Inventive to the End: Le Chat Noir’s Shadow Theatre

Hey, it’s the final Le Chat Noir post! We end with the amazing Shadow Theatre.

Imagine walking upstairs into a massive smoky room. Pearls of laughter and fierce discussions about the arts echo throughout it. Then on the stage, a host of shadows grace the stage. But it’s not a mere shadow puppet display you might put on with your siblings. They’re massive puppets of armies with intricate detail. The 2-D surface looks like it goes on for miles. The puppets play out wars and romance and revolutions.

Today the most recognizable remnant of Le Chat Noir cabaret is the famous advertisement by Théophile Steinlein. The primarily red and yellow poster features a stylistic black cat glaring at the viewer. A red halo surrounds its face and whiskers. The cat’s tail curves around the name of Rodolphe Salis, as it advertises his famous and influential cabaret.

Théophile-Alexandre_Steinlen_-_Tournée_du_Chat_Noir_de_Rodolphe_Salis_(Tour_of_Rodolphe_Salis'_Chat_Noir)_-_Google_Art_Project

However, during Le Chat Noir’s run from 1881 to 1895, it was best known for its spectacular Shadow Theater. Plays were performed at the last location of the cabaret on the Rue Victor-Massé. The new building had three stories instead of the original cramped residence. (Like my last apartment, oh man.)

On the first floor artists in residence exhibited their work. Other curious knick-knacks dotted the walls. On the second floor songs and poetry echoed through the chambers. However, the third floor contained the new theatre, known as the Salles des Fêtes (village hall).

ARTSTOR Chat Noir Interior 2

It was built in 1887. And its stage was twelve feet across (3.6 meters) and six feet (1.82 meters) off the ground. Compared to the first establishment, this was enormous. And the growing base of the cabaret filled the room.

Henri Rivièrie was the mind behind the shadow theatre. He joined the court of Le Chat Noir in 1882 at the young age of 18. His lithographs and illustrations owed a lot to the Japanese ukiyo-e school. His elegant illustrations lent themselves well to the 2-D cardboard cutouts.

Lithograph Riviere
My husband just got me Rivièrie’s book on his take on Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt Fuji. 36 Views of the Eiffel Tower.

Rivièries use of simple strong contours, foreshortening, and titled perspective transferred well. He and his acolytes created representations of crowds. This gave them an edge over the theatre. At first, the Shadow Theater used only backlighting to project black cardboard silhouettes onto a white screen.

shadowtheatre2

However, in 1887 the process became more elaborate and intensive. The silhouette cut-outs were now made of zinc. They were larger and took up more space behind the scenes. The large new stage allowed Rivièrie to experiment. The performance area was back-lit. He then used a double optical lantern to project deep-feeling background.

chat noir riviere
You can see Rivirèie wriggling around the great pieces stacked onto each other backstage.

An inventive use of overlapping colour silhouettes and foreshadowing began in the new theatre. Some cut-outs would be placed closer to the light source. Others would be staged further away to give an illusion of space onto the 2-D stage. Some plays required over 40 intricate zinc cut-outs.

419-DSC_1427_DxO

Some plays were long and involved, such as Maurice Donnay’s Ailleurs (1891). And La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1887), based on the famous Gustave Flaubert book of
the same name. In Ailleurs, a poet commits suicide by jumping into the Seine, but
Voltaire helps the poet find hope. This play, dedicated to the Symbolist Paul Verlaine, was a symbolist piece with a satirical edge.

Others were short and more crudely humorous, such as Henry Somm’s L’Ekeohant. The one-act featured an elephant defecating an “odoriferous pearl”. Reportedly it was shown about 4,000 times.

Artists in residence created the scripts, sang the songs, composed, painted the scenes, sculpted, designed, and even provided their own décor. Their love for the medium shows in the remnants that have survived. All in all, they created 45 plays.

Caran_d'Ache_-_Zinc_silhouette_for_the_Chat_Noir_cabaret_shadow_play_L'Épopée_(The_Epic)_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Shadow Theater became the rage of Paris. It helped shape Montmartre as the in-vogue arrondissement. But in some of the original member’s minds, it also commercialized the venue. The theatre was later copied by other cabarets. But Le Chat Noir and its theatre’s popularity only vanished with motion pictures.


Thanks for reading all about this fascinating cabaret and its vast sphere of influence. You can see some of the Shadow Theatre pieces today at the Museum of Montmartre and Musée d’Orsay. While I wish I could see it in its prime some artistic groups still draw inspiration from Le Chat Noir and other cabarets. (Annoyingly in the US strip clubs have overwhelmingly co-opted the terms cabaret and burlesque. So it can be hard to search here. Booo.)

The group that comes to mind was one we saw in London: The Black Cat Cabaret. It’s a raucous night complete with a Rodolphe Salis / Artisde Bruant-like host. But most importantly, there’s a fantastic Shadow Theatre. Other groups across Europe have cropped up too, like the Theatre des Ombres. (I’m focusing on European/”Western” groups here. Shadow theatre is an ancient art. Many cultures across the world, like India and China, have immaculate productions. They deserve their own post.)

Previous Post: Wicked Humour: The Hydropathes and Incohérents


Fields, Armond. Le Chat Noir. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1993.

Phillip Dennis Cate and Mary Shaw, eds. The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905. New Jersey: Rutgers, 1996.

 

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