Grand Guignol: No Tears for the World

“The act of creation reaches its culmination, completion and true fulfillment in the act of the separation and disposal of waste”

– Zygmunt Bauman

In Paris, in the old red-light Pigalle, stood an infamous theater of sex, laughter and disembowelment. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol has since given its name to all ornate violence in plastic or celluloid, but most of all in the real event where bloodshed mixes with winedark nostalgia for the spirit of a gaudy past. Spanning from the birth of film to the last gasp of the old kind of colonial rule, the original Grand Guignol played at the time of two great wars and countless colonial decimations. The practice of Guignol has since moved downstream from the public to the individual show, available to us all, alone together in our liquid modernity.

The Theater first opened in 1894, also the year of the debut of the Kinetoscope, a solitary peepshow device which was the first proper film projector. Although primitive motion pictures were made several years before, Edison held the first film patent that year for Fred Ott’s Sneeze, 5 seconds of an uncontrolled spasm shown in NYC on the new gizmo. The same year saw short films of a Chinese Opium den, the Sioux Ghost Dance resistance and famed contortionist Louis Martinetti.

The reason for this aside is that I suspect that the Grand Guignol hated films. It might be seen as an archaic stagebound attack on the new possibilities of speed, scene and time shifts, and the power of the edit, all unleashed by cinema. D W Griffith fired back with the only film adaptation of a Guignol play, The Lonely Villa (Script by Mack Sennett, from the play Au Telephone by Andre de Lorde) in 1909.

Also in 1894, the anarchist Muhammad Sail was born in occupied Algeria. In 1930, at the 100 year celebration of the brutal French conquest of his homeland, he issued a pamphlet entitled “Civilization? Progress? We say, Murder!” No better summation of Grand Guignol exists. And exoticism and the harem always played an important part in Guignol aesthetics.

20 bis, rue Chaptal was a former chapel. The confessional box and the angelic relief over the orchestra pit added to the La-Bas atmosphere of the new theater. It was an grandguignolimmediate success and managed to attract a diverse crowd: artists, lumpen proles out for shocky shtick, and later, royalty. Apollinaire went; so did the King of Greece, Princess Wilhelmina of Holland, the Sultan of Morocco, and the exiled King Carol II of Romania. Herman Göring showed up a few times (it remained open, somewhat fittingly, during the Nazi Occupation), until it was declared off limits even for slumming brass. Nightly programs consisted of a farce, a horror play, and some kind of suspense drama, much like our old city grindhouses. But it was the horror acts and their glucose special effects that drew the crowds and gave it fame.

This new and expanded reissue of Mel Gordon’s Theatre of Fear and Horror, one of the few English-language books on the subject and the best, lays out the gory details and scratches the scabby confines of the Guignol epoch with breakneck gloom and funk. Gordon tells us that lighting was very important within the building. The idea was to make the audience unsure of their fellow viewers while the phantasmagoria rolled on up front. Ideas of grudges and cold-eaten revenge fueled many of the plays – perhaps the one sitting next to you has followed you, a butcher looking for his swine, to settle old scores ordinary enough and without pity. Gesamkunstworst.

Many of the plays had institutional settings: mental asylums, army barracks, the laboratory or government outpost in savage lands. They used modern tech like telephones, explosives, medical tools and chemical agents to bewilder and then devour their protagonists. Plots moved with relentless locomotion, tossing the viewer from laughter (the farce plays, sister to the blood and guts on the bill) to horror (pastiches cobbled from feuillton and true crime histories), as if he were a weak lifeboat out at sea. Invariably, everyone died on stage. In one short act, uncontrollable objects had transformed most of the participants into gibbering wrecks or buckets of rent limbs. The audience watched these luckless dummies clang around in conspiracies hatched by mistaken identity, wrong numbers and exposure to rare disease. Visitors from the beyond and demons were infrequent and unwelcome in Guignol: the tools and material of material life were always enough to enable mysterious fate.

Guignol hurled its characters around, gouged and maimed them like rag dolls. It was a Magic Lantern of clinical obscenities and Punch & Judy scorn, propelled by the absurd mishaps common to Puppet Theater such as the Greek Karagiozis. But for all the open wounds, the true fellow-travelers of Guignol are not the later Texas Chainsaws and Blood Feasts, but the cartoons of Fritz Freiling and Max Fleisher. Impossible machines and improbable situations blasted their animated creatures at top speed in a modern black mass which subsumed the perennial slob in treacherous angles and debris. So too in Grand Guignol. The spasm of horror in its plays is only the spasm of cheap laughter seen from the other side, another instance of the loss of control over one’s anatomy and senses. Mel Gordon tells us that people fainted all the time during the performances. Medics were on hand to resuscitate, and to sell more tickets.

A section in Theater of Fear and Horror is devoted to synopses of 100 of the plays and reads like a catalogue of inscrutable parables. There are complete scripts for two: Crime in the Madhouse and Orgy at the Lighthouse. Dialogue was comically trite on purpose: “No… please! I don’t want to burn. I’m not the devil. Are you crazy? I don’t want to die. Not like this….” Important developments occur off-stage in a ridiculous way which telescopes the plot far from the observer and leaves only the jelly-like, dire results on stage. This shows the influence of the newspaper, which boils events down to pure moments and edits out motive and history. Guignol tales from gossip or the crime blotter and they were played with instruments of undoing set against a flat background of human offal. It seems almost static, despite the writhing actors, like a series of paintings which show only the most decisive moments of a fable. You get the schizoid sense of dramatic action that is freeze-dried but also buzzing with the constant motion of decay, of a theater where the cast was subjected to manipulations as if they were wet clay figurines and then balled up and thrown at captives in their seats. The still photographs in the book give this hostage idea perfectly. It seems irrelevant that no authentic film of the plays survives. How could it? Cinema was its enemy.

The short chapter on how they did all those ghastly effects is excellent and shows Guignol as a technical exposition above all. The ingenious decapitations and lobotomies are the frame from which the stories hang. Nothing could be more foreign to Guignol than Pirandello’s characters set adrift from the script; Guignoliers were bound, shackled, fused to the play and they never doubt their position in the carnage for a second. They must have no psychological life. Guignol, the silk-weaver who made children laugh and who gave the Theater its name, was himself was a marionette. Grand Guignol sees its pitiful characters as stringless toys, and finally, as waste-product. That is its truly terrifying aspect and where it parts company with the pathos of puppets. Perhaps this is Grand Guignol’s most lasting contribution, one that is not funny at all.

In addition to large amounts of photos, a thesis by the major Guignol scribbler Andre De Lorde, and the invaluable confession of famous stage diva Maxa (“I Am the Maddest Woman in the World!”), Theatre of Fear and Horror offers biographical sketches of the directors and the casts. Peripheral dossiers include a fascinating detour on Guignol offspring worldwide (Jose Levy’s London branch was the most successful, with real pros doing the scream-and-shank mobile) and a beautiful section of color reproductions of the play ads. Gordon’s no-glib style makes you feel as if you have been kidnapped by an old expert while spelunking the ruins of the place. Feral House lays the book like a scrapbook from an asylum, punchy and ecstatic; the photographs are sharp and creepy.

In 1895, a year after the Grand Guignol opened, Edison’s film The Execution of Mary Stuart showed the mock beheading of the queen of Scots. It was 18 seconds long and audiences were convinced the actress was really killed for the picture. Over a century later, the opposite is true: similar acts, made by the ISIS studios, look utterly unreal and staged. They are projected over another screen which shows missiles hitting cities and seem such small-time reels when compared to major corpse bonanzas like the US State Department’s Shock and Awe. The producers of all these works are the same, but the single decapitations give a simple old-fashioned nod to the theatre of fear and horror, an urge to be ingestible in scale yet ornate in setting. Draped in the last ragged costumes of the Naturalist school, Grand Guignol must have first looked like a cruel joke come back to a stage which wished most of all see real life and real rooms at the turn of the century. Our staged real life and its expanse is the imperial vérité performed, all by law, in places like Gaza, Baghdad, Helmand and Tripoli. Waste to be recycled endlessly, changing scenes in every new turn of the screw.


The old Grand Guignol building still stands. It is used by the International Visual Theater, which puts on plays in sign language. This is a fitting tribute for a theater of blood whose plays frequently ended in aphasia: that which can be shown and described is other than reality, a reality which only exists if it can prove itself through showing and telling and lying. On the eve of the final performances, Charles Nonon, last impresario of the Grand Guignol said: “We could never compete with Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening on stage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.”

The same year that the Grand Guignol closed its doors, 1961, Paris police slaughtered some 200 Algerians who were conducting a peaceful demonstration against French atrocities in the bled and the Kasbah. Tortured bodies were tossed into the Seine in what became known as the Paris Massacre. The cop in charge was Maurice Papon, an old Vichy thug whose guignol career included the deportation of more than a thousand Jews to the extermination camps as well as mass murder and la supplice in Old Algiers. He was finally convicted of war crimes in 2007.

Also in 1961, back in the USA, the Bay of Pigs was a flop and Kennedy said of the old French Asian stomping ground: “Now we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.” Galbraith warned him of the “danger (that) we shall replace the French as a colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did.” Ho Chi Minh had been an avid visitor to the Grand Guignol when he lived in Paris during the 1920s, working as a chef.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.