Grand Guignol

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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 performancatory 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" FIRST NAME Hand and Wilson argue that "the audience is irrefutably implicated in the creative process and an equal partner in the audience-performer dyamic" (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

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 (TOO GROSS?) 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 mimick human flesh, man and animal unite as a mechanical cog in the horror-machine. This cyborgian conflation is extended through the scientific disection of the staged body. Opened bodies leak past the confines of the stage, splayed and surgically dissasembled, 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

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 "shot with a rifle, scapled, strangled, disembowled, raped, guillotined, hanged, quartered, burned, cut apart with surgical tools, cut into 83 pieces by an invisible spanish dager, stung, poisoned, devoured by a puma, lashed, infected and decomposed" (MOST MURDERED WOMAN CITATION). 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. 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 stadling 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 theater, 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 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

Even before entering a theater-du-nord the audiance 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 observtion, 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" (112), illustrated through the structure of seating. 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

Suspension of Disbelief


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