There is one reliable way for theatre to make headlines: fainting. We have an insatiable appetite, it seems, for stories about audience members being overcome in aisles due to horror and violence onstage. Recently, a play at the National Theatre turned up in the news pages after someone swooned during a preview show – despite it being an isolated incident, and the production of When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, which stars Cate Blanchett, is in fact rather tame.
Why are we so luridly fascinated by such full-body reactions? These news stories often feature some sneering towards the soft sorts who pass out at fiction and fake blood. Personally I sympathise, having been among their number myself – I managed to conk out cold at a particularly gruesome bit of tongue-and-handchopping while reviewing Titus Andronicus at the Globe once, to the apparent amusement of many readers.
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But our ghoulish interest in people fainting at a show surely reveals an underlying ghoulish interest in seeing nasty things at all. Very violent shows are actually pretty rare in the theatre these days – film is the place we expect to get our scares – so the slathering attention given to gore-fests is surely also partly down to novelty: fancy theatre having such an impact! It is still often seen as rarefied, highbrow or just a bit bloodless.
In fact, there is a rich tradition of chillingly gruesome stage shows – and the name that looms largest belongs to one tiny Parisian theatre: the Grand Guignol.
The Grand Guignol was where queasy realism met gaudy melodrama
The theatre opened in 1897 in an old chapel in Pigalle, a disreputable district near Montmartre, alongside the Moulin Rouge. It began as a theatre of realism – showing short, one-act ‘slice of life’ plays about ordinary Parisians. But the show that really got audiences’ tongues wagging was an adaptation of a Maupassant short story set during the Franco-Prussian War, where a French prostitute kills a German officer.
Spotting this blood-lust, the theatre’s second owner Max Maurey quickly developed a unique brand for the Grand Guignol: it became the home of grotesquely convincing horror stories, often based on real-life examples of sickening violence. With clever staging techniques for realistically suggesting gouged eyeballs and spurting blood, and plots drawn from newspaper reports of real-life crime and depravity, the Grand Guignol was where queasy realism met gaudy melodrama. And all this proved much more terrifying – and popular – than your traditional horror narratives of ghosts or monsters.
In the 19th Century, as in the 21st, rumours of fainting are good for the box office.
“Max Maurey decided to move the theatre from the ‘slice of life’ to the ‘slice of death’,” laughs Richard J Hand, professor of media practice at the University of East Anglia, who held a workshop for the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies on the Grand Guignol. “It became a horror theatre, but not a supernatural theatre – they were interested in serial killers, escaped lunatics, revenge attacks. Which no doubt drew people in: they’d read about it in the newspaper, then see it enacted on stage.”
Horrifying special effects
One actor, Paul Ratineau, who was also a stage technician, pioneered grisly, lo-fi special effects. “He was very famous for his invention of stage blood that apparently congealed under the lights,” says Hand. “He developed terrific illusions, often based on magic tricks – the kind of thing Penn and Teller would do in a magic show, but building that into a horror show, so the eyeballs come flying out, or heads get chopped off, or acid melts a face.”
Acid attacks were in the news then, as now, and proved a source of horrible inspiration. The actors of the Grand Guignol would use an early form of latex to suggests a gooey, melting face. And in one famous short play, The Torture Garden, someone was skinned alive. “They’d get a long strip of Elastoplast, but the sticky side was painted red; when that was pulled off you get that ripping sound” says Hand. “A simple effect, but apparently when it was acted well it was extraordinary, people couldn’t quite believe what they’d seen.”
There were loyal locals, as well as more bourgeois audiences who’d be lured across town by the promise of elicit, vicious thrills
For audience members of a delicate disposition, help was on hand. Part of the cunning myth-making of the theatre was to put about the rumour that audiences fainted at every show, and so they always had their own doctor there to revive them. In the 19th Century, as in the 21st, rumours of fainting are good for the box office.
Lest things got too grim, the short horror plays were interspersed with one-act sex farces. “It’s a structure for a good night out, that kind of patterning,” adds Hand.
And a good night out it apparently very much was: audiences flocked to the Grand Guignol. There were loyal locals, as well as more bourgeois audiences who’d be lured across town by the promise of elicit, vicious thrills, the fact that it was down a dodgy alley in an edgy district all adding to the frisson of danger. It became quite the tourist attraction, too, Hand says, up there with the Eiffel Tower for a time.
The venue, which had about 150 seats, had its own special atmosphere too. The 7ft-high (2.1m) carved stone angels that had been part of the chapel remained, looking down on audiences in apparent judgement, while the smell of incense reportedly still hung in the air. “As a place for taboo spectacles it was inadvertently perfect,” says Hand.
At the back of the theatre there was a series of private boxes with grids that allowed inhabitants to see out and watch the show, but which prevented anyone from seeing in – a feature that many carousing couples took full advantage of.
“Apparently, people would get up to all sorts of things behind the grill,” says Hand, “to the extent of the actors having to say ‘have you finished yet?’” Whether they were more turned on by the sex farces or the torture is a matter of speculation, but it seems the Grand Guignol’s patrons were certainly alive to the erotically charged juxtaposition of sex and violence.
Why are audiences so drawn to watching unspeakable acts, though? From public hangings through to blood sports, we’ve long had an appetite for violence. It’s still alive today, Hand points out: from newspapers picking over nasty incidents to the current vogue for true-crime dramas. People know they shouldn’t, Hand says, but they have the urge to see it with their own eyes.
There’s a lurid fascination there, for sure, but the desire to actually witness a horror may, in a funny way, also be a technique for neutralising our fears. “That’s what’s interesting with the repertoire of the Grand Guignol: its possible horrors, or things people had heard about. They would go and strap themselves in and then come out with that adrenalin rush – they’d seen it happen to somebody else,” suggests Hand.
It was a concern that the Grand Guignol was feeding our basest instincts that saw the theatre attacked by critics. Still, artistically, the Grand Guignol was mostly quite respected.
“You had great acting, performers who were able to go from realism to all-out melodrama really without the audience seeing the joins,” says Hand. “A lot of critics admired Paula Maxa, who was the great ‘scream queen’ of the Grand Guignol; she was a must-see in her day. And it was a theatre where you had great writing – even critics who denounced the morality said the plays were well-written at least.”
It drew major writers, including Gaston Leroux, author of The Phantom of the Opera, and Maurice Renard, who wrote The Hands of Orlac. And in a brief foray to London, the Grand Guignol continued the tradition: Noel Coward wrote a short play for it; Joseph Conrad tried, and was turned down.
Fine in France; banned in Britain
The Grand Guignol opened at the Little Theatre on the Strand in London in 1920 – but only lasted until 1922. This should not, however, be interpreted as a lack of interest, Hand insists: the audiences were there, the actors – including a young Sybil Thorndike – were in, and the famous playwrights were up for it, but the Lord Chamberlain was not. The British theatrical censor didn’t like stage blood, so there were a lot of strangulations and other inventively non-splattering forms of death. “In one, an adulterous couple were trapped in a flat when the ceiling came down and crushed them – so over the top, but that was the sort of thing they could get away with instead of eye-gouging,” says Hand.
It was maybe too continental for Britain at that time - Richard J Hand
But they ran into real problems with the sex farces. Fine in France; banned in Britain. “Censorship made it impossible for them, with plays being banned outright or tinkered with by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. It was maybe too continental for Britain at that time.”
In France, the Grand Guignol did a roaring trade through the 1920s – but after World War Two hit, the theatre struggled. It had stayed open throughout the war – controversially becoming popular with the occupying German forces.
Although shows went on until 1962, after the horrors of occupation, and the stories of what happened in the concentration camps, the love affair was over for the locals. “I think, for Parisians, watching these playful displays of horror and torture maybe was not quite so much fun in that context,” says Hand. “The theatre of horror they were so proud of took on a bitter taste after Auschwitz, and the fact that it made its money with the occupying forces.”
But it was also down to another factor, Hand suggests: the rise of cinema. In the early 1960s, if you wanted a scare you’d go to the cinema for Psycho or Les Diaboliques. “The audience goes to see the close-ups and zoom shots and shower scenes of cinema – and the Grand Guignol suddenly seems a little quaint and a little antiquated,” says Hand.
He does, however, think its spirit is still alive today. Horror movies certainly learnt from it, he says – especially in that need to build up to a scare, or to switch between terror and comedy. But its influence can also be seen in live theatre, he suggests, in everything from Washington DC’s Molotov Theatre who explicitly draw on the Grand Guignol’s techniques, to commercially popular fare like The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories – or even in the immersive, atmospheric world-building of companies like Punchdrunk. It seems that, even if there were no ghosts on stage, this unusual little Parisian theatre continues to haunt us today.
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