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Home / Film / Interviews / The Theatre of Laughter and Horror: Professor Richard J. Hand on the Grand-Guignol

The Theatre of Laughter and Horror: Professor Richard J. Hand on the Grand-Guignol

Modern audiences tend to associate extreme, spectacular, and sadistic violence with contemporary cinematic phenomena such as “torture porn” and the infamous “video nasties” of the 1980s. For many of us, the uncomfortable visual spectacle of watching bodies rent asunder and the perverse lure of the grotesque are sensations closely intertwined with the blood-soaked horror of The Wizard of Gore (1970), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and Hostel (2005). Yet while the popularity of these gruesome films invariably lends itself to endless media editorials and public outcry about the erosion of morality and the decline of cinematic integrity, the human fascination with the macabre is a side of our collective nature that has always existed, eternally compelling us to seek out the horrific, the monstrous, and the unsettling. In 1897, when cinema was still in its infancy, the monstrosities of the modern horror film were anticipated and sometimes even exceeded in a small French theatre, tucked away in the Pigalle area of Paris. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (which means the Theatre of the Great Puppet) was a tiny venue whose performances, often ripped from the day’s newspaper headlines, portrayed unimaginable acts of cruelty and violence. In many ways the Grand-Guignol was the antecedent of modern horror, finding intrigue, pathos, and even beauty in the grotesque.

This Thursday, February 7th 2019, the academic and theatre director Richard J. Hand will be taking to the stage at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in London to give a talk entitled “Horror and Hilarity: The Legacy of the Grand-Guignol”. Speaking about the considerable and expansive influence of this peculiar Parisian institution, Professor Hand will be discussing the history of the Grand-Guignol and how its macabre iconography continues to haunt film, television, comic books and the theatre. Earlier today, Professor Hand spoke to Diabolique about his upcoming talk and gave us a preview of some of the dark delights awaiting audiences at the Miskatonic Institute on Thursday evening.

Diabolique:Can you tell our readers a bit about the Grand-Guignol?What is it and where did it come from?

Richard Hand: Well, “Grand-Guignol” is one of those phrases that’s entered the language. You can rest assured that when any new horror movie comes out, some reviewer will say, “Ah, it’s very Grand-Guignol.” The phrase is actually related to a French theatre, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, which was open in Paris from the 1890s to the early 1960s, and in its sixty-five-year life span it developed a reputation as the theatre of horror. It started as a sort of realist theatre. They were showing different kinds of short plays, but they found the most popular plays were the ones that used stage blood and were very violent. They also found they had a kind of niche audience who’d go along for that, so they specialised in that kind of theatre of horror. They maintained a sort of repertoire of short plays, and what they’d do is put on a one-act horror play, then a comedy, and then another horror play; and it seemed like light relief, but of course it’s the most devious thing that every modern horror filmmaker knows: make them laugh now and you can hit them even harder five minutes later.


The original Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris

The space of the theatre was amazing because it was actually a deconsecrated chapel. It was absolutely amazing, and you think now you might go to Disney World or something, and there’s the Twilight Zone ride and the Haunted Mansion. Well, the Grand-Guignol was there first in some ways because they kept these very large angels in the rafters of the theatre, and apparently you could still smell the candle wax from hundreds of years of it being a church. Imagine that audience going and thinking. “Oh, my God, this used to be a church, but it’s deconsecrated, and the curtain is going up. My God, what am I going to see?” So it kind of added to that whole packaging before the show even started; people were placed in that very sacrilegious world of horror.

Interior of the Grand-Guignol

Diabolique: Why was the Grand-Guignol so popular?

RH: It’s a fascinating thing. I think audiences have always loved their melodrama; they loved the gothic. I mean the Grand-Guignol opened the same year Dracula was published over in Britain [1897]. So there’s something parallel about horror there. However, I should say that the Grand-Guignol never did supernatural horror. It was very much real horror, so they loved their stories of escaped lunatics, mad doctors, revenge killings – things like that. They actually based a lot of the plays on news stories, so there was that fascination for the audience. I think that was one reason the audience liked the horror there. They’d say, “Oh, my god! They’re doing a play about an acid attack! I read about that in the newspaper last week; we’ve got to go and see it!” I think it drew people in with that temptation!

Diabolique: Sort of like a sort of nineteenth-century true crime drama!

RH: Very much, yeah. They’d do historical events, sometimes. They’d reconstruct those. I think it was a bit like people nowadays; they might watch a video of something online, something really dark. I think the other reason for the appeal was that it was a terrific adrenaline ride. By the sounds of it, for the audience, it was a terrific experience, and so much fun. There’s that wonderful laughter you get at a good horror movie. There’s nothing like Friday night, brand new horror film, packed audience. Last year when I saw A Quiet Place, or something, the audience was as fun as the film itself. They were giggling, laughing, jumping, and telling each other to be quiet – that kind of thing. I think the Grand-Guignol was doing that, and so for the audience it must have been a wonderful kind of thrill ride.

Diabolique:Beyond the individual news stories used in some of the plays, do you think the Grand-Guignol was reflecting the broader cultural and historical concerns of the period?

RH: I think so. In that way it’s very interesting to look at the Grand-Guignol as something quite neo-gothic, even though, as I said, they didn’t do the supernatural. There’s one play called “The Haunted House,” and that was very early in the 1900s. And it’s about this empty house that has rumours about being haunted, and you get a group of people breaking in with candles, and they’re spending the night there. Then they realise there is something in the house, and it turns out that the house is occupied by a man who has entrapped his wife there. So it’s a kind of Josef Fritzl story. You know, this sadistic scene is more horrifying than any ghost, and the play ends with the man killing his wife on stage. Horrifying! And when you think about the fact that this is over a hundred years old, you know.

Grand-Guignol performance photographed by Life magazine in the 1940s

Diabolique: It seems very dark and sinister. I was interested in what you said about the man killing his wife on stage. This got me thinking about the kinds of special effects that would have been used. So what kinds of effects would have been used at the time? What sort of effects would have been used to create those grotesque images?

RH: As it emerged out of the theatre of realism, where people expected realistic acting and writing, they also went with that for the special effects. And there was one great technician, a guy called Paul Ratineau, who, legend has it, developed a kind of stage blood that would congeal under the lights. I mean, it was an amazing kind of realism. They also did wonderful slights of hand, so they were famous for their eye-gouging and things like that. It’s almost like a magician’s tricks. A number of plays had guillotines. It’s the sort of thing you might see in a magic show. Real Penn and Teller kind of stuff! The Grand-Guignol was building that into narratives and getting terrific reactions from people having limbs cut off, or heads, or whatever. The realism of it was extraordinary, and I think that’s one legacy of the Grand-Guignol: they really made an art of the special effect. That was part of the enjoyment for the audience.

Diabolique:That’s sort of interesting because it makes me think about the fact that you have early cinema pioneers, like Georges Méliès for example, who would have started their careers with magic and stage shows, so obviously there’s a correlation between those kinds of stage tricks and later cinematic developments.

RH: Absolutely, yeah. It establishes a kind of precedent. I suppose in the days of melodrama sometimes they would have used a red ribbon or something very stylised [to indicate blood], but the Grand-Guignol really went there. And we found when we’ve been doing productions sometimes you have to make sure you’re putting your actors in white clothing because a tiny drop of blood looks amazing from the back row.

Diabolique: Have you recreated some of the Grand-Guignol plays?

RH: Yeah, over the last 20 years we’ve done quite a number of productions, so it’s been enormous fun.

A still from the 2016 performance of Blood, Sweat and Fears: A Grand Guignol Sick Cabaret,
performed by the Molotov Theatre Group; translated by Richard Hand and Michael Wilson

Diabolique: And how do those go down with a contemporary audience?

RH: It’s great, actually! Because of the reputation of the theatre people are often very curious, and it can still shock people. We have had people faint, which is amazing. Even though we think it’s just a syringe of five millilitres of stage blood or something, but if you’re doing it well and it’s coming out of somebody’s neck or whatever sometimes people get lightheaded watching that.

Diabolique: So it achieves the desired effect?

RH: In a way it’s the ultimate 3D.

Diabolique: I wanted to ask a bit about the legacy of the Grand-Guignol. Did it have an influence on horror cinema, especially French horror cinema?

RH: You can definitely see the influence of the Grand-Guignol on French horror. A film like Les Diaboliques (1955) is a great example of the influence of this type of theatre. I think you could watch that film and see it almost as a study in Grand-Guignol performance and storytelling. That’s really good. Another film clearly influenced by the Grand-Guignol would beLes Yeux Sans Visage [Eyes Without a Face](1960).

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s
Les Diaboliques

Diabolique: Yeah, when I was reading about your talk, I noticed the image used on the webpage was a decapitated head placed next to some scientific equipment, which definitely made me think of Les Yeux Sans Visage and its mad scientist.

RH: Yeah, that’s very clearly there, and the Grand-Guignol did their own version of that towards the end of their lifespan, but I think it’s also wider than that because the wonderful William Castle did similar things in his films in the 1950s.

Georges Franju’s haunting Les Yeux Sans Visage

Diabolique: Yeah, they’re so interactive

RH: That’s right, and of course with the Grand-Guignol that was one of their great gimmicks in the early days: they had a house doctor. They had a resident doctor to look after the audience. Obviously, I think William Castle is using that idea with his medics and the life insurance policies he offered to audience members [attending films like Macabre in case they died for fright].

Diabolique: Yeah, and even just the way that the films would sometimes go beyond the screen to interact with the audience. Like, you had buzzers going off under people’s seats during The Tingler (1959) and those ghosts coming out of the screen during showings of House on Haunted Hill (1959). It’s all very interactive. It goes beyond the space of the screen and connects directly with the audience.

RH: And it extends even to people like Alfred Hitchcock with Psycho (1960): think of those first screenings when he was so strict about no one being admitted late, and he actually employed Pinkerton agents to make sure no late comers would be let in. That whole kind of theatricality of cinema borrows from the Grand-Guignol.

A “spectre” emerges from the screen during a showing of William Castle’s
House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Diabolique: So what brought about the end of the Grand-Guignol? It was obviously very popular for a lot of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it lasted until the 1960s. Was it killed off by cinema or television?

RH: I think it’s a number of factors actually. Cinema was a huge one. The Grand-Guignol closes around the time, or shortly after, Psycho comes out, and suddenly it’s a difficult thing to compete with because now cinema is able to push the limits more. If you look at the repertoire of the Grand-Guignol, I mean, some of it was extraordinary when you think that you wouldn’t have seen that kind of content on the cinema screen, but you’d see it on that little Parisian stage. Once cinema became more violent and shocking, they couldn’t compete with that.

There was also a rather unfortunate legacy because the Grand-Guignol did stay open during the Second World War, so I think, especially for the Parisians, there was a bit of a bitter taste in the mouth because it was very popular with the occupying Germans. I think that was something that tarnished it a bit

Diabolique: Yeah, so it has that connection with real life horror, but not in a fun way, but in a very disturbing way.

RH: Yeah, that they continued to stay open and make money made people look at its content, which could be very sadistic and very violent, and think maybe this isn’t such fun. It was fun for many years, but maybe that’s over now.

Grand-Guignol scene, 1937

Diabolique: One thing I found very interesting was the title of your talk: “Horror and Hilarity.” I’m fascinated by that connection, which you touched on earlier, between humour and horror. Do you think there is a connection between these two forms? Do they sort of feed off of each other in a way?

RH: I think they really do. I’ve always found this quite interesting. When you talk to people who don’t like horror at all, and when you try to pin down what they don’t like it’s that kind of adrenaline rush; it’s butterflies in the stomach, not something cerebral. And I actually think the same thing is true of comedy sometimes. You know, it’s not an intellectual form per se. It’s more about a gut reaction. And whether that’s a horror thing that makes you jump – you know, a jump scare – or a rude joke that you can’t help cackling with laughter at there’s something that’s very closely visceral and spontaneous that links the two. I’ve found that when we’ve done our own productions, or if you see any kind of horror performance or film, there’s that wonderful level of laughter, that nervous giggle, which doesn’t mean that they think the thing is crap; it means they’re really enjoying it.

Diabolique: It’s tension as well. Tension builds up and then if you get something that lets you release it, whether it’s a scream or a laugh, it just comes tumbling out.

RH: That’s right. You do get that. If somebody screams or jumps, people will laugh. There’s that wonderful playfulness. That’s why they are very closely intertwined. It’s always there. The Grand-Guignol understood that very well. It was a theatre of laughter as much as horror, I think.

Diabolique:Before we finish up, I’d like to ask if you could give us a bit of a teaser or preview of what you’re going to be talking about on Thursday.

RH:Well, what I’m going to do in the talk is give a history of the Grand-Guignol and then its large influence, the legacy of it. I’ll be looking at other forms of theatre, but also looking at horror films and those kind of experiences.

Richard Hand’s research on the Grand-Guignol and its influence on contemporary horror is truly fascinating. If you would like to learn more about the gruesome, shocking and occasionally surprising history of the “Theatre of Horror,” Professor Hand will be speaking at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (the Horse Hospital, Bloomsbury, London) at 7pm on Thursday, February 7th. Tickets can be purchased online for £10 (£11 on the door and £8 consc).

About Miranda Corcoran

Miranda Corcoran currently teaches American literature in University College Cork, Ireland. Her research interests include Cold-War literature, genre fiction, literature and psychology, and popular culture. She also enjoys researching and writing about topics related to horror, the supernatural and witchcraft.

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