Posts Tagged ‘horror theater’

A poster from a play from the Grand Guignol.

*Trigger warning: this post goes into a lot of dark and uncomfortable topics. If talk of gore, murder, sexual assault and similar subjects upset you, stop reading now. You’ve been warned.

Have you ever seen any version of Sweeney Todd? Whether you saw a stage production or watched the movie, Sweeney Todd is somewhat of an outlier among famous Broadway musicals. It’s dark, bloody, and deals with subject matter other plays don’t, such as rape and cannibalism. It’s basically a slasher story with singing.

Now, if you’re like me (and I assume most of you are, if you’re reading this blog), you not only wish there were more plays like Sweeney Todd, but that some of these plays went further in terms of gore and terror. Well, recently I found out that there was a theater dedicated to plays just like that. And it ran for nearly seventy years.

The Grand Guignol Theater was a theater set up in an old Paris chapel in 1897. To summarize its history, the theater at first performed naturalistic plays centered around prostitutes, street thieves and alcoholics. A typical evening at the Grand Guignol would feature five or six short plays, alternating between cynical slice-of-life comedies, horror shows, and more traditional comedies. However, after a change of ownership, the theater began to focus more on horror.

And as time went on, the theater became famous for it. In fact, the Grand Guignol performed over twelve-hundred plays in the course of its existence, focusing on subjects such as insanity, strangulation, rape, leprosy, hypnosis, eye gouging, stabbing, rabies, and so much more. One actress, Paula Maxa, estimated she’d been “murdered” at least ten thousand times in sixty different ways, among other things. To enhance the terror, the theater staff developed a number of techniques to make the horror onstage seem as real as possible, and actors acted as if everything onstage was actually happening.

It wasn’t uncommon for audience members to puke or faint during performances.

This was all to the delight of Andre de Lorde, one of the Guignol’s writers, who judged his plays based on how many people fainted during a show. Along with psychologist and friend Alfred Binet, he wrote over a hundred plays, all particularly gruesome.

And audiences kept coming back. Like many modern horror fans, they were seeking a thrill. And the Grand Guignol provided. At its peak, celebrities and even royalty visited for shows.

So why did it close? Well, there are a number of theories. By the 1930s, the theater had shifted away from gory shockers to psychological dramas, and attendance began to dip. The rise of movies and TV shows, some of the former being quite gory or sensational themselves, may have also played a part. Theater management even believed revelations about the Holocaust may have played a role, saying “We could never equal Buchenwald.”

Whatever the case, the Grand Guignol closed in 1962. Today it’s a theater space for a deaf acting troupe.

But while the theater closed, its legacy still exists. Many small theaters and troupes around the world have been formed to preserve the Guignol’s legacy and produce their own Guignol-style plays. The Guignol’s also made its way into popular culture, and has been referenced in music, movies, books and more.

Still, wouldn’t it be amazing if the Grand Guignol was truly revjved? If one of the groups inspired by it managed to achieve the same popularity and staying power as the original theater?

Perhaps someday it will come back. And then perhaps Mr. Sweeney Todd won’t be so lonely anymore.

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