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Archive for Issue #2

Curtains of Blood: A Peek behind the Phenomena of the Grand Guignol

by Paul Z. Simons

“Eyes wide open! Eyes wide open!
Do you not realize how much horror
is contained in those three words.”

– from “In the Darkroom” 1911, Maurice Level & Étienne Rey

The images conjured by the mention of the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol are singular – oozing madness, amorality run riot, blood flowing by the bucketful, and intricate sadistic revenges. One imagines the conclusion of a night at the theatre off rue Chaptal where patrons stumble out into the night and vomit on the curb, and one or two of the more suggestible types faint outright in the street. A little theatre with its own house physician to tend to patrons overcome by the images, content, and presentation of the performances. The truth, of course, is somewhat different than the image, but the image lives on in spite of the actual theatre’s demise in 1962, the dearth of plays translated and available in English, or any other language for that matter; indeed the virtual loss of this entire theatrical tradition. Considered by some as an example of incredibly bad French taste, like Jerry Lewis worship or taking the post-modernists seriously. Regardless, the Grand Guignol seems as dead as one of it’s own brutalized and tortured victims … yet perhaps the real horror of death is contained not in its reality, but in the ultimate distrust by the living that the dead won’t really stay dead for very long. And so it goes….

History

Of course I didn’t jump into Grand Guignol without having the strong feeling that somewhere buried in there were some deep, twisted anarchist roots. The theatre was, after all, located just off the Place Pigalle, the natural habitat of bohemians, drug addicts, revolutionaries, prostitutes, proletarians and assorted flotsam; and this in Paris – the Mother of Revolutions, and timed in the final decade of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century. Which immediately brings to mind the great anarchist terrorists Vaillant, Émile Henry and Ravachol, and from the individualist anarchist menu, the Bonnot Gang – who, among other havoc raised, engineered and perfected the motorized bank robbery getaway. And sure enough without too much digging one uncovers the “Théâtre Libre,” the first artistic move towards what would become the Grand Guignol. The Théâtre Libre opened its doors in 1887, and presented comédies rosse (“nasty comedies”), short plays that showed various aspects of the lives and language of workers, and the underclasses. The theatre was above all meant as an experiment in naturalism, which shines through during the Grand Guignol’s heyday. The Théâtre Libre closed its doors due to bankruptcy in 1893, and one of its founders, Oscar Méténier, walked away from the whole experience with a few ideas. Why not stage what these Parisians liked? They read about violence, mayhem, and death daily in such scandal sheets as Le Petit Journal, and the faits divers sections of newspapers, accompanied by graphic presentations of the crimes described. Perhaps they’d pay to see some of the same. Further, what should ever really stop anyone from doing his best to offend the sensibilities of just about everyone? These two seemingly opposed notions co-existing side by side in an intimate theatre of 285 seats and a stage measuring a meager 20 feet by 20 feet – may just yield a profit.

So Méténier opened the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in 1897, the name Guignol is slang for puppet, based in part on a popular puppet-character from Lyon (a Gallic version of Punch and Judy). Therefore Theatre of the Big Puppet – perhaps we’ll return later and dig into this. A brief note about the building. Originally a Jansenist church, it was deconsecrated during the Terror and probably used for one of the areas political clubs, in the early 19th century a blacksmith’s shop, briefly a church again, an artists studio, and then a theatre. A photo exists (figure 1) from 1937 of an audience watching one of the plays and in it one can see the interior is still decorated by crosses and one can also make out one of the two wooden carved angels that adorned the side panels. From the very first season, Paris knew it was in for something new, an experience of theatre that wrenched you from your seat, that scared you out of your wits, offended your wife and turned your stomach. One offering from the first two seasons shows a general direction, the play is called “Lui!” (the English version is titled “Jack”), authored by Méténier. In it two prostitutes are reading the Petit Parisien and commenting on the story of a fellow prostitute murdered horribly by a customer. Eventually a knock comes at the door – a new customer, Jack (of course everyone knows he’s the killer – now it’s just a question of time and method, the emotional roller coaster starts to climb the hill). The younger of the two prostitutes takes Jack into her boudoir – he pays for champagne, sleeps a bit, she finds the proceeds from his previous murder as she shakes down his pants – and just as homicide draws near the police close in and arrest him. A close call, not overly thrilling, nor particularly erotic – but a nice start.

After two years Méténier handed control of the theatre over to Max Maurey, who after familiarizing himself with Montmartre and its artists turned immediately to stamping the theatre as The Theatre of Fear. He was a master at playing on the public’s impressions of the theatre, and the hiring of the house doctor was done with much publicity and it figured in many of the early reviews of the Theatre. A cartoon from the era shows a doctor examining patrons before entry to ensure that they have a sufficiently stout constitution to withstand the horrors inside. Maurey loved the cartoon so much it was included in early publicity and playbill material. Méténier also introduced Maurey to André de Lorde who for the next two decades would become the writer par excellence of the Grand Guignol style. In virtually all GG revivals at least one, and occasionally several, of his plays are included. De Lorde would always maintain a tone of naturalism in his works, and as the plays became more bloody and horror-filled he sought out help in looking into the souls and psyche of the insane and the criminal; as an example, one of his collaborators was the psychologist and Director of the Laboratory of Physiological Psychology at the Sorbonne, Alfred Binet, the developer of the Binet Intelligence test (and DeLorde’s psychotherapist). A fact I find incredible, like having Jung on the set of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to rework dialogue. A final example of this commitment to naturalism is the content of the plays, which avoid all supernatural causation; no werewolves or vampires at the GG. Rather what makes the plays so immediate is that much of the content is so damned possible; like being bitten by a rabid dog, or suffering a terrible vengeance by the hand of a jealous, crazed lover. Maurey also paid close attention to the unique stage tricks required to pull off a GG play. In this he was assisted by Paul Ratineau, effectively the theatre’s stage manager, and a master of making the grisly happen (cheaply and effectively) on stage. The stage gags and tricks associated with GG are legendary and are still written about by theatre professionals. It is said that Ratineau and those managers who came later had perfected at least 9 different types of stage blood. Note that each type was for different kinds of wounds, or effects, some flowed, some stuck to the skin, another type squirted. The most popular blood at the GG actually coagulated after application – it is known that this type required heating just prior to use and “scabbed” as it cooled. A neat fact understood by return patrons of the GG who when they heard whispered from backstage – “Edmond quick! Warm the blood!” knew that things were going to get intense – and soon. One other gag that was uniquely Grand Guignol was the eyeball gouged from the socket. For this trick Ratineau used sheep eyes purchased from local butchers, they were drained of fluid and anchovies dyed red were placed (sewn? stapled?) inside. The GG stage crew were proud of the fact their stage eyeballs bounced when gouged out and squirted horrifically when stomped on. Add to this the knives with retractable blades, scissors that squirted blood, artificial limbs hacked off and you have an idea of what the audience so feared, and had paid to see. Recall also that these stage tricks were being done within feet of the first row in the audience, and there were neither retakes nor do-overs – an eye gouge had to work for every performance, perfectly. Ratineau put his skills to making all these stage tricks effective and after his leaving the theatre several other masters of the trade stepped in and developed upon his promising start.

 

(Read the entire article: Order a copy of MS issue #2 for $12.95 + 2.05 postage & handling from: CAL Press, POB 24332, Oakland, CA 94623. Or, we should soon have a new payment system operative on our web site at: modernslavery.calpress.org )

American Uprising: The untold story of America’s largest slave revolt

American Uprising: The untold story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen

Review by Paul Z. Simons

      American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen (Perennial Books, New York, 2011). 276 pp., $26.99 hardcover/$15.99 paper.

So to keep the rhetoric and material in Modern Slavery alive with tales of slave revolts and insurrections, I inadvertently picked this book up while on my way through some airport, somewhere. After looking at the young face of the author, and reading that his alma mater was Harvard, and that he had received a number of prizes during his years there, my worries grew; surely this couldn’t be a book that demonizes slaves for revolt? Harvard is a primitive place – but could it have reverted even deeper into the muck of ruling class snobbery, inbred genetic mutation, and bad nicknames? Finally I relented and bought the damn thing – what the hell, its better than watching the movie on the plane.

Dangerous Cargo
The author begins by focusing on the night of Epiphany, January 6, 1811, and details the extravagant balls, meals and gambling of the local white slave owning gentry who lived in or near New Orleans. Epiphany of course being the kickoff for the entire Carnival season that culminates annually in the liver-ossifying orgy of Mardi Gras. Simultaneously, as the masters were celebrating, he describes the revelry of the local slaves gathered on the Commons in the city. Perhaps as many as 500-600 individuals all told were present, and they danced in large circular formations, drank local fermented products, crowned a king for the event, even as the local gentry crowned their own Rex for Mardi Gras; and also plotted to pull the whole economic and political superstructure down by armed rebellion.

        The real touchstone for the revolt, as it was for John Brown, was the success of the Haitian Revolution in 1803, which, as noted elsewhere freed the slaves, granted independence to the island nation, and as if to put paid to the whole deal banned all French citizens from Haiti – forever.

The planters were men who had abandoned Enlightenment era France for the possibility of huge profit and reward as a result of hacking some kind of living out of the wilderness. Sugar, as it turns out, was the right crop for the areas directly west of New Orleans, that ran along the northern banks of the Mississippi River. This area, named the “German Coast,” was famous for its heat, humidity, snakes, swamps, and many planters justified the use of African slaves as a result of this harsh environment. The transport of slaves to the United States was outlawed in 1808, but it is estimated that in the forty years prior the passage of the law proscribing importation of slaves that as many as 24,000 Africans were disembarked in New Orleans. The mortality rates of the slave trade are staggering. Forty percent of those captured never even made it to the west coast of Africa for transportation, ten percent perished during the Middle Passage, and only about a third would survive through the first four years in the New World. There is another side to this, though, and it shouldn’t be overlooked, many of those transported and who survived were some very tough customers indeed. The two slaves most associated with the German Coast Revolt are Kook and Quamana. The names suggest that the men were Akan, an African empire at the height of its power in the late eighteenth century; essentially a military union of a number of different tribes. The Akan controlled significant tracts of land throughout modern Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana. Many of the Akan slaves brought to the US were common soldiers who had been trained to make up the impressively large armies that African nations at that time fielded in warfare. It is likely, therefore that Kook and Quamana at least knew how to use weapons, and very probably had been trained to fight, even if they had never gone into battle. » Read more..

MS #2 Contributors

Karen Goaman has a PhD in Anthropology, University College London. She has written numerous articles in anthologies (2009, Jun & Wahl eds., New Perspectives on Anarchism; 2008, Roca Martínez ed., Anarquismo y Antropología; 2004, Purkis & Bowen eds., Changing Anarchism; 1997, Purkis & Bowen, Towards a 21st Century Anarchism) and in Anarchist Studies. She has worked as a Senior Editor in book publishing and as a part-time Lecturer in Communications at London Metropolitan University.

James Koehnline is a Seattle-based artist and library worker, long-time member of Autonomedia publishing collective and contributor to Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed and other radical publications. Online gallery at:
http://james119.deviantart.com/

Wolfi Landstreicher is a long-time anarchist and egoist, the author of the book Willful Disobedience from Ardent Press, publisher of the egoist anarchist bulletin, My Own, pamphleteer through his project Intellectual Vagabond Editions, translator (Italian and German, with occasional forays into French) and contributor to Anarchy, A Journal of Desire Armed, as well as Modern Slavery.

Bruno Massé is an environmental activist devoted to the anti-civilisation critique. As a fiction writer, he has published several works of horror, cyberpunk and erotica in French and English. He is a member of the Anarchist Writers Bloc and performs annually at the International Anarchist Theatre Festival of Montréal.
www.brunomasse.com  http://www.daemonflower.com/?lang=fr

Jason McQuinn, the juggling anarchist, is a founder and was a long-time editor of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed from 1980 to 2006; as well as the founder and editor of Alternative Press Review and North American Anarchist Review while they were published, and now of the Modern Slavery journal.

Ron Sakolsky is a rainforest renegade whose recent books include Creating Anarchy (Fifth Estate,2005), Swift Winds (Eberhardt, 2009), and Scratching The Tiger’s Belly (Eberhardt, 2012); all meant as fleeting signposts illuminating a myriad array of marvelous adventures, disconcerting pitfalls, and dead ends on the constantly unfolding road from mutual acquiescence to mutual aid.

Paul Z. Simons was born May 3, 1960 – Salt Lake City – to an unwed mother, an act under Utah state law that made both he and his mother subject to arrest and fine or imprisonment. In his words, “I was born fighting against the law, I live that way and I’ll probably die that way.” An anarchist and Buddhist he has consistently staked out positions that motivate towards contestation with the authoritarian structure that currently labels itself Capital and society. He has written a number of widely read pieces including “Seven Theses on Play,” “Keep Your Powder Dry,” a chapter in Gone to Croatan, and the Afterword for John Zerzan’s Elements of Refusal.  Finally he says, “My proudest moment was participating in the Tompkins Square riot. I found out what freedom and democracy were made of – in an instant.” Simons lives, works, and writes in LA.

Maurice Spira was born in Kent, England in 1944. After four years of quite traditional studies at a provincial art school, and a stint in advertising in London, he left in 1966 for the “new world.” In the ensuing years 1966-74, the psychoactively enriched counter-cultural milieu in Montréal transformed him utterly. Then, after travelling and painting in Mexico during the mid-seventies, he settled in Vancouver. By the early ’80s, requiring a breath of fresh air, Spira vacated the metropolis for a somewhat more rural existence on the Sunshine Coast. More than two decades later, he continues to paint and print in his Roberts Creek studio, while still finding time to grow excellent red cabbages and spuds.

Lawrence S. Stepelevich is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Villanova University. He served as President of The Hegel Society of America and, from 1977 to 1996, was the executive Editor of the Journal of that Society, The Owl of Minerva.

Joseph Winogrond (BA New School, MLitt Ethnology Aberdeen) studied at the University of Wisconsin under Walter R. Agard, Paul MacKendrick, Herbert M. Howe, Herbert S. Lewis and others in the classics and anthropology. After a “Flower Raj” year with the Tibetans at Benares he transferred to the New School where Stanley Diamond was teaching. In 1967 he was co-partner of the Liberation News Service, the New York wire service operated out of its basement offices on Claremont Avenue for more than 400 disparate 1960s underground newspapers. He is presently assembling a pre-market-economy dictionary of northern Europe, Wild English.