Le Grand Guignol (2018)
In 1897, Oscar Metenier opened his theater, Le Grand Guignol (theater of pain). While the theater was considered controversial for employing prostitutes, criminals, and other dregs of society, Metenier and his partner, Andre Antoine, told the authorities to hold their beers. The Guignol became famous for ramping up the controversy by adding scenes of extreme violence and gore into their plays. Plays like Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations and Le Baiser dans la Nuit drew in crowds averaging 250 and more, including celebrities and royalty, with their scenes of bloody horror, dismemberment, and perversion.
One play involved a doctor who finds the man that’s sleeping with his wife on his operating table. Another play dealt with how a man gets revenge on the woman who disfigured him with acid. The Guignol’s scenes didn’t shy away, either! One famous scene showed a man strangling a woman to death before cutting her arm off, only to discover that she wasn’t truly dead yet. All this in full view of the audience. The Guignol continued shows until 1962 when the audience diminished and it was forced to close. While the director at the time blamed World War II, many people placed blame on his decision to cut back on the gore.
A former chapel, the theatre’s previous life was evident in the boxes – which looked like confessionals – and in the angels over the orchestra. Although the architecture created frustrating obstacles, the design that was initially a predicament ultimately became beneficial to the marketing of the theatre. The opaque furniture and gothic structures placed sporadically on the walls of the building exude a feeling of eeriness from the moment of entrance. People came to this theatre for an experience, not only to see a show. The audience at “Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol” endured the terror of the shows because they wanted to be filled with strong “feelings” of something. Many attended the shows to get a feeling of arousal.
Underneath the balcony were boxes (originally built for nuns to watch church services) that were available for theatre-goers to rent during performances because they would get so aroused by the action happening on stage. It has been said that audience members would get so boisterous in the boxes, that actors would sometimes break character and yell something such as “Keep it down in there!” Conversely, there were audience members who could not physically handle the brutality of the actions taking place on stage. Frequently, the “special effects” would be too realistic and often an audience member would faint or vomit during performances. Maury used the goriness to his advantage by hiring doctors to be at performances as a marketing ploy.
Oscar Méténier was the Grand Guignol’s founder and original director. Under his direction, the theatre produced plays about a class of people who were not considered appropriate subjects in other venues: prostitutes, criminals, street urchins, and others at the lower end of Paris’s social echelon. André Antoine was the founder of the Théâtre Libre and a collaborator of Metenier. His theatre gave Metenier a basic model to use for The Grand Guignol Theatre. Max Maurey served as director from 1898 to 1914. Maurey shifted the theatre’s emphasis to the horror plays it would become famous for and judged the success of a performance by the number of patrons who passed out from shock; the average was two faintings each evening.
Maurey discovered André de Lorde, who would become the most important playwright for the theatre. Maurey discovered André de Lorde, who would become the most important playwright for the theatre. De Lorde was the theatre’s principal playwright from 1901 to 1926. He wrote at least 100 plays for the Grand Guignol, such as The Old Woman, The Ultimate Torture, A Crime in the Mad House and more. He collaborated with experimental psychologist Alfred Binet to create plays about insanity, one of the theatre’s favorite and frequently recurring themes.
Audiences waned in the years following World War II, and the Grand Guignol closed its doors in 1962. Management attributed the closure in part to the fact that the theatre’s faux horrors had been eclipsed by the actual events of the Holocaust two decades earlier. “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.”
The Grand Guignol building still exists. It is occupied by International Visual Theatre, a company devoted to presenting plays in sign language.
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