When we think of modern extreme cinema, whether US ‘torture porn’ or Japanese ‘guinea pig’ movies, the underlying assumption is often that these things are a uniquely modern phenomenon. One institution, founded in Paris in 1897, blows that assumption out of the water. The Grand Guignol was pushing the boundaries of taste when Eli Roth was a twinkle in his great-grandfather’s eye, showcasing a blend of sex and violence that exposed the dark heart of repressive victorian society.
The name Grand Guignol was a play on words, partway between ‘Punch and Judy show’ and ‘dressing room’, which gave some clue as to the mix of the theatrical and the illicit that patrons should expect. A short walk from the fabled Moulin Rouge, the Grand Guignol was nestled in the backstreets of Paris’ notorious red light district. It loomed ominously over a long, narrow alleyway.
As for the audience, they were a tapestry of Parisian life. Bourgeois patrons looking for an evening’s entertainment rubbed shoulders with bohemians, sex workers and criminals. Booths at the back of the auditorium had grills that could be raised for a modicum of privacy, which patrons took full advantage of. Reports indicate that performances would frequently have to be paused as the crowd began to laugh and cheer for the goings-on that they could hear emanating from the private booths.
This mixture of extremes – poverty and extravagance, sex and death, pleasure and pain – extended even to the Guignol’s decor. The deconsecrated chapel, which still smelled of incense and candle wax, provided the perfect frisson of the sacred and profane. Above all, it was an intimate venue, with even those on the back row within spitting (or vomiting, in many cases) distance of the stage. Those who took their eyes off the grisly spectacle would have to contend with the disapproving gazes of carved wooden angels and saints.
The Guignol was established in 1897 by Oscar Méténier, the son of a police commissioner with a passion for the grit and grime of Paris. He saw the Guignol as a place to stage plays that showcased the stories of the overlooked underclass of the city: vagrants, sex workers, criminals and the working poor. His passion for true crime made him a much-loved fixture of the theatre, regaling patrons in the queue with tales of murder and mayhem gleaned from his day job as secretary to the commissariat of la Tour Saint-Jacques.
It would be director Max Maurey who first realised the full potential of staging horror plays in the theatre. He shifted the focus on to gorier spectacles, while retaining Méténier’s vision of gritty social realism. Under his direction the Guignol would become infamous for its average of two faintings per night.
It was Maurey who discovered André De Lorde, ‘The Prince of Terror’ who would become the Guignol’s most prolific and important playwright. De Lorde hit upon the storytelling formula that would make the Guignol a roaring success. He was also a great collaborator, working with psychologists, surgeons and criminologists to craft realistic depictions of madness and murder.
Queen of the Guignol was actress Paula Maxa, recently immortalised in the film The Most Assassinated Woman in the World. Paula’s trademark scream could be heard from streets away. She delighted in the extremes of emotion that Guignol performance demanded. Paula was strangled, shot, whipped, cut into 83 pieces by dagger, eaten by a puma, flattened by a steamroller and stung by a scorpion, amongst thousands of other spectacular fates.
The plays were often ripped from the headlines, presenting audiences with mock-ups of murders that they would already know by rote from illustrated papers like Le Petit Journal, France’s answer to England’s Illustrated Police News.
The Guignol also drew from international news. Only three years after the Boxer rebellion, the Guignol was staging The Final Torture (1904), a play in which a group are driven mad by the impending threat of capture and execution at the hands of the rebels. In their terror they turn on each other, only for their liberators to arrive too late. It’s a play that has lost none of its shocking power, and contains more than a little of the DNA of the modern zombie siege movie.
The plays were often brutal, but rarely brainless. The repertoire would be presented as a series of short plays, often interspersed with lighter fare (short sex farces about adulterers, usually). The plays would be tense, set in claustrophobic environments and often featuring cat-and-mouse dialogue replete with knowing allusions to the violence to follow. It’s easy to see how these basic elements would later find expression in portmanteau films like Dead of Night and TV shows like Tales of the Unexpected.
In fact, many of the plays produced in the early days of the Guignol have a surprisingly contemporary feel. In At The Telephone (1902), a bourgeois man boasts about the advantages of his shiny new telephone, only to listen helplessly from miles away as his family is strangled. It’s an ironic tale of technological betrayal that predates When a Stranger Calls by 77 years.
Cultural taboos were the Guignol’s stock-in-trade. A Man of the Night featured a crypt-walking necrophile, while the horrible passion in A Horrible Passion was that of a nanny for strangling the infants in her care.
The play The Man Who Killed Death (1928) was about scientists given licence to reanimate the head of a guillotined man. Racked with guilt, the counsel for the prosecution loses his mind when the reanimated head proclaims its innocence. Looking at the poster, one can clearly see the impact that this would have on B-movie ‘Mad Scientist’ movies of the ’50s, but there may be a more direct link with horror cinema. When it was staged at the London Guignol, the head was played by James Whale, later director of Universal’s Frankenstein.
Helplessness, imprisonment and insanity were constant companions at the Grand Guignol, but the plays were rarely home to the supernatural. When ghosts made an appearance, they were generally the living committing a murderous deception. Such is the case in The Kiss of Blood (1929), in which a man’s guilt at having murdered his wife manifests in excruciating pain in his hand, which he eventually amputates. When the ghost of his wife appears, she kisses the bloody stump. The pain resumes, and the man drops dead. His wife had in fact survived the murder attempt and was only pretending to be a ghost in order to torment her husband. It’s easy to imagine that H.G. Clouzot had similar ideas in mind for his film Les Diaboliques.
There were technological innovations too. Camille Choisy, director from 1914 to 1930, introduced many staggering effects. These included the now legendary ‘Guignol blood’, which congealed realistically under stage lighting. The London Guignol featured a play about an adulterous wife and her lover who are trapped in an apartment booby-trapped by the jilted husband. It required that a fake ceiling be slowly lowered, crushing the lovers to death.
Publicity stunts such as having doctors certify patrons’ health and heart rates before they entered for ‘their own safety’ and even the staged kidnapping of an actress before opening night helped shore up the impressive reputation of the theatre. These tales are certain to have been influences for horror showman William Castle.
The London Guignol was an interesting, if short-lived, experiment. It did not fail, however, because of a lack of audience appetite. The Old Women (1925) was an adaptation of the french classic A Crime in the Madhouse, in which a young women has her eyes gouged out by lunatics wishing to free a bird that they believe is trapped inside her skull. It snuck past the censors by deception; a clergyman friend of the theatre applied for permission to stage the play with his group of girl guides. Such an innocent-seeming request was approved without scrutiny, but that approval gave licence to any theatre in Britain to stage their own version.
After the deception was discovered, the censors were incensed. The infamous blue pencil of the Lord Chamberlain’s office (from which we get the phrases ‘blue movie’ and ‘blue joke’) went to work, and scripts for the London Guignol were censored into toothless blandness. The theatre disappeared after only two years.
As for the Paris Guignol, it stuck it out until 1962 before finally closing its doors, unable to compete with the delights of the cinema. Public appetite for the horrors it offered had waned in the aftermath of World War 2, and the fact that the theatre had remained open under NAZI occupation left a bad taste in the mouths of some. Moreover, the discoveries of NAZI atrocities had an impact on the public’s thirst for cruelty. As the final director Charles Nonon said, “We could never equal Buchenwald”.
Nevertheless, the legacy of the Grand Guignol can not be understated. So much of the language of modern horror was birthed in this out-of-the-way theatre, and so many horror luminaries took up its torch. It is no coincidence that the decline of the Guignol is marked by the ascendence of Hammer Studios in the UK, that their poster art was mirrored by American EC comics, or that their final play was a stage adaptation of Eyes Without a Face, as if the theatre was graciously bowing to the next generation of blood-soaked mischief-makers. The theatre, known to some as ‘The Temple of Horror’, had spawned an army of dedicated evangelists.
A taped recording of some scenes from one of the final performances was captured for posterity: