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1 - The Venues and the Shows

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 June 2021

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Summary

“It is ugly and it is superb, it is in both exquisitely good and outrageously bad taste.” With these words, J.-K. Huysmans summed up the paradoxical allure of the legendary Folies-Bergère, a venue celebrated as much for its resplendent decor and club-like surroundings as for its theatrical productions and circus acts. Huysmans's account of an evening at the hall in his 1879 Parisian Sketches evokes an atmosphere at once elegant and rowdy, refined and vulgar. Patrons swarmed the halls, creating a frenzy of noises, smells, images, and interactions; the air was thick, dusty from the seat cushions and carpets, and filled with cigar smoke; the crowds were lively and noisy; the courtesans ever-present and alluring. He concludes:

It is also unfinished, like anything that aims to be truly beautiful. The faux jardin, with its raised walkways, its arcades of rough wooden latticework with solid lozenges and cut-out trefoils stained red ochre and gold, […] with bars tended by amply made-up women, resembles at one and the same time the restaurant on the rue Montesquieu and a Turkish or Algerian bazaar.

Alhambresque à la Poyet, Moorish à la Duval, with, what's more, the vague smell of those bar-saloons in the old suburbs decorated with Oriental columns and mirrors, this theatre, with its auditorium whose faded reds and tarnished golds clash with the brand-new luxury of the faux jardin, is the only place in Paris that stinks so deliciously of the makeup of bought caresses and the desperation of depravities that fail to excite.

The Folies-Bergère was an English-style music hall that ultimately became a symbol of Parisian pleasures. Trading on a potent mix of laughter, sex, and dreams, the hall welcomed patrons into a dazzling fairyland to revel in hedonistic amusements. They could smoke or drink in an extravagantly decorated lobby, join the courtesans milling about in the vast passage that encircled the hall, or watch a succession of lighthearted entertainments in the auditorium. It was a favorite haunt for affluent Parisians seeking the latest trends, where the famous rubbed shoulders with the infamous, and where tourists could taste the heady combination of beauty and vice that fed Paris's reputation for joie de vivre.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2015

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