Friday, July 17, 2009

The Grand Guignol

In 1897, an entirely new form of entertainment came into being at Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in the Pigalle district of Paris.

The Grand Guignol pioneered horror as a theatrical genre, inspired partly by the Penny Dreadfuls (the original tawdry pulp fiction) and no doubt colored by the horrors of the relatively recent Jack the Ripper murder spree.

“One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the twentieth century.” - Jack the Ripper

1897 was also the year that Philip Burne-Jones painted The Vampire (see image below), and Bram Stoker published Dracula, clearly indicating that a general sense of erotic bloodletting was in the air, quickly becoming the prevailing planetary Zeitgeist and not just a fad. In France especially, there was a palpable and ominous feeling that the end of civilization had come, and they called this the fin de siecle. And then they nursed it, they rehearsed it, and then gave out the news.

The Grand Guignol's name was a sarcastic and irreverent in-joke whose meaning is lost on most today - Guignol was the name of a puppet in an overwhelmingly popular and beloved puppet show in the 1800s. A modern equivalent would be if, say, a snuff-porn-film company were to call itself "Ultra Mickey Mouse". Because of the common association of the name "Guignol" with puppetry, there was also an implied dehumanizing element, suggesting that the live actors onstage were merely puppets.

The original mission of the Grand Guignol was to present plays about disenfranchised sorts who were not usually considered appropriate subject matter: prostitutes, criminals, con-artists, drifters, grifters, drunks, bums, perverts, lowlifes, etc. This quickly drifted into deeper and deeper waters of sex, insanity and violence until it became the tail that wagged the dog. Playwright Andre de Lorde authored over 150 plays for the Grand Guignol, all of which dealt with gory, shocking and anti-social themes. Actress Paula Maxa become famous for her work in the Grand Guignol's horror plays - saith the Wikipedia:

"From 1917 to the 1930s, she performed most frequently as a victim and was known as "the most assassinated woman in the world." During her career at the Grand Guignol, Maxa was murdered more than 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways and was raped at least 3,000 times."

Among the plays staged by the Grand Guignol during its glory days:

  • L'Homme de la Nuit - A sympathetic story of an unrepetant necrophiliac, based on the true story of Sergeant Francoise Bertrand, a man sentenced in 1849 for violating tombs and mutilating corpses.

  • Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations - When a doctor finds his wife's lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor's brain.

  • Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous - Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a young, pretty fellow inmate out of jealousy.

  • L'Horrible Passion - A nanny strangles the children in her care.

  • La Fosse aux filles - A man addicted to prostitutes discovers the horrors of syphilis.

    The Grand Guignol cleverly heightened the impact of their shock plays by alternating them with comedy skits, thus "cleansing the palate" for the next round of travesties.

    The mind-numbing horrors of the Nazis and World War II made the Grand Guignol irrelevant, and the place was on its last legs by the 1950s. Anais Nin bemoaned the theatre's decline in her diary in 1958:

    "I surrendered myself to the Grand-Guignol, to its venerable filth which used to cause such shivers of horror, which used to petrify us with terror. All our nightmares of sadism and perversion were played out on that stage. . . . The theater was empty."

    The Grand Guignol closed in 1962. Its spirit lives on today, however, in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, in the Molotov Theatre company, and of course, Catclaw.
  • 1 comment:

    1. I read your other article about giugnol the puppet......very cool, you need to have comments enabled on those too