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[Guest Interview] Talking Horror with Theatre of the Damned (Part 1/2)

2011 November 21

Tom Richards and Stewart Pringle are the co-artistic directors of Theatre of the Damned, creators of the London Horror Festival, and the co-directors and writers of The Revenge of the Grand Guignol, which is running until 27th November at London’s Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton.

Guest blogger Lydia grabbed them for a chat about representations of women in horror, resurrecting Grand Guignol for a modern audience, and sawing women in half. Well. Sort of…

Block serif font in capitals spelling Theatre of the Damned against black - their logo. Copyright Theatre of the Damned

Let’s start off by facing up to the accusation that women in horror are condemned to inhabit a narrow range of stock characters. Is this the case in the Grand Guignol? What are these characters? Where did they tropes originate? What purposes do they serve?

It can seem sometimes that the women in horror only embody the Madonna/Whore complex, and that men have their own Cunt/Hero division. It’s actually not as straightforward as that. When those tropes crop it’s usually for reasons concerning the practicalities of how horror works – there is a need for heroes and villains.

black and white photo of a pale young woman's face with a wide-eyed fearful expression, lit by soft light from a match she has struck. Copyright theatre of the damned, used with permission.

EJ Martin in Laboratory of Hallucinations


Tom: Horror doesn’t often have a lot of time to spend developing sophisticated characterisation, and uses shorthands as a result. The most obvious and irritating stereotype is the angel of the house, or the innocent virgin, the best example being Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The character’s common in older Grand Guignol, though as the plays grew more sophisticated they’re increasingly rare. It’s simply because, for fairly obvious reasons, if you want people to be upset about a character being destroyed then you want that character to be someone they feel positively towards. In the early 20th century, the easiest way to do that was to bring in a nice, sweet posh girl who was rather inept, so you get a lot of them.

Stew: Another common one is the Hag, which crops up not just in the Grand Guignol but throughout horror. As we found out fairly recently, she’s the proto form of the psycho-biddy, which is a major horror cinema trope, starting with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The hag figures in Grand Guignol, as in a lot of literature before that from Spenser onwards, are generally suggested to be women who have rejected their femininity – women who have become masculinised in some way or are specifically anti-maternal: they eat children, they destroy children. That’s a figure that goes back right through literature and myth. The Grand Guignol used that history together with figures from contemporary Paris: brothel madams and drunks and women who for other reasons were seen as no longer trading in the economies of sex.

Tom: The evil women in Grand Guignol can be really fun – and they’re often interesting characters. Let’s face it, there are no great characters in the Grand Guignol, or in horror generally- it’s not going to contain Hamlet. So a slightly stereotyped but also powerful and charismatic figure is often about as exciting and interesting a part as any man or woman is going to get in this kind of material.

Promo image showing a couple - a man and a woman - in Victorian dress. He has his arm protectively round her, and she looks stricken. Copyright Theatre of the DamnedSo the gothic trope – of the woman who looks too hard and too deep and finds terrible things, seemingly punished for curiosity and empowerment – that doesn’t crop up in the Grand Guignol?

Tom: That’s a gothic trope, but was never in the original Grand Guignol, which doesn’t deal with those gothic elements of haunted houses and graveyards.

Stew: The Grand Guignol grew from Théâtre Libre which was naturalist theatre, and which existed to reflect the scandal sand stories of Contemporary Paris and Europe more widely.

Tom: Particularly working class Paris.

Stew: If you view it as an analogue of Zola or Huysmans, you’re not far wrong. Zola was one of the first who talked about prostitutes and drunks and told their stories without making them into moral points. And the Grand Guignol is essentially an amoral universe.

Tom: There are certainly characters you’re expected to sympathise with or like, but it doesn’t ever punish. It doesn’t punish for being good, it doesn’t punish for being bad, it just basically rains destruction down upon pretty much everything.

Stew: The gothic universe is a moral one, and very distant from natural. In many ways the kind of work Théâtre Libre was doing was a stand against that gothic high melodrama which you might see on the Parisian stage. So a lot of those female tropes, a lot of what you’d find in an Ann Radcliffe novel or even in Edgar Allen Poe’s more explicitly European gothic fiction don’t actually find their way into the Grand Guignol.

Tom: To me, most of the interesting bits of the grand Guignol – and what we do – is not really, as it might sometimes seem, the destruction of women by men, but the destruction of humanity by inhumanity. Rather than having a big monster that looms and attacks (although that sometimes happens) it’s more interesting to look at a human become a monster, and then to see that human monster inflict damage on themselves and others. For writers in the early 20th century, it was easiest to use innocence or maternity as a symbol for the most human aspect of a woman.

Stew: And in men, you’re likely to see an oversophisticated doctor causing damage on the individual’s humanity – on a happy person or on a happy relationship. Scientific progress, more than immoral behaviour, is seen as destructive. The amorality and inhumanity of science is more frightening than the superhuman or superstition.

Tom: So you get all these mad scientists who believe that they can defeat death or uncover the secret of consciousness by hacking up your brain and of course they’re male because of the time they were written and set.

So the more sophisticated plays can explore monstrousness without falling back on those gender stereotypes?

Tom: Absolutely. An example is A Kiss Goodnight, which we produced last year. It opens with a man who has been terribly physically disfigured by his wife – she threw acid in his face. He has intervened in court to prevent her being sent to prison on the condition that she visits him this one last time. So we have a man who seems saintly and who has been destroyed by a woman who is beautiful externally but is, if not monstrous, at least capable of monstrosity. We find out, in due course, that he isn’t a nice chap either, and it’s never clear if his inner monstrosity is a consequence of his physical destruction, or whether he always contained it.

Stew: I think the play suggests that they were both always capable of these terrible things.

Tom: It seems that they were always very well matched, and the play involves getting their physical appearances to match their inner monstrousness as they destroy each other.

So the gore and grossness is not necessarily to do with sin, or having moral damage physicalized?

The Grand Guignol doesn’t make that kind of judgement. A lot of horror does.

Stew: In the Grand Guignol the amorality and inhumanity of scientific progress is more frightening than immorality or superstition or even the superhuman.

Tom: It explores forces which are seen to destroy or damage humanity: disease and mental illness, religion – that is, religion itself, not God.

Stew: It is important to point out that whilst the Grand Guignol itself is amoral, it was undeniably part of a continuing trend of increasing violence against women in theatre and onstage. In magic for instance, Jim Steinmeyer writes brilliantly about the sawing-a-woman-in-half routine. It’s so hoary now we see it as similar to pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but in fact the action is a horribly violent and brutally misogynistic piece of show which is entirely about killing a woman – putting her back together is optional. At the time, as soon as the trick was invented it was everywhere, everyone had their box illusion and it was always sawing a woman in half, with names like “destroying a woman”, “disintegrating a woman”.

And although there’s little skill involved in the trick, you never see an assistant sawing the magician. So is there an aspect again of who has power over whose body?

Stew: It started happening in the Twenties and Thirties, and I think there was a political aspect to it – these performances formed a backlash against women’s increasing prominence.

Tom: In that specific case I always thought it was simple practical reasons: sawing someone in half is awesome, and magicians want a beautiful assistant for sales reasons. Ergo: woman in halves.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, in which we talk blood, boobs, cinema’s influence on Grand Guignol portrayals of women, slashers, Final Girls, and more…

All images used with permission, copyright Theatre of the Damned

3 Responses leave one →
  1. November 21, 2011

    The most obvious and irritating stereotype is the angel of the house, or the innocent virgin, the best example being Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

    Is this an interpretation of Lucy I’m not familiar with, or does Tom mean Mina Harker?

    Fascinating insights, though. Thank you.

    • Miranda permalink*
      November 21, 2011

      Ooh, good point – I took it to mean Lucy pre-downfall, as she is readable as quite innocent (later portrayals like the film with Sadie Frost for example very much add in more differentiation with Mina by having her be more sexually aware and worldly).

      • November 22, 2011

        Yes, that definitely means pre-transformation book Lucy, not post-transformation book Lucy or any stage of Sadie Frost Lucy. Mina’s lower-middle class and familiar with technology and has practical skills and actively takes the initiative/charge at times. She’s not what we’d think of as a bad-ass heroine now, but from the point of view of a crusty 19th Century male author who wasn’t super-keen on women at the best of times she’s comparatively pro-active and empowered. Lucy’s upper class and completely useless at everything. Her only known skills are looking pretty and being sweet in a rather childish way (when she’s not being incredibly thoughtless, in a similarly childish way). She also spends more than half the time between her first appearance and her death/transformation suffering from the well known congenital Angel of the House condition known to medical science as Victorian Novel Disease. Lucy 1.0’s job is to make men (characters and readers) sad when she dies. Lucy 2.0’s job is to remind us chaps how scary female sexuality is. Mina actually does things (beyond getting a sex change and a starring role from JK Rowling).

        One of the themes of Dracula is definitely the transition of power from the English upper classes to the English and American middle classes. Dracula’s failure to understand this is an important part of his downfall. Lucy and Arthur represent (for Stoker) what’s good in the old order of things.

        As for what the hell Coppola or anyone else involved with Bram Stoker’s Bogus Journey thought Sadie Frost (or the rest of that film) was there for, I have no idea.

        Glad you enjoyed the interview.

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