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Promotional poster for a Grand Guignol performance

The Grand Guignol (French pronunciation: [ɡʁɑ̃ ɡiɲɔl]) is a theatrical style popular in Jacobian theatre (for instance Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus). Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, literally The Theater of the Big Puppet was in the Pigalle area of Paris (at 20 bis, rue Chaptal), which, from its opening in 1897 until its closing in 1962, specialized in naturalistic horror shows. The name is often used as a general term for graphic, amoral horror entertainment.



Oscar Méténier

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was founded in 1894 by Oscar Méténier, who planned it as a space for naturalist performance. With 293 seats, the venue was the smallest in Paris.[1] A former chapel, the theater's previous life was evident in the boxes — which looked like confessionals — and in the angels over the orchestra.

The theater owed its name to Guignol, a traditional Lyonnaise puppet character, joining political commentary with the style of Punch and Judy.[2]

The theater's peak was between World War I and World War II when it was frequented by royalty and celebrities in evening dress.[3]

Important people

Oscar Méténier was the Grand Guignol's founder and original director. Under his direction, the theater produced plays about a class of people who were not considered appropriate subjects in other venues: prostitutes, criminals, street urchins and others at the lower end of Paris' social echelon.

Max Maurey served as director from 1898 to 1914. Maurey shifted the theater's emphasis to the horror plays it would become famous for and judged the success of a performance by the number of patrons who passed out from shock; the average was two faintings each evening. Maurey discovered André de Lorde, who was to be the most important playwright for the theatre.

André de Lorde was the theater's principal playwright from 1901 to 1926. He wrote at least 100 plays for the Grand Guignol and collaborated with experimental psychologist Alfred Binet to create plays about insanity, one of the theater's frequently recurring themes.

Camille Choisy served as director from 1914 to 1930. He contributed his expertise in special effects and scenery to the theater's distinctive style.

Paula Maxa was one of the Grand Guignol's best-known performers. From 1917 to the 1930s, she performed most frequently as a victim and was known as "the most assassinated woman in the world." During her career at the Grand Guignol, Maxa's characters were murdered more than 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways and raped at least 3,000 times.[3]

Jack Jouvin served as director from 1930 to 1937. He shifted the theater's subject matter, focusing performances not on gory horror but psychological drama. Under his leadership the theater's popularity waned; and after World War II, it was not well-attended.[2]

Charles Nonon was the theater's last director.[4]


At the Grand Guignol, patrons would see five or six plays, all in a style which attempted to be brutally true to the theatre's naturalistic ideals. The plays were in a variety of styles, but the most popular and best-known were the horror plays, featuring a distinctly bleak worldview as well as particularly gory special effects in their notoriously bloody climaxes. These plays often explored the altered states, like insanity, hypnosis, panic, under which uncontrolled horror could happen. Some of the horror came from the nature of the crimes shown, which often had very little reason behind them and in which the evildoers were rarely punished or defeated. To heighten the effect, the horror plays were often alternated with comedies.[5][6]

Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations, by André de Lorde: When a doctor finds his wife's lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor's brain.[6]

Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous, by André de Lorde: Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a young, pretty fellow inmate out of jealousy.[6]

L'Horrible Passion, by André de Lorde: A nanny strangles the children in her care.[6]

Theatre closing

Audiences waned in the years following World War II, and the Grand Guignol closed its doors in 1962. Management attributed the closure in part to the fact that the theater's faux horrors had been eclipsed by the actual events of the Holocaust two decades earlier. "We could never equal Buchenwald," said its final director, Charles Nonon. "Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality."[4]


Grand Guignol flourished briefly in London in the early 1920s under the direction of Jose Levy, and a series of short English "Grand Guignol" films (using original screenplays, not play adaptations) was made at the same time, directed by Fred Paul. Several of the films exist at the BFI National Archive.

In recent years English director writer, Richard Mazda, has re-introduced New York audiences to The Grand Guignol. His acting troupe, The Queens Players have produced 6 mainstage productions of Grand Guignol plays and Mazda is writing new plays in the classic Guignol style. The sixth production, Theatre of Fear, included De Lorde's famous adaptation of Poe's The System as well as two original plays, Double Crossed and The Good Death alongside The Tell Tale Heart.

The 1963 mondo film Ecco includes a scene which may have been filmed at the Grand Guignol theatre during its final years.[7]

American avant-garde composer John Zorn, released an album called Grand Guignol by Naked City in 1992, in a reference to "the darker side of our existence which has always been with us and always will be"[8].

Washington, D.C.-based Molotov Theatre Group, established in 2007, is dedicated to preserving and exploring the aesthetic of the Grand Guignol. They have entered two plays into the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C.. Their 2007 show, For Boston, won "Best Comedy," and their second show, The Sticking Place, won "Best Overall" in 2008.

The Japanese music group ALI Project created the song "Gesshoku Grand Guignol" as the opening for the Bee-Train anime "Avenger", while British rock band Duels also named an instrumental track after the theater.

Further reading

  • Gordon, Mel. The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror. Da Capo Press, 1997.
  • Hand, Richard, and Michael Wilson. Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror. University of Exeter Press, 2002.


  1. ^ "Paris Writhes Again". Time Magazine. January 16, 1950. Retrieved 2007-04-10.  
  2. ^ a b Peirron, Agnes. "House of Horrors". Grand Guignol Online. Retrieved 2007-04-10.  
  3. ^ a b Schneider, P. E. (March 18, 1957). "Fading Horrors of the Grand Guignol. set kind of in the turn of the plumage centry". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2007-04-10.  
  4. ^ a b "Outdone by Reality". Time Magazine. November 30, 1962. Retrieved 2007-04-10.  
  5. ^ "What is Grand Guignol?". Grand Guignol Online. Retrieved 2007-04-10.  
  6. ^ a b c d Pierron, Agnes (Summer, 1996). "House of Horrors". Grand Street Magazine. Retrieved 2007-04-10.  
  7. ^ "Excerpt from the film "ECCO" (1963)". Grand Guignol Online. Retrieved 2007-04-10.  
  8. ^ Liner notes of Grang Guignol CD

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary


Proper noun

Grand Guignol


Grand Guignol

  1. A Parisian theatre which specialized in grotesque and grisly horror shows.
  2. (by extension) That which thrives on grotesquery and gore.
    • 1926 June 19 [U.S. publication date in the Illustrated London News], G. K. Chesterton, "Spain and the Color Black", reprinted in, 1991, the Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, volume XXIV, The Illustrated London News, 1926–1928, Ignatius Press, ISBN 0898702941, pages 112–113
      I may remark, in passing, that I did not go to see any bullfights... . But if I had preferred a Grand Guignol thrill to a great experience of a great nation,... .
    • 1987, Simon Watney, "The Spectacle of AIDS", reprinted as chapter 13 of, 1993, Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (eds.), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Routledge, ISBN 0415905192, page 206
      Hence the incomparably strange reincarnation of the cultural figure of the male homosexual as a predatory, determined invert, wrapped in a Grand Guignol cloak of degenarcy theory, and casting his lascivious eyes—and hands—out from the pages of Victorian sexology manuals and onto "our" children, and above all onto "our" sons.
    • 1993, Florence King, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, St. Martin's Press, ISBN 0312099150, page 147
      Everything quickly gets impossibly sensitive, aesthetic, ethereal, and opaquely lovely, yet there is a Grand Guignol thread running through it all that results in constant ominous tension, as though something dreadfully beautiful is going to happen at any moment—i.e., the author is going to turn queer.

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