Tuesday, November 1st, 2011...2:07 pm
Horrors of the Grand Guignol
Once a year at Halloween we surround ourselves with horror and fright for a day. From 1897 to 1962, terror was enjoyed regularly in Montmartre. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol may have inhabited a former church (retaining the confessional seating and carved, suspended angels), but it offered a decidedly profane fare. A typical night’s entertainment consisted of several short pieces, alternating vivid, naturalistic horror stories with sex farces and other comedies in a format known as douche écossaise. Programs and photographs in the Harvard Theatre Collection give a taste of this theatrical “hot and cold shower.”
A program from the 1930 season typifies a bill. The audience is eased into the evening with Depuis six mois, a one act comedy. Lulled into a jovial state, they are confronted with La cellule 13, wherein a wrongfully imprisoned man murders a guard while attempting escape. The warden arrives to release him, but finds the dead guard, and the man is doomed again to a life in prison. Next comes Seul, another comedy to cool the audience, followed by the featured production for the evening, an adaptation of W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw. After that classic tale of horror, the audience is given a final comedic cleanser for the evening – Sans bonne.
Parisians flocked to the Guignol, the city’s smallest theatre, to be shocked – and they weren’t alone. Patronage by tourists led the company to mount occasional international engagements, including a trip to New York in 1923. Advance promotional material describes the Paris theatre as “the mecca of the socially and artistically elite of Paris, and the visitors gathered by that city from all parts of the world,” declaring that “[a]t last this managerial feat [of bringing the Grand Guignol players to America] has been accomplished.” Unfortunately for the producers, the shows were coolly received by the American audiences. In a letter to the Times, Roland Holt suggested that the talented actors be put to use in “better-written plays” such as Eugene O’Neill’s shorter works.
Guingnol-styled entertainment found a short home in London, where in 1920 José Levy founded an English troupe at the Little Theatre. Levy retained the hot and cold shower of graphic horror and bawdy comedy, though the group was routinely censored by the Lord Chamberlain, and ultimately dispersed in 1923.
Despite its short run, the London Grand Guignol harbored several future luminaries. Noël Coward penned a forgettable one-act comedy, while Joseph Conrad submitted a script that was rejected by Levy. More significantly, Sybil Thorndike, already an established tragedienne, took a leading role in the troupe. Photographs in the Theatre Collection depict Thorndike in a production of The Medium, an adaptation of the French Guignol’s L’angoisse.
The souvenir program from the French company’s visit to America in 1923 teases the piece:
Datesse, a sculptor, takes a place in Montmartre. The former owners had disappeared and the place is exactly as they had left it. A studio of such mysterious happenings.
At a certain moment the lamp blows out – and not a breath of air. At dusk there is invisible pressure in the rooms.
Datesse’s model, Elise, is a medium and Dr. Bervil, a friend, conducts an experiment by putting her in a trance.
While in the trance she reveals that a woman had been killed in the room. Datesse and the doctor break open a large block of sculptor’s plaster and discover –
Although the French troupe stopped performing in 1962, it heavily influenced horror films and psychological thrillers. Derided by critics as sensationalistic, censored by authorities, the Grand Guignol dared to investigate our deepest anxieties, as well as our fascination with the macabre, and found success for almost a century.