Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror, by Mel Gordon (De Capo Press,
1997 Revised Edition, 174 pages; trade paperback; US: $13.95, Canada: $18.50)
Grand Guignol still exist? Theater Professor Mel Gordon writes that
the celebrated French theater of splatter was demolished "in March 1963,
[when] with much fanfare, the building that housed the Grand Guignol was
totally destroyed." His account is detailed and colorful. But
Monster Show David J. Skal writes, "Contrary to one recently published
account, the Grand Guignol was not demolished after its closing in 1964
[sic], but still stands, now operating as a theatre school. In October
1989, this author was given a tour of the facility..."
Guignol was first released in 1988. As this 1997 revised edition
comes out four years after Skal's book, one wishes that Gordon would either
have corrected his book or corrected Skal. But the discrepancy is
Skal himself cites Gordon as a "Grand Guignol historian," Gordon's book
provides only a sketchy history; 34 pages replete with illustrations (photos,
newspaper cartoons, theater posters) supplanting text. We learn some
Despite its influence on filmic splatter, theatrical
gore existed millennia before the Guignol's 1897 opening. Prehistoric
shamans performed public self-mutilation. Ancient Egyptians and
pre-Columbian Amerinds practiced ritual human and animal sacrifice, real
and symbolic. Medieval Europeans used animal organs and limbs as
stage props for human gore. During France's Reign
of Terror "freshly-guillotined corpses were manipulated like oversized
puppets in grotesque comedies." Grand Guignol itself means Big Puppet.
shaped the Guignol's gory stage realism. By the 1810s, melodramas
about and for the working class -- vulgar plays with broadly drawn evil
rich oppressing the noble poor -- opened in Paris at a rate of seventy
a month. Happy endings were mandatory, making these the Harlequin
romances of their day. The Guignol's vulgar melodramas would drop
that part. Faits divers, one-sheet news reports on grisly crimes, were
another influence. Guignol playwrights often dramatized current crimes,
a motif nearer to today's "true crime" genre than to horror.
Allen Poe inspired a generation of French writers. So too Naturalism,
an aesthetic movement exhorting a "scientific" theater. Naturalists
insisted that art, in depicting people, must incorporate the latest findings
in genetics, psychology, and environment. This was the century of
Darwin, Freud, and Weber, and art eagerly embraced science. Stalislavsky's
Method was one result.
founder Oscar Méténier had a morbid interest in science. He "scoured Paris's menacing red-light and working-class slum districts
for over six years in a scientific search for naturalist material." Pre-Guignol he wrote for Théâtre Libre, using "real criminal
types to play themselves in minor parts." His research enabled him
to write authentic dialogue for "lowlife play figures, many of whom were
based on real persons, and he found their instinctive and savage actions
superior to the vain pretensions of Paris's bourgeois theatre-goers."
emerges, perverse and peculiarly French. The Guignol espoused a creed
exploding bourgeois taboos, pretensions, and hypocrisies, and of producing
plays aimed at offending middle and upper class authority, manners, and
sensibilities. Yet for all that, the Guignol was a mostly bourgeois
and blue blood happening. Méténier, a journalist and police
bureaucrat who enjoyed watching private state executions, needed to visit
red-light districts in order to study the underclass. André
de Lorde, perhaps the Guignol's most celebrated and prolific playwright,
was a physician's son. His writing partner, Dr. Alfred Binet of the
Sorbonne, was also his therapist. The audience included society's
crème de la crème.
and aristocrats were regulars. "For premieres, audiences often attended
in evening dresses and tuxedos, bringing their own champagne and glasses." Much of this societal success was owing to Max Maurey, an entrepreneur/showman
who bought the Guignol from Méténier in 1898 and ran it till
1915. Maurey's ethos resembled P.T. Barnum more then Naturalist guru
Emile Zola, supplanting a scientific theatre with pure theater, "where
every social taboo of good taste was cracked and shattered." Maurey
spread reports of patrons fainting from shock. Later Guignol producers
advertised the hiring of in-house physicians, presaging William
more than any stage gore, is this spectacle of the leisure, professional,
and intellectual classes gawking at "authentic" underclass types on stage,
thrilled by their own imagined wickedness at viewing the shattering of
their own "taboos."
As the Guignol was a world renowned tourist attraction
by 1910, recommended in Parisian guidebooks of every language, its patrons
evoke the armchair revolutionaries of later decades. Not surprisingly,
after the Guignol's novelty wore off in the 1930s, its remaining patrons
were largely French university students necking in the balconies. And American tourists.
hot the Grand Guignol was with the flapper crowd in its heyday, it attracted
others. One avid regular was Vietnamese refugee, and noodle and pastry
Chi Minh. Hermann Goering was a loyal fan during the occupation. George Patton visited after liberation.
Conclusion asks: why study the Grand Guignol? His answer: censorship
is a growing issue in art. He chides "otherwise liberal" people who favor
government censorship if it suppresses gratuitous violence. He is
from his brief Conclusion, Gordon rarely discusses censorship. When
he does raise the issue, he makes a good point. "Théâtre
Libre was under immense pressure to rid itself of both the naturalist mystery
play and social documentary. Only because the Théâtre
Libre ran itself as a private enterprise limited to individual subscribers
were local censors held at bay." Gordon later adds that Méténier's
"In the Family" was banned from public theaters.
But after Gordon
relates these instances of government arts funding leading to arts censorship,
he immediately drops the issue.
Elsewhere, he relates that Britain's
SPCA tried to close its own Guignol (yes, there were foreign copies), fearing
(wrongly) that wolfhounds were mistreated. But when Gordon says that
the Italian Guignol "performed uninterrupted from 1923 to 1928," he doesn't
state whether it closed due to a declining audience or to Fascist censors. If the latter, he doesn't explain why Mussolini permitted its uninterrupted
five year run. Gordon never broaches censorship under Mussolini. Maybe it didn't exist? Or more likely, Gordon grafted the censorship
issue on to the end of his book in a lame attempt at closure.
of the book is composed of 100 synopses of Guignol plays, with author and
year of première. Also included is André‚ de Lorde's
essay "Fear In Literature" and two complete plays, one by de Lorde and
one by de Lorde & Binet, translated into English. Not included
is an index.
Gordon's cursory history of the Guignol and a particularly superficial
look at the Guignol's influence on film, his book's extensive illustrations,
synopses, and plays provide a decent introduction to this chapter in splatter
Review copyright by Thomas