A Book Review of Theatre of Fear & Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962

As a devoted genre fan, I've spent plenty of time researching various forms of 20th century horror entertainment. While reading dozens of books and watching dozens of documentaries about horror novels, comic books, movies, TV shows, cartoons, and toys, I noticed occasional mentions of Grand Guignol, a form of live stage horror that was performed in France from the 1890s until the early 1960s. Before Universal created movie monsters ... before EC Comics printed ghoulish tales of terror in full color ... before England compiled its video nasty list ... there was Grand Guignol. The exact details of this kind of horror eluded me for years, until I got my hands on what some consider to be a definitive text on the subject: Theatre of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962, written by Mel Gordon and published by Feral House.

Theatre of Fear and Horror was originally published in 1988; the version I am reviewing in this post is the expanded edition that was published in 2016. In the first part of the 2016 edition, Gordon summarizes the history of Grand Guignol: the trends in theater that led up to it, the individuals who made it a success, and the cultural shifts that ultimately led to the end of Grand Guignol. This overview is followed by summaries of 100 plays that were performed at the Grand Guignol theater, which gives the reader a robust sampling of Grand Guignol's specialties: helplessness, infanticide, insanity, mutilation, suicide, and so on. The summaries are followed by André de Lorde's essay "Fear in Literature" and a magazine article from 1938 called "I Am the Maddest Woman in the World", an autobiographical account written by Grand Guignol's leading female performer Maxa. The final section provides complete scripts of two one-act Grand Guignol plays: "A Crime in the Madhouse" and "Orgy in the Lighthouse". An ample selection of photos and artwork (e.g., posters, editorial cartoons, etc.) are scattered throughout the book to give additional glimpses and context for Grand Guignol.

A photo of the original Grand Guignol theater in France.

Grand Guignol is a fascinating form of horror entertainment, and Theatre of Fear and Horror does a good job at highlighting what makes this kind of horror different from others. When I first read about André de Lorde, Grand Guignol's most prolific playwright, I was surprised that I had never heard of him until this book. According to Gordon:

If anyone was responsible for the Grand Guignol’s ascension from a local Parisian sensation to international success, it was the playwright and essayist André de Lorde, known in his lifetime as “the Prince of Terror.” The son of a physician, from an early age de Lorde developed a fascination for all things frightening and morbid. Outside his father’s office, the young de Lorde would listen to the sobs and screams of the patients, imagining in detail the horrifying torments they suffered. ... The future master of horror knew what he envisioned in his mind’s eye was even more terrifying than the sight of an actual corpse. ... De Lorde became obsessed with death—especially of the horrific and painful variety. All his life, de Lorde was haunted by it.

Another interesting detail covered in the book was how the two World Wars influenced Grand Guignol, serving as bookends of sorts to the rise and fall of the theater. The way the Gordon describes it, the First World War “had introduced a new realism and horror in life” and by extension enlarged Grand Guignol’s “hideous vocabulary of torture and death: poison gas, explosive devices, electrical cables, surgical instruments and drills replaced the old pistol, dagger, and primitive sword.” The Second World War had a much different impact: “The Second World War, unlike the First, left the Grand Guignol’s potential viewers hungry for hideous events—but real ones, not those imagined by Montmartre playwrights. Hundreds of sensational books and magazines describing the Nazi tortures and massacres were pinned up on the posts of the book kiosks along the Seine. Documentary footage of the Nazi death camps and medical experiments on humans that was shown in neighborhood movie houses became impossible competition.” The grisly irony of this twist was that the Nazis originally planned to ban Grand Guignol once they had conquered all of Europe, never imaging for a moment that the records left behind of their own brutality during the war would ultimately help drive Grand Guignol out of business.

Grand Guignol's Maxa, who was referred to by some at the time as the "Princess of Blood".

Unfortunately, for as much information as this book offers, it feels lacking in its presentation of Grand Guignol's overall history. In this section (which is only 60 pages long), Gordon mentions many topics but does not elaborate upon them in any useful way. For example, he discusses Théâtre Libre, Grand Guignol's immediate predecessor in French horror theater, but how Grand Guignol connects to the history of Western theater as a whole is only discussed in broad statements and generalizations. In the book's conclusion, Gordon justifies his study of Grand Guignol by saying that it's an examination of how dangerous censorship is to artistic expression. However, censorship only receives passing mention in the previous pages; as such, it feels more like the censorship thesis was hastily tacked on at the publisher's behest, not because the author intended to make any larger academic argument in his book. Thankfully, the additions in the expanded edition of this book (such as the "Fear in Literature" and "I Am the Maddest Woman in the World" essays) affords enough compensations for the original content's shortcomings.

In spite of its problems, Theatre of Fear and Horror serves as an engaging introduction to Grand Guignol. For as short-lived as it was, Grand Guignol's lasting impact on horror entertainment deserves to be recognized. For horror fans of every taste (and no taste whatsoever), this book is required reading.


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