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When talking of the Theatre of Horror one would think of something Transylvanian, but as Noël Carroll explains ‘though gruesome, Grand-Guignol requires sadists rather than monsters’ , Having said that, the debates in the theoretical consideration of horror are applicable to the Grand-Guignol. In particular we may think of the argument whether horror is an inherently conservative form (its function being essentially cautionary and enforcing social conformity and prejudice) or radical enterprise (dedicated to subversion and satire) . Some of the recurrent settings and motifs in the Grand-Guignol are staple elements of horror: in particular the frequency of sensory deprivation (blinding and other physical mutilation) can be usefully analysed in the light of Freud’s psychoanalytical study of ‘Das Unheimliche’ (1919).
Only very rarely does the Grand-Guignol explore the supernatural: its horror never strays far from a grounding in Zola-inspired naturalism and therefore presents an unremittingly realistic depiction of the worst excesses of the human animal. Even the comedies work with the same material as the horror plays: death, insanity, sex. In this way both genres inhabit the same universe, sharing an obsession with the excesses of the human animal and its potential: a veritable extrapolation of la bête humaine. The psychological motivation of the Grand-Guignol protagonist/antagonist–in horror or comedy–is dictated by primal instincts, or unpredictable mania, the plots obsessed with death, sex and insanity and exacerbated or compounded by grotesque coincidence or haunting irony.
Frantisek Deák argues that ‘the negation of the moral aspects of contemporary life are not deficiencies of the genre, merely part of its definition’  and it is this area of morality that is one of the most pressing issues in the analysis of Grand-Guignol. For all but three years of its existence the Grand-Guignol was a twentieth-century phenomenon and this helps to define its moral complexity. In some ways it is an updating of melodrama into a post-Nietzschean world: the forces that drive the universe can no longer be presented as an unproblematic, black and white struggle between good and evil. Rather, we are in a godless universe where clear-cut boundaries are blurred: as de Lorde writes in the preface to La Galerie des monstres (1928), we all are a potential monster – or lunatic – and we suppress ‘mille forces cachées, mille désirs éstranges, mille aspirations obscures’ . Similarly, in the modern, human-centered universe psychology becomes increasingly complex and our instinctual or nurtured polarities become interdependent (above all, the principles of pleasure and pain). In the finale of Level’s Le Baiser dans la nuit (1912) the disfigured Henri pours vitriol onto the face of his ex-lover, Jeanne: it is Henri’s climax of revenge, a violent consummatin which is the ironic ‘baiser’ of the title. As much as it is post-Nietzschean, the shadows of the Marquis de Sade and Octave Mirbeau loom large over the Grand-Guignol .
The Grand-Guignol frequently follows a traditional moral structure: the flawed and hypocritical are punished; those who lived by the sword–or vitriol–get slaughtered or maimed; the over-reachers (those who have conducted unethical scientific experiments or have had too much faith in technology or have explored sadomasochism to excess) meet an appropriate nemesis. Moreover, with many plays, in true moral fable style you can guess the outcome from the outset. Nevertheless in some plays destruction is meted out to the innocent and undeserving. This is why we may reject Deák’s assertion that the Grand-Guignol is an amoral drama. A better definition is to interpret the Grand-Guignol as morally erratic, taking place in an indifferent universe where there is no justice but definitely retribution, albeit far from divine. Such an interpretation throws light on this theatre’s striving for mimesis, not just in the verisimilitude of its sex and violence but in its attempt to reflect the crises of modern consciousness in a nihilistic universe.
Alongside the broad aesthetic of realism, reality itself is often a key source of inspiration in the Grand-Guignol. From the earliest days, the theatre monopolized on the public appetite for faits divers: small news items with sensational coverage of outrageous crimes. Indeed, the faits divers provided source material for many plays in the Grand-Guignol canon. Méténier’s Lui! (1897) opens with a prostitute reading the lurid account of a murder in the faits divers section of the Petit Parisien. Inexorably, we sense that Violette will come face to face with the homicidal butcher. What is interesting here is the way in which the source and inspiration becomes central to the narrative exposition, and also underlines the play’s ‘authenticity’.
As well as journalism, contemporary science was also explored. Plays such as de Lorde and Bauche’s Le Laboratoire des hallucinations (1916) and Berton’s L’Homme qui a tué la mort (1928), present examples of grotesque experimentation in resuscitation and surgery: ‘real science’, albeit viewed through somewhat Gothic spectacles. Moreover, the Grand-Guignol drew on professional expertise: one of their playwrights, Alfred Binet, was a psychologist and another, Berton, was a medical doctor. Remarkably, the Grand-Guignol also offers us early examples of documentary drama. In de Lorde and Morel’s La Dernière Torture (1904) we witness a depiction of the besieged French Consulate during the 1990 Boxer Rebellion in China. The play is a masterpiece in its atmosphere and succinct development of claustrophobic crisis, but thematically it reveals more about the ideology of French orientalism in the theatre and, as such, it is not a particularly enlightening or believable recreation of history.
As well as these examples of adapting ‘fact’ to the stage, the Grand-Guignol canon also made a significant contribution to the drama of cultural adaptation: whether of Romantic fiction (several Edgar Allen Poe dramatizations starting with Le Cœur révélateur (1840) in 1990); the Decadent novel (Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des supplices (1899) in 1922); or even expressionist film (Mayer and Janowitz’s Le Cabinet du Dr Caligari (1919) in 1925).