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Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Violence and Vitriol - Exploring 'Le Baiser dans la nuit' - Part 1

The curtain rises on a pitiful scene, as a young man, a doctor and a nurse debate the condition of a horrifically mutilated patient. Though his back is to us, we can see the blindfold over his eyes, and the blood and pus dripping down his cheeks. He has been attacked with acid by his wronged lover, they say, he is blind and will remain so for the rest of his life. The scene changes and the infamous lover arrives: she has been acquitted, thanks largely to her victim’s refusal to testify, and has returned to him at his request. As their conversation slides closer and closer to obscene psychological torture, he finally reveals his plan and exacts his revenge, scourging her face with acid in a brutal act of tit for tat retribution. Maurice Level’s Le Baiser dans la nuit (most often known in English as The Final Kiss) has come to its bloody climax. It is a classic scene, perhaps the most famous in the entire history of the Grand Guignol. It has been revived countless times, and, together with Crime dans une maison de fous (Crime in a Madhouse) by André de Lorde and Alfred Binet, it has become the poster-child of the entire genre. There are few Grand Guignol companies who have not attempted it, and it has been adapted into a variety of other media. Having briefly examined Frederick Witney’s own adaptation of the play in last week’s blog, I would here like to dedicate some time to this classic play. The first part of this article will examine the history and context of its conception, together with its enduring popularity throughout the 20th century.

John Kerrigan, in Revenge Tragedy: From Aeschylus to Armageddon, traces the history of revenge dramas through the ages, and considers the persistent popularity of the form as demonstrable proof of its absolute simplicity and effectiveness. Though discussion of the Grand Guignol itself is strangely absent, his model of the revenge drama could describe any number of the Parisian theatre’s short plays, and Level’s mini-tragedy in particular. Kerrigan’s contention is worth quoting at length:

There is a sense in which theatrical ‘doing’ gravitates, quite naturally, towards revenge. Imagine two actors on an open stage, with no props, no text, and, as yet, no character traits. The simplest yet most fraught way to mesh them is through injury and a retaliation. One exchange simultaneously connects the players and sets them in opposition. A dramatic situation emerges: something coherent yet emotionally divided. The exchange makes up a miniature play, with unity of time and place, a dramatic tension heightened and relaxed, and a symmetrical structure which is simple but satisfying.
Level’s play begins sometime after the first action, essentially in medias res, yet its structure contains all of the simplicity which Kerrigan discusses. The perfect symmetry of its final moments provides a form of satisfaction, even if this is manifested in the most brutal and Old Testament of manners. There is little extraneous padding, and the emotional and sexual complexities which emerge develop against a stark backdrop of a perfectly efficient and unified revenge drama. The wounds upon Henri’s face immerse the entire situation in the context of Jeanne’s attack, and if the ending is to be considered a twist, it is nonetheless a revelation which fulfils rather than subverts the expectations which have been developed. I hope to demonstrate that it is the play’s coherence and simplicity, as much as its obvious visceral appeal, which have accounted for its remarkable life even after the death of the original French and English Grand Guignol theatres.

Level based the play upon his own short story, which was published in Journal in July 1912. If anything, this ur-version is even more efficient and dramatic than the stage version he presented later that year. It opens without preamble with the nameless woman declaring “Forgive me…forgive me...” as she beholds her victim for the first time since her attack. There are no indicators of social status, of the nature of their previous relationship, there are only the meagrest details of the attack, and the characters remain anonymous throughout. Though the tale is loosely framed in the third person, the majority of its short length is taken up with their duologue, which contains just enough detail to render the plot comprehensible. It is not, perhaps, facetious to suggest that Level was already considering the story as a Grand Guignol play in the making. What narration there is amounts to little more than stage directions, and the majority of the text was later adapted wholesale into the stage version. Hand and Wilson (in Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror) remark that the short story has ‘an almost operatic (even gothic) grandeur in contrast to the clinical, sub-melodrama of the play.’ There is indeed a gothic quality to the final line ‘And round them, as in them, was great Darkness’, but it is essentially the sparsity of the text which lends it such grandeur. We have, as in Kerrigan’s definition of tragedy, two simple figures, rendered simply, and thrust together by a crime and its necessary atonement.

The antagonists of Level’s short story, then, are essentially archetypes, which may betray the nature of its conceptual origin. In common with many earlier Grand Guignol dramas such as Oscar Méténier’s Lui!, and the “Penny Dreadful” pamphlet literature common to both Paris and London, which Level’s short stories often resemble, Le Baiser dans la nuit takes its cue from contemporary attacks which were widely reported across Paris. From the 1880’s onward, there was a persistent trend in vitriol attacks, in which an abandoned or abused lover or partner (most usually a woman) would gain revenge by maiming their tormentor with sulphuric acid. These incidents were widely reported, and concerns were raised regarding the extent to which these reports encouraged the proliferation in this vengeful trend.

Report of a vitriol attack,
 Le Petit Journal, 1901
The extent and cultural influence of these attacks is attested by Ann-Louise Shapiro in her book Breaking the codes: female criminality in fin-de-siècle Paris, she writes: ‘In the 1880s, vitriol began to acquire the symbolic associations traditionally linked to poison; l’empoisonneuse was joined by a new rhetorical (and actual) figure, the vitrioleuse’.

Shapiro relates this trend to a rising discourse surrounding the extension of female power beyond the domestic sphere, and more significantly, of their power to adapt a feature of their domestic arsenal (vitriol being a cleaning product more often purchased by women than men) into a weapon which facilitated an aggressive revolution in the power structure of a relationship. In Shapiro’s words: ‘Women who were dangerous through their very domesticity – who transformed the ordinary and the womanly into the menacing - underscored not only female duplicity but male dependency.’ In its barest state, Level’s scene develops this concept with elegance, before turning it on its head with the re-asserted dominance of the man. The blinded victim emphasises his new vulnerability in the face of his attacker’s newly won liberation (from both the consequences of her actions and her enslavement to him), before exacting his revenge. By keeping extraneous detail to an absolute minimum, Level reinforces the potential universality of the situation. Level’s story can also, of course, be read as a harsh re-assertion of the superiority of the male, and as a typically patriarchal revelling in the undoing of a woman who has evaded her rightful place in the sexual hierarchy. The covert and obscene sexual suggestiveness of the request for a final kiss, of the spilling of fluids and the desperate struggle are all already present in Level’s short story, and go some way to confirming this horrific undertone of rape as retribution, and the breaking of the female will. As Hand and Wilson note ‘the dual meaning of the word “baiser” in the title (“kiss” or “fuck”) removes any ambiguity.’ It is impossible to discuss the play without reference to its potential misogyny, yet its final moments move towards an emphasis on the protagonists’ shared culpability, and the appropriateness of their mutual damnation to an existence of blind agony.

The play which Level presented in 1912 to Max Maurey, director of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, was a somewhat expanded version of his original story, which replaced the ambiguous setting and characterisation with a considerably lengthened two-act format. The play provides the characters with names, Henri and Jeanne, a location and some further indicators of social status. Most significantly, it adds an initial act in which Henri’s brother, a doctor and a nurse provide exposition as they discuss his wounds and the charitable act which they presume he committed in refusing to testify against his attacker. This provides an obvious opportunity for Level to establish the setting, and therefore remove the functional expository passages from Henri and Jeanne’s exchange. More interestingly, it also generates further tension regarding the condition of Henri’s face. While he sits blindfolded through their discussion, they relate his prognosis in some detail. It was a common feature of Grand Guignol dramas to include extensive passages of graphic description, in order to build an audience’s expectations, and subsequently their unease, to a sufficient pitch. Level’s play essentially orbits two moments of extreme horror, the removal of Henri’s blindfold, when the full extent of his injuries become apparent, and the blinding of Jeanne in its closing moments. By building the tension regarding Henri’s horrific injuries, Level misdirects attention away from Jeanne’s fate, as well as priming the audience for the gruesome unwrapping.

Tension was at least as important to the successful performance of the Grand Guignol as the graphic violence for which it became so infamous, and Level’s play demonstrates a mastery of the gradual and sickening build-up. The importance of moments such as Jeanne’s cautious, exploratory and even sensual probing of Henri’s devastated face, and the extended battle of words and wills which culminate in Henri’s production of the vitriol are all the more important when it is considered that the original 1912/13 production contained no final effect to realise Jeanne’s blinding. The play relied upon the skill of its performers and director to sell the impression that her face has been irrecoverably scarred. Hand and Wilson quote Level from the play’s 1913 publication in Monde Illustré as noting that some audience members were disappointed that ‘the young woman did not appear disfigured and bleeding’, but that he considered such a display to be a rather vulgar betrayal of the play’s careful build-up, and that onstage trickery should not be used as a substitute for skilled performance.

It is, perhaps, inevitable that this subtlety and restrain could not last for long. The play’s immense success ensured that it was revived by Maurey’s successor Camille Choisy in 1922, and in keeping with Choisy’s preference for explicit violence and extensive make-up, this and the later production in 1938 provided audiences with the grisly denouement they anticipated. Perhaps the word of mouth which the play had generated in the intervening years made it necessary to produce a version which lived up to its fearsome reputation.

Le Baiser dans la nuit revival at the
Parisian Grand Guignol, 1938
When Le Baiser dans la nuit made its first appearance on an English stage, it was in an even less explicit version, one which required considerable revision before the Lord Chamberlain’s office, the ferocious censors of British theatre, would permit its performance. Some years before José Levy would establish a permanent London Grand Guignol in the Little Theatre, he presented a short season of French language plays at the Coronet Theatre, which included a number of plays from the Parisian theatre’s repertoire. Level’s play was quickly identified as the most obscene, and Levy was only granted a license for it on the condition that the curtain fell before Henri’s final attack, leaving Jeanne’s fate to be entirely implied. In fact, had the play been presented in English, rather than in French when only the middle classes were presumed to possess the capacity to understand it, it would have been refused outright. In the words of George Street, the Lord Chamberlain’s chief examiner, ‘Such a brutal and shocking horror would not be allowed in an English play.’ It was this same class conscious loophole which would allow James Joyce’s Ulysses to survive the censor in a few years time; when dealing with obscenity, it seems, obscurity was a considerable advantage.

The full horror of Level’s story finally became available to a monolingual audience in 1945, when it was adapted by Frederick Witney as ‘The Last Kiss’, more information on which can be found here. In this incarnation it was stripped back to a one act drama, which placed the emphasis squarely on the final confrontation between Henri and Jeanne (or Tom and Minty as they became). Witney’s version is explicitly an adaptation of Level’s short story, rather than his play which had not then been published in an English language version, and retains the story’s biblically ominous final line, adapted to ‘And the Devil said, let there be Dark – and there was Dark.’ This adoption is an unfortunate misstep in what is generally a superb adaptation, and sounds a camp and pompous note amidst an adaptation which adds acutely observed class consciousness to Level’s skeletal narrative. Where Level closes his play with Henri’s triumphant declaration that Jeanne is now disfigured like him, that they are ‘matchless lovers’ in a nightmare of their own creation, Witney emphasises the finality of darkness; a far less frightening concept to linger in an audience’s imaginations.

Though strands of plot and concepts which owe their conception to Level’s story have found their way into a vast number of subsequent texts, films and productions, Hand and Wilson remark upon two of its more notable adaptations. Though Le Baiser dans la nuit itself played no part in Levy’s 1920’s revival, H F Maltby produced his own riff on the basic concept in his 1921 play The Person Unknown, which retains the central conceit of a vengeful and disfigured man facing the woman he blames for his mutilation and wreaking his vengeance. In Maltby’s play, republished in Hand and Wilson’s London’s Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror, Henri’s character becomes ‘The Person’, a young soldier who returns from the First World War hideously scarified and seeking the embrace of a young singer who had promised her affections to young men who joined up in a jingoistic music hall number. He breaks into her home as she returns from a frivolous party, and throws her words back with terrible venom:

“We will love you, hug you, kiss you, when you come back home again.” No one else isn’t keen on it with my face all blown to hell; I’ve longed for a woman’s bare arms around my neck, and a woman’s soft face next to mine – what’s left of it
Though the play exchanges Henri’s retributive attack for a more censor-friendly conclusion in which the young singer dies of fright in his arms, its addition of Maltby’s righteous fury at the ill-considered siren-like propaganda mechanisms which led so many men to their fates gives it great power, and the play is a formidable success. The perverse sexual horror of the amorous and disfigured central character remains, together with the difficult scenes of beauty beset by an ugliness which she herself was complicit in creating.

A later adaptation, in the pages of EC horror comic The Haunt of Fear, where it is reinterpreted as eight page shocker ‘The Acid Test’, is only the most explicit borrowing of a Grand Guignol format in a genre of mass-market comics and horror story collections which took retributive eye for an eye justice as their raison d'être.

The Haunt of Fear, Issue 11, Jan/Feb 1952 -
the issue which contained 'The Acid Test'
The strip, published in January 1952, concludes with Levy’s dual revelation, as across six grisly panels Cedric Blair unveils his hideous features before pouring the vitriol on Florence’s face, and in a gruesome addition which only EC would contemplate, only then bends her head backwards to kiss her bubbling skin. The final coda provided by the Vaultkeeper, one of EC’s trademark ‘horror hosts’, filled with grim puns and black humour, demonstrates an essential aspect of the play: the audience’s (or in this case the reader’s) complicity in the act of revenge. Al Feldstein and William Gaines understood the uncomfortable laughter and satisfaction which emerges from the final symmetrical patterning of just desserts. When horror maestro H P Lovecraft came to review Level’s short stories, he noted the French writer’s particular preference for the conte cruel, stories of sadism and man’s inhumanity to man. When Gaines, the editor of EC comics, came to define his guidelines for in-house writers, he used the same term to describe the ideal model for a horror story. With their intentional balancing of black comedy and brutal horror, EC comics Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear demonstrably emulate the douche ecossaise model of the Grand Guignol, and the appearance of its most famous play in their pages should come as no surprise.

We have seen, then, how Le Baiser dans la nuit has proved remarkably influential and popular through the early decades of the 20th century. However the story does not end there. In the concluding section of this article, I will be turning to the specifics of Level’s play in performance, discussing the varying approaches which our company has witnessed over the years, together with practical issues of producing it for a modern audience.

 - Stewart Pringle

Part 2 of this article can be found here.

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