From House of Horrors
by Agnes Peirron
"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. 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.'"
For many years, the accepted orthodoxy around the Grand-Guignol's closure was a parroting of Charles Nonon's final quote. It was accepted that the horrors of the second world-war completely eclipsed anything capturable on stage. However, that perspective misses the finer details of the theatre's collapse.
What Peirron captures extremely well is the fact that many elements of the Grand-Guignol were failing around each other during its final years.
Jack Jouvin's firing of Maxa cannot be overstated as many Guignolers were furious that their favored actress had unceremoniously been given the boot. Jouvin's focus on drama is also well documented as something that displeased the regular crowd of Guignolers. Where once shouting "villain!" at the antagonists had been a common practice, complex psychological portrayals of characters went counter to this simple but effective tool for holding audience attention. Drama was also not the primary draw of the "theatre of horror". Many actors agreed the strength of the theatre was in terror and dismemberment, but with Jouvin at the helm those elements fell by the wayside.
Regardless of Jouvin's impact on the theatre there are still elements which would have lead to its downfall. Most notably, playing to german audiences during the occupation. Despite the protestation of several of the theatre's actors, the Grand-guignol became a favorite pastime of many nazis during the occupation of Paris. Several high-ranking nazi officers even personally congratulated the cast and crew for their performances on several occasions. As soon as the war was over this seeming appeasement of the occupying force marked the theatre as a "collaborator" with nazi menace. As one could imagine, attendance steply declined in the post-war years. Is this because, as Peirron posits, the horrors of reality now far eclipsed the stage? Possibly. But ignoring the fact that locals shunned the theatre due to its collaboration seems an equally likely answer.
As for the issue of self-parody, which Peirron briefly touched upon: the theatre absolutely delved into self-parody to its own detriment. While Jouvin moved the focus of the theatre away from the melodrama of the past, the cacoughpany of gory elements and dated techniques left the theatre to fester. No longer was it responding to their audience's desires but instead leaning heavier and heavier into elements unique to the Guignol. Gore became unrealistic. The expressionistic and melodramatic acting conventions became over the top and unbelievable. Even the once fainting audience members went out of style. On an artistic level, this death by self-parody far predated the literal death of the theatre. (I will note that in recent years, queer and camp readings of the theatre have come full circle, breathing new life into the old material by leaning heavily into the above elements of self-parody.)
As a whole, Peirron greatly understands the causes for the theatre's downfall. She avoids soley citing Nonon's reasoning (an area where many pseudo-historians about the theatre fail). She correctly identifies Jouvin as one of the theatre's greatest blunders. She even highlights the self-parody present in the later years and its detrimental effect upon audiences. There's no major points she's missing. However, her repeating of Nonon's claims without critique does undercut the very real horrors that took place within the theatre during the second world-war.
Historians' views are still shifting about this contentious topic within Grand-Guignol scholarship. New evidence is still surfacing as english translations of primary texts are just now being made available. If you could shed further light on this topic, don't hesitate to contact me!