Grand Guignol Comes Back With A Vengeance
Over the next two months, eight plays – that’s two lots of four – are being unleashed on unsuspecting Londoners. At the Soho Theatre there will be another four tales of terror by well-known authors at Terrorfest. This is in its third year – the first was great, the second terrible, so we’re hoping this year is back to form. And in Shoreditch they’re reviving horror theatre for a second year in’The Revenge of Grand Guignol’.
Coincidentally, this is a subject I cover in the new Bryant & May book. The original Grand Guignol was built in the Pigalle, in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, by a man called Oscar Metenier. This vaudeville of horror staged a program of one-act plays that featured murder of all kinds – matricide, infanticide, kidnap. The scenes were graphically depicted on stage, and were so realistic that audience members regularly used to pass out.
The Grand Guignol was a huge success for the next twenty years, so it was brought across the Channel, and staged in what was then known as the Little Theatre in London. But we had a Lord Chamberlain who censored plays, and he refused a license to any play he considered dangerous to the morals of the public. So the Grand Guignol at the Little Theatre highlighted the psychological cruelty of the characters, rather than showing blood and sex.
In two years they staged eight series of plays, and many more were turned down. Altogether, forty three plays were seen here. Most of them were psychological studies of damaged people. The theatre attracted famous names, even though it drew adverse critical reviews and caused a scandal.
Noel Coward wrote a play for the Little Theatre called ‘The Better Half’, and Dame Sybil Thorndyke appeared in many of them. For four years, young Londoners came here to be shocked. Eventually, the Lord Chamberlain got fed up with what he considered an affront to human decency, and the theatre had to close.