(Continued from previous page)
The richness of its prolific and inimitable output granted the Grand-Guignol international acclaim and it remained phenomenally popular during the inter-war years and, controversially, throughout the Occupation. After World War II, the Grand-Guignol entered into terminal decline until it closed in 1962. This is possibly because its wartime success–and rumours of collaboration–tarnished its reputation or maybe because, as Charles Nonon would famously claim, ‘Nous n’aurions pas pu concurrencer Buchenwald’ . The public had lived through too much atrocity to require a Theatre of Horror. This seems unconvincing if not pretentious: World War I had not stopped the theatre’s success and World War II did not stop the demand for–and evolution of–horror and thriller genres across postwar culture. More credibly, the Grand-Guignol could not compete with cinema, and the popular audience satisfied its desire for terror through Hammer horror (1957 onward) and the modern thriller, including masterpieces of cinematic Grand-Guignol such as Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1954), Les Yeux sans visage (Georges Franju, 1959), and Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). Cinema could offer pitiless journeys into the bête humaine with all the advantages of close-ups and location shooting.
The last few years of the Grand-Guignol reflects a rather muddles attempt to rebuild the repertoire with new writing, old revivals, James Hadley Chase adaptations or rather crass works like L’Orgie dans le phare (1956). The true heirs to the legacy of the Grand-Guignol’s golden age are the claustrophobic and violent dramas which disturb us with their questioning of human motivation and identity. We might think of the claustrophobic horror and godless afterlife of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis clos (1944), whose adage, ‘L’enfer c’est les autres’, had been demonstrated nightly for decades at the Grand-Guignol. More recently, there is the claustrophobic suspense and recounted horrors of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1991) which even has a loose narrative parallel with de Lorde and Chaine’s Au Rat mort, cabinet 6 (1907) where a prostitute exacts a brutal revenge on the Czarist general who tortured her brother to death. Even a play like David Mamet’s Oleanna (1992) has similarities to the mood and structure of Grand-Guignol: the stifling atmosphere of the professor’s study, the careful manipulation of pace and tension, the climax of ferocious violence which explodes any veneer of decency and morality.
As for the Grand-Guignol’s blood-letting and moments of the explicit, there is a compelling parallel to be drawn between its graphic portrayal of taboo and the body in extremis, and the performance art of, amongst others, Orlan and Ron Athey. It could be argued that both realms of performance invite the spectator to watch–in pain or pleasure–an investigation of the sexual, social and moral values in their distinctly modern and postmodern contexts.
It would, of course, be naïve to assume that performance practice at the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol remained unchanged throughout its sixty-five year history. The demands of a range of directors, literary movements and theatrical styles ensured that the naturalism of Méténier gave way to the style of Maurey and Choisy, who favoured a performance style more influenced by melodrama. In turn this was replaced by the more self-conscious and stylized presentations of the postwar period, a style that has been said to have had ‘a camp quality’ . The Grand-Guignol, in its battle to retain, and later regain, its popularity, continually redefined itself in the context of social, cultural and technological changes in society. Nevertheless, what emerges from a consideration of the Grand-Guignol is that it remained essentially a theatre of contradictions. It was a theatre where naturalism met melodrama, where physical action met dramaturgy, where visibility met invisibility, where anticipation met surprise, where familiarity met strangeness and where disgust met titillation. Its success was built upon the skill, inventiveness and endurance of its writers, directors and actors and held together–and, ironically, ultimately destroyed–by the myth it built around itself.
As for using the repertoire and methods of the Grand-Guignol in a contemporary context, this intimate theatrical form still demands of its actors performances of extraordinary intensity, focus, energy and precision. The Grand-Guignol has a rich complexity: it is an eclectic and puzzling form but one that is still a constantly rewarding practice for actor, director and technician.