Grand Guignol

At last it’s come. I ordered the book London’s Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror back in October, soon after I’d seen the Grand Guignol programme in Southwark. Amazon kept on delaying and postponing, until finally I cancelled the order. I then looked it up on and got it within four days. There’s a moral in that.

Grand Guignol programmes at the Little Theatre, in John Street, off the Strand were the most daring theatrical sensations of the early twenties. They adapted the methods of the French horror theatre to produce plays that stretched the limit of what was permissible on the English stage. There were constant battles with the censors at the Lord Chamberlain’s office – which probably helped to energise the whole enterprise.

The book contains scripts of ten of the plays, and a history of the project. The producer was an enterprising man called José Levy and the main artistic forces were Lewis Casson, his wife Sybil Thorndike, and her brother Russell Thorndike. They translated plays from the French Grand Guignol repertoire, but also commissioned their own – which to me at least are more interesting than the French ones.

Each evening at the Grand Guignol gave a mixed programme of one-act plays, alternating horror and farce (“la douche écossaise”, they called it, intending it to be a bracing experience.) The farcical ones went as far as they could in dealing with subjects like adultery – and the Lord Chamberlain did not let them go nearly as far as the French did. The horror plays were about revenge, cruelty, and above all madness. They operated on the principle of slowly racking up the tension, and piling on the psychological horrors, intil the play ended in a tension-releasing bout of physical violence.

For example, one of the best of the French plays is The Old Women, set in a lunatic asylum run by nuns. A young girl has been cured of her problems, and is about to leave for the outside world. On her last evening we see the pious nuns’ disapproval of her because she will not join their prayers; the doctors are impatient with the nuns’ religious obsessions, but are too rational to believe that the girl is in real danger. The audience, though, have become aware that a group of aged inmates are deeply jealous of the girl. When they are left alone, they take their revenge on her youth and beauty by gouging her eyes out, so that she will never leave the asylum. I should imagine that it is terrific if performed well.

It’s a deeply sceptical play, about religion and about the rationalism of the doctors. So is one of the English plays, Eight o’Clock, by Reginald Berkeley. This shows the last half hour in the life of a condemned man, before eight, the traditional time for a hanging. A chaplain tried to make him commit himself to Jesus, but the man is not interested. He is able to analyse what went wrong in his life, and how Society made a life of crime inevitable for him. Neither the chaplain nor the warders have any answer to him, but as the time draws near he is allowed to hope that there might be a hope of a reprieve. He agrees to kneel and pray with the Chaplain, in order to advertise his good character. But there is no reprieve, and the man is bundled off to his death realising he has been tricked. The chaplain is left alone on stage as eight o’clock strikes, presumably believing that he has done the man a favour.

This reminds me of other plays of the post-war years that question traditional religious certainties – Maugham’s The Unknown, for example, or Clemence Dane’s A Bill of Divorcement. There was clearly a West End audience ready to listen to pieces that showed the pieties of clergymen in an unflattering light.

From my point of view, the most interesting play in the volume is The Person Unknown by H.F.Maltby. This is set in the flat of Daisy, an actress. At the start, the audience is aware of someone moving about the room, but cannot see him. He hides when others are heard arriving. A trio of theatrical types come in, from a costume ball. The man, Tom, is dressed as the devil. They talk fairly inconsequentially, in an arty-trivial-blasé sort of way, and nothing much happens, except that they notice an odd photo – of a soldier – placed on the mantelpiece, and the music of a wartime song by the piano. Daisy assumes that her charwoman has been messing around with things, and her two friends leave.

Then the stranger comes out of hiding. His face is completely bandaged. He reveals that before the war he had been Daisy’s greatest fan, and then one evening he went to a music hall and heard her singing the famous Paul Rubens song:

Oh, we don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go.
For your King and your country both need you so.
We shall want you and miss you
But with all our might and main
We shall love you, hug you, kiss you
When you come home again.

He has come back for his kiss and hug, he says, and unwraps his bandages to show a face horribly deformed by the war.

So the War is being brought home to punish the woman who sent the man to fight. This punishment of the music-hall singer reminds me of Sassoon’s poem, Blighters:

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

In the early twenties there are quite a few texts that stress the horrors of war; typically, though, like this one, they don’t blame generals or politicians – but rather the civilians who stayed at home, and especially certain groups – the profiteers, the trades unionists who made money in reserved occupations, and the women who pressurised their menfolk to fight. This fits the pattern neatly.

Paul Rubens (author of We Don’t Want to Lose You) was a very successful songwriter who died of consumption in 1917, while still quite young. He was a contemporary of Dornford Yates at Oxford, and the biography of Yates gives a snatch from one of Rubens’s early lyrics:

She was fat, she was fat, she was awful awful fat.
She weighed twenty stone at least, wearing nothing but her hat.

They don’t write songs like that any more.


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