Centring itself on the original Parisian theatre company and its members, playwright Carl Grose sets his fast and loose tribute to Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in 1903. When the Theatre du Grand Guignol opens its doors to an unsuspecting public, the plays, rife with madness and murder, are sold out every night. But when a psychiatrist, obsessed with the gruesome dramas, ingratiates his way into the company and starts to unpick the author’s mind, the boundaries between theatre and truth begin to blur…
Carl, how did you come to write the play, and what initially made you want to tell the story of the Grand Guignol?
I saw a TV programme years ago called Clive Barker’s A to Z of Horror, and G was Grand Guignol. I knew the moment I heard about this strange back-alley theatre that I wanted to write a play about it. Not many people really knew about it, it seemed, and its real-life characters were so vivid. I thought if I don’t write about this someone else will. Also, being a die-hard horror fan, it gave me the chance to throw many classic horror images out of cinema and literature and on to the stage.
Was the appeal the opportunity to tell a good story, or more the chance to tell the history of a theatrical movement?
I’ve always written this kind of stuff. I love horror, the bizarre, the surreal. Revelling in this sort of stuff balances me out, and it’s never as weird as the stuff you have to deal with in real life. Anyway, as a writer I’m often asked the classic question: “But where does it all come from?” And I’ve often thought there’s really no answer! But I started to think about it, and I decided I wanted to write a play that explores the notion of where creativity lurks in me, and why it expresses itself in the way it does for some writers. So, outside of all the blood and death, it’s actually a deeply personal play about writing. Ha!
Tell us a little about Grand Guignol and its origins in Paris during the late 1800s.
Well, the Grand Guignol opened in 1897 and performed plays of heightened ‘naturalism’. This was, as far as I can gather, very different to how we regard theatre naturalism today. The stories staged were plundered from newspapers and were usually lurid tales of crime from in and around the local area of Montmartre. My play, however, takes place a little later, during the reign of playwright André de Lorde, who took the theatre to a more horror-oriented place. It’s around this time that the Grand Guignol, a converted back-street chapel with around two hundred seats, became one of the most visited tourist attractions in Paris, outside of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.
Is this play based purely on fact, or have you taken liberties with history to tell your story?
I’ve taken many liberties with the facts — for instance, as I recall, Maxa (the most assassinated actress in the world) was never around when de Lorde would have been writing. But it was just too good an opportunity not to have them come together in the same play. I’ve let the facts inspire me, as well as de Lorde’s fantastic, original plays. They were more a source of material than historical fact was.
Much of the mystique of this theatrical movement was based on the architecture and interior of the Theatre du Grand Guignol, which in itself was as important to the audience as what was happening on stage. How do you recreate that feeling at the Southwark Playhouse?
Well, again we’re less slavish to how it literally was. Nobody really knows what it was like in there, or how they actually performed these plays — at least, not any more. I’m just concerned we capture the spirit of the place and create an alluring world with great atmosphere. But, having said that, the Grand Guignol experience began when you made your way down through the winding streets into Montmartre. It was a red-light district and full of shady characters. By the time you arrived at the theatre, your heart was already pounding and your senses were heightened. This is the genius of having it at Southwark. People have the nerve-wracking boulevards of Elephant and Castle to deal with!
Will you be recreating the classic acts shown at the Grand Guignol (“Le Laboratoire”, “L’Horrible Passion”, etc.) or will there be all-new acts of terror?
I don’t wish to give too much away, but part of the allure of writing this was to find ways of incorporating de Lorde’s work within my own. So, yes, you will see my versions of some of these lost classics. They’re probably my favourite bits.
Much of the original thrill of the theatre came from the fact that audiences had never seen blood and gore before, and the movement fell away after the real-life horrors of the Second World War. Is there a place for on-stage bloodletting in a modern era where terror is shown nightly on the TV news?
It’s a good question. Part of the investigation into this world was to see if I could create something frightening on stage. It’s very hard to do. It’s hard to do well in cinema (for every great horror film there are a hundred bad ones), and they have the power of the edit and of sound — which partly is what makes a horror movie effective. So I think when it erupted onto the scene it was very intense, very shocking. But culture reinvents itself at such a rapid pace and the new gets old very quickly. They say the Grand Guignol was trounced by the horrors of war, but more, I believe, by the advent of cinema. That’s why it became clear to me that the play had to be more than just horror. It had to engage on a number of other levels too.
The stage has always been rife with violence, since the era of the Romans through to Shakespeare. How influential do you feel the Theatre du Grand Guignol was on the modern horror genre?
It’s hard to say exactly, as it was such a small movement. But I’d really like to think that little theatre really took things on to the next level. There’s a reason why it was such a success. A lot of people went. They obviously captured something. And de Lorde’s plays, creaky as they might appear to our modern sensibilities now, are still full of brilliant images, insane ideas, and ingenious structures. There’s not a huge difference between his Crime in the Madhouse and American Horror Story — particularly Season Two!
Tell us a little about the crew working on the production, and how you’re recreating the violent acts and horror that were so realistic during the original theatrical runs.
The effects are very important to me. I wanted to be a special effects guy when I was a kid. I wanted to be Tom Savini. I also wanted to be Steve King. And Godzilla. Still do! But anyway, my director laughs at me because sometimes it’s all about the blood. I always want more of it. I love stage blood. It’s so beautiful. And, kind of like a good custard pie fight, seeing the blood flow or spray or splatter or drip, is just wonderful. Cathartic. It reminds us that, even though we know ultimately that it’s fake, we are all human. Yeah, forget all that stuff I said earlier. It’s all about the blood.
What can this production offer for readers of Exquisite Terror more used to celluloid horrors than those of the stage? What can they expect to take away from a night at the Grand Guignol?
I hope it’s a ride. A very entertaining, satisfying ride. I can never quite decide how to describe Grand Guignol. It’s a love letter to horror, really, with little references to fans of the genre. But it’s a mind-bending play too. It’s about what’s real, and what’s not. My hope is that the audience asks themselves “Wait, is this a play? Or is it a rehearsal? Is it in his head? Or our head?” So while it has got a guy being strangled to death with his own intestines, it’s also about theatre and reality, too. It’s also very funny. Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Noises Off!