Theatre of the Damned Blog

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Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Fredrick Witney – A forgotten legend of the Grand Guignol

Followers and enthusiasts of the Grand Guignol will know the names of Oscar Méténier, who founded the great Parisian theatre in 1894, and of Max Maurey who brought horror to the fore of its repertoire and led it through great prosperity in the early 20th century. They may know of André de Lorde, the unassuming librarian who wrote so many of its greatest dramas, and of Paula Maxa, the original scream-queen, who died a thousand violent deaths before Janet Leigh even stepped into the shower. The London Grand Guignol was always the poor cousin of its French counterpart, but even Jose Levy, who ran its eight series at the Little Theatre in the Strand from 1920-22, was awarded the Legion of Honour for his work, and Richard Hand and Michael Wilson’s wonderful book London’s Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror has at last given his contribution the academic acclaim it deserves. Not so Fredrick Witney, whose involvement in the Grand Guignol has been reduced to a mere footnote in theatrical history. I’d like to use this, the inaugural article on our fledgling company’s blog, to take some time to examine and consider the writing of a man who I consider to be one of the Grand Guignol’s finest playwrights. Halloween is almost upon us, and I’m in the mood for resurrecting a true horror legend from his grave.

Fredrick Witney was a moderately successful English playwright, who wrote a string of comedies during the inter-war period. His name survives where his work has often not, in the biographies of actors who later rose to some prominence. His 1933 comedy The Man Who Was Fed Up was presented at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, and starred Alastair Simm as a ‘comic Scotsman’, in one of his occasional diversions from the hard-boiled roles he so often found himself cast in. Witney’s later work in the horror genre has occasionally been remembered owing to the appearance of the master of melodrama Todd Slaughter, whose sinister grin and broad, tittering lunacy had earlier made flesh creep in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a short and gloriously nasty 1936 film which is itself deeply indebted to the Grand Guignol form. Witney specialised in comedies, and musical comedies in particular. His 1933 comic operetta Prudence enjoyed a short national tour, and he seems to have produced a steady flow of three act comedies, such as 1928’s All’s Fair In Love?, over many years. His themes are typically the complications of romance and propriety, and wield a sharp satirical edge, which gleefully seeks to puncture the class divisions and formal etiquettes of British life. It was perhaps his success with these themes, and their clear relationship to French farce, which drew him to Levy’s experiments at the Little Theatre, where he quickly demonstrated a considerable talent for the other side of the Grand Guignol, the horror play.

Witney submitted at least two plays to Levy for performance at the Little Theatre, and both were accepted. It is indicative of both the level of censorship then imposed by the Lord Chamberlain, as well as the strong and controversial content of Witney’s writing, that both were banned outright. Levy’s company suffered more than most at the hands of the censor, who frequently rejected or insisted upon heavy cuts to the plays he submitted for his Grand Guignol, yet it is easy to see why Witney’s work in particular should meet such conclusive resistance. Anniversary, accepted by Levy in 1922, presents a woman on the day of her divorce (itself a scandalous subject for the stage of the 1920’s) who reveals her concerns about re-marrying to her new lover. She frankly notes that he seems to be ‘cooling off’, and muses fondly on ‘the happy time when I was hard put to it to preserve my virtue’; she discusses her ex-husband’s philandering and his nervousness on their wedding night, where he waited outside her bedroom door ‘moistening his lips and clearing his throat’. The reminiscences eventually overcome her, and when her lover exits and the divorcee himself arrives, they rapidly vanish into the bedroom to rekindle their relationship. It is difficult to overstate how controversial such scenes would have been in the theatrical climate of the period, when H F Maltby’s far less explicit comedy I Want to Go Home faced an immediate ban. Witney’s play is a neat farce, and contains dialogue every bit as fluent and almost as witty as that demonstrated by Noel Coward in his 1922 The Better Half, which was accepted by both Levy and the censor (albeit with a small cut) and is now occasionally revived by Grand Guignol companies across the world.

Witney’s other submission, also accepted by Levy in 1922, is far more perverse, and more interesting. Coals of Fire, perhaps Witney’s first attempt at a horror play, was banned outright; though unlike Anniversary, it was later performed once the Lord Chamberlain’s office had relaxed their standards and loosened their grip over British theatre. The play involves a short duologue between a hideously obese wife and her young companion. The immobile wife accuses her companion of secretly sleeping with her husband, and exacts excruciating mental and physical revenge. In one of Witney’s charmingly rambling stage directions, she is described in monstrous terms, ‘white-haired, purple-chapped and enormously fat; a horrible squat barrel of a woman; corseted almost to extinction; her breast bulging over the armour of her stays; her chin embedded in her goitered neck’…I could go on. Illuminated only by some smouldering, greasy coals and peppered grotesquely with talk of crumpets, butter and cooling tea, it is a masterpiece of body horror, where frailty is conflated with degeneracy, and age and ugliness find an avatar to wreak revenge upon beauty and youth. The finale is one of the most appalling in the entire Grand Guignol repertoire, and certainly exceeds in horror and downright nastiness anything that Levy ever dared to stage. Following its rejection by the censors, the play was in fact produced by Levy in 1927 at the Arts Theatre Club, a ‘private’ society developed primarily to evade the censor’s grasp, and perform banned works for a select audience of enthusiasts. In 1929, Nancy Price submitted the play to the censors once again, intending to stage it at the Embassy Theatre; the Chief Examiner of Plays, George Street, again rejected it, noting colourfully (though not inaccurately) that ‘Anything more horrible and disgusting can hardly be imagined.’

The power of Coals of Fire is witnessed by the fact that its first public performance actually took place in France, where the Lord Chamberlain and his blue pencil couldn’t reach it, being staged in translation as part of a gala performance at the Théâtre des Mathurins in 1937. When it was next performed, it was as part of the inaugural season of an entirely new Grand Guignol revival, with Witney himself at the helm. Six days before the bunting went up for VE day, on May 2nd 1945, Witney opened his first season of Grand Guignol adaptations, together with his own work, at the Granville Theatre in Walham Green, London, under the management of A A Shenburn. Shenburn ran an eclectic array of variety performances, children’s pantomimes and new drama, and Witney convinced him that with the aid of significant performers such as the aforementioned Slaughter, the Grand Guignol could once again thrive in London. Street had now retired from his censorial position, and his successor, Henry Game, was known to be far more lenient in terms of both onstage horror and lax sexual morality. Nevertheless, a particularly shocking moment of naturalism in which the companion spits on the wife’s monstrous face, together with the final few moments of unspeakable horror, were forcibly omitted before the play could be presented.

The two seasons which Witney staged between May and October of 1945, seem to have been a reasonable success, though their rapid termination suggests that the box office receipts were insufficient to satisfy Shenburn. Regardless, they gave Witney the opportunity to stage his own work, and to indulge his interest in both one-act comedies and Grand Guignol horrors. Witney even borrowed directly from the Parisian repertoire, producing his own version of Maurice Level’s Le Baiser dans la Nuit, adapted from his short story rather than his stage version, which had always been a highlight of an evening at le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. It tells the story of a man, blinded in a vitriol attack by his wronged lover, who converses with her before exacting tit for tat retribution. Witney’s version, The Last Kiss, is remarkable for its neatness and economy. In comparison with Level’s, it strips away so much of the blind man’s posturing and rhetoric, it replaces an unnecessary introduction featuring a doctor and nurse with a simple exchange between the revenger and his landlady. Not a single moment of the play’s grotesque power is lost, the twisted sexual overtones remain in place, as well as the horror of its climax. By adding the signifiers of social class which he understood well from his comic writing, Witney brings an even greater pathos to the scene, as the protagonist is reduced to retraining as a basket maker to earn his living, crying out ‘Basket making! Me! Foreman in a machine-shop! – taking my seven, eight pounds a week! – basket making! God!’. The dialogue occasionally stutters and clunks, as it sporadically does in much of Witney’s work, but the adaptation is generally a triumph, and demonstrates his acute understanding of the Grand Guignol format, and his translation of it for a contemporary audience. Companies seeking a powerful English-language version of Level’s play could do worse than to pursue Witney’s.

The rest of Witney’s repertoire shows considerable variety, with comedy and horror plays alternating in true douche écossaise manner. Pieces such as Rococo, a musical comedy set in the 18th century which Witney had written some years previously before adding a ‘gory finish’ for its presentation at the Granville Theatre, plainly demonstrate Witney’s background in operettas and variety. Together with fellow period-pieces Nuit de Noces and Orlando, however, it is rather silly. Nevertheless, these comedies contain a modicum of barbed social satire, and seem to have found some favour with the critics. The further Witney was willing to push in the direction of horror or outrage, the surer his touch becomes. His Grand Guignol seasons also saw the premiere of The Celibate, a one act tragedy which had apparently attracted great notoriety when he had originally written it some years before. Even today, it contains some daring moments. The play concerns a young Curate who confesses to the Vicar who employs him that owing to his wife’s invalid condition, he is becoming dangerously sexually frustrated. Beginning with comic scenes in which the Curate displays his extensive collection of pornographic etchings to a highly embarrassed (and possibly aroused) Vicar, give way to horror when the Vicar’s wife catches the hapless curate in the midst of seducing a young girl, and promptly shoots him to avoid the spread of his lecherous ways. The play mixes theological discussion with ever-more risqué quips, and plays obliquely with issues of sexual promiscuity, paedophilia and masturbation. Once again, the Grand Guignol offered the platform for truly transgressive theatre, and found itself a significant cause célèbre.

Antony Lake's illustration for The Celibate

This is not the place to discuss each and every one of Witney’s plays for the Granville Theatre, though desert-island tragedy Coral Strand certainly deserves attention, containing a sophisticated escalation of tension, and a particularly grim finale in which murderous castaway Hallam is lynched by his would-be rescuers. Unfortunately for Witney, the censor’s blue pencil fell on this climax, and as he pointedly notes in an addendum to his script ‘the Lord Chamberlain forbids, in stage representations, an actual and visible hanging.’ As this decision was taken in an England which still permitted the death penalty, in the months in which Albert Pierrepoint worked his way through hundreds of Nazi war criminals, its irony had little chance of escaping Witney’s satirical eye. As he notes, with the glee of a true Guignoleur: ‘One may poison, strangle, stab, shoot, bludgeon, burn, expel through windows, throw to dogs, electrocute, suffocate, drown, inoculate with fatal diseases, but one may not suspend by the neck.’

Witney never got the chance to try out some of these more outré suggestions for set-pieces, and his involvement with the Grand Guignol was over by Christmas 1945. A flurry of creditable reviews are extant, with Punch singling out Coals of Fire, ‘that catastrophe among the crumpets’, for particular praise, but the war seemed to have robbed the British public of their taste for onstage horror. In the short months it existed, however, Witney’s residency at the Granville contributed a chapter of Grand Guignol history which rivals Levy’s in the strength of material it produced, and which has too long been neglected. In Coals of Fire he created a true horror classic, which our company is itching to stage in the new year, and his slim repertoire deserves considerable attention. Out of print for more than 60 years, his Grand Guignol plays can be found only in a 1947 imprint by Constable of London. Grand Guignol, by Fredrick Witney, and containing stark and effective illustrations by Antony Lake, is a volume which I thoroughly recommend tracking down.

Theatre of the Damned hope you’ll join us in raising a glass to this minor master of the genre. Ladies, gentlemen, Guignoleurs of all ages, here’s to Fredrick Witney!

- Stewart Pringle

Much of the information concerning Levy's Grand Guignol, and theatre censorship more generally, has been drawn from Richard Hand and Michael Wilson's 'London's Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror' and 'Grand Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror'. All errors are, of course, my own. Please feel free to comment with corrections, or any further information on Witney which you feel may be of interest.


  1. Interesting article! I'm fortunate enough to have a copy of the collection of Witney's 'Grand Guignol Plays' in original dust jacket. Have to say I find his work a bit weak compared to the French writers like de Lorde etc but he was probably holding back in anticipation of the Lord Chamberlain's disapproval.

    Maybe a future article on Dame Sybil Thorndike's involvement with the English Grand Guignol?

  2. Thanks! An article on Thorndike would be a great idea, will get onto it as soon as our current show comes down. It's the theatrical history aspect I find most interesting at the moment, to be honest.

    I agree that Witney's not a talent up to the standards of De Lorde, but I do think Coals of Fire has real power, and he does have an ear for horror. The final stage direction of CoF, in which the young woman becomes a Thing sends shivers down my spine. We're hoping to stage it, slightly adapted, next Winter.

    Do keep following the blog, there hasn't been much time to work on it over the past few weeks, but it should be back up to speed in the New Year. And if you can make it to Camden, we're open till Sunday evening.