Six nights a week and every Sunday afternoon, theater-goers in Paris were treated to an hour’s-worth of gore, beheadings, torture and disembowelment. The effects were so explicit and so realistic that a house physician was always on stand-by duty, ready to administer a dose of brandy to the faint-hearted. Warning: NSFW images!
There were even special chambers beneath the balcony where audience members could retreat, if they became too overcome by the horrors they’d seen on the stage. Others would simply pass out where they sat or vomit on the patrons in the row in front. Even battle-hardened General George Patton, who attended a performance during World War II, admitted to feeling a little queasy at what he saw. It may or may not be significant to mention that Hermann Goering was an enthusiastic fan of the Grand Guignol.
The Grand Guinol was founded in 1894 by Oscar Méténier. It was, at the time, the smallest theater in Paris. Built in the eartly 19th century, the building had originally been a chapel. After being the home of a fire-and-brimstone priest named Father Didion, it served as a studio for Georges Rochegrasse, a painter whose work—such as his infamous Rape of the Sabine Women—specialized in horror, brutality and grisly detail.
When Méténier founded his theater, he took advantage of the heavy Gothic architecture and ornamentation to heighten the uncanny atmosphere he wanted to create. He took the name “Guinol” from a then-popular satirical review featuring a puppet character of the same name. He inflicted his first production on an unsuspecting Paris in 1896. With every new production, Méténier tried to outdo himself in presenting sensational effects until his attempt to graphically reproduce an execution by guillotine was stopped by the police.
Méténier was succeeded in 1898 by Max Maurey, who turned the Grand Guinol into a full-fledged house of horror. He is said to have measured the success of a play by the number of people who fainted during its performance.
Plays were sometimes adapted freely from horror classics by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe. Others were written specially for the Grand Guinol. The Mark of the Beast boasted the torture of a leper with burning torches, The Horrible Experiment featured a graphic brain surgery, The Lighthouse Keeper strangles his rabies-infected son. Other plays featured necrophilia, leprosy and syphilis.
A typical play produced during the height of the theater’s popularity during the 30s and 40s was A Crime in a Madhouse, written by André de Lorde, a playwright discovered by Maury and otherwise known as the “Prince of Terror,” who eventually wrote more than 100 plays for the Grand Guinol. Set in an insane asylum, a teenage inmate who has been pronounced cured demands to be released immediately. Compelling reasons for this are found in her fellow patients, almost all of whom are homicidal maniacs—most of whom are physically deformed in some awful way. Worse, they all suffer under the delusion that the girl harbors a bird behind her eyes that must be released. They do their best to accomplish this, using a knitting needle to good effect.
Turning on one another, two of the girl’s assailants roast the face of the third on a red-hot stove. And all of this was just the prologue. The audience had yet to experience the maniac who enjoyed disemboweling children, bullet wounds to the head and enough sex to satisfy even the most jaded Parisian.
The grisly special effects were considered a trade secret. Even the formula for stage blood was closely guarded. “We like our blood fresh,” said one of the last managers of the theater, “and gluey looking. We always mix up a fresh batch before every performance.”
Camille Choisy was director of the theater from 1914 to 1930, contributing an expertise in special . He was succeeded by Jack Jouvin, whose lack of talent and focus on psychological horror lost much of the theater’s former enthusiastic audience. During the war, the theater was managed by British film actor Alexander Dundas and his wife, an Anglo-French comedienne who performed under the name Eva Berkson (next-to-last photo).
The pair also directed the plays. Unfortunately, their plays featured Nazi atrocities and they were forced to not only abandon the theater but France altogether. The Nazis replaced them with Choisy. Following the war, the Dundases reacquired the theater. They believed that the Grand Guignol was an idea venue for a fledgling actor. “We feel,” Eva said, “that the Grand Guignol is the finest training ground for actors. An actor with this company can really let himself go in the elemental emotions.” This was certainly true for Paula Maxa (last photo), who was famous for her screaming power.
Specializing in playing victims, she became known as “the most assassinated woman in the world.” In the twenty years following her debut in 1917 she had been murdered more than 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways and raped at least 3,000 times. This included being shot, scalped, strangled, disemboweled, raped, guillotined, hanged, quartered, burned, cut into pieces, poisoned, eaten alive and decomposition. According to a contemporary observer, for "Two hundred nights in a row, she simply decomposed on stage... The operation lasted a good two minutes during which the young woman transformed little by little into an abominable corpse."
On the other hand, another famous Grand Guignol actor, Jean Goujet, died prematurely, literally “burned out by his own violence.”
The Grand Guignol finally closed its doors in 1962. Audiences had begun waning during and after World War II. According to the theater’s last director, Charles Nonon, "We could never equal Buchenwald.” The building still exists, however, occupied now by the International Visual Theatre, which presents plays in sign language.