Monday, February 28, 2005

Their little yellow faces

Searching around for stuff on drama during the Weimar Republic (particularly stuff relevant to Zuckmayer) I found this interesting book: Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror. The Grand-Guignol was known for its extreme plays that mixed sexual titillation with extreme violence: stories of sexual predators, prostitutes, sadistic murderers. The theater, whose heyday was the 1890s to the 1930s, developed a reputation for the carnage depicted in performances: some audiences were uncertain that they witnessed staged, rather than real, violence.

The book examines the history of the theater and its work in terms of the techniques it employed and how the audiences interpreted it. Founded in 1887 by André Antoine and Oscar Méténier to stage naturalists plays that critiques bourgeois morality. But the plays developed in a number of different directions -- more melodrama, more elements of avant-grade drama (notably expressionism), use of special effects — so that it turned into a hybrid of old and new theatrical styles.

The coming to the theater was itself part of the experience. Patrons worked their way through the narrow streets and alleys of seedy Montmartre, then known for prostitution and Bohemian artists, to find the chapel that had been converted into a performance space. Inside, little had been done to the interior to remove evidence that this had been used for religious purposes. Because of the dimensions of the space the audience was always close to the performance, creating an immediate intimacy.

The plays themselves were short and intense. The stories mixed the erotic and the violent, exploiting current fears as best as possible (often taking sensational stories directly from the newspapers). Perhaps the most important part of the performance was physical, detailing the movements of the actors in order to amplify the moment of fear. At just the right moment, the actor would gaze carefully at the audience, tearing down the boundary between performer and observer and implicating them in the violence being portrayed.

The book also provides a number of scripts that were performed at the Grand-Guignol. One that most interested me was The Ultimate Torture (1904) by André de Lorde and Eugène Morel. Taking place during the Boxer Rebellion, it represents the last moments before a consulate is liberated by the Europeans. The play uses the popular image of the non-European as savage and brute whose rage is beyond containment.

Locked up inside and feeling isolated within a hostile nation, the French staff is confused about the events that are going on outside. They fear that the rebellion is closing in on them.
Everywhere ... all around me ... their little yellow faces, grimacing ... screaming! What a nightmare.
Their terror is intensified by the reports that come from outside of extreme atrocities that are committed against westerners, deepening their sense of hopelessness.
Dead — all dead ... massacred ... tortured ... And me ... I saw Carel die: they tore out his fingernails and ripped out his eyes ... I heard his screams ... Then it was my turn ... they put me on the same floor, all covered with blood ... and my hands — they cut them off ... And then ... I heard a noise — cannon fire — and I was alone ... pools of blood ... I called out for Carel, I looked for his body ... there was nothing left ... blow to pieces ...

They took a nun, took her and tied her up, choked her ... tore out her fingernails and toes ... and then ... with red-hot tongs they ripped out her tongue, tore off her breasts ...

Along the canal ... thousands of them, thousands ... hidden in the grass ... there's no hope ... you can't escape ... you're done for ... So ...

Think of Carel ... look at me ... Don't let them get you alive ... Don't let them get you alive ... Don't let them get you alive ...
Hearing gunshots and smelling smoke, the staff fears that the rebels are at their door. The consul, in an act that he thinks will spare his daughter from torture and humiliation, shoots her. Of course, the gunshots come from the soldiers who will save them.

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