How Did Grand Guignol Begin?

  • Le Theatre de Grand Guignol opened its doors in 1897 on rue Chaptal in Paris notorious Montmartre district. The opening of the theater also began the story of a new theatrical genre, “The French Theater of Horror,” which would bear the new theater’s name.
  • Grand Guignol literally translates to, “Big Puppet Show,” or, “Puppet Show For Adults.” This nomenclature hints at the theater’s sketchy location, adult audiences, carnival-like atmosphere, and grotesque subject matter.
  • Montmartrian Theater was largely characterized by its “Blood and Thunder” melodrama houses. These theaters showed plays of crime, murder, tragedy and sex with overstated, histrionic acting techniques.
  • One of the most famous of these melodrama houses was the Moulin Rouge, which opened in 1889, eight years before the Grand Guignol.
  • The Montmartre audiences were mostly consisted of bohemians and working class; hence, Montmartrian Theater could most definitely be described as a popular theater. This is a huge reason contributing to its neglect by scholars.
  • The location of these theaters echoed the violent and excessive subject matter of the plays. Montmartre was filled with prostitutes, drunkards, criminals, and those seeking to indulge in pleasures of the flesh.
  • Though sharing many characteristics with its neighbor theaters in Montmartre, le Theatre de Grand Guignol was different, which it gave it its notorious place in history.

The Style of the Grand Guignol

  • An evening of theater at the Grand Guignol was usually made up of several short plays. These plays alternated between the theater’s signature horror plays and fast paced, bawdy sex comedies. This variety gave the effect of, “La douche ecossaise,” or, “a hot and cold shower.” The sharp contrast between the moods of the different plays helped to make the horror scarier and the comedy funnier in the same way that turning the water back and forth between very hot and very cold causes an intense reaction.
  • Grand Guignol has been described as a combination of extreme naturalism, melodrama, pornography, and the Well-Made play. For example a Grand Guignol play employs the Well-Made model of lots of exposition, calculated plot twists that build suspense, and ultimately lead to a climax which is located near the end of the play. However, in this structure, the action and dialogue progress in a fashion that is similar to pornography. We know what the ultimate result is going to be. It is just a question of when and how it will happen. This final result; namely, the Act of Horror illustrates the last two ideas. In a death scene, the victim would die a stylized and melodramatic death, but the means of death are as naturalistic as possible.
  • Grand Guignol strives first and foremost for a visceral reaction, rather than a deeper symbolic, abstract, or political meaning.
  • Grand Guignol both influenced and was influenced by Expressionism and film.
  • Grand Guignol was a theater of adaptation. Many of its plays were originally stories or films.
  • Though the audience was very close to the action on stage, it was important that the stage was not thrust, or in the round for the sake of special effects and stage illusions.
  • Even with the importance of the proscenium, the actors broke the fourth wall and employed direct address in order to: make the audience an accomplice to an act of violence; to highlight moments of realization; and to remind them that this act is happening very close to them, thus heightening the horror of being a witness. Direct address was used very heavily in comedies.
  • Pace is very important to the Grand Guignol style. The manipulation and slowing of time helps to build the suspense leading to the Act of Terror. This build is the most important part, since the actual Act of Horror is the release of the tension and the beginning of the end of the play. For that reason, it is especially important that the Act of Horror is not rushed. This is often difficult because of the action being performed. Because of this, the idea of ensemble and trust is of extreme importance. When this trust is fostered, the actors will be better able to tell these dark stories with boldness and confidence.
  • The creation of tableaus can help to build suspense and hint at the Act of Horror.
  • The use of sound, NOT music, also helps the naturalism of the play.
  • Grand Guignol is a theater of resistance and the unseen. It is not a theater of bloodletting and the visible. The most celebrated actress of the Grand Guignol, Paula Maxa, once said, “Imagination always transcends reality and it is the imagination, along with the shiver of the soul, that constitutes the poetics of fear.”
  • Some of the most distinguishing features of Grand Guignol was what happened offstage. The people who ran the theater focused strongly on the image and the mythology of the Grand Guignol. They shamelessly used publicity stunts and attention grabbing techniques outside of the theater. This blurred the line between the seedy neighborhood and the scandalous stories being told in the theater. The trip through the neighborhood to get to the theater also served as an appetizer for what was in store for the audience member.
  • The theater also advertised that it had a house physician to treat patrons who felt ill or faint during the show.
  • One of the directors of the theater also published a weekly journal in order to, “Defend his position, and also to defend and publicize his reputation for scandal, contradiction, and taste for the forbidden.”

Themes of the Grand Guignol

  • Grand Guignol steers away from the supernatural in favor of showing the “human beast.” Its characters are sadists, not monsters.
  • Grand Guignol is misanthropic, rather than misogynistic.
  • Psychological motivations are directed by primal instincts and unpredictable insanity.
  • Dark themes, such as death, sex, and insanity are compounded by grotesque coincidence and haunting irony.
  • Grand Guignol exploited contemporary fears. Some of the most common are claustrophobia, infection, technophobia, exoticism, eroticism, infidelity, mutilation, and revenge.

Hand, Richard J. and Wilson, Michael, Grand-Guignol The French Theatre of Horror (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002)

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