Sunday, October 9, 2016

Theatre of Fear and Horror

Mel Gordon's Theatre of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris 1897-1962 is many things under one set of covers; it's part history of the macabre Grand Guignol theatre, part analysis of the appeal of the theatre's horrific spectacle as popular entertainment, a catalog of the kind of plays that were performed at the theatre, and a reproduction of a few scripts and original documents from the theatre's history.

The historical section of the book is brief. It reads as a survey, primer, or overview; it could be that much of the Grand Guignol's history has been lost and thus can't be related, or it could be that the ups and downs of the theatre's business isn't nearly as interesting as the violent and excessive productions that took place on its stage.

If Gordon has a fault as a writer on historical oddities, it's that he tends to lean toward the mythology of his subjects rather the historical record. Some areas of the history are so thin that their inclusion feels perfunctory; the section on the kind of special effects used during performances amounts to "They used a lot of fake blood and other things." It's a shame not to cut deeper when talking about the Grand Guignol.

Gordon's analysis of the Grand Guignol connects its drama to the turn of the century French fetish for naturalism, but that only seems like half the story. The Grand Guignol certainly began as an enterprise to bring naturalism to the stage, but its evolution as a theatre specializing in horror means that other unaccounted for influences became interwoven with that initial artistic premise; as de Lorde's essay makes clear, there is a heavy debt to the Gothic that just doesn't factor into Gordon's appraisal of the kind of art produced for the Grand Guignol's stage even though the lineage of Poe and his antecedents looms large in the theatre's melange of influences.

The capsule summaries of a selection of plays from the Grand Guignol's history--from sex farces to its infamous shockers--are interesting, as far as they go, but the cataloging of the plays just leaves you hungry for the real thing. The historical documents, such as Andre de Lorde's essay on fear in literature and Maxa's "autobiography," fare a bit better as historical curiosities. The color plate reproductions of posters advertising the theatre's gruesome wares are quite nice. The book concludes with two scripts from plays performed at the Grand Guignol. Reading the plays is, of course, a pleasure secondary to seeing them performed, but even so the scripts give a sense of why people were attracted to the theatre and became habitual attendees. 

Overall, the book feels slighter than it should--especially for a revised edition. Still, with so little published on the Grand Guignol, Theatre of Fear and Horror is an ideal starting point if you're interested in the topic.