Fading Horrors of the Grand Guignol

Every night, in an old somber street off Montmartre, come 250 peaceful citizens are the horrified eyewitnesses of four murders – part of the longest running crime wave in existence. For sixty years now, torrents of blood have flowed, eyes have been gouged, faces singed by fire or disfigured by vitriol, bodies dissolved in acid baths, hands, arms and heads chopped off, and women raped and strangled on the Rue Chaptal. And yet the police have never once thought fit to intervene, for all this gory business takes place on the diminutive stage of the Théâtre du Grand Guignol.

The Grand Guignol is more than a theatre: it is a tradition, an institution, like the Eiffel Tower, the Folies Bergères, and Maxim’s. Like them, it has long been a favorite attraction for foreigners (especially English, Scandinavian, German and American) and provincials – and also for the shopkeepers and employees who live in that quarter of Paris as if it were an isolated village. Some connoisseurs fear that the tradition is in decline, that it no longer can compete with the illusions of the movies or the real horrors of the twentieth century. Still, few Parisians omit paying a visit, at one time or another, to the Grand Guignol, if only as a nostalgic tribute to a glorious history.

That history began in 1895, when Oscar Méténier, formerly secretary to a commissaire de police, bought the old, abandoned chapel which, to this day has housed every grand-guignolesque crime the walls which once heard the whisper of praying nuns now resound with the shrieks of tortured victims. Prior to that the building had served as workshop for an artistic blacksmith and a studio for Georges Antoine Rochegrosse, a leading academic painter of the Eighties. The setting has remained unchanged: wooden angels hang stiffly from the paneled ceiling, Gothic tracery climbs along the doors, fleur-de-lis dot the walls , the loges look vaguely like confessionals and the balcony seats like pews.

It was in this inspirational setting that the visions of hell were set loose, not by Méténier, but by his successor, Max Maurey, who took over in 1897. Méténier, a contemporary of Zola and Maupassant, was satisfied to offer his public “slice of life” plays; Maurey invented, you might say, the “slice of death.” Tortures and executions, he reasoned, have always excited people. During the French Revolution spectators had flocked to watch the guillotine in action. But they had been given little opportunity for such vicarious thrills since. The Grand Guignol shrewdly cashed in on their frustration. “Torture has been forbidden since King Louis XVI,” says a character in a Grand Guignol classic. “Too bad!” is the reply. Thanks to the Grand Guignol, those horrible pleasures were made freely available once again.

By 1900 it was a thriving enterprise. It had found its formula, the hot-and-cold shower – two horror plays alternated with two light comedies, as well as its specialized authors, in particular a mild-mannered, affable librarian named André du Lorde, who earned himself the nickname of “Prince of Terror” by his hair-raising concoctions of sadism, alcoholism, eroticism, and insanity. It was he who first showed lunatic asylums and operating rooms on a stage. In fact, one of his fearsome mock experiments with corpses is said to have foreshadowed modern medicine’s research on reanimation of the heart.

The Grand Guignol’s most prosperous period came between the two World Wars. It was then highly fashionable. Evening dresses and tuxedos were a commonplace. Celebrities of the day, South American millionaires and errant royalty went there assiduously to be scared out of their wits. The wife of Alfonso XIII, dethroned King of Spain, invariable showed up on All Saints’ Eve. King Carol, chased from Rumania by Prince Nicholas, visited the Grand Guignol; and when upon Carol’s return, Nicholas was exiled in turn, he went to the Grand Guignol.

The undisputed queen of the Grand Guignol, in those days, was a generously proportioned actress called Maxa. No character in the Comte de Sade’s novels ever suffered so many wrongs. Not an inch of her body was spared. She died more than 10,000 times in some sixty different ways, and was raped more than 3,000 times. Only one other performer ever came close to her, Maryse Lergy, who, as a result of her thousands of deaths, came to be called “The Lady of the Père-Lachaise” (Paris’ largest cemetery). This did not prevent her from fainting on stage one evening when her partner was seized with a genuine nosebleed.

Grand Guignol dramas can hardly be called refined, except in their techniques for inflicting simulated bodily pain. They try to be basic. In this, they are like guignol, the French equivalent of the Punch-and-Judy shows, where the smart rogue keeps bashing in the head of the fortunately thick-skulled cop. The Grand Guignol is guignol for adults: the punches are merely harder and more varied, the Judies more molested.

At the Grand Guignol, grownups react to what they see on the stage as violently as children do to the mischief of puppets. Shouts of “Killer!” and threats of villains from the audience are routine. During the current show, where the driver of a wrecked racing car is brought on stage, every bone in his body shattered and smeared with blood from head to toe, a spectator shouted: “Don’t move him! Wait until a doctor comes.” And they do come. More than once, doctors have jumped up in the audience and rushed backstage to offer their services; on several occasions, emotional firemen on duty at the theatre have called the police to the rescue.

The most familiar of the Grand Guignol’s effects on spectators is to make them faint. When a bawdy lass was thrown into the burning lamp of a lighthouse, when a crazed killer chopped a sizable chunk of flesh out of his victim’s throat with the hook that replaced his lost hand, when a madwoman put out a poor girl’s eyes with her knitting needles and then had her own face shoved into a burning stove by another madwoman. It was rare indeed, in the good old days, not to see at least a couple of people, livid and tottering, fumble toward the nearest exit. Once, when a woman, just gouged, came back on stage, exhibiting an empty socket, six people fainted at once. The record, however, is fifteen, the result of a blood transfusion (surgical operations are by far the most devastating device).

Men faint more easily than women, but this may be due to the fact that women tend to cover their eyes at the crucial moment, while men want to see to the bitter end. Of course, people no more admit to having fainted at the Grand Guignol than they do to having been seasick on an ocean liner.

In pre-war days, the average was two fainting spells a night. Smelling salts and other remedies were, and still are, handy in the lobby. At one time, a house-doctor was even hired, but the experiment proved a failure. On his first night of duty, a spectator fainted. The ushers called for the doctor – in vain. At last, the victim regained consciousness unassisted. The ushers apologized and explained what had happened. Whereupon he smiled wanly and whispered, “I am the doctor.”

Naturally, all this gruesomeness is sheer illusion, but the sham is not always devoid of risk. Once, during an actress’ simulated hanging, the protective device broke and she almost did get hanged. Another recently was burned by the flame of a revolver. In “Orgy in the Lighthouse,” the heroine suffered even more; on one night, she almost caught fire; on another, her male partner began to live his part a bit too much and beat her up in earnest, so that she was forced to go off to the country to nurse a nervous breakdown.

There is an oppressive atmosphere about the Grand Guignol which sometimes carries over into real life. The author of “The Machine to Kill Life” died on the day his play opened. The key drama of the current show is and automobile race at Le Mans. The play was written and rehearsed just before the Le Mans tragedy in 1955; the driver who had acted way technical adviser for the production was one of the seventy0one persons killed in the disaster.

Still these are exceptions. Innocent trickery provides the bulk of Grand Guignol horror. And the best tricks are the simplest: a dagger squirting “blood” from a vial hidden in an actor’s hand, quick flaming powders, a table with all the necessary props hidden in several drawers facing away from the audience. The trick for simulating foaming lips for a case of delirium tremens dates back to the Middle Ages. It the Grand Guignol’s administrator personally mixes every day according to a special recipe: thick, dark red for old wounds, fluid, light red for fresh ones. Blood creates a number of problems. For stabbings, women are preferable to men, because men’s cleaning bills are bigger. For head wounds, on the other hand, it is advisable to use men as victims, since their short hair is easier to wash.

The tricks are so elementary that one wonders how people could possibly be taken in. The answer is that they want to be. The Grand Guignol merely helps them to project their more violent subconscious desires. After a make-believe surgical operation spectators sometimes complain about the smell of ether although none has been used. The average spectator thirsts for blood; he never can get enough of it. When, one night recently, the crashed racing driver got up to take his curtain call, a nice lady in the audience exclaimed: “Oh, he’s alive. What a shame.” Sadism is the string on which the Grand Guignol plucks insistently. In some people it vibrates so strongly that they prefer to hide from prying eyes behind the lattices of the Grand Guignol’s loges.

During the last war, the Grand Guignol was a great hit with the German occupants. Goering visited it. After the Liberation, it continued to play to distinguished visitors. One night, General Patton showed up. Next day, the Paris newspapers carried the headline “Blood and Guts at the Grand Guignol,” whereupon the box office received large numbers of orders for tickets to the new spectacle “Blood and Guts.” Other post-war dignitaries to come to the Grand Guignol have been Ho Chi Minh, the Vietminh leader, the Sultan of Morocco’s sons and daughters, the King of Greece and Princess Wilhelmina of Holland. Not long ago, Robert Anderson, in Paris for the opening of his play, “Tea and Sympathy,” starring Ingrid Bergman, stayed just long enough to make the pilgrimage to the old theatre on the Rue Chaptal.

Yet there can be no doubt that since the end of the war, the Grand Guignol has been undergoing a severe crisis. A telltale symptom exists: people no longer readily faint. Scenes that sent shivers down our parents’ spines now make us snicker. “It is becoming more and more difficult to scare people,” complained an author.

The people hardened. That is probably the main reason for the Grand Guignol’s decline. It no longer has a monopoly on bloodshed, tortures and similar acts of sadism. The Grand Guignol floured in a period when Hitler still seemed a joke to most Frenchmen. The occupation put an abrupt end to their “innocence and ignorance.” “The war,” an old Grand Guignol stage director sighed, “did us a lot of harm.” People had first-hand experience of physical brutality: they were able to compare, and consequently lost interest in what now appeared to them as mere ersatz.

To be effective, Grand Guignol must seem real. There came the time when it didn’t any more. Hair-raising crimes? The daily papers offer us more succulent ones – and real, to boot. Operations? Why, you can see actual ones being performed on television.

To be sure, the movies are up against the same problem, but the movies’ task is less difficult. The difference between theatre and film is that between a magician working at close range and one working at a distance: film blood leaves no traces. Grand Guignol gore does – it can be tested.

It isn’t that people no longer are eager to be scared; they are no longer scared by the same things. Freud has dismantled Frankenstein’s monster. Psychology is today’s favorite lever of crime. Mounting suspense must take the place of the old mountains of corpses. This requires a new language, a new type of play.

Mme. Raymonde Machard, the Grand Guignol’s present director, is fully aware of the need and is seeking to establish a more modern formula. But she has not yet found the authors to accomplish the task. No new genius of crime has come to replace the pre-war Prince of Terror, de Lorde. And so, in the meantime, the Grand Guignol weaves a shaky course between watered-down thrillers and comic-relief strip-tease. This compromise satisfies neither the lovers of the old tradition nor those who come expecting to try out new recipes for swooning.

As a result, the Grand Guignol is no longer, for the up-to-date Parisian, the fashionable attraction that it once was. He spurns it, just as he would blush with shame if his friends saw him at the Folies Bergéres or on the platform of the Eiffel Tower.

But this does not mean the end of the Grand Guignol. Like many venerable institutions, it is sturdier than its critics. Many times before, it has outlived those who proclaimed it dead. Lovers of crime the world over may relax: the red stuff will continue to flow on the stage of the Grand Guignol, carefully curdled day after day by its old administrator. “I have been at it for twenty-eight years,” he says “and I imagine I’ll go on for a while yet. I guess I just have Grand Guignol in my veins.” And so do enough people, on every continent, to insure that the dismal House of Fear in Montmartre will live to celebrate many more gory anniversaries.