Theater of Fear & Horror : Expanded Edition: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962 – Review

Grand Guignol

The legacy of the Grand Guignol is still overlooked by many horror fans.

The melodramatic and often stomach churning plays, as performed at the small Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol, had as great an impact on 20th century horror as gothic novels and art. Thankfully, the third edition of Mel Gordon’s acclaimed book provides an extensive guide to all aspects of the Grand Guignol and is a treat for fans of horror and theatre.

It’s evident that Gordon admires its impact by denouncing claims that it was simply crass and perverse entertainment. Those who believe the plays to be nothing more than feeding the appetites of the depraved, will be swayed by the history lesson Gordon eloquently gives; covering how the theatre’s key players and a changing society were pivotal in its success and eventual demise. He goes on to illustrate its initial influence, particularly in the early horror movies, which will hopefully make some ardent fans appreciate just how different the genre might be, had it not been for the theatre’s half a century existence.

Gordon also provides a summary of the various tricks employed to make the violent and gruesome deaths look so convincing, proving there really is nothing like the magic of theatre. The book also contains still images from various productions that not only capture moments of theatrical depravity, but demonstrate just how realistic these effects were. It’s easy to see why audiences reacted with such hysteria; make no mistake about it, these images are not for the easily squeamish. It’s not a book to leave randomly on the coffee table – unless you want your eye balls to bleed.

The 100 plot summaries make up a third of the book and give a sense of the rich variety of plots and ideas, with many crossovers between the themes, which were usually to do with violence and repression. In fact, many of the plots were inspired by real stories from newspaper articles.

A particularly interesting read is the essay “Fear and Literature” by Guignol playwright Andre de Lord, who argues the mass appeal of fear and horror in entertainment.

Those who read the last edition from 1997 will find new and enjoyable discoveries in this latest offering, one of which is “I Am the Maddest Woman in the World” – the ‘lost autobiographical account’ of Maxa, the leading female star of the Guignol. It is a fascinating and disturbing account of an actress whose dark and torturous life on stage was equally as sinister offstage. Also included are colourful posters for various productions, which are as striking and explicit as the still images.

Finally, while Crime in the Madhouse has remained in this edition, the script for The System of Dr Goudron and Prof. Plume is replaced by Orgy in the Lighthouse. These translated scripts perfectly capture the innovative ideas, startling violence and salacious themes the Guignol so graphically portrayed. There’s plenty of variety on offer for readers who enjoy history, art and drama.

Mel Gordon deserves plaudits for this is descriptive, concise and visually compelling study of an overlooked name in horror and theatrical history.

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