The Showtime series Penny Dreadful, set in London in the early 1890s focuses on the occult underworld of the late Victorian period, using a variety of characters inspired by and in some cases directly taken from 19th century literature. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) are searching for Mina Murray, who would under other circumstances be the Mina Harker lusted after by Dracula. Meanwhile, Victor Frankenstein (Henry Treadaway) pursues his quest to master the secrets of life and death, while his first creation, here called Caliban (Rory Kinnear), takes work as a stage hand at the Grand Guignol Theater in London, while Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) carries on his decadent life with prostitutes, libertines, and kinksters.
As the show depicts it, the Grand Guignol Theater stages plays of graphic violence that attract a London crowd eager for horror. While many viewers probably think the theater is just a fabrication of the show, it was actually a real place.
Trigger Warning: This post describes some fairly graphic violence and has a photo some may find disturbing.
Le Théatre de Grand Guignol
The Grand Guignol Theater (literally ‘the Theater of the Big Puppet’) was founded in Paris in 1897. Its original aim was to be a home to naturalistic theater that explored the lives of men and women who were not thought to be appropriate subjects for theater, namely the criminals, prostitutes, orphans, and similar figures who resided at the bottom of the lower class. It originally served as a forum to critique the social inequities of its day; it takes its name from Guignol, a traditional French puppet character who is sort of a combination of Punch and Judy and Jon Stewart.
However, in 1898, the Theater acquired a new director, Max Maurey, who remained in charge until 1914. Working with the playwright André de Lorde, he pioneered an entirely new style of theater, naturalistic horror, which the Theater explored until its eventual closure in 1962. Whereas most 19th century horror was supernatural tales of vampires and ghosts, de Lorde’s plays were stories of human madness. He wrote around 150 plays, many of them co-authored with psychologist Alfred Binet, the inventor of IQ testing. Their characters commit appalling acts of violence and degeneracy against each other.
In “A Man of the Night”, a necrophiliac breaks into tombs to violate the corpses. The nanny in “The Horrible Passion” strangles the young children entrusted to her. “The Laboratory of Hallucinations” depicts a doctor who finds his wife’s lover in his operating room and he revenges himself by performing a graphic brain surgery until the now-deranged lover drives a chisel into his brain. “The System of Dr. Tar and Professor Feather”, based on a short story by Poe, deals with a madhouse in which the inmates believe themselves to all sorts of objects and creatures, while the staff treat them as if they actually are those things until the patients revolt and turn the tables on the staff. “The Torture Garden”, set in China, focuses on a European woman who loves watching people being tortured until some revolutionaries decide to punish her by inflicting the same on her. Some plays explored the effects of diseases such as leprosy, rabies, and syphilis on their victims. Hypnosis, panic, and other altered states of consciousness were another popular subject. (A few of de Lorde’s plays have been translated into English. His “At the Telephone” is quite tame by Grand Guignol standards, but it gives a sense of his style.)
“The Torture Garden”
The Theater’s most famous actress, Paula Maxa, was called the Most Assassinated Woman in the World, because over the course of her career she was shot with rifles and revolvers, scalped, hanged, disemboweled, strangled, guillotined, crushed by a steamroller, dismembered, burned alive, poisoned, operated on, doused in acid, and more; she performed in an estimated 3,000 rape scenes. Despite this, the plays were not generally misogynistic so much as misanthropic; both men and women behaved abominably and both men and women were victims and killers.
“The Woman who Loved Heads”
The plays also addressed a wide range of social prejudices, such as hostility to immigrants and strangers, fear of infection and uncleanliness, class prejudices, fear of technology, and so on. True crime stories were another inspiration.
As the preceding description demonstrates, the Theater specialized in gore and graphic violence on stage. They created a wide range of special effects involving blood squibs, fake knives that spurted blood, animal intestines and eyeballs, blood pumps, fake body parts, and similar tricks. Gouging out eyeballs was a particularly favored effect. It also employed sound rather than music to heighten the psychological impact of the violence. Another trick involved the schedule. The plays were short enough that 5-6 plays were performed in a single night. The tales of violence alternated with bawdy sex comedies, producing a sort of whipsaw between ribaldry and horror that the Theater called la douche ecossaise, “the hot and cold shower”.
A scene from one of the plays
These plays had no moral or deeper meaning. The whole point was simply to trigger intense emotions of fear, disgust, and horror, although some plays also employed eroticism. Maurey felt that a play was a bust if it didn’t cause at least two faintings a night. The theater employed a physician to tend any theater-goers who required assistance. The intensity of the plays, the sensational subject matter, the clever publicity, and the violation of 19th century social mores made the Theater successful for 5 decades. It was attended by everyone from factory workers to European royalty. Anais Nin was a fan, as was the future revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, who was working in Paris as a pastry chef. The boxes in the balcony were known for sexual goings-on, as horrified theater-goers sought release from the intensity of their feelings.
Unfortunately for the Theater, after World War II, it went into decline, because the war had dulled the appetite for such bloody spectacle. Its last director, Charles Nonon, once said, “We could never compete with Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone believed that what happened on stage was purely imaginary; now we know that these things–and worse–are possible.”
But by the late 1970s, as memories of the war had faded a little and a new generation grown up, interest in the Theater’s genre began to re-awaken, in the form of the American slasher film. Films like The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Friday the 13th are arguably cinematic descendants of “The Laboratory of Hallucinations.” Other horror films, such as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, rejected naturalistic horror in favor of more supernatural stories but still fed the appetite for graphic violence that Le Grand Guignol pioneered. It was the inspiration for Anne Rice’s Théatre des Vampires in Interview with the Vampire, and it has lent its name to any work of over-the-top gore. Some of de Lorde’s works are still periodically performed today, often around Halloween and a few theater troupes specialize in Grand Guignol theatrics today.
The version of the Grand Guignol in the show is not an exact copy. It’s located on the wrong side of the English Channel, and it’s open a half-decade too soon. Nor are its plays all naturalistic; the second play we see is a story about a werewolf who kills a young woman, while the third play seems to involve a male victim who goes up to Heaven. Nor does the theater seem to employ the Hot and Cold Shower. Its shows are apparently all gore. Caliban runs the below-stairs equipment, attaching hidden hoses to pumps that spurt fake blood. From the few snippets we see, the plays were also not scripted in a naturalistic style, but rather emphasized a more artificial style of acting; the second play involves rhyming couplets.
(There was a short-lived London Grand Guignol, but much later, opening in 1920. The London Grand Guignol, as it was simply called, copied the French theater’s approach, performing 4 to 6 short plays in a night’s entertainment that emphasized madness, revenge, and gore. Many of the scripts were direct translations of the French originals, while others were original plays, include several bawdy satires by Noel Coward. But the London stage was subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain, limiting what they could do. As a result, it closed after only two years.)
The show uses the Grand Guignol as a tool to reveal the brutality of its London society. One of the major themes of the show is the moral corruption and violence that lurks just underneath the fancy clothing and sophisticated society of London. The poor prostitutes of the city are repeatedly murdered by a serial killer and Dorian presides over decadent sex parties. Later Dorian takes Ethan to an underground club where people place bets on how many rats a dog can kill.
And just as the London Grand Guignol’s plays are supernatural rather than natural, so too do the human sins of its characters have supernatural effects. Vanessa’s sexual sins serve as a catalyst for her mediumistic abilities, make her vulnerable to possession, and set Mina on the path toward becoming a vampire.
Despite all this, the show plays the same game Ridley Scott’s Gladiator does. It wants to leave us appalled by the cruelties of the Victorian era: the casual violence of the rat-killing scene and the blood-lust of the men and women watching it, the cruel medical treatments of the asylum Vanessa is committed to, the way Caliban is subjected to unprovoked assault simply because his face is scarred. It tells us that we are superior to our Victorian forebears because we can recognize these things for the horrors they truly are.
Yet at the same time, the show is itself a Grand Guignol of sex and violence because we watch it for those same horrors it condemns. It offers us a spectacle of graphically dismembered women and their children, of tubercular prostitutes who spit blood during sex, of Caliban literally ripping another of Frankenstein’s revenants in half with his bare hands. The show hypocritically draws us in with the same violence and sexual displays that it invites us to look down on and feel superior to. This technique demonstrates that despite the passage of time, we’re not so far removed from our ancestors after all.
Want to Know More?
Penny Dreadful is available on Amazon.
There are a number of books about Le Grand Guignol. Mel Gordon’s Theater of Fear and Horror and Richard Hand and Michael Wilson’s Grand Guignol are two worth looking at; the latter includes a number of complete scripts of the theater’s plays.