On The Gruesome Greatness of the Grand Guignol

Many impulses contributed to the creation of this post: the approach of Halloween, our mushrooming Francophilia, the fact that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the closing of the original Grand Guignol, and the realization that though we have mentioned the historic venue and its peculiar style of theatre on occasion, it’s possible that some of our readers may not be familiar with its fascinating story.

For 2/3 of a century (roughly 1897-1962), Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was world famous as Paris’s sui generis horror theatre. I say “roughly” because its mission varied from time to time. Its ostensible founding reason for being was naturalism, back when that was an avant-garde aesthetic strategy. Its founder was Oscar Méténier, a devotee of both André Antoine and Émile Zola who had started out presenting short sketches at the famous cabaret Le Chat Noir. Méténier’s abiding interest was people at the bottom, characters whose existence was shocking to present onstage: prostitutes, thugs, drug addicts and so forth. The Apache Dance grew out of the vogue for such entertainment at this time. Méténier started Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol to present his works full time. Seating audiences under 300, it was Paris’s smallest venue, akin to the “Little Theater” movement happening in the U.S. at the same time. “Guignol” refers to a puppet character from the Punch and Judy universe, who was usually some sort of laborer or artisan. The naming of the theater implied Guignol stories writ large, made extreme. (Around the same time, Alfred Jarry would give this “giant puppet” idea quite a different spin).

From 1898 to 1914 the Grand Guignol was managed by Max Maurey, who developed the venue’s signature style: gory, lurid, one act plays where awful people did awful things to one another at the climax, due to madness, mind control, or desperation. There were usually 5 or 6 of these plays on a bill, around 15 minutes long each. They might feature torture, dismemberment, gushing blood, disembowelment, and so forth. Characters were ritually murdered on stage with scissors, axes, chisels, saws, hammers, garrots, the variations were and apparently still are endless. Or the cruelty could be entirely psychological. It’s often compared to horror films of the sound era; some of it could also be compared usefully with the present vogue for true crime. From 1901 to 1926 the theatre’s principal playwright was André de Lorde, who turned out hundreds of these things. Meanwhile Maurey left the Grand Guignol to assume management of the Théâtre des Variétés; Camille Choisy, whose forte was special effects, was his successor, through 1930.

Attempts were made to export the Grand Guignol idea. Alfredo Sainati ran the La Compagnia del Grand-Guignol in Italy from 1908 to 1928. From 1920 to 1922 Jose Levy presented a version of the Grand Guignol in London starring Sybil Thorndike. He was eventually shut down by the censors. The Selwyns presented French Grand Guignol players on Broadway in 1923.

In the ’30s the popularity of the original Grand Guignol company began to ebb, as the then-director Jack Jouvin tried to steer the work in less sensational directions. By then Hollywood was beginning to emulate many of its strategies. Mad Love (1935) with Peter Lorre in particular evokes the milieu of the Grand Guignol, one of the many reasons to relish that classic. The Production Code soon muted that glorious period, but by the 1960s the cinema found new ways to revive the pioneering era of horror and the flood tide of simulated gore has been flowing ever since.

The Grand Guignol itself suffered during the Nazi occupation and the post-war period. The public lost its stomach for blood; next to what they had seen during the war, such entertainment seemed silly, trivial, probably even profane. Like many such historic and storied Paris venues, such as the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol opened its doors to tourists. In the case of the Grand Guignol I picture something not unlike the last days of Sammy’s Bowery Follies, with audiences of slumming folks, hoping to gawk at the tawdry remains of more glorious days. When the Grand Guignol closed in 1962, it was passing the torch to things like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (which came out the same year) and a new film horror subgenre known by some as Grand Dame Guignol.

Since then, the Grand Guignol concept has been revived many times onstage throughout the world. Here in New York, many of my indie theatre friends and colleagues have presented horror theatre in this vein. The Secret Theatre in Queens (where we shot The Moose Head Over the Mantel) literally presented vintage Grand Guignol plays on a half dozen occasions. Personally, I think reviving the concept for tourists on an ongoing basis has legs — though legs have been known to be sawn off.

Ordinarily, this is where I would plug my own books, but their relevance in this case would be relatively marginal. So allow me to instead recommend Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror (1988) by the late great Mel Gordon, and Grand Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror by Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson. The latter has had many volumes, including a recent one that includes a play by pal James Comtois.