The Grand Guignol

The Theatre of the Grand Guignol first premiered in 1897, providing Paris with a new genre of entertainment that was, ironically, an outgrowth of naturalism. Grand Guignol seeks to inflame the audience by depicting events that appeal to our rawest and most primal impulses. Grand Guignol plots were culled from real-life events reported in Paris newspapers, and related true tales of incest, patricide, blood lust, sexual anxiety and conflict, loathing of authority, fear of insanity, and a morbid fascination with bodily mutilations and death. Although Grand Guignol was quite popular during its sixty-five year history (ending in 1962) critics and historians tend to dismiss it as a viable artform. Author Mel Gordon (The Grand Guignol, 1988) contends that most theatre scholars have failed to recognize a fundamental point: that at the root of Grand Guignol is a black humor, enthusiastically produced in graphic detail with a flare for melodramatic camp and parody. The grotesqueries and barbarities enacted on the Grand Guignol stage are intended to produce a healthy dose of chills and laughter.

Grand Guignol’s influences can readily be seen through nearly every form of entertainment imaginable, from Hollywood horror films of the twenties and thirties to present day television dramas. (The U.S. Postal Service just released stamps commemorating The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolf Man, all direct descendants of the Grand Guignol.) Turn on the television and see a modern descendant of Grand Guignol in the programs that graphically depict real-life crimes, like the recently premiered “Brooklyn South“. Or visit any amusement park, no matter the size, and you’ll always find the fun house or the horror house, offshoots of this theatre genre dedicated to thrills and chills.