French cabaret and shadow theatre. Opened on November 18, 1881 at 84 Boulevard Rochechouart in Paris by an unsuccessful painter, Rodolphe Salis, Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) cabaret brought together artists from different disciplines to “state, write, and draw”. From 1882, Le Chat noir, an illustrated satiric newspaper in which collaborated, among others, Émile Goudeau, Alphonse Allais, Adolphe Willette, Jules Jouy, Caran d’Ache, Théophile Steinlen, contributed to the success of the cabaret. In 1885, needing to expand, the cabaret moved to 12, Rue de Laval (now Rue Victor-Massé) in a small townhouse. There, on the first floor, the theatre was born.
A puppet stage (French: castelet; see also booth) was first installed by the humorist Georges Auriol and La Berline de l’émigré (the Emigrant’s Sedan), a sketch for glove puppets by Henry Somm, was presented. A song by Jules Jouy, and short plays by Caran d’Ache and Lunel were then illustrated by Chinese shadows, using small silhouettes cut from cardboard with a knife and projected on a transparent paper-oiled screen. However, these figures would fall upon themselves and the profiles lost their edge. A young painter, Henri Rivière (1864-1951), had the idea of cutting the figures in zinc, which gave them sharp, more expressive edges, and made them easier to handle. The draftsmanship of Rivière, his spirit of invention and his technical ingenuity as a director, gradually transformed what was only a fantasy into an artistic expression with surprising effects. Soon, coloured transparent silk paper, tulle fabric and coloured glass were added to the zinc. A one-metre screen was installed directly in a breach in the wall and wings were set up to a depth of four metres. Eight to twelve manipulators were helped by stagehands in charge of the sets, and musicians accompanied the performances.
The first shadow play performed in 1887, L’Epopée (The Epic) by Caran d’Ache, was composed of heroic Napoleonic scenes in twenty tableaux, and proved to be the biggest Le Chat Noir theatre success. This show was followed by La Tentation de saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony), a “fantasy extravaganza in two acts and forty tableaux”, by Henri Rivière, with music by Albert Tinchant, created on December 28, 1887.
For eleven years – until 1897 – Le Chat Noir shows were among the most famous in Paris. Drama critics attended the performances and showered these with praise. La Marche à l’Étoile (The Walk to the Star, 1890), a “mystery in ten tableaux”, poem and music by Georges Fragerolle and illustrated by Rivière, was another great success. Many other productions were staged and also toured French provinces and abroad up to the death of Rodolphe Salis, in March 1897. This put an end to the adventure and the shadow theatre was sold at auction.
- Donnay, Maurice. Autour du Chat noir [Around The Chat Noir]. Grasset, 1926.
- Jeanne, Paul. Les Théâtres d’ombres de Montmartre de 1887 à 1923 [The Shadow Theatres of Montmartre from 1887 to 1923]. Paris: Presses modernes, 1937.
- Le Chat noir 1881-1897. “Les Dossiers du musée d’Orsay” series. Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 1992.