Were the Grand Guignol seasons at London’s Little Theatre in 1920-22 just a matter of daring young things being excitingly naughty, or were they a serious sign of the times?

They definitely had their “naughty” aspect. The publicity stressed the likelihood of patrons fainting, and there was a general relish in the whole notion of excess. The organisers played games with the Lord Chamberlain’s office, to see how much they could get past the censors. One play, The Old Women, was very unlikely to be passed by the censor, so the producers disguised it, sending it inas though from a vicar, for a village hall production. The Lord Chamberlain’s office would have given anything submitted by the notorious Little Theatre a very close scrutiny, but this was lazily passed without a problem, on the assumption that village hall thetricals were unlikely to be a problem. Once the script had its licence, though, the Little Theatre were free to do their terrifying worst with it.

If we’re looking for a serious import to the plays, I don’t think we’ll find it in the “After a violent war, entertainment became more violent” argument. The Grand Guignol had been thriving in Paris for a long time, and horror films have maintained popularity throughout the past century, whatever the political climate (The subtexts of the horrors may vary, but the basic relish for suspense and bloodshed seems pretty much a constant.) In the nineteenth century, melodrama had held sway, and horror stories like Sweeney Todd and Maria Marten were favourites with all sorts of audiences.

What really marks out the Grand Guignol plays as different is their attitude to that violence. In melodrama (an in most twentieth-century horror films) there is typically a battle between good and evil. The forces of decency battle the vile, and win out in the end.

In Grand Guignol this does not happen. In The Unknown Stranger, the play I mentioned the other day, who is the villain? The singer who cajoled men with “We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go”? Or the disfigured soldier who returns to redeem her promise that ” We shall love you, hug you, kiss you/When you come home again.” In St John Ervine’s Progress, who is the hero? The scientist who has created a devastating super-weapon that will ensure immediate British victory in any future war? Or the bereaved mother who murders him because she can imagine the suffering his invention will cause?

These plays show a godless world without moral absolutes. The Sisters’ Tragedy by Richard Hughes is a good example. A young girl protests at the killing of a rabbit to put it out of its pain. (This happened offstage, but the Lord Chamberlain sternly warned that the rabbit’s screams must not be heard.) Her sister reassures her:

Phillippa: “Of course it’s all right, when it’s done from high motives. You don’t think John was wrong to shoot Germans, do you?”

Lowrie: “No, of course, but Germans are different: this was a rabbit. Besides, it was his duty to do it.”

Phillippa: “Well, you don’t think I killed the little thing for pleasure, do you? Did I look as though I enjoyed it? I wish you’d be more considerate of my feelings.”

Young Lowrie takes her sister’s remarks seriously, and goes on to kill the brain-damaged brother whose disability is a burden on the rest of the family. In these plays, taking a strong moral line always seems to lead to a paradox, and usually it leads to cruelty. (A bit like using war to fight militarism?)

Several of these plays include unsympathetic caricatures of Christianity, usually preached by people complicit with coercive power (a prison chaplain, the nuns in a lunatic asylum). They firmly indicate that in a confused and cruel world, religion is not the answer.

Trying to think of equivalents in prose fiction for these attitudes, the nearest I can come up with is Patrol, Philip Macdonald’s excellent novel about soldiers in Mesopotamia. Their officer is killed, and only he knew their orders, or the direction in which they should be heading. They head off rather randomly across the desert, and find an oasis. Arab snipers are watching them, though, and pick them off one by one. the main danger, however, comes from tensions within the group, stirred by Sanders, a religious fanatic who believes that the others have brought this punishment upon themselves. The book has a lot in common with Grand Guignol – the hopeless situation, the mounting tension, the presentation of religion as a disturbing element, and a violent, ironic ending. The setting of colonial war is one that is often found in French in Grand Guignol plays; in The Ultimate Torture, for example, is set in China during the Boxer Rebellion, and like Patrol shows a group holed up in a confined space while the colonial other waits aggressively outside.

In the French play, D’Hemelin, a consul, is tortured by the idea of what will happen to his young daughter when the Chinese break in, as they inevitably must. Rape and torture would be her doom, so he strangles her, for her own sake. Whereupon the cavalry arrive, and they are saved after all. That ending, by the way, was shamelessly recycled by the last episode of the recent series of Spooks on TV. Grand Guignol still exerts its influence.

As I’ve mentioned before, Patrol was filmed by John Ford as The Lost Patrol in 1934. Boris Karloff played the religious fanatic, with immense relish.


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