Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was founded by Oscar Méténier in 1897. The theater’s drive was inspired by the true crime newspapers of Paris (Les Fait Divers). In response to these papers Méténier sought to create naturalistic shows displaying in brutal detail the lives of the disadvantaged and working class. Translated literally, the name of the theater means “The Theater of The Great Puppet”. More specifically, ‘Guignol’ is a puppet from French Punch and Judy shows. His purpose was largely the same as Méténier’s as he represented the working class and through his actions would similarly show the horrors they were subjected to.
A Large part of what made the Grand-Guignol unique was its atmosphere. From mist shrouded streets to dark gothic atmosphere click below to find out what made the Grand-Guignol's location so uniquely suited for its content.
Partially in response to their societal commentary, the early shows of Méténier and the Grand-Guignol were a heavy target for censorship. They showed the con-artists, streetwalkers, and other vagrants of Paris that had yet to be accurately represented on stage- in their own language. This spoke to Parisan audiences in a way hitherto unheard of. The theater was an immediate success.
Following in the footsteps of Méténier, the theatre was soon passed on to Max Maurey in 1898. While still working from the shocking basis of Méténier’s oueve, Maurey is notable for turning the Grand-Guignol into a “house of horror”. He utilized numerous gimmicks from in-theater doctors to mind-bending special effects to further the Theater’s reputation. In fact, many loosely attribute Maurey as judging a show’s success based on the number of audience members who fainted from fear during the performance.
A Pre-Guignol show of Metenier
Also during this time an effort was made to transfer the Grand-Guignol to English audiences. London’s own Grand-Guignol, however, was short-lived due to the “Lord Chamberlain’s censors' ' quickly putting a stop to De Lorde’s and several other playwright's attempts to further this horrific theater.
During Maurey’s tenure, two major playwrights came into prominence within the Grand-Guignol. First was Andre de Lorde. He was one the theater’s most popular and prolific authors. So much so, that upon his death in 1942 at age 90 some decried the Grand-Guignol dead too. Second was Alfred Binet, the inventor of the modern IQ test and renowned psychologist. These two, under the watchful eye of Maurey, would transform the focus of the Grand-Guignol away from street crime and towards clinical insanity. From the classic mad scientist to necrophiliacs and compulsive killers wandering Parisian streets, the plays of this period firmly established the macabre and gory tone commonly associated with the Grand-Guignol today.
A Poster for London's (short-lived) Grand Guignol, designed by Aubrey Hammond
Following this period of fame and infamy in Paris, Camille Choisy came on as the theatre's director from 1914-1930. Where Méténier and Maurey evolved the textual content of the theater into new shocking directions, Choisy instead chose to focus on special effects. During his tenure, the theater saw its notoriety further rise as Soldiers from the front of WWI would come to see shows on leave and supposedly marvel in revulsion at the acts performed on stage.
Paula Maxa came to be an important part of the theater as well during this time. Hired by Choisy, Maxa quickly gained a following. Not just amongst the “Guignolers'' who formed the theater’s fanbase, but with the public at large. Soon she went by the title of “The most assassinated woman in the world”. Her numerous gory, and sometimes disturbingly erotic deaths were tantamount to the theater’s success at the time. So much so that one French critic famously remarked: “"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.``
A uniquely gory special effect accomplished during Choisy's time with the theatre
At the pinnacle of its both textual and technological horror peak, it is important to note that this theater alternated it's fearful dramas with comedies. Often openly sexual in nature, these plays produced an effect within the audience of “douche écossaise” or translated “hot and cold showers”. The tension from one show would be released by the next so that the one after that could build the dread anew. Of course, this had other effects upon the audience too. Notably, the iron-grilled “confessional” style booths at the back of the theater would be stained with certain bodily fluids better left unsaid after each performance.
The next director of note for the theater is Jack Jouvin. He directed from 1930 to 1937 and in that time he sought to change the theater's focus away from the gorey effects of Choisy and towards a more serious psychological drama approach. Disliked by many of the theater's own staff (even purportedly firing Maxa for being too popular within the “old” Grand-Guignol) and wider audiences, his tenure was the start of the end for the theater.
Where once audiences were a collection of countless Parisians (from within the downtrodden neighborhood to even the near aristocratic theater-goers of the “Comedie Francaise'') and tourists (similarly diverse in geographic terms, hailing from across europe and the united states), the seats started to become more and more empty with each show.
A still from The Grand-Guignol Laboratory's comedy production of "Tics... or doing the deed".
Going into the second world war there was a small resurgence in its popularity amongst Nazi audiences occupying Paris. Nazi enjoyment was so great that actors tell of high ranking officers personally complimenting their performances and special effects. This greatly impacted the theater’s post-war operations as Parisian antipathy for supposed Nazi collaboration led to a financial reliance upon tourists.
Numerous other factors contributed to The Grand-Guignol’s downfall, such as the unpopularity of Jouvin's “drama” tainting its terrifying reputation or the camp elements which bleed into its final years of operation.
In the end, the theater’s final director Charles Nonon, upon being interviewed about the theater’s closing said: "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." While the horrors in theatre pale in comparison to the Holocaust, Nonon ignored that the theatre was still able to thrive despite the terrors of the WWI. In addition, he failed to recognize the theatre's other numerous flaws at the time of its closing.
Regardless, in 1962, the Grand-Guignol closed its doors for a final time.
The Poster for "Les Yeux Sans Visage", the final show of the Grand-Guignol.
In Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol's place today stands the International Visual Theatre. A theater completely divorced from the horrific roots of its location, instead focusing largely on “visual” shows (shows without words) and educational theatre.
However, while the original theater itself is dead and buried (with even its once foreboding exterior painted yellow and white) its legacy lives on in countless ways: from inspiring contemporary horror theater of all types to even its use as a disambiguation to describe any gorey macabre performance.
The Grand-Guignol theatre lives strong in the hearts and minds of its many practitioners, historians, and most of all audience members to this day.
The international Visual Theatre as it stands today