Sunday, 9 November 2008

The horror, the horror. . .

It's a little late for Hallowe'en, but I've just finished reading this fascinating anthology of horror plays from the early 1920's. London's Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror by Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson, charts the two year history (1920-1922) of a company established by José Levy at the Little Theatre, that ran a series of programmes of short plays that aimed to thrill, chill and shock audiences. Inspired by the Parisian Grand-Guignol, these plays - ten out of the forty-three produced, are featured in this book - included comedies about sexual morals and horrific dramas both in subject matter and violent theatrical execution. As the authors write in their introduction, this type of theatre was perfect for a post war audience, "that was eager for thrills and excitement - the artificial, high theatricality of on-stage horror, rather than the devastating reality of the horror that had so recently taken place on the battlefields."

Each night saw four to six of these short plays performed; some were French translations, but many were commissioned from British playwrights. Levy also managed to engage excellent actors - such as Sybil Thorndike and her husband Lewis Casson - who revelled in the variety of plays and their dramatic potential. The book contains chapters thoroughly outlining the history of this company and the plays it produced, its continual struggles with the censors, its critical reception and legacy, and wonderfully describes the type of acting and staging required of this unusual genre. There are also detailed introductions to each of the ten plays.
And the plays themselves are incredibly interesting to read even if the more comic ones have dated somewhat. Such as The Better Half, one of Noel Coward's earliest plays about a wife no longer in love with her husband who sacrifices her marital status, so that he can be with a woman who is. Not very shocking by today's standards, or indeed by the subsequent plays that Coward wrote. However, many of the horror plays are just marvellous in their gruesomeness. In H.F. Maltby's The Person Unknown, a WW1 soldier with bandages covering his "face all blown to hell", comes back to exact the promise sung by Daisy in a popular recruiting song: "We will love you, hug you, kiss you, when you come back home again. . . " She naturally recoils with deadly results. Christopher Holland's The Old Women is a creepy play set in a lunatic asylum and features a particularly graphic ending. My favourite is Eliot Crawshay-Williams' The Nutcracker Suite. In this innovative play, a husband plots revenge on his adulterous wife by contriving to lock her and her lover in a room that he has rigged up as a giant nutcracker with a ceiling that will gradually lower itself until the offending pair are crushed between it and the floor. I would love to see a production of this - the curtain becomes the ceiling with the actors having to react to their shrinking space as it lowers. There's a photograph included from the original performance and just looking at it gives me the shivers.

There are a number of pictures of the great Sybil Thorndike in this anthology and it made me itch to see her act. So I turned to the one DVD movie that I own with her in it - Alfred Hitchcock's 1950 film Stage Fright where she has a small but very funny supporting role opposite Alistair Sim as half of a disdainful, estranged couple. The movie is not one of Hitchcock's best, but is worth watching if only for the luminous shots of Marlene Dietrich and its sneaky ending. And I had forgotten about the opening credits which also imaginatively plays with a theatrical curtain - one that "rises" on the city of London. Had Thorndike been reminiscing with Hitchcock about her Guignol days?

No comments: