna Ebenstein

The Cabarets of Death book, authored by Mel Gordon and edited by Joanna Ebenstein, published by Strange Attractor, explores the intriguing emergence and impact of three eerie cabarets in Paris’ Montmartre district in 1892: Cabaret du Néant (Cabaret of Nothingness), Cabaret de l’Enfer (Cabaret of Hell), and Cabaret du Ciel (Cabaret of Heaven). These venues provided chilling experiences focused on death and the afterlife, distinct from the typical entertainment-driven cabarets of the era. Despite their irreverent approach, these cabarets garnered attention and influenced other cities like New York, Berlin, and Brussels. The book also highlights the work of renowned photographers and artists who immortalised the eerie scenes and characters within these cabarets through souvenir postcards and publications, a captivating legacy that continues to fascinate enthusiasts.

In 1892, Paris’ Montmartre district saw the opening of three eerie cabaret restaurants which were dedicated to offering their guests bardo-like journeys into the afterlife. Each of the three venues presented a unique, comic-grotesque vision of death, set in menacing environments of Nothingness, Hell, or Heaven. They featured costumed characters, hidden optical illusions, improvisational spectacles, nudity, invented cuisines, and audience participation. For a small fee and a dinner, guests could experience the great mystery of the afterlife as a daunting amusement. An order of ‘‘Two glasses cholera, one gangrenous leg and two consumptions!’ were often heard at the bar for drinks, which were then served by a waiter dressed as a pallbearer chanting ‘Thy will be done’. “To astonish you, to give you a sensation, to quicken into some sort of action your jaded nocturnal nerves, is the object of all these places.” New York Times May 14, 1911.