Death scenes in theatre hold a long and gory history. From the inception of theatre in ancient Greece and Rome to Paris’s Grand Guignol to the present-day movies/shows, people have always enjoyed tragedy so much.
Imitating a death scene has always been one of the most difficult for the playmakers and actors for it requires a lot of convincing.
Even in today’s world, with all the stomach-churning special effects and realism, people still feel distanced from what they are seeing.
There is a distracting feeling solely because of the thought ‘How did they do it?’. The film industry or even western theatre has come a long way from the earliest days when death was something really difficult to depict.
The difficulty level was too high that the death scenes almost never occurred on stage.
However, even today with all the imposing make-up, GCI, bullet time, and whatnot modern theatre can’t compare the horrific death scenes that ancient Rome and Grand Guignol created.
In the 5th century, a ritual celebrating Dionysus spread through Greece. Here worshipers sang a hymn called ‘Dithyrambs’ in honor of Dionysus. One theory about dithyramb is that the singers started acting out the actions alongside singing.
Thus, dithyramb eventually evolved into a theatre. This was Greek Tragedy in its earliest forms. From here, Greek theatre kept on moving forward.
Many of the Greek plays didn’t show death scenes onstage. Whenever someone died, a messenger made the announcement, and later a body was shown on stage. This practice changed when tragedy hit its golden age in 15th century Athens with the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
In Sophocles’s tragedy Ajax, the lead character dies midway through the play taking place during the Trojan War.
This happens when enraged Ajax plans to kill the Greek commanders who cheated him in the war. But Athena intervenes and Ajax ends up slaughtering a herd of livestock instead. Later, mortified by his deeds, Ajax kills himself with his own sword.
The topic of Ajax’s death remains debatable among classical scholars. The fact that the ancient Greeks staged this scene live in front of thousands of people is pretty confounding.
Unlike Greeks, Romans were never hesitant to show deaths onstage. The Romans called performers, Mimes. Mimes used to do a lot of weird things to make the plays look more realistic and interesting for people.
These things ranged from impersonating the decreased at funerals to harming each other in reality. The Romans were so submerged in creating realistic plays that they used all of the Colosseum’s floor raising elaborate sets depicting cliffs, woods, and trees for the Orpheus play.
A criminal was also condemned to play Orpheus who was later tore into pieces by a bear.
Another extreme example of brutality is from an episode of the novel ‘The Golden Ass’ by Apuleiys’s where a female prisoner who is condemned to death must have sex with an ass in public.
Paris’s Grand Guignol
At the turn of the 20th century, theatergoers started liking harshly realistic stories about modern life more. Théâtre Libre, founded by André Antoine, was known for its ‘Comédies Rosses’ which depicted and focused more on less pleasant aspects of life.
Often narrating stories about thieves, prostitutes, alcoholism, and violence rather than mythical characters. Oscar Méténier, one of a co-founder of the Théâtre Libre, opened Grand Guignol years after Théâter Libre was closed down.
Méténier sold the Guignol to Max Maurey after few years who converted the focus from life plays to horror plays.
Guignol eventually came to André de Lorde who soon became ‘The Prince of Terror’ for his frightening stories. The famous themes included mutilation, insanity, strangulation, paralysis, hypnosis, live burial, etc. One actress said that she has been killed over 60 times in different plays.
Guignol actors gauged the effectiveness of their performance by the number of people who fainted at the end of the show. At times more than dozen people would go unconscious because of the realistic performances.
Guignol used different staged techniques to create horrific effects too. For instance, fake blood and a runny liquid were used and to make it look realistic light-colored was used for new wounds and dark for old ones. Staged weapons were also invented that retracted when pressed against the body.
The horror of the Grand Guignol was born out of the demand to see the harsh realism of modern life onstage. It took inspiration from the mucky side of naturalism depicting life in a more realistic way onstage.
Why do people like tragedy so much?
People have always liked deaths and tragedies no matter if it is 5th century Greece or 20th century Paris.
Aristotle identified that to grab people’s attention a hero should be elevated in rank but too high. He shouldn’t be all noble neither should he be pure evil.
But somewhat a mixture of both. This makes normal people relate to him and feel his tragedy deeply.
But what is the point of all this suffering while watching your favorite characters die?
According to Aristotle, a good tragedy can evoke pity and fear in the audience.
Pity for their favorite characters’ downfall and fear of getting caught in the same catastrophic situation.
Hypothetically, when we see tragedy we experience ‘catharsis’ that is a feeling of emotional relief.
This was one of the reasons why the theatre center was made in Athens too- for people to forget about their problems and enjoy for a while.
It was believed that this will help them get rid of their emotional burdens and perform better in real lives.
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