Ira Lupu

Death in Paris. Grand Guignol for Beginners

Sang Bleu UK
December 2015

Phrenetic surgeons, fainting spectators and on-stage violence in a brief guide to the history-making French Theatre of Horrors.

“Look! You want to see? See! Feast your eyes, glut your soul on my cursed ugliness!”
— Gaston Leroux, Phantom of the Opera

I’ve been to quartier Pigalle only once in my life — at the age of 9, when I came to Paris as a participant of some charitable program for children. Our guides had no lack of sense of humour, so one night, on the way back to hotel, they took us, the miserable kids, through this historical district of cabarets, brothels and all things vicious. On ‘Pig Alley’, as the place was called by the Allied soldiers during Second World War, I saw no pigs but ladies in suffocatingly tight leopard dresses. They were standing, blankly smoking their cigarettes under the shaky neon lights, shadows making their eye pits look like empty holes. For my puerile mind, it was quite an impression. (So was the Haunted Mansion ride in Disneyland, but that’s the other story).

I’m lucky that, for obvious reasons, I wasn’t on Pigalle in the first part of 20th century, during the golden era of Grand Guignol — the legendary Parisian Theatre of Horrors situated here in impasse Chaptal. No one knows what would happen to my psyche if I also saw Paula Maxa, the theatre’s leading actress of that period, coming out for a smoke in her ordinary look after the performance. The thing is, Paula has been raped, shot, strangled, stabbed, poisoned and tortured every single night on stage, thus shedding oceans of artificial, secretly developed blood.

Initially, Grand Guignol’s building was a small Montmartre chapel, so massive wooden cherubs were left to hang from the ceiling. And after nuns have murmured their last prayings, those celestial beings have seen a lot more in here. Eyes gouged out with hatpins, faces pressed to a red-hot stove, brains operated by phrenetic surgeon, and many other seductively repelling scenes from about 1,000 different plays of the theatre’s 60 years-long life. Today, such on-stage violence may seem funnily innocent. Amongst Grand Guignol’s visitors there were tourists and French villagers, Parisian intellectuals and cultural activists, world royals and even flesh maestros like Hermann Göring and General Patton. It is said that the theatre had to hire an in-house doctor and it was not just a promotional trick, as the spectators have really been fainting all the time.

The confined 300-seat Parisian theatre hasn’t been that radical from the very beginning: everything what Anais Nin would later name “the venerable filth of Grand Guignol” started only when playwright Andre de Lorde joined it. It is said that in real life the author was as sweet as Labrador puppy, but for his sour plays, he gained the “Prince of Terror” title. Of course, the scenic world has never been made out of plain sugar: take Ancient Greece, were Furies in Aeschylus’ tragedies had snakes in their hair, or recollect atrocities in Shakespeare’s plays. Add that Grand Guignol was also about suspense and sick claustrophobic atmosphere, not only direct mutilation. But it has taken it all to a new level of insanity, intensity — and relief, as slaughter here always neighboured laughter. No other institution has influenced both mainstream and marginal “fear” culture that much. Italian slasher movies or Ron Athey’s Torture Trilogy, a certain bit of good old Theatre of Horrors is there.

The 20th century’s art movements like dadaism or German expressionism are often being labelled as the backwash of First World War. Grand Guignol has opened its doors 17 years before the bullet lodged itself into Franz Ferdinand’s neck, so its extravaganza can be seen as the prophetic dream about future horrors and reboots of confused minds. The dream became the ugly truth, and the dreamer — the Grand Guignol theater — has perished. (‘We could never compete with Buchenwald’, famously said the theatre’s final director Charles Nonon before the closure). But no condolences needed — Grand Guignol is not gone: its visions in news reports, its methods in your oppressed desires, its absurd spirit in seemingly ‘normal’ flow of everyday human existence. Dare to enjoy!

Photos by Hans Wild, Getty Images