June 14, 2010

The Grand Guginal: the Theatre of Horror

Metal History


Grand Guginal

If you happen to own or rent the Tim Burton Sweeney Todd film 2 disc edition, you might notice a little incongruous documentary titled “Grand Guginal: A Theatrical Tradition“. If you’d watched it, you’d probably be well aware of the connection between Sweeney Todd and Grand Guginal – once a tiny French theatre which gave rise to a whole genre of horror.

If you haven’t, I’m going to enlighten you.


Grand Guginal movie poster

In 1894, a 293-seat theatre called Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol opened in Paris. Then smallest theatre in the city, the Guginal’s director Oscar Metenier wanted to showcase his controversial naturalistic plays – a typical evening at the Grand Guginal would include 5-6 short plays, ranging from bawdy sexual romps, to crime dramas, to horror plays. And it was these horror plays that ensured the Guginal’s place in cult history.

The Grand Guginal was not your typical playhouse. Built inside an old chapel, its interior decoration included two towering stone angels above the orchestra, gothic wood panelling and the boxes bore an uncanny resemblance to confessionals. Metenier named his theatre “the big puppet show”, after a popular French puppet character “Guginal” beloved for outspoken political commentary in the style of Punch and Judy. Napolean III often censored Guginal puppet shows.

Metenier himself was often a target of censorship, for his infamous plays depicted charcters not deemed “appropriate” for the stage – vagrants, criminals, prostitutes, con artists and street urchins. Metenier’s characters expressed their stories in their own language – the language of lower class and poverty-stricken Paris. For example, Metenier’s play Lui! United a whore and a criminal in a hotel room.


The Grand Guginal - in the heart of Paris' red light district.

In 1898, the Grand Guginal directorship passed to Max Maurey, and it was Maurey who gave the Guginal its bloody reputation. He measured the success of a play by the number of audience members who passed out – and with an average of two per performance, the Grand Guginal quickly gained a reputation for a great night out. Maurey even hired a house “doctor” to attend to the victims.

It was Maurey who discovered Andre de Lorde – the novelist and playwright renamed “the Prince of Terror” for his work at the Grand Guginal. De Lorde wrote over 100 plays for the theatre, including the audience favorites. He collaborated on several plays with his therapist, the experimental psychologist Alfred Binet, to produce plays exploring the many and varied aspects of insanity, which became the Grand Guginal’s staple theme.

During this period, insanity was only just beginning to be studied in a scientific manner, and comparisons and parellels drawn between cases. Psychology became a popular fiend, even for amateurs, who couldn’t enter schooling. So De Lorde’s sensationalisation of these themes created widespread buzz about the theatre, as well as enduring ridicule.

Audiences flocked to see de Lorde’s plays – pieces like L’Homme de la Nuit (The Man of the Night), about a necrophiliac who strangely resembled Sergeant Bertrand, a man sentenced in 1849 for violating tombs and mutilating corpses. Or L’Horrible Passion, the tale of a young nanny who strangled the children in her care.


With delightful tales like these, it’s no wonder de Lorde – like Meteneir before him – was often a target of censorship. Touring productions of two of his plays were scheduled for England, but were cancelled by the Lord Chamberlain. The theater of the time, which delighted in vaudeville and bourgeois settings, could not abide the sight of blood or corpses on stage.)

A 1947 article in Time Magazine give us more tantalizing glimpses at a couple of Guginal classics:

Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations is the story of a doctor who discovers that a patient is his wife’s lover and graphically operates on the fellow’s brain. At the first opportunity, the crazed patient retaliates by graphically hammering a chisel into the doctor’s brain.
Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous (Crime in a Booby Hatch) is about two yellow-fanged old hags who are miffed at a new inmate because she is young and pretty. While one harridan pinions the newcomer’s wrists, the other wrenches back her head and plunges long scissors into her eye. “La! La!” she cries happily as gore spatters in all directions. When the hags have a difference of opinion, one shoves her pal against a red-hot stove.
Other plays featured heroes with radies and leprosy, showers of blood and semen which drenched the audience, and others were exposed to syphilis or taken by some unknown malady.

In 1914 Camille Choisy took over direction, bringing with him special effects expertise in lighting and sound. Now, the staging of plays supassed their narrative. In 1917 he hired the actress Paula Maxa, known now as “the most assassinated woman in the world”. She was shot with a rifle and a revolver, scalped, disembowelled, strangled, raped, hanged, guillotined, quartered, burned, dissected with surgical tools, poisoned with arsenic, cut into eighty-three pieces by an invisible Spanish dagger, whipped, strangled with a pearl necklace and devoured by a puna. Maxa was murdered more than 10 000 times, in over 60 different ways, and raped at least 3 000 times.

The Grand Guginal alternated a horror play with a comedy – creating a “hot and cold” effect that heightened the audience’s reaction to each play. According to many sources, although the Grand Guginal was extremely popular, it was not a place one went “to be seen”. In fact, the theatre was a sort of meeting spot of tawdry affairs – the iron-grilled boxes at the back encouraged a “certain” kind of behaviour. Women prepared themselves for adultery by throwing themselves, half-dead with terror, into their neighbour’s arms. Apparently, the staff often found stains on the seats.

The theatres secret tricks for producing splatterings of gore, beheadings and surgical horrors are still not widely known. Their piece de resistance was a boiled, partly skinned head (the actor is wrapped in a silk stocking, daubed with putty, sponge, cloth and “blood”). The theatre had a secret recipe for blood – and when it cooled it congealed and made scabs. According to the Time article, thrill-seekers got a small dividend when they heard the hoarse backstage whisper “Edmond, warm up the blood!”


on stage at the Grand Guginal

The downfall of the Grand Guginal began in 1930, when Jack Jouvin took over the direction from Choisy, and decided the theatre’s repertoire would shift from gore to psychological drama. Jouvin – desperate for the limelight and to assert his control over the theatre – fired Maxa, because she was hogging his spotlight. Jouvin’s lack of talent caused the theatre to essentially become a parody of itself.

Eventually, World War II came, and the horror of reality overtook that of the stage. Post-war attendance dwindled, and the theatre closed in 1962. Charles Nonon, the 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.”

But the legacy of the Grand Guginal lives on. The style employed by the theatre – the naturalistic horrors that seem so melodramatic to modern audiences – gave rise to it’s own film and theatre genre, encapsulated in work like Sleepy Hollow, Quills, and, of course, Sweeney Todd.

Grand Guginal even has sug-genres! (You know you’ve made it when you have a sub-genre). Grande Dame Guginal films (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and Whats the Matter With Alice) are sensationalist horror films featuring aging A-list celebrities.

Since its closure, many playwriters, directors and scriptwriters have revived and re-created the style in film and on stage. ThrillPeddlers, a San Fransisco theatre company at the forefront of Grand Guginal today – feature in the Grand Guginal doco on the Sweeney Todd disc. Another modern group are Britian’s The Queens Players (directed by Richard Mazda), have performed 6 Grand Guginal plays, as well as new plays in the Grand Guginal style.

Though its eventual demise was rather sad, the Grand Guginal remains today an important historical landmark in the history of horror theatre and horror films, and, by association, heavy metal.

Further Reading

Gordon, Mel. The Grand Guginal: Theatre of Fear and Terror. Da Capo Press, 1997.
Hand, Richard and Michael Wilson. Grand-Guginal: The French Theater of Horror. University of Exeter Press, 2002.
Grand Guginal Online – by the ThrillPeddlers
Grand Guginal Store

Grand Guginal would be a great metal sub-genre used to describe:

Destroyer 666
Goregonzola (well, they are bloody horrible)

Comments are closed.