This article was first published in THEATRE RESEARCH INTERNATIONAL, Autumn, 2000 (Vol. 25, No. 3 pp. 266-275). It's fairly long, so we've divided it into several pages. Navigation links are located at the bottom of each page. The endnotes can be displayed in a pop-up window by clicking the highlighted note number.
The Grand-Guignol: Aspects of Theory and Practice
by Richard J. Hand & Michael Wilson
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.
An in-depth analysis of the Grand-Guignol reveals a theatre that presented an extraordinary repertoire of short plays. An evening’s entertainment would consist of several plays interspersing trademark ‘horror’ drama with comedies in the tradition of French social satire. The plays are exemplary works of one or two-act drama demonstrating a masterful control of dramatic pace and concision, and requiring an innovative use of stage technologies, and an ensemble of highly versatile and disciplined performers.
The Grand-Guignol has a unique place in the history of popular theatre defined and created by the vigorous combination of its location and architecture, its repertoire and stagecraft, its publicity and myth. Its reputation as the Theatre of Horror certainly put it on the tourist trail and made some entrepreneurs their fortunes but can only have been detrimental to any serious evaluation of its place in theatre history.
The Grand-Guignol is a neglected theatrical tradition with an incalculable, yet tangible, impact on other dramatic and cinematic genres. Particularly remarkable is its use of–and influence on–other forms. This is evident in the way in which it consolidated nineteenth-century melodrama (especially the crime genre of the Boulevard du Temple theatres), reinventing it for the twentieth century. Furthermore, it drew on the avant-garde methods of naturalism and comédies rosses, the honed simplicity of symbolism, the mood and style of expressionism and even the subversive violence of surrealism. Ultimately, it would go on to determine the stagecraft and pacing of subsequent suspense drama and a broad range of films of the horror and thriller genres. This is without mentioning its influence on broader popular culture from fiction and comics to radio and television drama.