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Our knowledge of performance practice at the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol is scant partly because during its existence it may have been regarded as too popular to be taken seriously as a theatrical methodology but also because its publicists were keen to hide it behind the veil of secrecy and mystique. Theatre practitioners are, for the most part, left to intelligent hypothesizing and practical experimentation . Photographs from original productions, stage directions, and theatre reviews (when purged of myth-making hyperbole) have all proved useful. Above all, the memoirs of Paula Maxa, ‘la Sarah Bernhardt de l’impasse Chaptal’ , provide a unique insight into the work of the Grand-Guignol actor and the demands of the form.
The intensity of performance enforced by spatial limitation was further exacerbated by the working conditions of the actors. An evening’s programme–typically from four to six plays–was all performed by the resident company. It would be quite normal practice for an actor to be called to perform in any number of these pieces during an evening. Certainly, for pragmatic reasons as much as anything else, parts appear to have been relatively evenly distributed, so that actors could alternate between major and minor roles, although the stars of the Grand-Guignol would have taken a greater burden. It is hard to imagine the exhausting demands being made upon an actor to switch from horror to comedy and back to horror at an instant, whilst under the constant scrutiny of an intimate audience. The very structure of an evening’s entertainment at the Grand-Guignol, therefore, and the demands that this made on the actor served to shape the intense performance style of the house. The performative demands and the pressures of time appear to have created a kind of ensemble approach to work as success depended very much upon the combined efforts and mutual support of the company . This, of course, did not prevent Paulais and Maxa achieving something close to stardom during the Choisy period and, by the time of the 1950s and 1960s, we find Eddy Ghilain taking on the multiple roles of actor, writer and director.
The concept of the resident ensemble emphasizes that the Grand-Guignol became a specialist form. This is especially evident when one considers the level of trust required between performers who had to enact physical violence and wield stage weaponry with exactitude and faultless sincerity. Maxa describes the atmosphere of a performance as being ‘tendue, les nerfs sont à fleur de peau, un rien peut déclencher le rire’ . Indeed it is this notion of ‘déclencher le rire’ that encapsulates the greatest performative challenge of the Grand-Guignol. The performer must tread the very thin line that separates horror from comedy, of course, Bakhtin’s analysis of the comic-grotesque, for example, illustrates that horror and comedy are partners rather than opposites, but Maxa suggests that it is the very ability of the performer to walk that tightrope that characterizes the specific skill of the Grand-Guignol performer. Furthermore, if we look at the repertoire we can see where the tightrope leads. Time and time again the Grand-Guignol protagonist is taken on a journey from bourgeois security to mortal danger, from the rational to the insane, from–in effect–naturalism to melodrama. Such a journey of precision across disciplines is the unique skill of the Grand-Guignol performer and would have to be seamless if the desired effect of horror was to be achieved. At the same time let us not forget that the actor would shortly be on stage again, this time endeavouring to master the rapid-fire innuendo and physical romps of Grand-Guignol comedy. Certainly the post-coital antics of Berton’s Après coup! ou tics (1908) seem to require skills more akin to commedia dell’arte than those displayed in the horror genre.
In some publicity shots of Grand-Guignol the sets and stage look naturalistic. However, in many pictures and displays the gestures and expressions are heightened to the extreme . Furthermore, the use of make-up is often bold and exaggerated, reminiscent of German expressionism. The original cover to L’Euthanasie  shows Paulais flaring his nostrils and contorting his mouth with the features of his face–and his wild hair–maculated with black and white grease paint. This make-up is designed to reflect the psychological state of the stage lunatic. In other instances, such as the hideously scarred face and blinded eyes of Henri in Level’s Le Baiser dans la nuit (1912), the Grand-Guignol make-up designer strives to capture the exact horrors of surface reality.
Gordon notes that ‘the smallest manual slip or false note in the acting could thoroughly ruin a twenty-minute scenario’ . This is particularly apt in a theatre which frequently relied on special effects, theatrical illusions and the sleight-of-hand skills of its actors. Stage guns that fail to fire or syringes of stage blood that are more apparent than the ‘wound’ are not just unfortunate for a Grand-Guignol performance, they are fatal. It is in regard to this that lighting is important as an ideal balance is required between enhancing the effects and obscuring their execution. Maxa implies an advanced and sophisticated consideration of lighting when she says that ‘un certain genre de lumière est indispensable. Il faut un éclairage rempli d’ombres, c’est paradoxal, mais c’est comme ça’ . Lighting–or lack of it–is used most blatantly in de Lorde and Binet’s L’Horrible Expérience (1909) where a power cut plunges the stage into complete darkness. More profound is probably the Grand-Guignol’s subtlety when Maxa claims that ‘le plus important, d’abord, est de créer l’ambiance’ which is done with ‘quelque chose de vert ou de rouge dans un coin et que l’œil accroche du mystère partout’ .
In addition to the importance of lighting we should not forget the use of sound. It appears that there was a similarly careful consideration where sound effects were concerned. For a start, sound effects were often used as far away as possible from the audience (possibly even behind the audience) as this made the effect more chilling . In plays like de Lorde and Binet’s Un crime dans une maison de fous (1925) the mournful chiming of the chapel bells is an aural symbol of Louise’s doom, but it also serves to extend the dimensions of the convent beyond the confines of the asylum cell. Likewise, in de Lorde and Morel’s La Dernière Torture (1904) the occasional distant explosion interrupting the painful silence serves to create the sense of the hostile landscape as well as putting the audience on edge.
The Theatre of Horror was famous for its effects and tricks and yet what we find when we read the plays is far from a gore-fest splatter show, but rather remarkably crafted realist works–or slickly structured comedies–that would demand technical brilliance and an extremely focused performance. Clearly Gordon’s claim that blood ‘splattered and flowed in pailfuls’  seems to be a misrepresentation. Perhaps more telling is Maxa’s statement that ‘l’imagination est toujours supérieure à la réalité, et c’est l’imagination, ajoutée au frémissement de l’âme, qui constituait la poésie de la peur’ . In many ways this is quite a remarkable statement. It suggests that the clever marketing of the Grand-Guignol management may be hiding a different truth, that this was not a theatre of the seen, but the unseen horror, a theatre of restraint, rather than the bloodfest it has been presumed to have been. Certainly in many of the classic plays of the Grand-Guignol the horror is offstage. Absent horrors may be recounted to the audience in the style of classic Greek drama, such as in La Dernière Torture when Bornin gives an eye-witness account of the sadistic tortures of the Boxers. In Au téléphone (1901) all the violence occurs at the other end of a telephone line. Neither are demanding in terms of stage trickery, but extremely demanding for the actors recounting what only they have seen or are hearing. Such moments in the plays may have been profoundly unsettling but did not deliver the lurid promise that a Theatre of Horror seems to offer. Indeed this is a theme that is developed by Michel Corvin in his essay, ‘Une dramaturgie de la parole’ , where he claims that ‘ce théâtre n’est pas un théâtre d’actions physiques mais d’actions parlées’. His argument is that the horror of the Grand-Guignol lies not in the physical stage action, but in the way its skilled writing sets up audience’s expectations. De Lorde was perfectly aware of this, writing that ‘a dramatic event that happens without any preparation will just distract spectators or make them laugh. Thus, the author should strive to create an atmosphere, an ambience, to suggest to the audience, little by little, that something dreadful is going to happen. Murder, suicide and torment seen on the stage are less frightening than the anticipation of that torture, suicide, or murder’ . As Corvin says, ‘la tension émotive naît non du spectacle d’un acte odieux mais du piétinement exaspérant du discours’ .
This is all achieved by the use of dramatic irony and recognizable narrative structures, allowing the audience to anticipate the outcome. But in addition we should not forget the extension of this from initial script to its mediation through directing and performing. The process of suspense and tension become exacerbated, since it ceases to be a question of what is going to happen, but rather when and how. Furthermore, when it does happen, this is augmented by suggestion in the dialogue and the nature of its delivery, allowing the audience to ‘see’ things that do not actually happen. For example, in jean Aragny and Francis Neilson’s Le Baiser de sang (1929), the act of the surgeon describing the trepanning procedure before he does it both intensifies the horror and allows the audience to imagine what is happening, even if the act itself is obscured. Although the audience may only hear the noise of the drill and see blood on the surgeon’s hands, they may well imagine that they have seen the drill entering the skull. Indeed, if the plays include explicit gore at all these are moments of economy and precision. The rule of walking the tightrope between horror and comedy, being careful not to overstep the mark, also applied to the enactment of stage violence and the spilling of blood .
In addition, monopolizing on what the audience thinks it is seeing, through a mixture of suggestion and anticipation, is at the centre of horror performance and is the creative core of the Grand-Guignol. This partly brings into consideration the concept of the willing suspension of disbelief. This is something we associate with more recent drama such as Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain (1980) or Edward Bond’s Saved (1965). If we accept the legends, it is clear that some members of the Grand-Guignol audience willingly suspended their disbelief shortly before they involuntarily suspended consciousness. Just as interesting–but difficult to quantify–is how much the Grand-Guignol audience used its imagination even further and added to the depiction. To draw on a cinematic example, in Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1991) many viewers believed they had seen a knife slice through an ear whereas what they actually saw was the ear before, the motion of Mr Pink’s arm, and the subsequent wound. This reflects the power of one of cinema’s greatest tools–montage–but it also reflects the compelling nature of the dramatic suspense narrative and the audience’s participation in creating the illusion.
All these issues have fascinating implications for the actor-spectator dynamic at a Grand-Guignol performance. Specifically, it means that the spectators are active participants implicated in the very creation of effect and meaning. Just as in an act of story telling, the so-called fourth wall is dismantled and the true meaning is negotiated in the space between audience and performer. This, of course, represents a break from the naturalist tradition that spawned the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol where the audience are passive observers of real-life drama. It may indeed have been in response to this that the Grand-Guignol developed a more stylized and melodramatic mode of presentation. This all seems to be borne out by what we know of the audiences who attended the theatre at the impasse Chaptal. Audience participation and heckling, whilst perhaps not being encouraged, did happen and were tolerated. By the same token, it seems that the performers were not above heckling back. The actor Bernard Charlan recalls shouting, mid-performance, to a rather loud courting couple in one of the boxes: ‘You enjoy yourselves in there!’  The Grand-Guignol attracted a group of regular supporters, the guignoleurs who, according to Gordon, shouted ‘Assassin!’ at the stage villains and were fond of repeating ‘the number of times that the house physician was called to treat temporarily sickened spectators’ . This certainly sounds more like the popular audience of nineteenth-century melodrama than the intellectual audience of avant-garde naturalism. The attendance of a regular audience also has an interesting implication on the process of reception. The classic plays of the repertoire remained in production for many years and we find an audience familiar with the works, no longer surprised by the narrative but enjoying the process, technique and delivery of the works as well as relishing a certain Schadenfreude at the expense of the Grand-Guignol virgins.