Thursday, September 28, 2006

Eye-Gouging, Throat-Slashing & Acid-Throwing

The first reading of The Blood Brothers Present: An Evening of Grand Guignol Horror took place last night, and this looks like it will be a fun night of gruesome and lurid theatre. The cast seemed reasonably amused/appalled with my four-minute pantomime script. You can buy tickets here.

Before the reading began, Patrick gave the cast a quick tutorial on the history of the Grand Guignol, which was a good thing, since it turned out only a few of them knew exactly what sort of show they had signed on for (fortunately, no one ran away screaming). After the brief history lesson, most of the cast members simply "got it," and understood the tone and style of how the plays were to be read.

Pete and Patrick have been doing their homework on this sort of theatre, having spent the bulk of the summer researching the theatre and movement., a Web site established by the San Fransisco-based theatre company Thrillpeddlers, provides an invaluable crash-course in Grand Guignol theatre (including - Oh, God, yes! - a video excerpt of a Grand Guignol play staged in the mid-60s).


"As used today, the term 'Grand Guignol'...refers to any dramatic entertainment that deals with macabre subject matter and features 'over-the-top' graphic violence. It is derived from Le Theatre du Grand Guignol, the name of the Parisian theatre that horrified audiences for over sixty years...A typical evening at the Grand Guignol Theatre might consist of five or six short plays, ranging from suspenseful crime dramas to bawdy sex farces. But the staple of the Grand Guignol repertoire was the horror play, which inevitably featured eye-gouging, throat-slashing, acid-throwing, or some other equally grisly climax."

Many of the old Guignol plays were based on stories "Ripped From the Headlines;" if there was a front-page news story about a grisly killing, it often wound up as a Grand Guignol play (the murders of Jack the Ripper were an oft-used subject, go figure). Occasionally, sex farces would be thrown into the play-lists, in part for their own sake, in part to keep audiences guessing whether they, too, would have gory endings. (Yeah, it's always fun to guess whether you're watching Noises Off or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)

Although seeing a decline in audiences in the 1940s (World War II taking some of the fun out of watching grisly deaths), the real death knell for Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol and its brand of theatre was cinema. After realizing that it could no longer compete with movies, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol shut its doors in 1962. A few attempts have been made to reopen it since, but aside from a handful of short runs of shows, nothing has stuck.

The real question will be how well this turn-of-last-century style of theatre has aged. Plays featuring zombies have surged in popularity in New York of late (although many of these plays are laced with more than just a dash of irony), and shows such as Tracy Letts's Killer Joe and Bug and Martin Mcdonough's The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore have shown that attempting violence and horror for the stage is not the daunting task it once was in recent years. But how will modern New York audiences receive these older and more melodramatic plays (The Final Kiss being written in 1912 and The Kiss of Blood in 1929)? We shall find out in just a few weeks.

I actually suppose it will be determined by how good the effects are. From what I've seen, modern urban audiences aren't used to seeing eye-gouging and dismemberment on stage, so dated language aside, if done right - and I'm sure they will be - the shows won't come across as campy. Funny, maybe, but in the literal sense (i.e., "providing fun").

Always into family-friendly entertainment,

James "Happy Clown" Comtois


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