Grand Guignol

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Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was a theatre in Paris popular between World War I and World War II known for its naturalist horror shows with explicit violence. The 293-seat venue, the smallest in Paris, opened in 1897 as a naturalist theater staging taboo performances involving prostitutes and criminals. But the theater soon became a house of terror, featuring insane characters engaged in explicit acts of rape, brutal murders, disembowelment, and dismemberment. But the audience dwindled after World War II as real-life violence overshadowed that of the Grand Guignol, and the theatre closed down in 1962.

Stageness and the Horror Machine



Essentially functioning as a circuit of horror, the primary mediatic dimension of Grand Guignol can usefully illustrated in terms of a sense of "stageness", that is, a reciprocal connection established between audience and actor through mutually corresponding vectors of attention. Although the actors possess the primary role of performatory output, the audience takes on a similarly active role of reception and response. Arguably the relation between actor and audience can be seen as that of two stages, related in varying degrees of primacy. Although the actor traditionally occupies the 'primary stage' and the audience as the 'secondary stage' relational politics of Grand Guignol imbues the audience with a high degree of agency, creating an active communicative circuit between the violent spectacle of the actor and visceral reaction of the audience. Casting the audience as "meaning-makers" Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson argue that "the audience is irrefutably implicated in the creative process and an equal partner in the audience-performer dynamic" (77). As observed by Hand and Wilson, the stageness of Grand Guignol is characterized by this equal partnership, a circuit embedded in the larger conceptual apparatus-of-horror; a machine constructed from flesh, seats, darkness and illusion. These cogs work in synchrony, producing and consuming fear, disgust and sexual arousal in a complex web of input and output, in which "form and meaning are negotiated and created" (Hand and Wilson, 77) in the synaptic space between actor and audience and powered by electric viscerality.

Apparatus of Horror

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Les Nuits D'un Damne

The functioning of this conceptual horror-machine is dependent upon specific interaction between structure and flesh, the makings of the machine. The small stage and cramped seating further conflates the audience/actor bodies through tecnics of claustrophobic closeness; illusion of dismemberment literally spray in the face of the audience. In the spirit of Donna Haraway's examination of the cyborg, Grand Guignol brings together the tripartite of man, animal and machine (Haraway, 151). Using animal organs to mimic human flesh, man and animal unite as a mechanical cog in the horror-machine. This cyborgian conflation is extended through the scientific dissection of the staged body. Opened bodies leak past the confines of the stage, splayed and surgically disassembled, revealing their organs as mechanical parts. In his study of optics, Johannes Müller similarly describes the body as "a multifarious factory-like enterprise. . . the organism becomes equivalent to an amalgamation of adjacent apparatuses" (Crary 89). Conversely, Vilém Flusser identifies machines as "simulating organs of the human body" (Flusser, 51); the body and machine cry out to each other in their mirrored likenesses. Beyond the obvious illusion of theatrical effect masquerading as corporeal violation, viewing Grand Guignol as this apparatus-of-horror uncovers the hidden illusions that lie in the proposed divisions between audience/performer and man/machine.

Violation of the Staged Body

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Le Jardin Des Supplices

The crux of the horror-machine that is Grand Guignol is surely the performatory stage upon which the body of actress Paula Maxa "the most assassinated woman in the world", among many others have been "'cut into ninety-three pieces by an invisible Spanish dagger, stitched back together in two seconds by a Samaritan; flattened by a steamroller; disemboweled by a slaughterman who steals her intestines; shot by a firing squad, quartered, burned alive, devoured by a puma, crucified, shot with a pistol, stabbed, raped and still she stays happy and smiling'" (Hand and Wilson, 19). Though illusory, these acts are the loci of fear, creating the message that is delivered through the circuit of attention and connection between the actor-body and audience-body. Philip Brophy describes this connection in terms of textuality, coining "Horrality" as "the construction, employment and manipulation of horror--in all its various guises--as a textual mode" (Hand and Wilson, 70). Horrality then, casts the body-as-paper to be inscribed upon by the slice of the knife-as-pen, creating a text to be read and deciphered as raw fear. Here the message embodies in the spirit of Iris in the most literal of ways, the violated body as message. Though horror as text is surely an act of writing, the inscription of the knife functions only to establish the actor/audience connection through nonsensical viscerality, a call returned through a jerk of the hand over ones eyes, a flinch, or a scream; these call back to the stage, writing of the horror just witnessed.

Don't Cut My Döppelganger: Fluctuating Divisions of the Audience/Actor Self

In the moments of theatrical engagement the audience/actor body is only precariously divided, merging in horrified empathy, as two sides of one self. The audience flinches as it's döppleganger is battered and cut, the exhilarating fear possible only in a transposition of the audience-self onto the actor-self, confronting the audience with its own mortal corporeality through the illusory acts on stage.

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From Le Baiser De Sang (The Kiss of Blood) Jean Aragny and Francis Neilson, 1937

The cutting of the actor-body represents an opening up of the audience-self, guts literally displayed, making one's inner world outer and demystifying the black box of the body. Jonathan Crary identifies a corresponding intellectual move as a shift in the mid-nineteenth century towards an awareness of the "corporeal subjectivity of the observer" (69) and an increasing understanding of "the empirical immediacy of the body" as "belonging to time, to flux and to death" (24). Through this confluence of identities, the audience-body becomes aware of itself as vulnerable, disassembleable, and ultimately meat. The division of bodies must be thinly maintained, however, because in this separation lies the possibility for entertainment rather than a submission to complete debilitating terror. Grand Guignol carefully negotiates the terror/entertainment line by straddling past and future, familiar and fanciful. One one hand, fascination with the violated and dissembled body can be attributed to a remediation of the horrality of both public torture and surgical theatre, examples of fear and fascination respectively that have historically drawn people toward displays of violence. On the other hand the acts depicted are illusions, on some level known to be fake and many thought to be pure fanciful imagination. It is only when the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II become public that spectacular violence is no longer viewed as imaginative or impossible that Grand Guignol breaks down, no longer able to entertain.

Producing the Horrifiable Subject: How to Be Scared

Much in the same way that Crary (1992) sets out to question the ways in which techniques of observing are constructed and learned, Grand Guignol requires an examination of the ways in which the audience is trained to experience fear through creating the conditions of possibility for "automatic" reactions of horror, in a sense, setting the dials of the horror-machine. Hand and Wilson illustrate the processes as, "Not unlike a death-defying carnival rise: the subject is a willing target that both constructs the terror and is terrorized by its construction'" (70), a comparison which highlights the subject as both acting and being acted upon. [change/more here] The assemblage of physical space as well as the shaping of the audience-psyche contribute to the creation of a 'horrify-able' subject, creating a space for the experience of horror.

Carving out a Space for Horror

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Louis Perdoux and Remy Clary in Le Viol (The Rape) 1959

Even before entering a theater-du-nord the audience has begun to engage with mechanisms of the horror-machine. Often situated in something like, "a narrow dead-end alley... culminating in the barely lit facade of the theater” (Degaine 1998, 196), the theater internalizes the very message it is set to convey – terror. Even the act of arriving serves to tenderize the subject, creating an expectation of fear. Upon arrival a medical staff evaluates the audience's health, pre-emanating a sense of threat to the body and legitimizing fear through scientific queues (Hand and Wilson, 72). The proposed danger lie in being 'overcome' by the horror witnessed, granting fear a level of power usually reserved for direct corporeal violence. As a machine which produces fear, this internal perpetuation and legitimization is self sustaining, creating a twin fear of the fear experienced in the theater. The presence of doctors in the theater creates an expectation space for a medically classified physical reaction, one which could indeed set the stage for an 'automatic' fear reaction by suggesting a pathological connection between stage-act and audience reaction as well as between audience reaction and audience health. The audience-body visually consumes the simulated violence of the stage, ingesting the constructed pathogenic force of the experience and transforming it into a real violence against the body in the form of sickness from fear. The ill audience-body, thankful for the medical assistance, fails to recognize the white coat as the origin and exacerbator of the nausea, revealing the audience-body as shaped by the Weberian cage that is the horror-machine.

Come Closer, I Won't Hurt You: The Active and Passive Positioning of the Audience-Body

The horrify-able subject is uniquely defined by the act of witnessing the stage. Crary's analysis of the phenakistiscope raises the issue of positioning, "the very physical position required of the observer by the phenakistiscope bespeaks a confounding of three modes: an individual body that is at once a spectator, a subject of empirical research and observation, and an element of machine production" (112). Though the connection between actor and audience has been already identified in terms of 'stageness', to further examine the production of the horrify-able subject constructed through its interaction with the greater apparatus of Grand Guignol a discussion of the spatial particulars is in order. Crary suggestions that the positioning of a subject in relation to the apparatus shapes the role and identity of that subject. Within the apparatus-of-horror the positioning of the audience-body in relation to the actor-body largely determines the conditions of possibility for action, interaction and reaction. Crary identifies this positioning of the subject as coinciding with "procedures of discipline and regulation," illustrated through the structure of seating (112). The audience-body is confined to a regulated direction and distance from the stage through seats designed to ensure that “no member of the audience felt far from the performers and vice versa” (Hand and Wilson, 31). This positioning lends greater freedom of movement and attention to the actors, defining the audience as the subordinate receiver. The stage commands the optical field as the main source of light, directing the audience's gaze by illuminating the 'right' object of attention. In this way, the theater acts as an optical device of the 19th century, which according to Crary (1992) “involved arrangements of bodies in space, regulations of activity, and the deployment of individual bodies, which codified and normalized the observer within rigidly defined systems of visual consumption. They were techniques for the management of attention" (18). In this arrangement, then, members of the audience become examples of Foucault's (1977) docile bodies, subject to the manipulation of body and attention. Even among this structured discipline of arranged bodies, there is also a degree of freedom in the disorder and chaos.

Even as it controls and shapes audience attention, the structure of the horror-machine can also be seen as creating a space for a messy and chaotic actor-audience interaction, pulling the audience-body into the performance through through a clash roles. The scream of the victim rooted merely in a theatrical representation of fear is challenged by the authenticity of the audience, shrieking out in sincere horror thereby upsetting traditional role of active stage and passive seat. Within the performative act itself, there is an interplay of light and darkness, where disorientation and visual obstruction collide with the stage as the principal source of light and information, rendering the audience-body docile in its ignorance of what to expect next, but active in it's visceral reactions and bodily excitement. The uncontrolled reactions of the audience-body, together with the violent chaos of the stage create a vicious orchestration of a collective, "carnivalesque body" (Bakhtin, 219), a disordered and leaking circuit of fear, excitement and arousal.

The Reception of Violence: Visceral Output and the Eroticization of Horror

Viewing Grand Guignol as a cyborgian apparatus of human, animal and machine highlights not only the mechanical components analyzed thus far but also the various outputs produced by the 'running' of the machine. The circuits of attention between actor and audience, flesh and object are viscerally electrified, creating automatic reactions which feed back into the stage and drive the machine forward in it's production of horror. The primary input in this apparatus can be seen as the performative act on stage. Defined much more by the depiction of spectacular violence, madness, disease and corporeal dismemberment than any given arbitrary narrative of the plot, most intellectual interaction is passed over. Film maker David Cronenber describes the exchange of horror as going "right into the viscera, before it gets to the brain" (Hand and Wilson, 71). The analytical mind plays little role in these automatic reactions to the stage, muscles get tense, heartbeat quickens and nerves jangle, even if the story has been seen before (Brophy, 279). There is a guttural dialogic of reactions spoken out through shreirks, grunts, moans, flailing of limbs and fainting;these actions are not controlled, but arise in the particular situation of the constructed horrifiable subject. As automated cathartic responses of a horrifiable body, these actions are, despite their semiotic meaningless, a performative act that runs willy nilly on and off stage, through plot and atmosphere, actor and audience.

The audience, prepped to experience fear, receives the violent images, processes them vicerally and produces not only gutteral jerk responses as immediate calls back to the stage but also, at times, a more subtle output of erotic arousal. The intimacy of the space, both in closeness of audience to stage and between viewers canoodling in the dark, is rife with opportunity for impropriety. The performers would engage the audience in suggestive eye contact, implicating them in their violent acts and providing a conduit for voyeurism, "the relationship becomes almost one of pornographer and consumer of pornography"(Hand and Wilson, 44). The sexualization of fear feeds back into the apparatus-of-horror, further implicating the audience-body, as a subject who both consumes and produces arousal as a cogs integrated into the working machine. The output of this particular reception of fear is physical in it's nature, According to Agnés Pierron (cited in Hand and Wilson, 74) "cleaning ladies would find traces of sexual pleasure from the audience". In her own study of the form, she comments: "It was well-known that during the notorious Monday matinees, that women would prepare for adultery by snuggling, half-dead with fear, into the arms of the man in the next seat" (ibid). In these situations, the reactions that were claimed to be involuntary and visceral, are hacked to be used for a completely different purpose - clandestine sexual pleasure. This deviant use of the norms did not depend not on a malfunction, but was made possible through the proper functioning of the stage as the primary director of attention, creating a space of secrecy in the seats.

Suspension of Disbelief: The Audience as the True Actor

The final component, critical to the functioning of Grand Guignol as an apparatus-of-horror, lies in the audience's suspension of disbelief. Although violent murders enacted using animal parts and fake weapons are likely enough to elicit a reaction, the true terror it sought out to evoke depends on the conditioning of the psych of the audience-mind, achieved through the willing entrance into a state of known falsehood. The willing participation of the subject in this horror machine speaks to a desire for 'safe' entertainment which is achieved only through a conscious forgetting of that very fact, that this is all a big bloody show. Indeed "Grand-Guignol offered a chance to be scared in complete safety. Most people are vicarious lovers of violence and danger, and the majority of people find the theatrical depiction of violence to be release their own sadism and/or masochism." (Hand and Wilson, 68). Only by suspending one's awareness of the pops and hisses of production, the visual cues that the heroine is actually still breathing after being sliced and garroted, the mismatch of the bang of the revolver and the blood fountain from one's chest, or the vague sound of the cast member who, instead of being burned alive is instead smoking a cigaret backstage, which is, incidentally a place which acts as a black box primarily in the audiences desire to wish it away. The logistics of live theater intrude upon the illusion, requiring mechanisms of denial in the audience to function properly. Bad weather of cynicism, distraction or disengagement shatter this illusion and cut the circuit of reciprocal horror production. The knowing suspension of disbelief speaks to the subject's self awareness of the manipulation of perception, understanding the visual experience as a subjective and imperfect mechanism of the flesh, manipulatable by oneself in pursuit of reactions of fear, arousal, entertainment and catharsis. This truly non-automatic action, a prerequisite for membership as part of the functioning apparatus-of-horror, that is Grand Guignol, shows the audience as the true performer, the causa sui of the machine itself, without which there would be no one to horrify.


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Sur La Dalle

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