Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror

Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror

by Richard J. Hand, Michael Wilson

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The Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris (1897 - 1962) achieved a legendary reputation as the 'Theatre of Horror' a venue displaying such explicit violence and blood-curdling terror that a resident doctor was employed to treat the numerous spectators who fainted each night. Indeed, the phrase 'grand guignol' has entered the language to describe any display of sensational horror.

Since the theatre closed its doors forty years ago, the genre has been overlooked by critics and theatre historians. This book reconsiders the importance and influence of the Grand-Guignol within its social, cultural and historical contexts, and is the first attempt at a major evaluation of the genre as performance. It gives full consideration to practical applications and to the challenges presented to the actor and director.

The book also includes outstanding new translations by the authors of ten Grand-Guignol plays, none of which have been previously available in English. The presentation of these plays in English for the first time is an implicit demand for a total reappraisal of the grand-guignol genre, not least for the unexpected inclusion of two very funny comedies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781905816354
Publisher: University of Exeter Press
Publication date: 07/17/2019
Series: Exeter Performance Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Mike Wilson is Professor of Drama at Loughborough University. He is author of Performance and Practice: Oral Narrative Traditions among Teenagers in Britain and Ireland


Richard Hand is Professor of Media Practice and Head of Media, Film and TV Studies at University of East Anglia. He is also assistant editor and translator of Naturalism and Symbolism in European Theatre, 1850 - 1918



Richard J. Hand is Professor of Media Practice and Head of Media, Film and TV Studies at University of East Anglia. He is the co-editor of the Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Richard has written extensively on adaptation, horror studies, European theatre, radio drama, and popular culture. He has also worked as a writer, director and performer for theatre and radio. His practice-based research activities include experimental live re-creations of The Train of Terror! (2005), The Terrifying Tale of Sweeney Todd! (2008), Noel Coward’s The Better Half (2008), and Kandinsky’s The Yellow Sound (2011).

Together with Mike Wilson he has delivered workshops on Grand Guignol, and presented Grand Guignol performances at universities, international conferences and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Richard and Michael are the authors of Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (2002), London’s Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror (2007) and Performing Grand-Guignol - Playing the Theatre of Horror (2016), all published by UEP.

Michael Wilson is Professor of Drama at Loughborough University. He was previously Professor of Drama and Dean of the School of Media and Performance at University College Falmouth and prior to that was Head of Research at the Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of Glamorgan and Co-Director (with Hamish Fyfe) of the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling.

His main research interests lie in the field of popular and vernacular performance and he has published extensively on Storytelling, Grand-Guignol and Brecht and his collaborators. In particular, his work on storytelling has led him to work on the interface between storytelling and digital technology and the way in which the internet has enabled the telling and sharing of ‘extraordinary’ stories of the everyday experiences of people.

Together with Richard Hand he has delivered workshops on Grand Guignol, and presented Grand Guignol performances at universities, international conferences and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Richard and Michael are the authors of Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (2002), London’s Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror (2007) and Performing Grand-Guignol - Playing the Theatre of Horror (2016), all published by UEP.

Read an Excerpt


The French Theatre of Horror

By Richard J. Hand, Michael Wilson

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2002 Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-917-8


An Historical Outline of the Grand-Guignol

Hidden amongst the decadence and sleaze of Pigalle with its roughnecks and whores, in the shadows of a quiet, cobbled alleyway, stands a little theatre. The spectators take up their seats in the auditorium eager for the show to begin, if only to escape the eerie mood of their surroundings. At last the curtain rises ... But this is no ordinary theatre, this is the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol: A prostitute is trapped in a bedroom with a psychopathic killer ... A doctor replaces medicine with poison and injects his unsuspecting patient ... A man embraces his daughter before blowing out her brains ... Another father strangles his son to death ... A woman's face smokes and melts as it is covered in vitriol ... A man amputates his own hand with an axe ... A woman is skinned alive while another watches in sexual ecstasy ... Members of the audience begin to lose consciousness while a desperate house-doctor attempts to revive them ... Our innocent spectators feel light-headed, morally outraged and yet guiltily stimulated as they stagger out of the theatre to join other people vomiting in the alleyway to the sounds of violent sex emanating from the darkest corners of the street ...

Such is the sensationalistic myth of the Grand-Guignol, an extreme and unique mixture of the horrific and the erotic, of the graphic and the morally dubious, of sang, sperme et sueur (blood, sperm and sweat). Although an examination of the facts will prove the Grand-Guignol to be less colourful than its reputation, the legend has a basis in truth: all the horrific stage episodes outlined above—and more besides—occur in the plays contained in this volume.


When André Antoine founded the Théâtre Libre in 1887, one of his collaborators was a certain Oscar Méténier. Méténier, formerly a police secretary, provided Antoine with numerous comédies rosses (short dramatic pieces which looked at the lives and language of the Parisian underclass) as part of the theatre's naturalistic and experimental multi-play programmes. Antoine, of course, is one of the giants of modern theatre, above all in the contribution he made to the development of stage naturalism and the role of the director. However, he was far too eclectic a director, actor and producer to be labelled exclusively 'naturalistic'; eventually he grew tired of the rosse genre and he and Méténier moved in different directions (Gordon 1997, 13). After the Théâtre Libre collapsed in bankruptcy in 1893, Méténier continued his investigations into the comédie rosse and naturalism and he opened the Grand-Guignol in 1897 with the Théâtre Libre model in mind.

The plays of his own which Méténier staged during the initial seasons are good examples of pieces expressing naturalist concerns. La Brême (translated by Daniel Gerould as Meat-Ticket in Gerould 1984, 20–3 —the title is a reference to the slang term used for the prostitute's identity card issued by the police), for example, which contributed to the Grand-Guignol's opening programme, concerns a middle-aged couple discussing their daughter's future with a friend at the time of her first communion. After much discussion of moral values, the daughter enters to declare that, upon the parish priest's advice to never abandon her parents, she intends to follow her sister into prostitution so as to make a financial contribution to the household, a selfless act for which she is congratulated by one and all. Shocking as some of these plays may have been to audiences of the time, 'Méténier's miniature dramas expose the fraud of bourgeois morality when foisted on the poor' (Gerould 1984, 18) whilst the working classes 'parody the values of their supposed betters by adapting the precepts taught by the church and state to their own lowly circumstances' (ibid. 18–19). Méténier also included his En famille in the Grand-Guignol programme of April 1898, a play which had caused such moral indignation and outrage when first presented at the Théâtre Libre. Méténier clearly established the Grand-Guignol as a theatre that challenged moral orthodoxy and would continue the succès de scandale of naturalism.

It appears that the Grand-Guignol proved a success from its opening and the reason why Oscar Méténier handed ownership of the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol to Max Maurey after only two years at the helm is a matter that remains unclear. Whilst Gordon, Callahan and Homrighous maintain, rather unsatisfactorily, that he simply vanished (Gordon 1988, 17; Callahan 1991, 167; Homrighous 1963, 7), Pierron suggests more credibly that Méténier's decision was motivated by ill health (Pierron 1995, VI), although he was a relatively young man and destined to live for another fourteen years. Even the exact date of the takeover is shrouded in ambiguity.

Whatever the exact truth, Méténier was handing over a success and he must have felt assured that his enterprise was in safe hands. Yet the theatre that Max Maurey inherited was not a theatre of horror per se, but a successful house of naturalism, dedicated to the true-to-life representation of a society dehumanized by capitalism and bourgeois morality. Although Méténier founded and named the theatre, critics agree that it is really after his departure that his successor, Maurey, identified the potential success of the theatre and developed it away from being a Théâtre Libre imitation into being its own unique, successful—and ultimately legendary—venue and genre. During Maurey's fifteen (or sixteen) year reign, the Grand-Guignol became established as a popular theatre with its distinctive programming, acting and production style, with a loyal team of actors, writers and audience members.

It would be wrong to think that these changes occurred all of a sudden and that Maurey set off in the opposite direction to Méténier. In fact, rather the opposite is true, for Maurey, in order to create his 'Theatre of Horror', simply identified characteristics within Méténier's enterprise and moved them up the production agenda. Plays such as La Brême and En famille with their vicious and 'shocking' condemnations of bourgeois morality would not look out of place within the Grand-Guignol programme under Maurey, although they are clearly plays that emerge from the naturalist tradition of the Théâtre Libre.

The fact that Méténier's naturalist experiment was able to be developed so seamlessly into Maurey's popular théâtre de la peur merely shows how this 'serious, pseudo-scientific dramatic form, could be exploited for sheer thrills and entertainment' (Gerould, 1984, 18). Thrill and sensation were also integral elements of the comédie rosse genre and the opening year of the Grand-Guignol produced thrilling and sensationalist plays by Méténier such as Mademoiselle Fifi (an adaptation of a Maupassant short story) and Lui! Both plays deal with prostitution and feature on-stage (Mademoiselle Fifi) and off-stage (Lui!) murder. As much as they can be primarily viewed as naturalistic works, both plays establish what became the classic formula of the Grand-Guignol play: a combination, broadly speaking, of the erotic and the violent. In addition, each evening in the opening seasons presented a selection of plays in a manner which became the Grand-Guignol's trademark: la douche écossaise, a 'hot and cold shower' of dramatic pieces interspersed with comedies.

Camillo Antona-Traversi distinctly labels Antoine and Maurey as emanating from the same naturalist tradition (Antona-Traversi 1933, 65) and, although he may have had his own personal reasons for doing this, Maurey lost no time in acquainting himself with the key figures of the Montmartre artistic community, such as Antoine and, most importantly, the playwright and friend of Oscar Méténier, André de Lorde. As Frantisek Deák asserts, initially 'Maurey continued to present naturalist plays' (Deák 1974, 36), such as Lui! in January 1902 and a number of comedies from the pen of Georges Courteline, another favourite from the days of Antoine's Théâtre Libre. Nevertheless, the Grand-Guignol did develop significantly during the first few years of the new century and Maurey is generally credited with establishing the Grand-Guignol in five key areas, namely performance style, production style (especially in the development of stage trickery and special effects), programming, the importance of the playwright and the establishment of the Grand-Guignol as the undisputed 'Theatre of Horror'.

At the same time, every one of these developments had been previously signposted by Méténier and it was Maurey's legendary skills as an impresario and publicist which allowed him to recognize certain aspects of Méténier's naturalist experiment as having popular and commercial viability. In 1903 Jacques des Gachon praised Maurey as being a man 'who had very clear ideas' (quoted in Pierron 1995, VII), comparing him to Antoine himself. It was indeed fortunate that, so early in its life, the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol acquired a director with such financial acumen and artistic vision.

Performance Style

If Méténier's Grand-Guignol grew out of naturalist experimentation in the 1880s and 1890s, then it was also never entirely divorced from the great popular theatrical development of the nineteenth century, melodrama. Montmartre was home to the 'blood and thunder' theatres of the boulevard du crime, and the Grand-Guignol would, in its own time, become 'le théâtre de Montmartre' (Sabatier 1998, 141). Implicit in Sabatier's statement must be an acknowledgement that the Grand-Guignol remained inside, rather than outside, the area's melodramatic traditions.

Not unlike the great melodramas of the day, Méténier's comédies rosses drew their inspiration from, among other things, the fait divers of the Parisian popular press. These were short items of news (usually involving violent crime), gory and colourful illustrations of which often graced the front and back pages of Le Petit Journal and Le Petit Parisien. Here were documentary illustrations of vitriol attacks on former lovers (see front cover) and brutal murders by delinquent youths (fig. 1), which provided raw material for both forms. When Maurey took over and looked to develop the Grand-Guignol as a theatre of horror, he undoubtedly recognized the popular vein of melodrama that lay embedded within the material and sought to exploit it. Naturalism and melodrama used the same material in completely different ways. Whereas melodrama produced plays of sentimental and sermonising morality in a world where the righteous who suffered misery and poverty were rewarded in Heaven, naturalism was a far more radical doctrine, in which bourgeois society was blamed for the brutalization of humankind.

Mary Homrighous argues that the Grand-Guignol emanates from three separate traditions: naturalism, melodrama and the well-made play (1963, 25). Although these may be the key traditions amalgamated into the Grand-Guignol, it is worth noting how eclectic the theatre was and would always attempt to be. For instance, Symbolism too can be seen as bearing an influence. Indeed, the first successful attempt at a dramatized fait divers was Intérieur (1894) by Maurice Maeterlinck, the most celebrated of the Symbolist dramatists (Homrighous 1963, 23). As Claude Schumacher argues:

[Maeterlinck's] theatre is a theatre of fear and a theatre of waiting —not the coward's obscene fear which expresses itself in histrionics, but hidden, internal and unutterable fear, which gnaws away at the soul and which stems from forces over which we have no control. Such waiting and such fear will only cease at the moment of death; life must be lived until then. (Schumacher 1984, 16)

The Grand-Guignol was even more famous as being a theatre of fear, and although there is very little 'waiting' in the exacerbated horrors of the Grand-Guignol, it displays a world governed by a similarly deep and unutterable fear, whilst resorting to the 'obscene' histrionics associated with melodrama.

Under Maurey, the performance style moved away from naturalism towards a more melodramatic approach, although the naturalist legacy (and maybe a touch of Maeterlinck's Symbolism) was never completely lost. By the beginning of the twentieth century, naturalism was practically a spent force as part of the artistic avant garde, whereas melodrama proved itself to be far more robust. Although the days of the great melodrama theatres were all but over, melodramatic styles of acting had found a new home in the silent film industry and were soon to influence the techniques of the Expressionists. It was under Maurey's stewardship, in 1909, that the Grand-Guignol first began its uneasy relationship with the cinema industry with the production of a film version of de Lorde's adaptation of Poe's Le Système du Docteur Goudron et du Professeur Plume (Robert Saidreau 1909) with Henri Gouget, who had played the role of Goudron in the 1903 premiere at the rue Chaptal and was a key member of the resident company during this period (Pierron 1995, 1430). Maurey, it could be argued, was simply making the move towards a more popular style in keeping with the times. As the distinctive house performance style of the Grand-Guignol, melodrama tempered with naturalism, developed, it is in the production values of the time that the legacy of Antoine and Zola can be most readily perceived.

Production Style

As Maurey rebranded the Grand-Guignol as the 'Theatre of Horror', much time, effort and expense was invested in creating effects that were as realistic as possible: whilst a victim may die a melodramatic death, the means by which they met that death were as naturalistic as possible. A key figure in this was Paul Ratineau. It is Ratineau who usually receives the greatest credit for developing the repertoire of stage trickery, special effects and sleight-of-hand sequences, which made the audiences at the rue Chaptal gasp and faint. It is testament to his technical skill and creativity that he was able to develop devices and props that were undetectable to audiences in this small and intimate theatre space. This was achieved, in part, through the ingenious use of stage lighting and shadows, and a great deal of credit must also go to the virtuosity and artistry of the actors themselves in successfully executing the special effects.

François Rivière and Gabrielle Wittkop (1979, 84) identify Ratineau as the third personality, along with Maurey and de Lorde, in the team that was responsible for developing the form in the first decade of the twentieth century. Effectively Ratineau took on the role of stage manager, where he was able to put his skills and knowledge to good use. According to Henri-René Lenormand—who made his playwrighting debut at the Grand-Guignol with La Folie blanche (1905), but never contributed more than a few plays to the repertoire—in his book, Confessions d'un auteur dramatiques (1949):

He knew more than anyone else in Paris about the technique of horror effects. He was an expert in stage weaponry, blood stains, acid burns, pestilent ulcers and severed heads, and he had the composure of a highly experienced stage manager, a wicked Montmartrean sense of humour and a memory which contained, in astonishing detail, everything about the theatre of fear. (quoted in Rivière and Wittkop 1979, 84)

It is worth mentioning that first and foremost Ratineau was an actor, notching up probably the longest continuous career on the Grand-Guignol stage as a performer in mainly supporting roles. It was a career that lasted well over quarter of a century and spanned the directorships of Maurey, Choisy and Jouvin. Amongst his multitude of credits are appearances in the premiere of de Lorde's Le Système du Docteur Goudron et du Professeur Plume alongside Gouget in April 1903, de Lorde and Morel's La Dernière Torture in December 1904 (again alongside Gouget), and as the Englishman John Matthews in Héros and Abric's La Veuve in March 1906. By 1924 he was playing alongside Maxa in André-Paul Antoine's La Nuit tragique de Raspoutine (later renamed La dernière nuit de Raspoutine) and he can even be seen playing the role of Hippolyte in the 1930 production of Jean Sartène's La Griffe, once more with his old colleague, the veteran Henri Gouget, who made a brief reappearance on the stage at the rue Chaptal under the direction of Jack Jouvin. Arguably, Ratineau's success as a stage manager can be largely attributed to his ability to apply an actor's perspective to the development of special effects. This was a form which relied as much on the artistry of the actor to successfully carry out the tricks on stage, in front of an intimate audience, as it did on the ingenuity of the effects themselves.


We have already seen that it was Méténier who, from the very opening night with its programme of a prologue, two comedies and four dramas or comédies rosses, introduced the concept of alternating different types of plays within a single evening's entertainment. However, la douche écossaise was not, as Rivière and Wittkop are at pains to point out, anything necessarily new; 'The system put in place by Méténier established the alternating of comedies and dark plays—this hot and cold shower, also represented by the famous masks which decorate Harlequin's cloak' (Rivière and Wittkop 1979, 76). Furthermore, as a programming structure, it is ideally suited to an evening of one-act plays, a dramatic form championed by Antoine at the Théâtre Libre.


Excerpted from Grand-Guignol by Richard J. Hand, Michael Wilson. Copyright © 2002 Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Jack! (lui!), Oscar Metenier

2. The Ultimate Torture (La Derniere Torture), Andr de Lorde and Eugene Morel

3. The Lighthousekeepers (Gardiens de Phare), Paul Autier and Paul Colquemin

4. Chop-chop! (La Veuve), Eugene Heros and Leon Abric

5. Tics! or Doing the Deed (Apres Coup ou Tics), Ren Berton

6. In the Darkroom (Sous la Lumiere Rouge), Maurice Level and Etienne Rey

7. The Final Kiss (Le Baiser dans la Nuit), Maurice Level

8. The Torture Garden (Le Jardin des Supplices), Pierre Chaine and Andre de Lorde

9. Euthanasia (L'euthanasie), Ren Berton

10. The Kiss of Blood (Le Baiser de Sang), Jean Aragny and Francis Nelson



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