No one had ever seen anything like it, and no one, it seemed, could turn away. With a fascination usually reserved for railway accidents and public executions, the high and low 1897 Paris 1897 clawed and scrambled for tickets to the little theater at 20 rue Chaptal. No one really knew what to expect of the performers, but they knew one thing: they would be shocked.
Founded by Oscar Méténier - a student of the Theatre Libre and its founder, Andre Antoine - the Grand Guignol was the logical extension of the Libre’s experiments with ‘natural’ plays: stories about real people, often from the Paris underworld, with sets made from real furniture - a direct departure from the popular theater of grand farces, musical comedy, and the tired, old classics. Realizing that the most popular Libre performances were the ones that featured the true classic themes of sex and violence, Méténier set out to give the audience that it craved: blood and nude women.
A typical Grand Guignol night’s performance was a series of very short set pieces, often as many as seven a night. In 1897 Méténier already understood the typical human’s short attention - if you didn’t like what you saw all you had to do was sit back and wait for the next. Méténier’s typical line up went something like this: slapstick, light drama, comedy, horror, and - finishing up - a farce. Thought their titles and descriptions - such as “Mademoiselle Fifi: a ‘shocker’ about a prostitute who stabs a German officer” or “The Seductress: a farce about a woman who believes all men are trying to seduce her” - seemed tame on the surface, the actual performance was anything but.
Using state of the art make-up techniques, some clever slight of hand, copious amounts of fake blood, and some cow or sheep eyeballs, the Grand Guignol took outrage to new levels. The theater itself helped lend to the hysteria, as it was a tiny space: with only a 20 by 20 foot stage the place still managed to pack in 285 people a night. One critic observed that the place was so crowed that “audience members could shake hands with the actors on stage” and often got sprayed by their fake blood as well.
Death, dismemberment and gouts of blood weren’t the only attraction. Titillation also featured a great deal in the huge popularity of the Guignol. Sex and nudity were featured almost as much as the blood and shock. Again, Méténier realized that violence following sex doubled the terror of the audience - long before Jason chopped up teenagers. A story that peanut butter and chocolate’s perfectly, mixing sex and death, is The Orgy in the Lighthouse (by Leopold Marchand) where two wild sailors bring a pair of prostitutes to a remote lighthouse. When they accidentally extinguish the light during their wild debauch they realize that a ship with their mother on-board is in danger of ending up on the rocks. Unable to get the light back on, one of the sailors looses it and slits the throat of one of the girls and throws her down onto the rocks. The boat indeed crashes - and, in a hysterical fit - both brothers burn the last girl to death.
The story is also typical in that the darkness of the Guignol wasn’t just in violence, but the ‘point’ of the plays: these weren’t stories of virtue and kindness, where couples walked off into the sunset - rather these were plays were the criminals got away with it, nice people got their noses cut off, and innocence was eternally exploited. If the blood, or the sex didn’t get you, the utter bleakness of the stories did.
As observed in Mel Gordon’s great book, The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror, the calculated - and celebrated -- effect on the audience by Méténier and the performers was dramatic: "At one performance, six people passed out when an actress, whose eyeball was just gouged out, re-entered the stage, revealing a gooey, blood-encrusted hole in her skull. Backstage, the actors themselves calculated their success according to the evening's faintings. During one play that ended with a realistic blood transfusion, a record was set: fifteen playgoers had lost consciousness. Between sketches, the cobble-stoned alley outside the theater was frequented by hyperventilating couples and vomiting individuals."
But the problem with shock, with bare tit or gouts of blood, is what it wears off. Compared knock-off theaters - a new liberalism - created in part by the Guignol itself, and the first world war, the Grand Guignol was tame. Still, in various incarnations it lasted for sixty years - even enjoying a beatnik revival in 1950’s San Francisco - until it vanished into the mainstream.
Still, the next time you see blood on stage or on the screen, or various body parts being exposed - or lopped off - remember that little theater at 20 rue Chaptal where much of it started.