The Grand Guignol was a theater in the Pigalle district, the seamy underbelly of Paris. The theater’s focus varied slightly with shifts in management, but the subject matter of its short plays invariably involved horror, sex and madness. Comedies were interspersed between the dramas to release some of the tension. During its heyday in the early 1900s, women supposedly fainted at every performance.
From its beginnings in turn-of-the-century Paris and throughout its sixty-year reign of terror, the Theatre of the Grand Guignol gleefully celebrated horror and fear. Innocent victims, mangled beauty, insanity, mutilation, depravity, and guilt were its primary themes. By dissecting primal taboos in an unprecedentedly graphic manner, it became the progenitor of all the blood-spilling, eye-gouging, and limb-hacking “splatter” movies of today.
In 1897, the French playwright and police employee who spent the last moments with prisoners sentenced to death, Oscar Metenier, bought a theater at the end of the impasse Chaptal, a cul-de-sac in Paris’ Pigalle district, in which to produce his controversial naturalist plays. The smallest theater in Paris, it was also the most atypical. Two large angels hung above the orchestra and the theater’s neogothic wood paneling; and the boxes, with their iron railings, looked like confessionals (the building had, in fact, once been a chapel).
The Theatre du Grand-Guignol–which means literally the “big puppet show”–took its name from the popular French puppet character Guignol, whose original incarnation was as an outspoken social commentator–a spokesperson for the canuts, or silk workers, of Lyon. Early Guignol puppet shows were frequently censored by Napoleon III’s police force.
In the following video, Mel Gordon, who wrote the book “The Grand Guignol: The Theatre of Fear and Terror” gives us a brief explanation of what it was and what it meant to society and the world.
Oscar Metenier was himself a frequent target of censorship for having the audacity to depict a milieu which had never before appeared on stage–that of vagrants, street kids, prostitutes, criminals, and “apaches,” as street loafers and con artists were called at the time–and moreover for allowing those characters to express themselves in their own language.
One of the Grand-Guignol’s first plays, Metenier’s Mademoiselle Fifi (based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant), which was temporarily shut down by police censors, presented the first prostitute on stage; his subsequent play, Lui!, united a whore and a criminal in the enclosed space of a hotel room. Metenier was Guignol grown up, or grandi… The Theatre du Grand-Guignol was an immediate success. Without realizing it, Metenier had laid the first stone in the edifice of the Grand-Guignol repertoire, which was to last for over half a century. Little by little and almost accidentally, a new genre was born.
There is a lot more to say about the The Grand Guignol, but for now let me leave you with the following video. It is a trailer of ‘The Theatre Bizarre’ a modern tribute to Grand Guignol featuring cult film icon Udo Kier and films by directors Douglas Buck, Buddy Giovinazzo, Karim Hussain, Jeremy Kasten Tom Savini & Richard Stanley. Enjoy!