From PACE magazine - March, 1951
by Michael Farriday
BLUEBEARD WAS A STUDENT BY COMPARISON WITH THE BLOOD-DRIPPING SLAUGHTERS WHICH TAKE PLACE NIGHTLY IN PARIS AND SAN FRANCISCO.
Horror has finally caught on in the American theatre.
For the last 53 years, Frenchmen and American tourists have been screaming with delight and terror at the gory plays of the Grand Guignol.
These blood-dripping melodramas, of which there are more than 1,000, are shown nightly in the world-famous Theatre du Grand Guignol (Theatre of the Big Puppets) at the Montmartre, Paris. They are considered a tourist attraction ranking with the Eiffel Tower, Picasso and the girls of the Follies Bergere.
But now Americans can shudder and develop goosepimples without crossing the Atlantic to Gay Paree. Recently the San Francisco Repertory Theatre in California has been packing in the crowds by presenting Grand Guignol repertoire every night. And the audiences love it.
Of course, horror has always been a stock in trade of the theatre. Aeschylus scared the Athenian audiences centuries ago by putting snakes in his Furies’ hair. The Romans added a touch of realism to some of their plays by having a slave actor crucified on stage.
Shakespeare especially knew the appeal of blood and gore in Elizabethan times and gave his audiences plenty of it. In his “Titus Andronicus,” a line runs, “Enter Lavinia, hands cut off, tongue cut out, and ravish’d.” By the last scene in “Hamlet,” the stage is virtually covered with the corpses of poisoned and stabbed actors. In “Macbeth,” murders are as plentiful as poetry, and in Act 1, Scene five, Lady Macbeth, a notable murderess, shrieks:
“. . . Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.
And fill me, from crown to the toe, top-full
Of direct cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctions visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose; nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substance,
You wait on nature’s mischief!”
And shortly after, she incites her husband to kill Banquo in murder most foul, while she herself plasters blood on the clothes of the guards.
But while other dramatists use gore in perhaps every other scene, the Grand Guignol melodramas spill horror constantly. The delightful gruesomeness of these gooseflesh-provoking plays is suggested by the San Francisco Repertory Company – “A Dead Rat in Cabinet 6,” “On the Slab” and “The Strange Case of the Insane Virgin.”
Robert T. Eley, director of the San Francisco Company was faced with two problems in staging the French spine-tinglers; one esthetic, the other technical, but both ticklish.
Esthetically, he had to navigate the narrow course between what is frighteningly funny and what is disgusting. To do so, he lightened the plays with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek humor. Says one cackling madwoman, in a moment’s pause after jealously gouging out the eyes and tongue of a prettier patient: “The doctor isn’t going to like this.”
Technically, Eley had, for instance, to devise a believable imitation blood that would coagulate in a few minutes and look red under several kinds of eerie lighting. Barnes-Hind, the druggists, came to the rescue with a 2 per cent solution of methyld cellulose (3 per cent when things get a bit thicker). The plays require a gallon of this bogus blood a night.
In one gay scene from “The Strange Case of the Insane Virgin,” a tongue had to be made that could be torn from a girl’s mouth nightly by three crazed Macbethian crones. It was manufactured of rubber, as were the concealed bladders that gush blood so profusely when pricked with knives. Two eyeballs had to be made suitable for eating. It turned out, these delectables were made by Mary Ann’s Candy and Nut Shop in the neighborhood of the theatre, and the proprietor, curiously enough, did a thriving business thereafter.
The plays, which are full of stranglings, cannibalism, garroting, hangings and other charming bits of ghoulishness, had a curious effect on the actors. During the first rehearsals, some of the women in the cast paled and had to retire, flustered and shaky. But later, the entire company grew to revel in their inhumanly sadistic characterizations; and complaints were heard by throat-sore actors that the enthusiastically performed stranglings were getting too authentic.
Like sharks, most people in the audience enjoy the novel taste of blood the Grand Guignol offers, and demand more. Others fidget and laugh nervously. Some scream and hold their hands over their eyes – but eventually peeping curiously through their fingers.
Still other chicken-hearted members of the audience gulp, turn wan, and head in a virtual faint for the exits. For these cowards, the San Francisco Repertory Company, with tongue in cheek, maintains a cot and a nurse in the lobby.
Why do most members of the audience enjoy the gore in the Grand Guignol plays? The critics tend to agree that the horror inherent in these melodramas acts as a release for our nervous tensions. Most people are worried by their jobs, about their health, whether they are loved or not. They brood over these and kindred problems, and they must find an outlet for the emotional bile that collects in their spleen. If they don’t, they tend to beat their wives, grouse and argue with their friends, and may even commit suicide or murder.
fact, Wilhelm Steckel, the late Viennese psychiatrist, once
maintained, not unreasonably, that if William Shakespeare
had not found an emotional release in his dramas, he might
have become one of the notorious murderers of the day.
Just as the playwright finds himself able to let off emotional steam by putting down imaginary scenes of violence on paper, so do the spectators get a release from pent-up feeling by witnessing horror on stage. They derive a vicarious enjoyment from watching murder committed, since they associate themselves subconsciously with the murderer and, sometimes, with the murderee.
True, the spectator is assuming a passive role; he merely sits and watches. But in his imagination, he is the one who has the courage to take on the active role, along with the actor on the stage. Each time an actor murders another victim, the spectator is able to relate this action to his own enemies; with each stabbing, the spectator imagines that he has himself eliminated someone he dislikes in his private life.
The spectator who shuns horror on the stage may well be maladjusted. He may, for example, suffer from hidden guilt feelings. In “Hamlet,” the king cannot bear to see the play-within-the-play, in which a lover murders the husband of the woman he loves. The king cannot bear to see this because it reminds him too much of the similar murder he himself has committed. Hamlet, of course, notes how the king grows pale and leaves, and thus is able to guess the extent of the king’s guilt.
In real life, many people cannot bear to witness stage violence because it reminds them too vividly of violences they may have committed. It brings back memories of a time when they may have slapped a member of their family, accidentally killed a dog in their childhood, or shoved a childhood friend off a fence and thus crippled him.
To enjoy stage violence, the gore must be regarded as theatrical, and not too intimately tied up with personal tragedies in the spectator’s own background.
According to some psychiatrists, the same principle holds true when we witness sadistic humor on the stage. Just as the Romans laughed with glee when the Christians martyrs were burned at the stake, modern spectators enjoy themselves hugely when the burlesque actor slips on a banana peel. We consider it funny because the physical pain is at the expense of somebody else. Because the actor intentionally makes himself freely and uninhibitedly, without subconsciously feeling we are uncivilized barbarians.
If a cripple were to slip on a banana peel accidentally, however, we would not consider it funny. Rather, it is a tragic episode. Those people who laugh at such a spectacle are the true sadists. They enjoy seeing pain inflicted out of a twisted sense of values.
Happily, those who enjoy the agony rife in the Grand Guignol plays need not fear that they are uncivilized. It’s all in fun, and the gorier the merrier. Happy dreams.