UNDER THE BLOODLIGHTS
First Published February 2007:
Imagine you’re sitting in a small playhouse; three hundred or so seats. The curtain rises and the performance begins. But instead of spewing confounding Shakespearean soliloquies or clever Neil Simon repartee, the actors steer the drama in a decidedly morbid direction. A few minutes in, the action has escalated, taking even nastier turns. An actress, her screams slicing through the small theatre like a scalpel, struggles against the ropes that bind her to a chair, as a top-hatted fiend goes to work on her face with hooked fingers, bent toward her with his back turned to conceal her teary countenance from you, the paying customer and casual observer. The screams escalate, as those in the murmuring audience around you alternately recoil and crane forward to see what horrible atrocity is being perpetrated on the innocent maiden. The screaming morphs into a series of gut-wrenching gasps that could almost be interpreted as relief. The fiend turns with a sudden flourish, grinning maliciously as he stares directly into your eyes, triumphantly presenting the now-slumped maiden’s eyeball high in the air between the thumb and forefinger of his dramatically splayed hand.
Such a scene was a common occurrence in Le Theatre du Grand Guignol, Paris France , circa 1900. If you’ve seen the Theatre de Vampires scene in “Interview With A Vampire”, or God help you, “Bloodsucking Freaks”, you have an idea of the concepts at work in the Grand Guignol. The plays were unique in all the world to this particular venue, where theatre patrons looking for grim, exploitative thrills could get their French-ass freak on. It was this uniqueness and notoriety that made the theatre a tourist attraction, even a pilgrimage, for jaded travelers from the Americas , England , Germany and Scandinavia . The grim and gory dramas, written in the early days by playwrights Andre de Lorde and a pair of his students, were generally short in length, allowing for as many as five or six separate plays in a row, usually interspersed with spicy sex comedies to make for a complete evening.
The highlight of a given performance of course, would be the maimings and killings, which generally turned up in –or as- the climax. De Lorde, who is said to have consulted and even collaborated with his therapist, wrote in a simple one act structure, presenting a situation that would begin innocuously enough, before spiraling into tragedy, murder, or some combination thereof, until the inevitable dreaded and anticipated moment of frisson, the horrible demise of some poor schmo, wispy femme, or even a small child, conveyed via a low-tech, gory set piece. Effects, such as the above-described eye gouging, were achieved pretty much as you would expect, using floor scraps from the local butcher shop, though the blood was presumably some concoction, using whatever the hell passed for strawberry kool aid in those days.
Privileged audience members could reportedly enjoy the show from the comfort of private, screened compartments called baignoires, where, much like drive-in patrons of twenty or so years ago, they could indulge in other carnal activities, if you catch my drift. These activities probably took place between shows, or more aptly during the sex farces, as the widespread affliction of ‘bored-with-it-all’ syndrome, so popular in today’s culture, had yet to catch on in that era.
Grand Guignol performances were the original torture horror, legendary for causing fainting, vomiting, even hysteria among its patrons, who then likely made immediate plans to attend the next show. When the GG troupe brought a touring version of their show to England , two productions were shut down under authority of British authorities. Such extreme censorship lives on in the UK in the form of their film rating system, which makes the MPAA look like a pretty agreeable bunch.
The movement was the logical extension of the naturalist trend, a deliberate effort to collide popular culture with harsh reality. Though many Grand Guignol plays were too far-fetched to be considered ‘reality’, they did expose a dark place in the collective psyche of humanity that the ruling class might not have liked considering.
With this opening, De Lorde and company found a pretty wide open range of grisly and forbidden topics and scenarios to explore, such as necrophilia, child murder, leprosy and rape. A typical evening’s slate of productions might include displays of victims being drawn and quartered, eviscerated, burned to death, stabbed in the eye with scissors, eaten by wild animals, and hanged.
But the Grand Guignol wasn’t just about gore and shock. Consider the bloodless “At The Telephone”, (http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/atteleph.htm) one of a handful of translated scripts from the original era.
The Grand Guignol had an impressive run, considering the disdain directed at it by snooty critics and politicians. In 1962, long after its originators had passed on, the theatre closed, owing to the popularity of motion pictures, as well as the generally more jaded outlook of the general public, who had by this time grown accustomed to a nightly dose of atrocity on the television news.
But like a good horror villain, The Grand Guignol would not stay dead. In recent years, revivals of the movement have taken root in playhouses across the country. The Tragedies Theatre Company from Portland Oregon has made Grand Guignol style presentations a regular part of its yearly schedule, taking place appropriately enough, in October. No shortage of interest here, as over 700 lovers of extreme theatre turned out for 2006’s nine performances of two original plays from Le Theatre du Grand Guignol’s bloody halcyon days, “Final Kiss”, and “Laboratory Of Hallucinations”.
They had their work cut out for them. “Today’s audiences are very desensitized to horror and blood. We had to create a real mood to actually scare the audience,” said Brian Linss, Managing Artistic director of TheTragedies.
Nonetheless- “There were screams, laughs and of course groans. One audience member had to leave during “Final Kiss” because it was too intense.”
When was the last time a film had that effect on anyone? Maybe the original “Exorcist”, back in the day.
“Final Kiss” centers around a man seeking cold revenge on a lover who scarred him with acid who sets about evening the odds –and then some.
Linss and company are generous in supplying some lucky audience members with a souvenir of sorts.
“We used several blood effects that utilized a pressure tank, ensuring that the first three rows left with something to remember us by. At other times, more subtle sleight-of-hand trickery led to some truly macabre moments. We tried to utilize the same stage craft of the original Guignol theatre,” Linss reports.
And like the original Grand Guignol itself, the venue used by The Tragedies is a former church from the 1900s, only recently converted to a theatre . Upwards of $10,000 is spent to keep the tradition alive. If you’re lucky enough to be in the Portland area come Halloween time, The Tragedies would be more than happy to give you a holiday memory to rival the best Jaycees spookhouse.
Tourists and residents of San Francisco can also get their Grand Guignol cherry popped at The Hypnodrome, 575 10th Street .
Special Thanks to Brian Linss of The Tragedies for his invaluable help in composing this article.