Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

20 May 2006

Grand Guignol: a Definition

I used this term in reference to the recent production of Little Shop of Horrors I saw at my old stomping grounds Cal Poly Pomona. Watching the show, I started to wonder at Cal Poly's tendency toward the gruesome. The last good musical Cal Poly did was Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I sensed a pattern. At any rate, I used the term "Grand Guignol" in post-show discussion with the set designer, but after I did I began to ponder its origin. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and—whaddya know?—it's fascinating. To wit:

The Grand Guignol (Grahn Geen-YOL) was a theatre (Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol) in the Pigalle area of Paris (at 20 bis, rue Chaptal), which, from its opening in 1897 to its closing in 1962, specialized in the most naturalistic grisly horror shows. The theater owed its name to Guignol, a traditional Lyon puppet character, joining political commentary with the style of Punch and Judy.

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was small and intimate, seating no more than 300 people. This intimacy added an extra piquancy to the goings-on on stage, because the theatre's stock-in-trade was special effects made from the by-products of the butcher's shop. The gouged-out eye trick was a perennial favourite.

The principal playwright of the Grand Guignol was André de Lorde, who wrote at least one hundred plays for the venue between the years 1901 and 1926. His plays focused on the horrific potential of household objects, the suffering of innocents, infanticide, insanity, and vengeance. The plays were typically short, and several were staged in the course of the evening. Occasional sex farces were thrown into the play-lists, partly for their own sake, and partly to keep the audience guessing whether these, too, would turn out to have gory climaxes. Original plays were also written by Pierre Bauche and Maurice Level.

Grand Guignol flourished briefly in London in the early 1920's under the direction of Jose Levy.

The Grand Guignol theatre closed its doors in 1962, unable to compete with motion pictures.

The Grand Guignol theatre was recreated as Théâtre des Vampires (on a sound stage) in 1994 for the film of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire.

A typical modern production of this genre can be found in Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," which originally appeared in 1979 starring Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou. In 2005, a revival production of this gruesome story about a barber who gives extra clean shaves was staged on Broadway with Patti Lupone and Michael Cereveris.