Authors Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson discuss Grand-Guignolesque: Classic and Contemporary Horror Theatre.
When did your fascination with Grand-Guignol first begin?
Richard J. Hand (RJH): The term ‘Grand-Guignol’ had always been in the air. As a young child in the early 1970s, I received a book for Xmas that would become a prized volume: A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973) by Denis Gifford. At that time, I was more interested in the amazing stills from Universal or Hammer movies and schlock horror B-movies that the well-thumbed tome generously provided. However, the first chapter was titled ‘How Grand was My Guignol?’ and it looked at popular culture that paved the way for the modern horror film, including very early cinema but also the unique Parisian theatre that would become so important to Mike and myself in the 1990s…
Michael Wilson (MW): I think it was in the mid to late 1990s, so about 25 years ago. We didn’t know each other then, but there was a programme on TV called Clive Barker’s A to Z of Horror and there was a sequence on the Grand-Guignol. I’d never heard of it before, but it fascinated me. There was only one book in English at the time on the Grand-Guignol, which was Mel Gordon’s book which provided an overview and brief introduction to the genre and Agnes Pierron had just published her collection of Grand-Guignol plays in French. In 1998 we both found ourselves working as young lecturers at what was the University of Glamorgan and discovered we had a shared fascination in this long-forgotten theatre, so that’s how we started to collaborate.
What inspired you to write Grand-Guignolesque and how does it compare to your other titles focused on Grand-Guignol?
MW: We’d already written three books on Grand-Guignol and had met some fabulous people on the way, who were working with and reinventing Grand-Guignol. We’d been aware for a long time that we wanted to do a book that reflected the current experiments around the genre and honoured those practitioners, but in a way that located the work that was taking place now within the context of the longer horror theatre tradition.
RJH: Each of the books has had a different focus. The first was on the original French theatre and the genre itself, explaining the truth of this remarkable theatre with a little myth-busting on the way! Although truth is often more amazing than fiction… The second volume was on the high-profiled but ultimately ill-fated attempt to establish a Grand-Guignol theatre in London between 1920 and 1922, although in its short lifespan it made an indelible impact… The third had a practical focus, looking at the staging challenges of Grand-Guignol, exploring ‘how to’ create horror theatre as an ‘event’…. The fourth volume has a contemporary focus, profiling major attempts to (re)create horror theatre in more recent times.
MW: Each volume is different, yet each one also has this structure of an extensive critical introduction, followed by a series of playscripts/translations with contextual prefaces. That has worked quite well for us, and we have always responded to the feedback we’ve had from readers. So, from the very beginning readers said they wanted more scripts to work with, and we’ve tried to respond to that. There is also a kind of chronology to the books that starts in 1897 and finishes in 2020.
Pierre Palau and Jean Velu’s Une Main dans l’ombre (A Hand in the Shadows), a horror play about revenge, Le Théâtre des Deux Masques, May 1923, Le Théâtreet Comoedia Illustré No.19, July 1923 (out of copyright)
As authors this is your fourth collaboration. Why do you think your partnership works so well?
MW: Well, we’ve had an enormous amount of fun with this stuff over the years and we’ve always striven to keep that element of joyful playfulness, which is at the heart of much horror performance. And we both bring different strengths to the process – Richard has an expertise in film and radio…
RJH: …and Mike has expertise in storytelling (not least of the macabre ilk) and crime writing. So, our skills, such as they are, complement each other. Sometimes we’ve researched together in archives and, of course, in evenings watching delectable horror theatre! But at other times we’ve been able to go on ‘solo missions’ and report back to each other. Together the skills and working practices seem to have succeeded pretty well!
Did working on the more recent Grand-Guignol-inspired work for this book give you any new insights into the early Grand Guignol?
MW: I think we’re always learning about Grand-Guignol. In a way these books are all about our trying to find out more. One of the reasons we like to publish the scripts as part of the books is so that others will try them out in the studio. When they tell us about their experiences, or we see a show on the stage, we always learn more. It’s a continual dialogue between ourselves, the scripts, our contemporary practitioners, and its history.
RJH: There is no doubt that horror theatre is evolving in exciting ways. The modern Grand-Guignolesque taps into contemporary fears and taboos, reflecting very different anxieties and preoccupations to the old Grand-Guignol. Moreover, contemporary techniques of stagecraft such as the full-length monologue and themes such as the supernatural would have been quite alien to the original theatre. Yet, there is a craft and rigour to the original repertoire that continues to work as a paradigm for dramatic exposition, suspense and shock which are worth studying and deserve homage.
Thrillpeddlers, production still, The Orgy in the Lighthouse, 2000 (photo credit: David Allen)
Have you been involved in productions of any of the plays in this book - or seen them on stage performed by others? If not, which would you most like to perform, and why?
MW: Working on the plays in the studio has always been part of the process for us. In the early days we established the Grand-Guignol Laboratory at Glamorgan to allow us to work with students on the plays. More recently we’ve both been involved in supporting productions of plays with students at our current universities. A few years ago, we had the opportunity to put on a Hallowee’en performance in Norwich, where my students put on a performance of The Little House at Auteuil and Richard’s students did a fabulous live horror radio performance. I’ve also supported student productions of Short Circuit, The Unhinged and Eyes of the Phantom. I also saw The Lover of Death and The Unhinged performed in Paris by acte6. I really wish I’d been able to see Thrillpeddlers’ production of Orgy in the Lighthouse, though.
RJH: It was a genuine honour to observe the legendary American companies Thrillpeddlers and Molotov in rehearsal. I was also lucky enough to see the premiere of License to Thrill’s We’ll Fix It! in a packed theatre in Liverpool. The reaction of the audience when they suddenly realised what the play was going to be about was truly extraordinary and revealed the power of horror theatre as something provocative yet deeply cathartic. Similarly, watching Theatre of the Damned’s The Ghost Hunter and Dreamcatcher’s Abel Hartmann's Grand-Guignol: A History of Violence in pub theatres was seeing contemporary horror theatre in its most minimal, brilliant expression. It was a privilege to be terrified by Tin Shed’s intimate and immersive show Leviticus: Evil Resides Within and I’d love to stage my own version of that on some dark and stormy night…
Molotov Theatre Group, poster for Blood, Sweat and Fears, 2016 (copyright Alex Zavistovich)
Who is the target audience for the book?
MW: On the one hand, it is an academic research book and, we hope, will be of interest to academics and students, especially those who are interested in trying out the plays in the studio.
RJH: But we also want it to be of interest to a more general readership and we like to think it will be exciting for horror movie fans who may want to look at a non-screen medium but also theatre fans who may want to look at something very different indeed…
MW: We are also hopeful that the book will be a must for the many friends and associates we have made over the years who are in the business of staging Grand-Guignol theatre. I think the biggest thrill we get is when somebody contacts the publisher to let us know that they are wanting to stage one of the plays, and then they send us the production photos and programme afterwards. It’s great to know that these plays still have a life on the stage.
RJH: The original Grand-Guignol may be dead… but long live the Grand-Guignolseque!
Learn more about Grand-Guignolesque and order your copy here.
Learn more about Richard and Michael's other Grand-Guignol titles here.