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Grand Guignol: Theatre of Guilty Pleasures

Set in a gothic Chapel, Theatre Grand Guignol could truly be called the masters of guilty pleasures. It was founded in Paris in 1894 with the intention of becoming a naturalistic theatre, but instead, it became something quite different, - a theatre exploiting the strongest human taboos and fears, and staging incredibly provocative, strangely satisfying and popular among all circles theatrical entertainment.

Short and full-length plays were based on the hot topics unseen onstage at this extent before, from graphic scenes of murders, tortures, sexual violence to psychological thrills like resurrections of the dead, incest, suicide, characters being hypnotized, trapped or guilty of their loved one’s deaths. In most cases, it was a combination of several of those themes in one piece, which of course, multiplied shows’ popularity.

The lead characters of Grand Guignol’s plays were subjects, also very uncommon for theatre of that time, and therefore sparking the audience’s curiosity to a firestorm. They were usually from the bottom of the lower class of French society: criminals, prostitutes, orphans, as well as all sorts of insane scientists and perverted individuals.

Over the time “Grand Guignol” became a name for any art or entertainment of the same tabooed nature and over-the-top graphic violence. With the appearance of the Internet its concept is more than ever a part of our lives. There is hardly any individual who has never found themselves reading stories of chilling murders, watching true crime documentaries, or searching for juicy details of a celebrity scandal.

So was Grand Guignol a bad chapter of the Theatre’s History or was it an essential outlet for people to explore their dark sides through art? The answer is disputable, but what we can tell for sure is that Grand Guignol became a prototype and in many aspects even a pioneer for modern entertainment.


Grand Guignol, was not the inventor of this concept, but probably the first performing arts company that used it as its main programming principle. Every evening at the theatre was programmed with plays heavily contrasting in their nature. In the 6 plays presented on a regular night, every 2 horror plays were followed by a light comedy and the light comedy by another horror play or two. Using this contrast the creators aimed to give their audiences a fuller range of emotions. They called it a "hot and cold shower".

Nowadays this emotional rollercoaster concept is widely used in film and video games for similar reasons. Well, with maybe the only difference that the modern entertainers don’t set it as their goal to get people to pass out from the intensity of their work.


One of the artistic directors of the theatre Max Maurey famously claimed that he judged a play’s success by how many people passed out during an event. On an average night, it was 2-3 audience members! This shocking fact made the theatre even more popular among the Parisian audience and tourists.

“Despite of its scandalous nature, for France Grand Guignol was more than a theatre: it was a tradition, an institution, and an attraction like the Eiffel Tower or the Folies Bergères, and Maxim’s... It was then highly fashionable. Celebrities of the day, South American millionaires and errant royalty went there assiduously to be scared out of their wits”.

(Here and further quotes from "The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror" by Mel Gordon).

With such success the creators not only didn’t cut back on the blood amounts and the number of gouged eyes, they thrived to create more horror and deliberately developed a reputation of the theatre where audience members pass out, vomit, get aroused, and experience all sorts of strong and in high society - embarrassing emotions. The management even had to hire a doctor to be present during each play to assist the audience.

“Smelling salts and other remedies were, and still are, handy in the lobby. At one time, a house-doctor was even hired, but the experiment proved a failure. On his first night of duty, a spectator fainted. The ushers called for the doctor – in vain. At last, the victim regained consciousness unassisted. The ushers apologized and explained what had happened. Whereupon he smiled wanly and whispered, “I am the doctor.”

"Once, when a woman, just gouged, came back on stage, exhibiting an empty socket, six people fainted at once. The record, however, is fifteen, the result of a blood transfusion (surgical operations are by far the most devastating device)”.

Interestingly enough, according to the researcher Mel Gordon, it was primarily men, who passed out at Grand Guignol, as they tend to not close their eyes at the horrific scenes the way women did.


It’s a well-known fact that a good scandal is the best marketing for some brands, and for Grand Guignol indeed it was. The presence of a doctor, nurse or a mortician, was highly advertised, and used as a style mark, when the company toured. The creators cultivated the atmosphere of horror within the theatre’s walls and beyond, at times using the cast members to increase its scandalous fame.

A famous kidnapping of the actress Nicole Riche demonstrates the level of the effort the company made to maintain its reputation and create publicity. On the night of her performance, between the second and the third act of "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" it was announced that the lead actress vanished in strange circumstances, involving a mysterious man leaving her alarming notes. The audience got their money back. Police were notified and the story made headlines all over the world.

Riche was found a couple of days later, and told a bizarre story of “Puritans” keeping her captive in the woods and scolding her for acting in the immoral play. The police didn’t believe her story and under their questioning she broke down and admitted that the whole thing was a hoax orchestrated by the theatre manager Alexander Dundass. The actress was charged with contempt of the law, but it was probably a small price for the huge exposure for the theatre. And you thought the experiential marketing was an innovative trend?


Most of the plots of Grand Guignol's repertoire sound like chilling clickbaits of our time. “A nanny strangles young children entrusted to her”(The Horrible Passion). “A necrophiliac breaks into tombs to violate the corpses” (A Man of the Night). “A father is forced to kill his daughter to prevent her torture” (The Final Torture). Here are 3 plots to give you an understanding of what you could’ve experienced if you were in the audience.

1) "The Strange Case of the Insane Virgin", was one of the pieces that greatly showcased the Grand Guignol’s expertise and ingeniousness in special effects. It “will give you the willies, if nothing else on the program does” - the newspapers proclaimed. “This one, laid in a Paris loony bin, graphically describes how three madwomen, frantic with jealousy, fling themselves on a harmless and beautiful fellow-inmate, yank her tongue from its moorings and gouge out her eyes, which they later eat with a good deal of relish”. Sounds like the 2016 film “Neon Demon”, doesn’t it?

”The tongue that the three crazy women tear out of the young girl’s mouth was made of rubber. The eyes made of candy and supplied by a local candy and nut store which oddly enough got many calls for the candy from bewitched spectators”.

2) “Rapid 13” is another story that has many reflections in modern literature and film.

"An embittered switchman of the railroad company decides to wreck one of the newest trains, the Rapid 13, when it passes his station by not pulling the proper lever. In the control room with his daughter the switchman is reminded at the last minute that his granddaughter is on the oncoming Rapid 13. He suffers a paralyzing heart attack and cannot grip the necessary switch. Responding to his gestures and nods the railman’s daughter throws a switch, but it’s the wrong one.. As the two hold each other in desperation, the Rapid 13 hurls into still another train, undoubtedly killing the switchman’s granddaughter his daughter’s daughter".

Bring in the moral dilemma into the picture and it is “The Trolley Problem” and inspired by it creations like the Czech short film “Most”.

3) "The Workshop for The Blind or Seven Blind Men" has a popular in cinema motif of the group of people trapped in a small space and turning insane. How many modern films with the same idea can you name? “The Cube”, The Hole”. “Annihilation”? Just add a touch of Maeterlinck's “The Blind” existential dread. The latter, if we speculate, could be even an inspiration for the Grand Guignol's play as it was written almost 14 years earlier.

“A group of seven blind men toil in a public workhouse making brushes. Each expresses his individual feeling about his daily condition: one is grateful to have a roof over his head; another feels that they are being exploited; still another preaches rebellion and revenge against his benefactors. When the blind men threaten the foreman with their knives, he locks them in the room and runs for the police. Outside their room the winter winds howl and the stove makes a roaring sound. Now in their solitude and separation from the outside world except for the strange noises by the window, the blind men are thrown, little by little into a state of panic. The wind and sound of the water pump make the blind men suddenly imagine that their building is on fire. They try to break down the door. A fight ensues and they attack each other with the knives. One throws himself out of the window”.


Since no other performing arts company at the end of the 19th century has ever worked with so much gory material, Grand Guignol had to come up with its own recipes and SPFX stunts.

“In make-up, especially, Grand-Guignoleurs excel. Their piece de resistance is a boiled, partly skinned head (the actor is wrapped in a silk stocking and daubed with putty, sponge, cloth and “blood”). The theatre has a secret recipe for blood: when the stuff cools it coagulates and makes scabs. Thrill-hungry customers in the small auditorium get a dividend when they overhear the hoarse backstage whisper: “Vite, Edmond! Warm up the blood."

The graphic scenes of violence were reinforced, by an intimate theatre setting with about 290 seats and 7x7 meters stage. The theatre space was designed the way all audience members were close to the stage and could see actors practically at an arm’s length. This setup was both dictating and assisting the plays’ settings, which among others included claustrophobic spaces like prison sells, lighthouses, secret labs, and telephone booths.


Oscar Méténier

The stories of Grand Guignol’s creators, each deserve for a separate article or a few.​​

But we’ll look into the key figures to whom Grand Guignol owed its style. Oscar Méténier was the founder of the theatre in 1984 and the first one to look in the direction of marginalized communities for the material of his plays.

Giving it the name of a traditional French puppet character Guignol, he wanted it to serve as a forum to critique the social inequities and prejudices of its day.

Max Maurey was the one who shifted the theatre into a direction of horror, it would eventually become famous for. He discovered its most important playwright André de Lorde, also known as "Prince of Fear" (Prince de la Terreur), who wrote more than a 100 plays of horror and thrill for the theatre. An interesting fact is that de Lorde collaborated on many of his plays with the experimental psychologist and the inventor of the IQ test Alfred Binet. Together the two created stories about insanity, one of the theatre's favourite and frequently recurring themes.

Paula Maxa

Paula Maxa one of the theatre’s best performers was called "the most assassinated woman in the world." In the years of her acting career at the Grand Guignol, Maxa's characters were murdered more than 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways and raped at least 3,000 times.

Only one other performer ever came close to beating that record - Maryse Lergy. She has also performed thousands of deaths and got herself a nickname “The Lady of the Père-Lachaise” (Paris’ cemetery). “This did not prevent her from fainting on stage one evening when her partner was seized with a genuine nosebleed”.

Andre de Lorde

We should notice that these incidents among actors were very common as well as for the audience. During the first rehearsals, some of the actors fainted or had to quit, but over the time the entire company started getting imprints of their "inhumanly sadistic characterizations; and complaints were heard by throat-sore actors that the enthusiastically performed stranglings were getting too authentic”.


World War II became the end of Grand Guignol. After it, the theatre’s attendance began to decline and it could never regain its past popularity.

“We could never equal Buchenwald,” said Charles Nonon the theatre's last director. “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.”​​

For almost 20 years, the management of the theatre tried to delay the inevitable by adding more sex and comedy to the plays. The audiences abroad were still interested in its repertoire and the air of legend so in it the last years of the company's existence it toured to the US and European countries. However, in 1962 Grand Guignol had to close its doors for good.

In the 65 years of its existence. The Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris achieved a legendary reputation as the "Theatre of Horror", and an evident and tangible, impact on dramatic and cinematic genres of the following years.

Grand Guignol is the institution to which we owe the gory horror film genre fundamentals, from the dramaturgical techniques - fear of the unknown and the atmosphere of suspense, to the visual thrills like complex wounds, and injuries’ special effects, and violent scenes stunts. This is not to mention the effects Grand Guignol had on other genres and entertainment forms which if we are attentive enough we can notice in our daily lives.

Where do you see Grand Guignol today? Leave your comments below.

Images are from "The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror" book by Mel Gordon.

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