Penny Dreadful: How The Grand Guignol Gave Birth to Horror

Penny Dreadful’s Frankenstein Monster found a home at the Grand Guignol, first home to all monsters.

On last weekend’s Penny Dreadful, the Frankenstein Monster told a sad tale. The creature was born in agony and fear and abandoned on sight. Left to its own devices. No love. No nurturing. A witness to the cruelties of London’s streets through a window.

The first kindness the monster encounters in life comes from a drunken actor, long past his prime. The actor was Shakespearean trained, was once the toast of London, but now, acts out of a lesser venue. A venue where blood and treachery rule the night, brooms and mops rule the day. Where audiences cheer as blood runs over pretty ladies and refined gentlemen. This actor looks past the monster’s tortured visage and gives him drink, food and more drink. Ultimately the actor gives the monster lodging and work. The work would be in a dark venue. A venue of blood and treachery. The monster would find a home.

It’s a wonderful story. Monsters should find homes. It’s the kind of story you might have watched, back in the days when Penny Dreadful is set, on a stage in Paris. A dark venue where actors became monsters and monsters were free to tell their tales. Indeed it is there that this monster finds a home: The Grand Guignol.

The Grand Guignol was the monsters’ first home. Not just Frankenstein’s creation, but all monsters. Lowlifes and outcasts who run the street by day. Ladies of ill repute who walk the streets at night. The monsters that dwell deep in the subconscious forever walking in the shadows. There may have been a tradition of horror in theater that pre-dated Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, but The Grand Guignol explored societal and psychological terrors live with the stagecraft that would define the genre for the next century. Grand Guignol was the first horror theater.

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Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was a Parisian institution from 1897 to the early sixties. It is where Twentieth Century horror movies were born. Silent horror classics took their plots and special effects from here. It was where the 1935 Peter Lorre film Mad Love was set. (Someone please pause a DVD on the line scene, is that Humphrey Bogart as an unbilled extra?) It was a living breathing theatre of blood. It was the inspiration for Anne Rice’s Théâtre des Vampires in her Interview with the Vampire novels.

Before I did my own Vampyr Theatre, La Commedia del Sangue (which was inspired by Hammer’s Vampire Circus, not Anne’s, which I discovered after writing them), I saw an off-off-Broadway production of four Grand Guignol vignettes. Tastefully done, the acting just the right bit over the top. They had blood galore. It was the era of Splatterpunk.

Manhattan threw up a lot of live horror theater in the late ’80s and early nineties and I saw them all. At the Pyramid Club, in small theaters, lofts and bookstores. The casts and crews all shared one overriding vision, to bring to the stage what movies had been bringing to the screen. To take horror back live, where it started and where it belonged. Live on stage you can improvise. You can sit in an audience member’s lap, close enough to slit a throat. Real terror can be wrought on stage that is only imagined in film.

Oscar Méténier founded Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in 1894. It opened at the smallest stage venue in Paris, a former chapel in the Quartier Pigalle section of town, in 1897 with the intent of putting up Naturalist plays, part of the burgeoning realist movement in theater. The Grand Guignol plays had heroes and heroines from the ignored classes at the time. Crooks and whores, monsters and the insane. Ghost ship captains, lighthouse keepers, and evil magicians. People who were shunned by proper society.

These characters sinned and plotted. Killed and were killed. They bled live on stage. Actors would break character and yell at the crowd. Audiences came for the experience more than for the show.

The Grand Guignol developed all the stage tricks that would later be used in film and in all stage gore. Blood bags, cap guns and knives with blades that squirted blood. By the time of Vampyr Theatre, we could use squibs to explode an actor’s head, blowing out chunks of meat and karo syrup with red, yellow and green food coloring, and a touch of soap for slide and ooze consistency. My old man built a retractable stake that oozed blood for us. Our first special effects wizards came from film. Then we got magicians. Horror on stage is a lot like a magic trick gone wrong. We had a “splatter section” where people just might get happily covered in the stuff. None of these ideas were original. It all started with the Grand Guignol.

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The horror was brought to Grand Guignol by Max Maurey, who took over as director in 1898. During his tenure, which ran until 1914, success wasn’t measured by the box office. It was measured in faintings. If a night went by with less than two audience members passing out from the sheer shock of it all, the show was a bust. Most of the plays were written by André de Lorde. The playwright wrote over 100 plays from 1901 to 1926, often with Alfred Binet, an experimental psychologist who knew his way around insanity. Théâtre Libre founder André Antoine also collaborated with Oscar Méténier, who made a living walking prisoners down death row, to tell tales of absolute distress in the face of impending death. Ever looming and real. What a day job.

The Grand Guignol would present five or six plays a night. Starting in 1914, under the direction of Camille Choisy, the plays jumped headlong into exploring special effects and the stage was transformed with intricately detailed, evocative scenery. Shadows that obscured ghostly worlds and stone walls that looked like they poured sweat.

When Jack Jouvin took over as director from 1930 to 1937, The Grand Guignol shifted the dynamic from horror to psychological drama. The focus change, coupled with more readily available horror on cinema screens, ate into the theater’s popularity. When there was more readily available horror outside people’s windows during World War II, there were empty seats. After the world learned about the Holocaust, the terrors of the Grand Guignol seemed quaint.

Charles Nonon, who was the theater’s last director, told Life Magazine, “We could never equal Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.”

Though reality caught up and surpassed evil illusions, The Grand Guignol also weaved sexual fantasy. They had their own stars. The best known performer from the theater was Paula Maxa, who was known as “the Sarah Bernhardt of the impasse Chaptal.” From 1917 to the 1930s, Maxa was “the most assassinated woman in the world.”  Maxa was raped at least 3,000 times on stage. She was murdered more than 10,000 times in over 60 varied methods. What a trouper.

Penny Dreadful, as I said, sets the Grand Guignol in London. There was a production that was directed by Jose Levy in London, but it was in the early 1920s. It wasn’t Oscar Wilde, creator of Dorian Gray, who contributed, but Sybil Thorndike and Noël Coward. The Grand Guignol returned to London in 1945. Frederick Witney directed two seasons of it at the Granville Theatre.

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The last Grand Guignol performance was 1962’s production of Les Yeux sans visage. The building is still there. The International Visual Theatre now performs plays in sign language in it. The year I stopped doing Vampyr Theatre, 1997, I bought Mel Gordon’s book The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror and saw everything I got wrong. It’s a great book and I recommend it. He breaks down all the synopses and gives an very detailed and loving history, without which, I couldn’t have written a word of this.

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