Theatre of Blood: Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol

"Crime in a Madhouse". Photograph by Hans Wilder, 1947.

“Crime in a Madhouse”. Photograph by Hans Wilder, 1947.

If you’re  a fan of horror and/or theatre, you will inevitably encounter the term grand guignol and, if you’re like me, wonder what it means and from where it comes. The French phrase grand guignol has been absorbed into the English lexicon as a term to describe any excessively gruesome and gory spectacle, but its origins are much more specific. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was a theatre founded in Paris by Oscar Méténier in 1894. Operating for 65 years, it produced one-act plays, many of which focused on violent and erotic works of horror.

The theatre was opened by Oscar Metenier, a writer and police secretary, who created slice-of-life plays about the Parisian underlife and stories of true crime. Metenier was a follower of Naturalism: a movement in late 19th Century theatre that attempted to create a perfect illusion of reality. Naturalistic works often exposed the dark harshness of life, with themes of poverty, racism, sex, prejudice, disease, prostitution, and filth.

After a couple of years at the helm, Metenier handed the theatre over to Max Maurey, who saw the commercial potential of the theatre and, in particular, capitalized upon its darker side. Maurey incorporated melodrama into the Grand-Guignol’s acting style to heighten the emotion of the more sensational elements while keeping Naturalism as the guiding principle for characters and situations. It was under Maurey that the style of the Grand Guignol became renowned throughout Europe and, eventually, the world.

— text from Theatre of Blood web site.

Theatre-goers would be treated to five or six one-act plays in an evening’s performance, alternating between bawdy, Vaudevillian-style comedies, to violent tales of crime, madness, and bloody revenge. The gory special effects of the Grand-Guignol were world-renowned for their high degree of realism, and the theatre employed teams of propsmen who specialized in fake blood, severed limbs, and impaled eyeballs. Some of the more famous horror-themed plays staged included:

Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations, by André de Lorde: 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, by André de Lorde: Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a young, pretty fellow inmate out of jealousy.

L’Horrible Passion, by André de Lorde: A nanny strangles the children in her care.

Le Baiser dans la nuit by Maurice Level: A young woman visits the man whose face she horribly disfigured with acid, where he obtains his revenge.

A scene from Grand Guignol.

A scene from Grand Guignol.

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol closed its door in 1962. Audiences had dwindled in the years following WWII, likely due to the fact that the staged horrors had now been eclipsed by the real world horrors of the war and the Holocaust. “We could never equal Buchenwald,” said its final director, Charles Nonon. “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.” (from Wikipedia).

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