At this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I saw Theatre of the Damned’s As Ye Sow at the Pleasance Dome, and since then, I have been fascinated by the power and terror of Grand Guignol theatre, a genre which originated in Paris in the late 19th century.
A few weeks ago, I contacted Stewart Pringle, the Co-Artistic Director of Theatre of the Damned, who specialise in recreating the drama of the Grand Guignol, and asked if he would be interested in an email interview discussing the genre, and its legacy. He agreed, and here is the interview, republished in full.
Tell me about Theatre of the Damned, when did you become involved with the company? And why?
Theatre of the Damned was formed by my long-time collaborator Tom Richards and myself when we began to look for theatre projects to work on post-university. We’d staged an evening of Grand Guignol pieces in our final year at Oxford, and thought the genre and form was something which had great and untapped potential.
We started out by re-staging two of the short plays from our earlier production, and have grown from there to look at the wider Grand Guignol, as well as horror onstage considered more generally.
Theatre of the Damned now produces roughly two shows per year, as well as producing the London Horror Festival, which is a festival of new theatre and performance that sees companies from across the country come together to explore the possibilities of horror on stage.
Your emphasis is on the horror plays of the Grand Guignol, why did you decide to recreate this particular type of theatre?
I think it appealed to us because it was so rarely staged, because it opened up the possibility of attracting new audiences who may not usually consider going to the theatre, and because it can create such a visceral, immediate response from its audience.
The Grand Guignol itself was a fascinating development in theatre history, and can claim credit for being one of the wellsprings of European Naturalism, so we found it interesting from a historical point of view too.
Why do you think Grand Guignol was so popular with French audiences?
Well it wasn’t just French audiences, people came from all over the world to visit the Grand Guignol, it was a major tourist destination. But I think there was something in the liberalism of the French press and the lack of theatrical censorship that meant that the boundaries between high and low culture, between the ‘lower elements’ of society and artistic representation, were far more permeable than in, say, England.
You’ve got Zola and Husymans happily writing about prostitution, black magic and murder in their novels, you’ve got incredibly gruesome accounts of murders and mayhem in the press, and all of this made its way inexorably to the stage. At first it found its way to the Theatre Libre (the theatre of Naturalism that was the direct predecessor to the Grand Guignol) in its ‘Rosso’ plays, which were often adaptations of recent grisly news reports, and then eventually in the Grand Guignol itself, where things could take an even more fantastical and violent turn. The Grand Guignol staged similarly violent and salacious acts as the Theatre Libre, but without the necessity of verisimilitude to contemporary life. Writers could let their imaginations run amok.
Was there a genre in Grand Guignol that appears to have been performed more than any other, such as ghost stories, body horror, murder/morality plays?
It changed a lot over the years. The Grand Guignol was around for over 6 decades, and went under a lot of management changes. In general it was the more gruesome pieces which brought in the crowds, and the most famous pieces now (Kiss Goodnight, Crime in a Madhouse, The Kiss of Blood, all of which are revived semi-regularly in the UK) were often the most popular then. There weren’t many supernatural stories, though there were a high number of ‘mad scientist’ pieces, plays which explored the dark side of scientific experimentation. It’s a reflection of the high-speed of scientific advancement, the sense that morality could get left behind. It’s Frankenstein stuff.
You can find out a lot more about the Grand Guignol in both its Paris and short-lived London versions from Richard Hand and Mike Wilson’s two excellent books on the subject (available from Amazon, well worth a buy).
Grand Guignol was a highly influential medium of theatre, do you think it influenced horror (cinematic, theatrical) in other countries to a certain degree?
Absolutely. The greatest legacy of Grand Guignol is without a single doubt cinematic. Early horror cinema often took cues from it (unsurprising as a young James Whale actually performed in London’s Grand Guignol, as did early horror movie stalwart Todd Slaughter), and it’s a fair summation that the rise of Hammer Horror films had a lot to do with declining box office at the Grand Guignol.
The cinema offered far glossier and more accessible horrors than the old Parisian theatre, which by the 60′s had become a rickety and artistically bankrupt affair. It’s ironic, as it was the full-blooded horrors of the Grand Guignol which paved the way for Hammer in the first place.
Michael Billington recently said that “Theatre shocks but rarely scares”. Do you agree or disagree?
I agree entirely, though I think there is more genuinely frightening theatre than ever before. Michael doesn’t really attend much horror theatre (we’ve certainly never spotted him at any of our shows), but there still isn’t all that much out there. There’s also still a conception that to ‘frighten’ is a lower aim than to ‘outrage’, and I’m not really sure I have an opinion on that.
I certainly think there’s room for horror theatre which challenges intellectually or that aims for something more lasting than a quick thrill in the dark, something that scares and provokes, but it’s a tough thing to do and very rarely successful. I hope we’ve done some work that comes close to achieving that, but it’s an ongoing process.
In the UK, horror theatre seems to revolve around the ghost story (The Woman in Black, Mary Rose, Haunting Julia) do you think there’s room for improvement/more of an exploration of the genre?
I’m a big fan of ghost stories, so I don’t see it as a problem. I think The Woman in Black is a pretty wonderful bit of pastiche, and a lot of my favourite horror stories are the Victorian and Edwardian hauntings. I love M R James and Saki and the Dickens stories like The Signalman.
There is room for more exploration of the genre though, and the increased popularity of Grand Guignol revivals over recent years has seen a lot more variation in theatrical horror. With the London Horror Festival we try to encourage companies which are looking beyond the obvious, and this year we had amazing new work by Dave Florez, which treaded the line between drama and horror, and plenty of shows blending horror with comedy.
What should good horror theatre do? Unnerve the audience? Have a moral lesson at the heart of it?
Definitely the first, definitely not the second. Moral lessons are dismal things at the best of times, and one of the nice things about horror is that either it’s pure fantasy, or it exists in a sort of amoral universe where the innocent are as likely to suffer as the guilty.
Good horror theatre should involve the audience in the characters or the situation, just like any other genre of theatre. It should probably frighten, unnerve, disturb or horrify as well, but if it doesn’t grab the audience then it’s not going to be very effective, no matter how many horrible surprises and special effects you cram into it.
Do you have a favourite Grand Guignol play? If so, why?
Definitely Crime in a Madhouse (Un Crime Dans une Maison de Fous) by Andre De Lorde and Alfred Binet. It’s a classic psychological horror about a young girl trapped in a very strange asylum. The setup it brilliant, all creepy doctors and stern nuns, and the payoff is truly disturbing and utterly bizarre. There’s an almost surrealist aspect to its conclusion, its concatenation of eyeballs and nature imagery, and its odd fragmented language. We’ve produced it three times and we’re still finding hidden depths and resonances.
What scares you the most in theatre?
I’m quite easily scared, so it doesn’t take much. I was pretty frightened in The Woman In Black when I first saw it, and even a little jumpy in Ghost Stories (which I thought was a lot of fun). To be honest though, the most terrifying things I’ve seen haven’t been horror at all. I think there are moments in say Constellations by Nick Payne or And No More Shall We Part by Tom Holloway are utterly horrifying. Loss is the purest horror, loss of a loved one, loss of sanity or memory. It’s something we’ve looked at a bit in a piece like As Ye Sow (EdFringe 2012) and we’ll be looking at it again next year with our next piece. Finding the point where real-life horrors touch the supernatural, I think that’s a rich seam for exploration.
Is there a particular horror play that you’d love to stage, and haven’t been able to?
We want to stage Dracula. We have our own adaptation that was put together in 2011, but it needs a lot of money and one hell of a big theatre, so it’s got to be held back for now. One day…
You also produce the London Horror Festival – a celebration of horror theatre, what can visitors expect at the festival?
Well, this year we had a great selection. We had new writing, comedy, lectures on the science of a zombie invasion, a talk by the two world experts on the Grand Guignol, the finale of the Stage Fright radio horror competition hosted by Richard O’Brien, one man shows, an immersive musical at Wilton’s and loads more. Next year we’re planning to go even bigger with the event, and we’re in the process of reaching out to venues for 2013. So watch this space, basically!
What does Theatre of the Damned and the London Horror Festival hope to achieve in 2013?
Our new theatre piece The Ghost Hunter will be premiering in a work-in-progress form at the Tristan Bates in January, and we’re going to continue developing that throughout the year with the aim of taking it to EdFringe in August. And we’ve just begun work on a much, much larger project, a new musical, that we’re hoping to stage in an early version next Halloween. All very exciting, so hope to see you there!