Theater Abroad: Outdone by Reality

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Just off the Rue Pigalle in Paris, men with picks, shovels and wrecking equipment are preparing to demolish a tiny, 230-seat theater that has just folded after 65 bloodcurdling years. It is the Grand Guignol. Although its name had percolated down to the bedrock of dramatic criticism in half a dozen languages, most people thought the theater itself had vanished long since. Now they are right. The last clotted eyeball has plopped onto the stage. The last entrail has been pulled like an earthworm from a conscious victim. The Grand Guignol is closed forever.

A new, bland theater for avant-garde plays will rise where only recently audiences watched a nude and lissome actress nailed to a cross and carved to pieces by a group of gypsy magicians chanting something that sounded like a Protestant hymn sung backwards. Still another victim—popular with modern fans—was bound, gagged and whipped; then the tips of her breasts were clipped off with hedge shears and her eyes were scooped out with a soupspoon and a jackknife. "We are very proud of that sequence," said Charles Nonon, the Grand Guignol's last director. "We consider it original, at least onstage."†

The theater had a repertory of more than a thousand one-acters. Severed heads thudded regularly to the Grand Guignol boards, bit players were cooked in acid, and one character regularly had her face pushed down onto a red-hot stove, where it sizzled deliciously. In a great favorite called The Laboratory of Hallucinations, a surgeon operated on the brain of his wife's lover, pinching here, clamping there, until he had turned the fellow utterly mad. The patient then got up off the table and drove a chisel through the doctor's forehead. Audiences used to faint, shriek, and vomit in the alley outside the theater. One night the house doctor was summoned to the aid of a fallen customer, but the doctor himself had collapsed.

World War II began the end of the Grand Guignol. "We could never equal Buchenwald," moaned Nonon. "Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality." Where audiences once cowered in fear, they started to whinny. But for 20 years, the management held off the inevitable by adding sex and comedy to the basic terror.

Technically, the postwar Grand Guignol was as good as ever. First-rate viscera were made from red rubber hose and sponges soaked in blood. Hand bulbs squirted blood through a hollow in the spoons that gouged out victims' eyes. The blood really curdled. It came in nine shades, and was mixed daily by Director Nonon.

In a sense, Charles Nonon was the Escofner of the Grand Guignol. For eye-gouging scenes, he bought eyeballs from taxidermists, coated them with aspic, and stuffed them with three anchovies marinated in blood. In Paris last week, there was a rumor that Nonon will soon open a quiet little restaurant on the Rue Morgue.

† Though Novelist Carson McCullers offered her readers similar amputations in Reflections in a Golden Eve.