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The Grand-Guignol was founded by Oscar Méténier (1859-1913) as a forum for naturalist drama. Indeed, Méténier had been a collaborator of André Antoine at the Théâtre Libre in the 1880s. In addition, Méténier had also been Secretary to the Police Commissioner in Paris and used his experiences to inform his writing. In the first days of the Grand-Guignol we find a theatre that utilizes the conventional ‘reality’ of naturalism in its staging and dialogue. In thematic terms it draws on the success of the Théâtre Libre’s comédies rosses (depictions of the Parisian underworld) and the older traditional melodramas on display at the theatres along the Boulevard du Temple (also known as the Boulevard du Crime due to the sensational nature of the plays there). One of the plays on the theatre’s opening night was Mademoiselle Fifi (Méténier’s adaptation of Maupassant’s short story) which includes prostitution and an on-stage murder, thus establishing what will become the classic formula of the Grand-Guignol play: a broad combination of the erotic and the violent. Another feature the opening night introduces is the idea of a selection of plays: every night at the Grand-Guignol will feature la douche écossaise: a hot and cold shower of serious plays interspersed with comedies . However, it is really after Méténier’s departure (in 1898) that his successor, the remarkable entrepreneur Max Maurey, identified the potential success of the theatre and went on to create and capitalize on the Grand-Guignol’s trademark formula. It was an approach further consolidated under the stewardship of Maurey’s successor, Camille Choisy (1915-1927).
A performance at the Grand-Guignol in the Maurey/Choisy-mould strove to terrify and titillate the spectator through a mixture of horror, laughter and the erotic. A typical evening’s entertainment reveals a sophisticated exploitation of the contemporary audience’s fears, taboos and desire. Maurey marketed the idea of the Theatre of Horror and recruited the formidable services of the playwrights René Berton, Maurice Level and, most famously, André de Lorde (the prolific ‘Prince de la Terreur’). He also employed the stage manager Paul Ratineau, who developed many lighting and sound effects as well as designing the Grand-Guignol’s legendary props and make-up. In addition to the writers’ œuvre, Ratineau’s effects, and Maurey’s spin, the theatre recruited a group of actors (including Henri Gouget and Séverin-Mars who led the way for the celebrated Paula Maxa and L. Paulais) who acquired the considerable skills required to master the demands of this specialized form of performance.
Another major factor in the Grand-Guignol’s success was the theatre’s location and architecture. Richard Schechner asserts that ‘theaters everywhere are scenographic models of sociometric process’ , and the Grand-Guignol is a particularly fascination instance where this concept is concerned. The Grand-Guignol was located down a dingy alleyway in the Pigalle area of Paris. This was already the heart of the sex district and, interestingly, the theatre seems to have swiftly established itself as part of the fabric of the community. As Guy Sabatier says, ‘le Grand-Guignol devient le théâtre de Montmartre. Il représente un quartier, ses habitants, son esprit’ . This supports its credentials as an essentially popular theatre, but also indicates that the location of the theatre was integral to the experience of watching its plays. To this day the area is seedy and evocative, and the walk down the cobblestoned impasse Chaptal to the closed doors of the theatre is atmospheric and eerie. Spectators who visited the Grand-Guignol recall the drama of the journey to the theatre: leaving the Métro at Place Pigalle and walking down the narrow streets past the brazen display of the sex industry to the tucked away venue . There was a sense of a journey into forbidden territory, into the underbelly of Paris with its promise and danger of sex and violence. The graphic display of these taboo themes was marketed as the guaranteed fare on offer at the Grand-Guignol. This adventure into the morally dubious continued on entering the theatre building itself, a place which Réne Berton argues, provoked ‘un vague sentiment d’inquiétude’  as you walked in. The structure that housed the theatre was in fact the chapel of a deconsecrated eighteenth-century convent which, through some brilliant expediency, retained two giant carved angels in the rafters which would forever smile down at the audience for the duration of the theatre’s existence. Moreover, as Agnès Pierron writes, les baignoires sont “grillées”, comme on dit alors, ce qui leur donne l’air de confessionaux’ . We can see that before the curtain had even risen, the location, history and dynamic of the theatre served to problematize the audience’s relationship with the comforts of bourgeois morality.
Although probably not unique in its Parisian context, the Grand-Guignol had a small stage of approximately seven by seven metres. The anecdote that the audience members in the front row were able to shake the hands of the performers can be interpreted as an indication that the nature of the auditorium at the impasse Chaptal was not one of size but rather one of intimacy . This is borne out by the seating plan for the theatre reproduced by Rivière and Wittkop which seems to indicate that the stalls were arranged in six rows of between fifteen and twenty seats, the circle had three rows of between twenty and twenty-four seats, and there were about thirteen boxes . This ensured that no member of the audience felt far from the performers, and vice-versa. This level of intimacy exerted a major influence on the performance itself producing a focus and intensity that came to characterize the style that evolved. Moreover, the mood and material of the repertoire would have made it seem particularly claustrophobic. The stage was strictly proscenium (invaluable for the effective execution of special effects) an the limitations of the stage area restricted action and setting thus dictating the plays written for it: recurrently we find plays set in prison cells, asylum cells, execution courtyards, lighthouses, barber shops, opium dens, bedrooms in brothels, or operating theatres. This oppressive claustrophobia is exploited to the full, whether the audience is witnessing a victim trapped in a room with a lunatic or merely under the knife of a surgeon. With some plays the intimate space is used as an increasingly claustrophobic haven against the encroaching menace beyond the wall, although, of course, the ultimate danger will often come from within. By the same token, the proxemics and spatial constriction were also exploited for the fast-paced intensity of the Grand-Guignol comedies.