Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Grand Guignol

A French term, now often used to describe plays which feature cruel quick-fire mayhem and melodrama, frequently with a supernatural element; GG plays are normally one act in length. The name originated in late-18th-century France, where the Commedia dell'Arte character Pulcinella had for some time been known as Polichinelle, in which guise his quick wits had rendered his grotesque shape and actions both more stomachable and more ingenious, and turned into a kind of witticism that erasure of the boundary between animal and human which marks the grotesque as a mode. Around the turn of the century, it is thought, a Puppet-master known as Mourquet (1744-1844) transformed Polichinelle into a humorously violent puppet named Guignol. Soon cabarets were starring Guignol, and these became known as Guignol theatres. In 1888 the most famous of these, the Théatre du Grand Guignol, was founded. Most GG plays are Horror; a high proportion feature mad doctors and other berserk scientists; and many are set in institutions.

The speed and the far-fetchedness of the typical GG plot tend to generate a sense of farce, and at the end of the 20th century GG tales or presentations are likely to elicit simultaneously a frisson and a giggle. The term is thus time-bound: applied to a story by (say) H P Lovecraft, it presumes no element of camp; applied to a modern tale, it implies knowingness. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.