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The Grand-Guignol: Aspects of Theory and Practice


The Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris (1897–1962) achieved a legendary reputation as the ‘Theatre of Horror’, a venue displaying such explicit violence and blood-curdling terror that a resident doctor was employed to treat the numerous spectators who fainted each night. Indeed, the phrase ‘grand-guignolesque’ has entered the language to describe any display of heightened, remorseless horror. Such is the myth of the Grand-Guignol: the reality is subtler and far more complex.

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1. For a complete list of the programmes presented at the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, see Pierron Agnès, Le Grand-Guignol (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1995), pp. 1403–24.

2. Schechner Richard, Performance Theory (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 164.

3. Sabatier Guy, ‘Idéologie et fonction sociale du Grand-Guignol à ses origines’, Europe: revue littéraire mensuelle, 835836: 1112 1998, p. 141.

4. André Degaine gives a particularly vivid account in ‘J'ai tremblé au Grand-Guignol’, Europe: revue littéraire mensuelle, 835–836: November–December 1998.

5. Quoted in Antona-Traversi Camillo, L'Histoire du Grand-Guignol (Paris: Librairie théâtrale, 1931), p. 31.

6. Pierron , Le Grand-Guignol, p. IX.

7. Gordon Mei, The Grand-Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror (Revised edition, New York: De Capo Press, 1997), pp. 1416.

8. Rivière Francois & Wittkop Gabrielle, Grand-Guignol (Paris: Henri Veyrier, 1979), pp. 9697.

9. Since 1998 we have established a Grand-Guignol Laboratory at the University of Glamorgan in Wales and are currently writing a book on Grand-Guignol for the University of Exeter Press series on Performance Studies (forthcoming, Summer 2002). The Grand-Guignol Laboratory has been exploring the practice of Grand-Guignol through textual analysis and adaptation, and studio and residential workshops with undergraduate students. One part of our public output has been A Night at the Grand-Guignol, performed at the University of Exeter and the Edinburgh Fringe (1999).

10. Pierron , Le Grand-Guignol, p. VII.

11. Certainly Maxa gives an impression of this when she recounts being taken into the bosom of the Grand-Guignol troupe on her arrival in 1917 (see Pierron , p. 1393).

12. In Pierron , Le Grand-Guignol, p. 1393.

13. Including the all-too brief demonstration of Grand-Guignol performance techniques from some surviving veterans on Clive Barker's A-Z of Horror BBC TV, 1995.

14. Berton René, L'Euthanasie ou le Devoir de tuer (Paris: Librairie théâtrale, 1925), p. 1.

15. Gordon , Theatre of Fear and Terror, pp. 25–6.

16. In Pierron , Le Grand-Guignol, p. 1392.

17. Ibid.

18. See Gordon , Theatre of Fear and Terror, p. 44.

19. Ibid., p. 30.

20. Pierron , Le Grand-Guignol, p. 1393.

21. Corvin Michel, ‘Une dramaturgie de la parole?’ in Europe: revue littéraire mensuelle 835836 (1112 1998), p. 150.

22. This is not the authors' translation, but as it appears in Deék Frantisek, ‘The Grand-Guignol’ in The Drama Review (03 1974), p. 36. There is no indication of the source of the original citation.

23. Corvin , ‘Une dramaturgie de la parole?’, p. 154.

24. This was an interesting lesson learned by University of Glamorgan students in the preparation of A Night at the Grand-Guignol for performance at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe, which included a ‘modern’, devised piece based on the Grand-Guignol formula, that incorporated the castration of the central male character. In the early performances of the play, the castration was performed by placing a condom inside the actor's underpants, which contained stage blood and sheep's testicles. The condom was cut open and the testicles removed and placed in an enamel dish. These were real testicles and yet the effect was largely comic.On one occasion this careful, if not downright unpleasant, struggle for verisimilitude was rudely debunked when a member of the audience whispered audibly that they ‘must be tomatoes’! The intended horror was restored when the actors reverted to simply cutting into a blood-filled condom causing blood to spread across the actor's white boxer shorts. One of the great lessons of Grand-Guignol—namely that less is more—had been learned.

25. Quoted in Jones Stephen, Clive Barker's A-Z of Horror (London: BBC Books, 1997), p. 112.

26. Gordon , Theatre of Fear and Terror, p. 27.

27. Carroll Noël, The Philosophy of Horror (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 15.

28. An engaging account of this argument, albeit essentially with regards to fiction, is presented in Bloom Clive, Gothic Horror (London: Methuen, 1998).

29. Deák , ‘The Grand-Guignol’, p. 43.

30. Quoted in Pierron , Le Grand-Guignol, p. 1339.

31. Aside from the slap-and-tickle frolics of the comedies it is clear that the horror plays also sexually aroused some spectators for, in the words of Pierron , ‘cleaning ladies would find traces of sexual pleasure from the audience’ (quoted in Jones , p. 112).

32. Quoted in Pierron , Le Grand-Guignol, p. XXXIV.

33. Gordon , Theatre of Fear and Terror, p. 33.

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Theatre Research International
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