A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the story on the Grand Guignol, the original shock theater?

January 14, 1994

Dear Cecil:

I found an obscure reference to a place called the Grand Guignol in Paris. It said some pretty twisted stuff happened there for the amusement of others. Do you know anything about it? Was it theatrics or the real McCoy (or should I say McCabre)? How do you pronounce Grand Guignol?

Cecil replies:

Well, we can't have you prowling around Paris looking for the Grand Goog-nole, Mike: you say it Gron Geen-yole. Not that you're going to find it no matter how you say it; the place closed in 1962. Too bad. I bet it would have been a trip.

The Theatre du Grand Guignol, for years one of the leading tourist attractions of the French capital, was the classic shock theatre, specializing in productions designed to horrify and sicken. No show was considered a success unless at least a couple audience members fainted or upchucked on their shoes. In its latter years, what with competition from Hollywood horror films and real life nightmares like Auschwitz, the Grand Guignol became pretty campy. But in its day it produced some truly terrifying theatre that explored, admittedly for low commercial purposes, the dark limits of what could be accomplished on the stage.

In some ways the subject matter of the Grand Guignol wasn't all that different from what you can see today in any number of Friday the 13th-type slasher movies. But there were a couple key differences: this was live, in-your-face and sometimes all-over-your-clothes theatre conducted in a disconcertingly intimate space — the place seated only about 285 and the stage measured just 20 by 20 feet. Equally important, the plays, which were short and usually ran three or more to a bill, partook of the queasily amoral outlook that we are pleased to think of as peculiarly French. The characters typically were brutal louts, hapless victims, or both. The guilty often went unpunished. Lovers and friends routinely betrayed one another. For comic relief the producers might throw in a sex farce featuring the lineup of seedy characters and illicit affairs you'd pretty much expect in the land of the feelthy postcard — a harmless enough business in itself, but in context adding to the air of Parisian sleaze.

The Grand Guignol's main stock in trade was gory special effects (and they were only that; we're not talking snuff theatre here). In description today the effects seem pretty tame, but remember that they were carried off at close range, with no retakes, using stuff that was scrounged mainly from the drugstore and the butcher shop. Eyeball gougings were perennially popular, animal eyes being especially useful for this purpose because they could be relied upon to bounce when hitting the floor. Then you had your disembowelings, your self-mutilations, your throat slashings, your rapes, your acid thrown in the face, your flesh ripped from the bone … predictable stuff, I suppose. But in the most effective Grand Guignol plays it was coupled with a shrewd grasp of the psychology of horror plus an over-the-top gallic love of the nutso that can weird you out even today.

Historian Mel Gordon, in The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror (1988), recounts some of the plots:

  • The innocent Louise is unjustly locked in an asylum with several insane women. A nurse assigned to protect her blithely leaves for a staff party as soon as Louise falls asleep. The insane women decide that a cuckoo bird is imprisoned in Louise's head and and one gouges out her eye with a knitting needle. The other crazy women are freaked and burn the gouger's face off on a hot plate.
  • Two brothers have an orgy with two prostitutes at a lighthouse. The lighthouse beacon goes out and one of the brothers realizes a boat containing their mother is heading toward the rocks. But the drunken lighthouse keeper has locked the beacon door. The brother goes nuts, blames everything on an earlier blasphemy by one of the hookers, slits her throat, and throws her out the window. "The boat with the men's mother crashes against the rocks," Gordon says. "In a religious frenzy, the [brothers] decide to burn [the other prostitute] to death. After pouring gasoline on her, they incinerate her and pray." The end.

And you thought The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was sick.

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