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by Vanessa Cortez, staff writer.  [October 24, 2003]





[]  Eyes gouged out from screaming women! Legs and arms hacked off! Blood splashing into spectators' faces! And people paid to see it!!!

They were the sicko fans of the Grand Guignol, a bizarre school of theater created over 100 years ago in that capital of world culture -- France!

But don't blame the French! Rich and famous from around the world came to see it, according to Mel Gordon's Grand Guignol: Theatre Of Fear And Terror, his stomach-churning history of the twisted side of theater.

Although Oscar Méténier founded the Grand Guignol in gay Paris in 1897, Gordon reveals that sickos have always thrilled to gory theater.  Prehistoric shamans entertained the tribe by mutilating their own bodies! Ancient Egyptians and "Amerinds" (aka Indians, aka "Native Americans") practiced both symbolic -- and real! -- ritual sacrifice on animals and on live screaming humans! And medieval Europeans had their own version of special effects -- bloody animal organs and limbs used as stage props for human gore!


* Blame France


Many things French inspired the Grand Guignol. During the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, writes Gordon, "freshly-guillotined corpses were manipulated like oversized puppets in grotesque comedies." Even more shockingly, Grand Guignol means Big Puppet!!!

By the 1810s, melodramas about and for Paris's working class opened at the rate of 70 a month!  These were vulgar, potty-mouthed plays with evil rich villains oppressing the noble poor. But heart-warmingly, happy endings were mandatory, making these the Harlequin romances of their day! But shockingly, the Grand Guignol would drop the happy endings -- but keep the potty-mouthed vulgarity!

Another inspiration were faits divers, one-sheet newspapers about grisly crimes. Grand Guignol plays would also dramatize sicko crimes -- making the Guignol an early form of today's "true crime" genre!

But America too influenced the Grand Guignol -- through our very own Edgar Allen Poe! -- who inspired a generation of French writers!



* Sicko Science


Science inspired the Grand Guignol through Naturalism, which was an aesthetic movement advocating "scientific" theater. Naturalists insisted that art, when depicting people, must use the latest findings in genetics, psychology, and environment. Darwin, Freud, and Weber helped inspire Naturalism. (In addition to the Guignol, Naturalism eventually inspired Stalislavsky's "Method acting"!)

Grand Guignol founder Méténier had a morbidly depraved "interest" in science. Gordon writes that Méténier "scoured Paris' menacing red-light and working-class slum districts for over six years in a scientific search for naturalist material." [our italics]

Before opening his sickie Guignol, Méténier wrote for Théâtre Libre, casting "real criminal types to play themselves in minor parts."! [our italics]

Méténier's twisted "research" let him write "authentic dialogue" for "lowlife play figures, many of whom were based on real persons," says Gordon. "He found their instinctive and savage actions superior to the vain pretensions of Paris' bourgeois theatre-goers."

Méténier was a huge hypocrite! His Guignol claimed to be exploding bourgeois taboos, pretensions, and hypocrisies, with the intent to offend middle and upper-class authority, manners, and sensibilities -- but most Guignol fans were bourgeois and blue-blood! Millionaires and aristocrats were regulars!  Gordon writes: "For premieres, audiences often attended in evening dresses and tuxedos, bringing their own champagne and glasses."!!!

Not only audiences, but the Guignol's creators were society's crème de la crème. Méténier was a journalist and police bureaucrat -- who enjoyed watching private state executions! He had to visit red-light districts to "study" the underclass -- because there were no poor people where he lived!!!

One of the Guignol's most honored and prolific playwrights, André de Lorde, was a physician's son! Even more shockingly, De Lorde was such a sicko that his writing partner was also his therapist! -- Dr. Alfred Binet of the Sorbonne!

Much of the Guignol's high society success was due to Max Maurey, a sleazeball showman who bought the Guignol from Méténier in 1898 and ran it till 1915. Maurey ditched all pretense of a "scientific theatre" for pure gore and potty-mouthing! -- creating a venue where, Gordon writes, "every social taboo of good taste was cracked and shattered."!!!

Always looking to ca$h-in on his potty-mouthed shows, Maurey spread false reports of patrons fainting from shock. Later Guignol producers advertised the hiring of in-house physicians, presaging B-movie producer William Castle.


* Loved by Commies, Nazis, the Rich


By 1910, the Grand Guignol was a world-renowned tourist attraction, recommended in Parisian guidebooks of every language! Sicko hordes from the leisure, professional, and intellectual classes came to gawk at the "authentic" underclass types on stage, thrilled by their own imagined wickedness at seeing the shattering of their own "taboos." 

But the rich weren't alone! One avid fan was a Vietnamese refugee working in Paris as a noodle & pastry cook -- Ho Chi Minh! -- who later became Commie boss of North Vietnam! Other fans included Nazi fatso Hermann Goering, who often enjoyed Guignol shows during Germany's Occupation of France. And shamefully, after the Liberation, the Guignol won over another fan -- U.S. General George Patton!

Patton was an infamous potty-mouth in his own right -- once referring to the German's private bodily parts as n*ts. [sic!!!!!]



* Censorship


Gordon ends his book by saying we should study the Guignol because arts censorship is a growing issue. He chides "otherwise liberal" people who want government censorship of violence.  But apart from his brief Conclusion, Gordon almost never discusses censorship!

Even more shockingly, while Gordon considers himself a liberal, when the does discuss censorship, he makes a great case against government arts funding! Gordon writes: "Théâtre Libre was under immense pressure to rid itself of both the naturalist mystery play and social documentary. Only because the Théâtre Libre ran itself as a private enterprise limited to individual subscribers were local censors held at bay." On the other hand, Méténier's In The Family was banned from public theaters.

But most shockingly of all, the Guignol met more censorship in liberal Britain than in fascist Italy! (Yes, there were Guignol copycats!) Britain's SPCA tried to close a British Guignol, fearing (wrongly) that wolfhounds were mistreated. But Italy's Guignol "performed uninterrupted from 1923 to 1928."

Did the Italian Guignol finally close due to declining audiences or to Fascist censors? Gordon doesn't say! -- although he says elsewhere that by the 1930s the novelty had worn off, and the French Guignol audience had declined to its regulars -- French university students necking in the balconies and American tourists!

Perhaps most shockingly of all, despite his anti-censorship drumbeat -- Gordon never discusses censorship under Mussolini! Nor does he explain why Mussolini permitted the Italian Guignol's uninterrupted five-year run.

It all sounds like Gordon tacked the censorship issue to the end of his book in a lame attempt at closure!



* Does the Grand Guignol Exist?

Does the Grand Guignol still exist? Don't ask "theater professor" Mel Gordon -- he may not know!

According to Gordon, Paris's Grand Guignol was demolished "in March 1963, [when] with much fanfare, the building that housed the Grand Guignol was totally destroyed." He even offers a detailed and colorful account.

But in The Monster Show (1993), horror scholar David J. Skal writes: "Contrary to one recently published account, the Grand Guignol was not demolished after its closing in 1964 [sic!], but still stands, now operating as a theatre school. In October 1989, this author was given a tour of the facility..."

So who's right? Gordon or Skal? Gordon's Grand Guignol was first released in 1988, a revised edition in 1997 -- four years after Skal's The Monster Show! But Gordon's revised edition neither corrects his earlier edition, nor corrects Skal.

Gordon leaves the discrepancy unaddressed!

Copyright 2003 by


Vanessa Cortez is a Los Angeles based tabloid reporter who has investigated the occult underbelly of the entertainment industry. Read more about her journalism in Hollywood Witches.
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