GRAND GUIGNOL (1897-1962): Introduction to Grand-Guignol, French Theatre of Horror

Posted by Tanja Jurković on January 29, 2013 in Guest Blog, Tanja Jurkovic tagged with , ,
The Grand-Guignol Theatre

The Grand-Guignol Theatre

Many of you have probably heard the name Grand-Guignol, medical at least once during your lifetime. The legend that formed around this name came to life in 1897, when André Antoine, the founder of Théâtre Libre, started his collaboration with a certain Oscar Méténier, a former chien de commisaire (a person who accompanied prisoners on a death row). As Méténier witnessed people’s lives perishing into oblivion almost on a daily basis, he wrote down his experiences and observations regarding these particular events in his romans feuilletons, very often describing the fait divers, which stand for common, daily facts of Parisian life. He submitted all of his writings, popularly known as comédies rosses, to Antoine, who had a great reputation of being strict, critical, but was respected for his opinion, as well as the development of stage naturalism and his contribution in the role of the director of Théâtre Libre. He recognized the quality and enthusiasm in Méténier’s work, so he gave him a once in a lifetime opportunity to stage his pieces, which Méténier took with both hands and with professionalism. That was the beginning of a productive collaboration between two different, and yet very similar characters, which both enjoyed naturalism and everything this movement had to offer. After a while, Méténier completely took over the theatre and gave it its unique look, slowly building an audience and forming a story of a small, dark place somewhere in the Montmartrean area of Paris, in a dirty alley, rue Chaptal, the home of bohemians, fallen poets, artists and prostitutes. He continued to stage performances composed in a naturalistic manner, often describing the morality of the Parisian lower classes and the way of life on the picturesque streets of Paris of the time. Grand-Guignol as we know it, a theatre of blood, guts and gore that titillates the audience every second of the experience given on stage, the macabre and twisted world of horror came to life only two years after Méténier’s guidance, under the accomplished hand of Max Maurey. Although he kept most of Metenier’s style of directorship, he was much more involved in the practical and public part of the theatre. He would attend rehearsals, and having an incredible eye for detail, he would become involved in the process, which earned him only admiration, both from critics and his employees: “What made Max Maurey’s job easier was the spirit of discipline and commitment, the flexibility and endurance of the actors under his direction.”  Incorporating a médécin du service into the program of the theatre, for weak-hearted people who couldn’t endure the violence and horrors on stage, he set the foundations for the Theatre of Horror. The legend was born. The horrors became real, under the mask of masterful performance of the actors Paula Maxa and L.Paulais, the writings of a genius André de Lorde, in which comedy and horror took turns, all of which were entwined with beautifully mastered special effects of Paul Ratineau, one of the most appreciated experts in that field, which influenced today’s giants of the horror genre, like George Romero and Mario Bava, the creator of the giallo genre in horror.

Interior of the Theatre of Horror

Interior of the Theatre of Horror

Grand-Guignol took residence in a former Gothic Revival-stylized chapel, a small, almost claustrophobic place that created the well-known gloomy atmosphere of the theatre, “which is the most important thing”, according to the celebrated actress of this theatre, Paula Maxa, and the intimacy between the actors and the audience, as this was one of the main characteristics and reasons for the success of Grand-Guignol. On each side of the stage, masterfully crafted angels held their guard, witnessing all the horrors of man that the actors produced on stage. When talking about the stage, it was small, only 7×7 meters, which was very atypical, but not an unusual thing in naturalistic theatres in Montmartre.  “It was so small that only the most elementary scenic attempts were possible, and the audience was so close that illusion was an impossibility”, so there wasn’t much space for the actors to perform complex plays and performer-dependent effects. Only one belated second could ruin the whole atmosphere, and turn horrors into laughs. Nevertheless, the size of the stage was the main factor which decided on the relationship between the audience and the performers. Being so close to the gruesome scenes of violence that was happening on stage, the audience had the opportunity to become a part of the show, either as a victim or a villain. In that way, they became fully aware of their inner darkness, the duality of their character, the Monster that resides in all of us, by capturing the essence of the actors’ performance on stage, catching a glimpse in the eye of a murderer, participating in the crimes and depravities presented to them through the skillful performance of the actors. Paula Maxa, the Princess of Horror, and L.Paulais, the man with an astonishing mimicry, as though he had thousand faces, were the most popular acting pair in Grand-Guignol, not just because of a genuine and realistic performance of horrific scenes of blood and gore, but also because of the immense love they had for this theatre. Paula Maxa once said: “My torments, all of those I have felt on the scene of Grand-Guignol, Chinese tortures, as complicated as they were treacherous, stood out, in a way, from a secret vocation with which I was morbidly fascinated  since my tender childhood. An artist, a creator of a special genre, whose role is not to evaluate the succes, it seems to me like I cannot embody any other character but the one of a bloody victim from all the tragedies of human passion.”

Paula Maxa and L.Paulais

Paula Maxa and L.Paulais

Apart from the performance, another thing that characterizes this theatre was the writing of the screenplays. The man behind it all, André de Lorde, also known as Le Prince de la Terreur, was a small man of gentle appearance and very polite, as Pierron says, but under this benevolent shroud there lay hidden an evil genius who tried to awaken the monstrosity in people incorporating his writing skills with the knowledge of psychology. In that manner, he collaborated with Alfred Binet, a pioneer in this field, who, although he never quite finished his formal education, knew the paths that led into the labyrinth of human psyche, revealing the secrets and the complexity of the mind. The result of this atypical, but interesting and very productive collaboration was le Théâtre médical, which, in De Lorde’s words,  “…belonged to the dramatic art as much as the painting of Rembrandt, Leçon d’anatomie, belonged to the art of painting – because art resides in the emotion as well as in the colour…”. He imagined the structure of this theatre as macabre and bloody and Alfred Binet contributed with his study of personalities, with  his precision and his knowledge of psychology and pathology, as Pierron quotes. Most plays were usually taking place in dark spaces like mental asylums and prisons, which were a synonym for the deviant nature of human condition and a fertile ground for the development of the monstrous character. These places were claustrophobic, hopeless, with no chance of escape; suffocating, out of sight places where everything is possible, and where no one can hear the screams of souls tortured by their own morality and character. Themes of revenge, love, hate and the double nature of people were predominant on the stage of Grand-Guignol, in a way depicting the time and the horrors of WW1, which prevailed in the outside world.  No one believed that the Grand-Guignol Theatre would last in these troubling times, when real horrors were happening on the streets and in plain sight. But there was a turn of events, and another change in directorship. Camille Choisy, who took over the directorship from Maurey, deserves to be recognized as the one director who was nurturing the immense talent of the two greatest performers in Grand-Guignol, and as an actor and a man of theatre, he contributed to further development of artistic quality. It was the golden age for Grand-Guignol. In opposition to Choisy and his work, Jack Jouvin, who took over the place after him, did not share the same vision of the theatre as his predecessors. Although he retained many of the Grand-Guignol classics in the program, “he replaced the physical violence with psychological and sexual menace in the plays” . The change was accepted by some critics, but it changed the purpose of Grand-Guignol as a place where horror and terror reside, and blood and fear can be measured in immense quantities. Jouvin had the tendency to do everything alone, which in the end led to the death of Grand-Guignol genre.  There are many hypotheses about Grand-Guignol’s decline, coming from the people involved in this theatre and from critics as well.  The actors believed that the decline began “because of Jouvin’s insistence on retaining control over all aspects of production…”, which altogether created a monotony on stage. Maurey’s reason for leaving his position in the theatre was the opinion that time and social changes affected the work of the theatre. His directorship coincides with la belle époque, and what was produced then at the Grand-Guignol “reflected the moods, anxieties and preoccupations of Parisian society during this complex and critical period.” One of the last directors of the Grand-Guignol Theatre, Eddy Ghillain, an actor, writer and director, was the one person who didn’t believe that the story of Grand-Guignol was at its end, which can be seen in his attempts to “rediscover and re-establish the Grand-Guignol genre after the failed efforts to transform the theatre into something other than the one and only “Theatre of Horror””, referring here to Jouvin’s directorship. More plausible reason for the decline of the theatre was the appearance of cinema, as Pierron says, the “decline of the Grand-Guignol coincides with the ascendancy of Hammer film”. Hammer Studios took over the horror genre; their films became largely popular, slowly pushing out theatre performance and earning a well-deserved reputation of being the poster Company for Great British Horror, after they produced the two Gothic classics, The curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958).

Classic poster art for one of Grand-Guignol plays

Classic poster art for one of Grand-Guignol plays

Grand-Guignol closed its doors in 1962, with its last performance, the stage version of Les Yeux sans visage. It was the end of an era which produced some of the greatest talents and brought the horror genre on the whole new level of quality and creativity, and formed a unique place where “imagination always transcends reality and it is the imagination, along with a shiver of the soul that constitutes the poetics of fear”.

Sources:

1. Hand, Wilson: GRAND-GUIGNOL, The French Theatre of Horror, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, Devon, 2002;

2. Agnes Pierron: LE GRAND-GUIGNOL, Le Theatre des Peurs de la Belle Epoque, Editions Robert Laffont, S.A., Paris, 1995.

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