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Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (French pronunciation: [ɡʁɑ̃ ɡiɲɔl]: "The Theater of the Big Puppet") – known as the Grand Guignol – was a theatre in the Pigalle area of Paris (at 20 bis, rue Chaptal (fr)). From its opening in 1897 until its closing in 1962, it specialized in naturalistic horror shows. Its name is often used as a general term for graphic, amoral horror entertainment, a genre popular from Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre (for instance Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil), to today's splatter films.
A former chapel, the theater's previous life was evident in the boxes – which looked like confessionals – and in the angels over the orchestra. Although the architecture created frustrating obstacles, the design that was initially a predicament ultimately became beneficial to the marketing of the theatre. The opaque furniture and gothic structures placed sporadically on the walls of the building exude a feeling of eeriness from the moment of entrance. People came to this theatre for an experience, not only to see a show. The audience at "Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol" endured the terror of the shows because they wanted to be filled with strong “feelings” of something. Many attended the shows to get a feeling of arousal. Underneath the balcony were boxes (originally built for nuns to watch church services) that were available for theatre-goers to rent during performances because they would get so aroused by the action happening on stage. It has been said that audience members would get so boisterous in the boxes, that actors would sometimes break character and yell something such as, “keep it down in there!” Conversely, there were audience members who could not physically handle the brutality of the actions taking place on stage. Frequently, the “special effects” would be too realistic and often an audience member would faint and/or vomit during performances.
The theater's peak was between World War I and World War II, when it was frequented by royalty and celebrities in evening dress.
Oscar Méténier was the Grand Guignol's founder and original director. Under his direction, the theater produced plays about a class of people who were not considered appropriate subjects in other venues: prostitutes, criminals, street urchins, and others at the lower end of Paris's social echelon.
Max Maurey (fr) served as director from 1898 to 1914. Maurey shifted the theater's emphasis to the horror plays it would become famous for and judged the success of a performance by the number of patrons who passed out from shock; the average was two faintings each evening. Maurey discovered André de Lorde, who would become the most important playwright for the theatre.
André de Lorde was the theater's principal playwright from 1901 to 1926. He wrote at least 100 plays for the Grand Guignol and collaborated with experimental psychologist Alfred Binet to create plays about insanity, one of the theater's frequently recurring themes.
Camille Choisy served as director from 1914 to 1930. He contributed his expertise in special effects and scenery to the theater's distinctive style.
Paula Maxa (fr) was one of the Grand Guignol's best-known performers. From 1917 to the 1930s, she performed most frequently as a victim and was known as "the most assassinated woman in the world". During her career at the Grand Guignol, Maxa's characters were murdered more than 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways and raped at least 3,000 times.
Jack Jouvin served as director from 1930 to 1937. He shifted the theater's subject matter, focusing performances not on gory horror but psychological drama. Under his leadership the theater's popularity waned; and after World War II, it was not well-attended.
Charles Nonon was the theater's last director.
At the Grand Guignol, patrons would see five or six plays, all in a style that attempted to be brutally true to the theatre's naturalistic ideals. The plays were in a variety of styles, but the most popular and best known were the horror plays, featuring a distinctly bleak worldview as well as notably gory special effects in their notoriously bloody climaxes. These plays often explored the altered states, like insanity, hypnosis, panic, under which uncontrolled horror could happen. Some of the horror came from the nature of the crimes shown, which often had very little reason behind them and in which the evildoers were rarely punished or defeated. To heighten the effect, the horror plays were often alternated with comedies.
Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations, by André de Lorde: When a doctor finds his wife's lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor's brain.
Audiences waned in the years following World War II, and the Grand Guignol closed its doors in 1962. Management attributed the closure in part to the fact that the theater's faux horrors had been eclipsed by the actual events of the Holocaust two decades earlier. "We could never equal Buchenwald," said its final director, Charles Nonon. "Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality."
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Grand Guignol flourished briefly in London in the early 1920s under the direction of Jose Levy, where it attracted the talents of Sybil Thorndike and Noël Coward, and a series of short English "Grand Guignol" films (using original screenplays, not play adaptations) was made at the same time, directed by Fred Paul. Several of the films exist at the BFI National Archive.
The Grand Guignol was revived once again in London in 1945, under the direction of Frederick Witney, where it ran for two seasons at the Granville Theatre. These included premiers of Witney's own work as well as adaptations of French originals.
In recent years, English director-writer, Richard Mazda, has re-introduced New York audiences to the Grand Guignol. His acting troupe, The Queens Players, have produced 6 mainstage productions of Grand Guignol plays, and Mazda is writing new plays in the classic Guignol style. The sixth production, Theatre of Fear, included De Lorde's famous adaptation of Poe's The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (Le Systéme du Dr Goudron et Pr Plume) as well as two original plays, Double Crossed and The Good Death alongside The Tell Tale Heart.
American avant-garde composer John Zorn released an album called Grand Guignol by Naked City in 1992, in a reference to "the darker side of our existence which has always been with us and always will be".
Washington, D.C.-based Molotov Theatre Group, established in 2007, is dedicated to preserving and exploring the aesthetic of the Grand Guignol. They have entered two plays into the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. Their 2007 show, For Boston, won "Best Comedy", and their second show, The Sticking Place, won "Best Overall" in 2008.
The Swiss theatre company, Compagnie Pied de Biche revisits the Grand Guignol genre in contemporary contexts since 2008. The company staged in 2010 a diptych Impact & Dr. Incubis, based on original texts by Nicolas Yazgi and directed by Frédéric Ozier. More than literal adaptations, the plays address violence, death, crime and fear in contemporary contexts, while revisiting many trope of the original Grand Guignol corpus, often with humor.
Recently formed London-based Grand Guignol company Theatre of the Damned, brought their first production to the Camden Fringe in 2010 and produced the award nominated Grand Guignol in November of that year. In 2011, they staged "Revenge of the Grand Guignol" at the Courtyard Theatre, London, as part of the London Horror Festival.
Also based in London, Le Nouveau Guignol form the UK's only permanent repertory Grand Guignol company; plays within their current repertoire include French Guignol classics such as "The Final Kiss", "Tics... Or Doing the Deed", "The Lighthouse Keepers", "Private Room Number Six" and "The Kiss of Blood". However, as their company remit also includes encouraging new writing, they have also staged several new plays in the Grand-Guignol style, including "Eating For Two", "Penalty" and "Ways and Means". Le Nouveau Guignol took part in the London Horror Festival alongside Theatre of the Damned at Courtyard Theatre in November 2011.
August-October, 2013 The Xoregos Performing Company presented Danse Macabre, a contemporary tribute to Grand Guignol at Theater for the New City in New York City. Danse Macabre was a program of four plays of psychological and physical terror, one humorous work and a dance, in keeping with Grand Guignol's programming history. The run ended October 27 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. The playwrights were Dave deChristopher, Jack Feldstein, Dylan Guy, Pamela Scott and Joel Trinidad. Choreographer and Director, Shela Xoregos.
The Japanese music group ALI Project created the song "Gesshoku Grand Guignol" as the opening for the Bee-Train anime Avenger, while British rock band Duels also named an instrumental track after the theater.
The second album of Austrian horror punk band Bloodsucking Zombies From Outer Space is called A Night at Grand Guignol (2005). "Grand Guignol" is also the name of the first track in Bajofondo's second album Mar Dulce.
While the original Grand Guignol attempted to present naturalistic horror, the performances would seem melodramatic and heightened to today's audience. For this reason, the term is often applied to films and plays of a stylised nature with heightened acting, melodrama and theatrical effects such as Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, Quills, and the Hammer Horror films that went before them.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte; What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?; What's the Matter with Helen?; Night Watch and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? form a sub-branch of the genre called Grande Dame Guignol for its use of aging A-list actresses in sensational horror films.
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