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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

House of Horrors: A History of Le Grand Guignol, by Agnes Peirron *

* (restored)

 

In 1897, the French playwright Oscar Metenier, bought a theater at the end of the impasse Chaptal, a cul-de-sac in Paris’ Pigalle district, in which to produce his controversial naturalist plays. The smallest theater in Paris, it was also the most atypical. Two large angels hung above the orchestra and the theater’s neogothic wood paneling; and the boxes, with their iron railings, looked like confessionals (the building had, in fact, once been a chapel). Metenier was himself a frequent target of censorship for having the audacity to depict a milieu which had never before appeared on stage — that of vagrants, street kids, prostitutes, criminals, and “apaches,” as street loafers and con artists were called at the time — and moreover for allowing those characters to express themselves in their own language. One of the Grand-Guignol’s first plays, Metenier’s Mademoiselle Fifi, which was temporarily shut down by police censors, presented the first prostitute on stage; his subsequent play, Lui!, united a whore and a criminal in the enclosed space of a hotel room.

 

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Gianni Proia’s ‘shock-umentary’ ECCO contains this short scene, which the filmmaker claims is of the final performance at the Grand Guignol Theatre. Whether this is true or not is unclear, as much of the other ‘reality’ footage in the film appears to be either staged or grossly misrepresented. The footage does show actors from the Grand Guignol performing a scene for the cameras as well as some brief interior shots of the theatre itself.’

 

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Metenier was succeeded as director in 1898 by Max Maurey, who, from 1898 to 1914, turned the Theatre du Grand-Guignol into a house of horror. He measured the success of a play by the number of people who fainted during its performance, and, to attract publicity, hired a house doctor to treat the more fainthearted spectators. It was also Maurey who discovered the novelist and playwright Andre de Lorde–“the Prince of Terror.” Under the influence of de Lorde (who collaborated on several plays with his therapist, the experimental psychologist Alfred Binet), insanity became the Grand-Guignolesque theme par excellence. At a time when insanity was just beginning to be scientifically studied, the Grand-Guignol repertoire explored countless manias and ‘special tastes’: L’Homme de la Nuit (The Man of the Night) presented a necrophiliac. L’Horrible Passion (The Horrible Passion) depicted a young nanny who strangled the children in her care. (Like Metenier, de Lorde was often a target of censorship, particularly in England where two of his plays were canceled by the Lord Chamberlain’s censors.

 

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This is an excellent site about Le Grand Guignol that unfortunately presents itself in French language only. However, there are videos showing historically accurate recreations of two Grand Guignol plays, Le Baiser Dans La Nuit and Le Faiseur De Monstres, which you can find by entering the site then clicking on the link titled Pieces.

 

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Fear of ‘the other’ appeared at the Grand-Guignol in countless variations: fear of the proletariat, fear of the unknown, fear of the foreign, fear of contagion (for all the blood spilled, sperm ejaculated, and sweat dripped there, the Grand-Guignol had to feel some degree of nostalgia for cleanliness). The heroes of Gardiens de phare (Lighthouse Keepers) and Le Beau Regiment (The Handsome Regiment) had rabies. Leprosy decimated the passengers of Le Navire aveugle (The Blind Ship), and the servants in L’Auberge rouge (The Red Inn) fell prey to a mysterious malady. In several plays, among them La Fosse aux filles (The Girls’ Den), a brothel visitor was exposed to syphilis. But what carried the Grand-Guignol to its highest level were the boundaries and thresholds it crossed: the states of consciousness altered by drugs or hypnosis. Loss of consciousness, loss of control, panic: themes with which the theater’s audience could easily identify. When the Grand-Guignol’s playwrights expressed an interest in the guillotine, what fascinated them most were the last convulsions played out on the decapitated face. What if the head continued to think without the body? The passage from one state to another was the crux of the genre.

 

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The Tragedies’ Theatre is small American theater company that stages the original Grand Guignol plays in English with period costumes, makeup, and props. There’s more than a bit of irksome American style staginess and corniness about their versions, but the qualities of the original plays can be discerned. Here’s their version of the play Chop Chop.


The Tragedies’ Theatre du Grand Guignol – Final Kiss


The Tragedies’ Theatre du Grand Guignol – Laboratory of Hallucinations


The Tragedies’ Theatre du Grand Guignol – CADAVRES EXQUIS

 

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Under the direction of Camille Choisy, who directed the theater from 1914 to 1930, staging overtook text. Once he even bought a fully equipped operating room as a pretext for a new play. In 1917, he hired the actress Paula Maxa, who soon became known as “the Sarah Bernhardt of the impasse Chaptal.” During her career at the Grand-Guignol, Maxa, “the most assassinated woman in the world,” was subjected to a range of tortures unique in theatrical history: she was shot with a rifle and with a revolver, scalped, strangled, disemboweled, raped, guillotined, hanged, quartered, burned, cut apart with surgical tools and lancets, cut into eighty-three pieces by an invisible Spanish dagger, stung by a scorpion, poisoned with arsenic, devoured by a puma, strangled by a pearl necklace, and whipped; she was also put to sleep by a bouquet of roses, kissed by a leper, and subjected to a very unusual metamorphosis, which was described by one theater critic: “Two hundred nights in a row, she simply decomposed on stage in front of an audience which wouldn’t have exchanged its seats for all the gold in the Americas. The operation lasted a good two minutes during which the young woman transformed little by little into an abominable corpse.”

 

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‘At one performance, six people passed out when an actress, whose eyeball was just gouged out, re-entered the stage, revealing a gooey, blood-encrusted hole in her skull. Backstage, the actors themselves calculated their success according to the evening’s faintings. During one play that ended with a realistic blood transfusion, a record was set: fifteen playgoers had lost consciousness. Between sketches, the cobble-stoned alley outside the theatre was frequented by hyperventilating couples and vomiting individuals.’ — Mel Gordon, The Grand Guignol: theatre of fear and terror.

 

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If the Grand-Guignol was a popular theater in both meanings of the word — it was frequented by neighborhood locals as well as the higher-brow audience of the Comedie Francaise — it was not a public affair. Going to the Grand-Guignol was less a social act than a private one and certain audience members preferred not to be seen. Some witnesses reported that the iron-grilled boxes in the back of the theater encouraged a certain ‘extremism.’ The cleaning staff would often find the seats stained. With the arrival of Jack Jouvin, who directed the theater from 1930 to 1937, the repertoire shifted from gore to psychological drama. Wanting to have complete control over the theater, Jouvin ousted Maxa, who, in his opinion, was stealing the spotlight. Jouvin’s lack of talent and his personal ambition triggered the eventual downfall of the Grand-Guignol. Birth, evolution, death: the genre sowed the seed of its own decline when it began to parody itself. The abundance of terrifying elements in the later plays became so overwhelming that they were no longer believable.

 

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Further resources: Grand Guignol OnlineLe Grand Guignol at Dark EchoPhantasmic AttractionsThe Grotesque in TheaterLe Grand Guignol at Thrill PeddlarsLibrairie Grand Guignol (in French)Fall and Rise: The Grand Guignol

 

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By the Second World War, the theater was beginning to vacillate, carried away by its own excess. The war dealt it its final death blow. Reality overtook fiction, and attendance at post-war performances dwindled. In the spring of 1958, Anais Nin commented on its decline in her diary: “I surrendered myself to the Grand-Guignol, to its venerable filth which used to cause such shivers of horror, which used to petrify us with terror. All our nightmares of sadism and perversion were played out on that stage. . . . The theater was empty.” In an interview conducted immediately after the Grand-Guignol closed in 1962, Charles Nonon, its last director, explained: “We could never compete with Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone believed that what happened on stage was purely imaginary; now we know that these things — and worse — are possible.”


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p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Apparently Conner left instructions that he didn’t want his films to be online, and his estate is carrying out those wishes, which is why I was asked to remove the previous Bruce Conner Day within hours of its launch. But I haven’t heard a peep from them so far this time. ** Bill, Hey, bud. No, at least so far the Conner retrospective hasn’t travelled over here, not sure why since he’s revered in these parts. I guess it could be still on the way. Yeah, his drawings are amazing. My weekend was nice, and, whew, bracketed with lovely temperatures. Saw a fantastic Dora Maar retrospective last night at the Pompidou with the visiting Bernard Welt. Golia? Etc.? ** Steve Erickson, Good question. I streamed part of the new Sleater Kinney this weekend, and I was pretty let down. Maybe I’ll try it again at some point. The weather is positively lovely right now. I mean, for summer weather. I hope NYC isn’t being blasted. ** Nik, Hi, Nik. Wonderful on the synchronicity! The post is still alive, at least for the time being. I hope you dig his work. Thank you a lot about Kevin and Kerstin. Yeah, I mean, death is a confusing mindfuck in general, but to have two close friends die around the same time and under eerily similar circumstances is hard on, well, every level. But life goes on, which is confusing too. Anyway, I appreciate that. Mm, no, I don’t think I have any books in mind at the moment, but I haven’t re-buried my head in the new novel yet. Close to doing so, though. Your film club premise sounds fantastic, obviously. And craveable. Do you yet have some films or filmmakers in mind? Have you thought about Martin Arnold, for instance? Here’s the post I made about his work, if you’re curious. The heat is down to being a normal summery but tolerable thing. May it last. This week … I need to get some things sorted out about the TV series project, i.e. whether I should proceed with the work on it that I had been planning on doing now before Kerstin died. Hopefully reenter my novel. Figure out some pending PGL screening arrangements. Stuff like that. 90% of my friends are out of Paris on their summer vacations, so it should be quiet on that front. And your week? ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Oh, that’s very exciting about the Jeremy Deller film. I’m a great lover of rave culture and miss it, so that sounds like exactly just the thing. Let me know how it is, and I’ll watch for the soonest opportunity to see it here. Thank you! ** Misanthrope, Yep. I’m quite psyched to see the new Tarantino. Waiting for the opportunity. Great, good to know. ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff. It’s actually a brand new Conner post because I deleted the censored one. The estate hasn’t contacted me so far. Fingers, yes, crossed. I don’t know the later films of Tanner very well, other than what I saw/gleaned from the online examples when making the post. It is quite a huge relief about the TV series. Which isn’t to say the great difficulty we face in recasting it isn’t very daunting. And other difficulties, like our producers spent a lot of money on the test shooting that now is unusable for the ARTE presentation, and that’s a real problem. But, yes, going forward is by far the best possible result. As I told Misanthrope, I’ve actually gotten rather excited to see the Tarantino. Plus it interests me to the see how the LA I grew up in is recreated. It opens here in mid-August, so there’s a wait yet. Skype Wednesday sounds good, yes. Let’s do it. Let me know what time is good for you. ** Right. Today’s restored post comes from quite a long time ago in the blog’s history. Enjoy if poss. See you tomorrow.

9 Comments

  1. Great to see this Grand Guignol Day encore.

    Such a shame the Conner estate is so uptight about going online. Film screenings before live audiences of such works are few and far between,

    Did I mention tha t “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is DOA? Well it is. A boated, pointless, mess. It’ll probably win Quentin the Oscar.

  2. Grand Guignol posters were so very great!

    In a first bout of writing for a while, I started on a story for Blood Bath zine’s forthcoming Hauntings-themed issue. Deadline is midnight on Thursday, and I’m doing this from the POV of a psychiatrist’s report into 2 students fleeing a religious cult. The title is Taxidermy Carousel and I’m happy to say that I’m getting into it.

  3. NYC wasn’t terrible yesterday or today, but we had typical 90-degree summer days.

    The Guardian ran a lengthy article with Sleater-Kinney today which suggests some reasons why the album turned out so different. It sounds like Janet Weiss was barely present for the recording sessions. I also got the feeling that there’s a lot of ill-concealed tension between the band members which might have something to do with Carrie Brownstein becoming a minor celebrity and Tucker and Weiss having to work day jobs. As I said over the weekend, I don’t think it’s a bad album, but it sounds like a different band.

    I’m interviewing VISION PORTRAITS director Rodney Evans Thursday. He is slowly going blind, and his film is largely about this fact, as well as profiling three other artists in the same situation.

    Over the weekend, I read David Greven’s book GHOST FACES, which is about the persistence of homophobia in 21st-century Hollywood and has a chapter comparing HOSTEL to gay porn. (He does not mean that as praise for either.) It’s oddly resonant with this Day.

  4. Hey Dennis – Love Le Grand Guignol. Enjoyed learning about the history behind the term and the theater – and those posters, wow.

    Nice to hear that the weather has cooled down there. We had a brief but blissful reprieve last week and now it’s back to punishing heat and humidity.

    For some reason known only to my probably misfiring neurons, this post made me wonder if you’d ever done days on Pierre Reverdy or The Wooster Group?

    Started reading the new Kate Zambreno and Sarah Rose Etter books which are both really good so far. Finished Flaubert’s ‘Sentimental Education’ which I didn’t expect to knock me down the way it did. The prose in those pages, damn.

    Glad Wednesday works for Skype. Emailing you possible times shortly.

  5. Dennis, I hope you like it when you see it. I have to disagree with David E. I thought it was really good. Lots of subtle layers, great acting, funny, smart.

    One thing I was thinking about is, “I wonder how someone from LA who lived there during that time would think it holds up?” It’ll be interesting to see what you think.

  6. Corey Heiferman

    July 30, 2019 at 8:42 am

    Second what’s written above about the posters. If only I had a crypt in which to hang them. ״What’s written above״ sounds so clumsy–there’s a three-letter Hebrew abbreviation: כנ״ל. You’re a Parisian who works in August?

    Still haven’t heard back from film school. They said by end of July. Watched pitching workshop and documentary filmmaker panels at Jerusalem Film Festival. Similar vibes to events I attended in USA.

    Are you or have you ever been into Tarot? I’m in a bit of a phase now with the Tarot cards my friend designed. They’re making me write more sleep less and see the whole world as a metaphor.

    Thinking of making a documentary about a commercial street in my neighborhood that has an old-time neighborhood feel but is surrounded with construction and bound to change (there’s already a coffee shop open on Saturday and that’s a big deal, even just a handful of kilometers out of Tel Aviv). My enthusiasm for the idea has waxed and waned but given where I at there will have to be something mystical and contrived about it beyond Fredrick Wiseman reportage. I’d be curious if you have some sort of kneejerk reaction to this that might help prime the pump.

    Are you a Stefan Zweig fan? I just got a copy of his Vienna memoir and am very excited.

  7. Shane Christmass

    July 30, 2019 at 1:47 pm

    Hi Dennis – thanks for this Guignol post. Been fascinated by the name ever since I read ‘Guignol’s Band’ by Celine. Still not sure of the reference – I guess Céline was making some reference to the horror or war, or the horror absurdity of life – which was one of his things he liked to theme his works with.

    You get that email with the firework GIFs? Also did my book turn up – physical copy or the PDF in your inbox?

    I’ve been playing around with this trying to work out if it can produce any good fiction – so far the results are promising: https://www.theverge.com/tldr/2019/5/13/18617449/ai-text-generator-openai-gpt-2-small-model-talktotransformer

    This is a good quote: “It may not be hard to find gaps in GPT-2’s knowledge, but it’s impossible to know whether you’ve explored the limits of what it can do.”

  8. Dennis,

    I thought Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was good, but not great. I enjoyed it though. Especially thought Margot Robbie’s turn as Sharon Tate was charming. I’m reading the collected poems of Tim Dlugos right now. What great work. Has the blog ever had a Tim Dlugos day? If not, I humbly request one. Much love!

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