"Grand Guignol is one example of pure theater that most theater historians ignored because it was déclassé," explains UC Berkeley professor Mel Gordon, author of The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror, the first thorough examination of Grand Guignol published in English.
"Pricks, aye pricks, those are my boon companions, unto me they are everything," reads Delfina Hasiwar, her unblemished beauty illuminated by a dim beam from the same flashlight that passes over the coarse words of Sade's Juliette. "I live in the name of nothing but the penis sublime; and when it is not in my cunt, nor in my ass, it is so firmly anchored in my thoughts that the day they dissect me, it will be found in my brain!"
The crowd titters sheepishly under the fading skylight of the San Francisco Performing Arts and Library as another winsome member of Thrillpeddlers -- the Bay Area-based, Guignol-inspired theater troupe responsible for the annual Shocktoberfest -- moves among the elegant bookshelves.
"A barrel of shit was placed in the chamber appointed for pleasures," marvels Lisa Jenai Hernandez, at the beginning of an excrement-filled fantasy from 120 Days of Sodom.
"I remove his garments, aid him to climb in, and the old pig slides down into his element," Hernandez continues gleefully as her loose black hair falls across the pale silk of her slip. "[A] hole has been specially bored for the purpose, and, fifteen seconds after having immersed himself, his prick, almost stiff, pops through the aperture; he orders me to frig it, covered with filth and horrors. I do as I am told; he ducks his head down into the shit, splashes in shit, swallows shit, shouts, discharges, and, clambering out, trots off to immerse himself in a bath."
A few groans mingle with the laughter of the crowd. The two women seated in front of me glance at one another uneasily and shift in their chairs as the Sade readings give way to a staged excerpt from the classic Grand Guignol play Le Marquis de Sade by Charles Méré. Jill Tracy fills the unfortunate shoes of Maxa, Paris' favorite "Priestess of Sin and Horror" and the leading lady of the Grand Guignol, who in this role falls prey to the fiendish marquis, played tonight by Richard Louis James.
The two women seated in front of me leave as soon as Tracy's breasts are cut with a knife the first time, but this is nothing. According to Mel Gordon, Maxa was murdered more than 10,000 times, over the course of her relatively brief career, by 60 torturous techniques.
She kept journals.
"There isn't a spot on my body that hasn't been exposed in spasms of torture and trembled in weird paroxysms," says Tracy in her smoky singer's purr as a picture of the theater where Maxa performed appears on the screen upstage. "I have been shot, burned, poisoned, flogged in the nude, bitten by snakes, dismembered on a butcher's table, strangled, left bleeding to death -- all at the whim of the playwrights."
A poster for the original Le Marquis de Sade illuminates the stage.
"Little by little, these half-insane roles affected me like a potent drug. I became a victim of fiction," says Tracy, unveiling a life seemingly as degraded as the stories that inflamed the Parisian imagination.
"None of the perverted sentiments I had to act out on the stage were strange to me. Not even the sensation of being burned," continues Tracy as the black strap of her slip falls off her porcelain shoulder. "I had become an easy victim for maniacs who like to scorch the soft white flesh of women with glowing cigarettes.
"It was my bad luck that love never was for me a romantic longing."
There are those who speculate that the Grand Guignol filled a void left by the discontinuance of public executions in Europe. Mel Gordon's explanation is simpler.
"Any one of us could go mad and rape and kill," suggests Gordon in his lecture on the French "free body," a concept inspired by the French Revolution and taken to extremes by Sade.
"Grand Guignol didn't work in New York, San Francisco, or Berlin, not because of the sex and violence, but because of the comedy. The comedies interspersed throughout the horror plays attacked the clergy, the political establishment, the medical establishment, the whole power structure. The theater critics hated the comedies."
The crowd laughs.
"I was glad to see this crowd laughing in all the inappropriate places tonight."
Happy belated Bastille Day.