The Boulevard du Temple runs from the Place de la République to the Place Pasdeloup. The name refers to the nearby temple of the Knights Templars where they established their Paris priory. The street follows the path of the city wall that was constructed by Charles V and demolished during the reign of Louis XIV. Louis Daguerre’s 1838 image of the ‘Boulevard du Temple’ is a landmark in the history of photography. It is the earliest known picture that contains a human being. The image shows the length of the boulevard, but because of the lengthy exposure time (over ten minutes) the moving traffic does not appear. At the lower left of the photograph, however, the figures of a person having his boots polished by a young bootblack were motionless enough for their images to be captured. They are the first two nameless heroes of photography.
Ever since the reign of Louis XIV, the Boulevard du Temple was a fashionable place (from 1856 to 1869 Gustave Flaubert lived at no. 42), known especially for its number of local theatres. In the nineteenth century the boulevard was given the nickname of ‘Boulevard du Crime’ because of the many wicked dramas that were performed in its playhouses. It had been a shocking scene of real crime as well. On this very boulevard, on 28 July 1835, Corsica-born Giuseppe Fieschi made an attempt on the life of Louis-Philippe and his three sons with a home-made ‘super gun’.
The attempt failed, but the shooting resulted in eighteen dead and many injured. The Boulevard du Temple was eventually destroyed during Haussmann’s renovation scheme. With the exception of the Folies-Mayer, all theatres were flattened to make way for the new Place de la République. However, memories of the sensation dramas performed at the Boulevard du Crime lingered on and were rekindled by Oscar Méténier. An admirer of Émile Zola, the dramatist made his name with Naturalist plays set among vagrants, criminals, and prostitutes. The dialogue was expressed in the language of the street. Méténier was a frequent target of the censor for depicting a milieu that had never appeared on stage previously. In 1897, he bought a theatre at the end of the Impasse Chaptal, a cul-de-sac in the Pigalle district, to present his controversial plays. This, the smallest playhouse in Paris, was the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol.
It had been a chapel originally and contained less than three hundred seats – the theatre quickly acquired of the ‘Chapel of Gore & Psychosis’. Two large angels hung above the orchestra and the boxes, with their iron railings, looked like confessionals. Even the choice of the name was provoking. It refers to a popular French puppet character whose original incarnation was that of a social commentator and spokesperson for the silk workers of Lyon (known as ‘canuts’ – on account of extremely poor working conditions, they staged a number of uprisings, known as the Canut Revolts). Early Guignol puppet shows were frequently censored by Napoleon III’s secret police.
One of the Grand-Guignol’s first plays, Méténier’s adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s short story Mademoiselle Fifi, was temporarily shut down by police censors. It presented the first ever prostitute on the French stage. His subsequent play Lui! brought together a whore and a criminal in the enclosed space of a hotel room. The formula of the Grand-Guignol play was thus established: a broad combination of the erotic and the violent. The Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was an immediate success. In 1898, Max Maurey took over as director and turned the theatre into a house of horror. It became notorious for its gruesome scenes of violence. Night after night, people would gather and watch in fascination as screaming heroines were lowered into acid vats, as eyeballs were bisected by long silver blades, or as bodies were torn limb from limb spraying blood in all directions. With the help of ingenious special effects and gallons of fake blood, the shocked audience was led to believe that torture was actually taking place in front of their eyes. Maurey measured the success of a play by the number of people who fainted during its performance, and in order to attract a maximum of publicity he employed a house doctor to treat fainthearted spectators.
It was Maurey who discovered the work of André de Latour, Comte de Lorde, who became known in the 1920s as the ‘Prince de la Terreur’. Between 1901 and 1926 he wrote some 150 plays devoted to the exploitation of terror. During the day he worked as a librarian in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal where, a century earlier, Charles Nodier had been one of his predecessors. Among the rich holdings of the library are the archives of the Bastille which comprise many prisoner dossiers, including those of the Marquis de Sade. Under the influence of De Lorde insanity became the most popular theme of the theatre’s repertoire. At a time when insanity was just beginning to be scientifically explored, the Grand-Guignol staged countless manias and ‘special tastes’.
There is necrophilia in L’homme de nuit which was based upon the case of Sergeant Bertrand, a man sentenced in 1849 for violating tombs and mutilating corpses; L’horrible passion depicts a nanny who cruelly strangled the children in her care. De Lorde’s work was a regular target of the censor, especially in England where scheduled touring productions of two of his plays were cancelled by the Lord Chamberlain’s censors. Fear of ‘the other’ appears in countless dramatic variations: fear of the proletariat, fear of the unknown, fear of the foreign, fear of contagion, etc. Disease is rife. Leprosy and syphilis were but two of the maladies that were introduced to the stage. Maurey also showed a keen interest in the change in states of consciousness through drugs or hypnosis. The passage from one state to another was the crux of the genre. Plays dealing with such themes were repeatedly included in the repertoire. Inevitably, the guillotine was erected on stage. The last convulsions played out on the decapitated face were closely scrutinized.
From 1914 to 1930, Camille Choisy directed the theatre. He was a master of special effects in both lighting and sound. Staging overtook text. He introduced the actress Paula Maxa, the ‘Sarah Bernhardt of the Impasse Chaptal’ and the most ‘assassinated woman in the world’. She was exposed to a range of tortures unique in theatrical history. She was shot with a rifle and with a revolver, she was scalped, strangled, disemboweled, raped, guillotined, hanged, quartered, burned, cut apart with surgical tools, cut into eighty-three pieces by an invisible Spanish dagger, stung by a scorpion, poisoned with arsenic, devoured by a puma, strangled by a pearl necklace, and whipped.
With the arrival of Jack Jouvin, who was in charge of the theater from 1930 to 1937, the repertoire shifted from gore to psychological drama. However, Jouvin’s lack of talent and vision triggered the eventual downfall of the Grand-Guignol. The abundance of terrifying elements in the later plays made them no longer believable, but it was World War II the final death blow to the theatre. Reality overtook fiction. In an interview conducted immediately after the closure of Grand-Guignol in 1962, Charles Nonon, its last director, explained that is was not possible to compete with Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone believed that what happened on stage was purely imaginary. The war proved that man’s penchant for cruelty was limitless.