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Sex, Violence and Censorship: London's Grand Guignol and the Negotiation of the Limit

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 October 2007


This article provides analysis of the short-lived London Grand Guignol (1920–2). During its brief existence, this institution became infamous – its presentation of acts of murder and violation provoked strong reactions from its audience, the press and the Lord Chamberlain's office. It has not attracted sustained scholarly analysis since, however, and this article draws upon archival material from the Lord Chamberlain's Plays and Correspondence Files, London's Theatre Museum and the Mander and Mitchenson collection in order to assess its audience's scopophilic – and often very physical – responses, as well as the ocularcentric preoccupations of the genre. The article illuminates censorious, critical and academic definitions of value, drawing upon Foucault's essay ‘A Preface to Transgression’ and the work of Georges Bataille.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 2007

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1 ‘The Little – London's Grand Guignol’, Stage, 9 September 1920, p. 16.

2 ‘London's Grand Guignol: A New Quintuple Bill’, Era, 6 July 1921, p. 5.

3 Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson's London's Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, forthcoming), will be the first publication to focus exclusively on the London Grand Guignol.

4 George Street, Report, Lord Chamberlain's Plays and Correspondence (hereafter LCP Corr.), Blind Man's Buff, LR 1921, 22 May 1928.

5 Lord Buckmaster, Letter, LCP Corr., Blind Man's Buff, LR 1921, 25 February 1921.

6 For a discussion of Grand Guignol's relationship with melodrama see Odile Krakovitch, ‘Avant le Grand-Guignol’, Europe-Revue littéraire mensuelle, 836 (1998), 123–37; and Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson, Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2002), pp. 8, 27.

7 St John Irvine, ‘At the Play’, Observer, 5 September 1920, p. 9.

8 Michel Foucault, ‘A Preface to Transgression’, in Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, eds., Bataille: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 24–40, here p. 27.

9 See LCP Corr., Dr Goudron's System, LR 1922, 4 May 1922, and LCP Corr., Blind Man's Buff, LR 1921, 22 February 1921, respectively.

10 ‘More Grand Guignol’, Sunday Times, 3 July 1921, p. 6.

11 Serge, ‘A London Grand Guignol’, Spectator, 25 September 1920, pp. 402–3.

12 ‘New Grand Guignol Series: Tragedy to Comedy’, The Times, 26 January 1922, p. 8.

13 See Mel Gordon, Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror (New York: Amok Press, 1988); John M. Callaghan, ‘The Ultimate in Theatre Violence’, in James Redmond, ed., Violence in Drama (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 165–76; Victor Emeljanow, ‘Grand Guignol and the Orchestration of Violence’, in ibid., pp. 151–64; Agnès Pierron, ed. Le Grand Guignol: Le Theatre des peurs de la belle époque (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1995); idem, ‘Avorter, vomir ou s'évanouir’, Europe-Revue littéraire mensuelle, 836 (1998), 101–7; Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson, ‘The Grand-Guignol: Aspects of Theory and Practice’, Theatre Research International, 25 (2000), 266–75.

14 Gordon, Grand Guignol, p. 2.

15 Hand and Wilson, ‘Grand Guignol’, p. 52.

16 Hand and Wilson, ‘Grand Guignol’, p. 49.

17 Léon Métayer, ‘Le Grand-Guignol? Une Bonne Affaire!’, Europe-Revue littéraire mensuelle, 836 (1998), 184–93, here p. 191.

18 ‘Grand Guignol in the Strand’, Era, 8 September 1920, p. 12.

19 José Levy, Foreword, in Mervyn McPherson, ed., The Grand Guignol Annual Review (London: Little Theatre, 1921), p. 9.

20 John Casson, Lewis & Sybil: A Memoir (London: Collins, 1972), p. 70.

21 George Street, Report, LCP Corr., The Old Women, 1921/3534, 29 April 1921.

22 George Street, Report, LCP Corr., Euthanasia, LR 1921, 27 October 1921.

23 See Steve Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama 1900–1968: 1900–1932, Vol. 1 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003), pp. 180–1.

24 José Levy, letter to H. Trendall, LCP Corr., The Old Women, 1921/3534, 7 July 1921.

25 Métayer, ‘Le Grand-Guignol?’, p. 189.

26 Casson, Lewis & Sybil, p. 72.

27 Hand and Wilson, ‘Grand-Guignol’, p. 76.

28 Histoire de l'oeil was first published in 1928, under the pseudonym Lord Auch.

29 Judith Still, ‘Horror in Kristeva and Bataille: Sex and Violence’, Paragraph, 20, 3 (1997), 221–39, here p. 231.

30 Foucault, ‘A Preface to Transgression’, p. 35.

31 Casson, Lewis & Sybil, p. 70.

32 See Linda Badley, Film, Horror and the Body Fantastic (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1995), p. 11.

33 Pierron, ‘Avorter, vomir ou s'évanouir’, p. 102.

34 Clive Barker's A–Z of Horror, BBC A&E Network Productions, broadcast 25 October 1997. One actor, Bernard Charlan, recalled, ‘You could see these boxes from the stage and once I shouted “You enjoy yourselves in there!”’.

35 See Métayer, ‘Le Grand-Guignol?’, pp. 188–9, and Pierron, Le Grand Guignol, p. lxii.

36 Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 1; added/original emphasis.

37 Quoted in Elizabeth Sprigge, Sybil Thorndike Casson (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1971), p. 140.

38 ‘New Plays at the Little’, Era, 22 October 1920, p. 10.

39 Simon Shepherd, English Drama: A Cultural History, ed. Simon Shepherd and Peter Womack (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 247.

40 Sybil Thorndike, quoted in Sprigge, Sybil Thorndike Casson, p. 142.

41 Russell Thorndike, Sybil Thorndike (London: Thornton Butterworth Ltd, 1929), p. 278.

42 Shepherd, p. 222.

43 George Street, Memo, LCP Corr., The Old Women, 1921/3534, 4 July 1921.

44 The French Grand Guignol's fall from favour has been attributed to several changes in the broader cultural context. See Hand and Wilson, ‘Grand Guignol’, pp. 24–5.

45 ‘The Little – Grand Guignol: Eighth Series’, Stage, 8 June 1922, p. 16.

46 Harold Conway, ‘Non-Stop Horrors – but Audience Refuses to be Thrilled’, undated and unattributed clipping, Theatre Museum file, Duke of York's Theatre, Grand Guignol season, 1932.

47 Henry Game, report, LCP Corr., Coals of Fire, LR 1922, 7 April 1945.