Guignol founder Oscar Méténier had a morbid interest in science. He "scoured Paris' menacing red-light and working-class slum districts for over six years in a scientific search for naturalist material." Pre-Guignol he wrote for Théâtre Libre, using "real criminal types to play themselves in minor parts." His research enabled him to write authentic dialogue for "low-life play figures, many of whom were based on real persons, and he found their instinctive and savage actions superior to the vain pretensions of Paris' bourgeois theatre-goers."
A paradox emerges, perverse and peculiarly French. The Guignol espoused a creed exploding bourgeois taboos, pretensions, and hypocrisies, and of producing plays aimed at offending middle and upper class authority, manners, and sensibilities. Yet for all that, the Guignol was a mostly bourgeois and blue blood happening. Méténier, a journalist and police bureaucrat who enjoyed watching private state executions, needed to visit red-light districts in order to study the underclass. André‚ de Lorde, perhaps the Guignol's most celebrated and prolific playwright, was a physician's son. His writing partner, Dr. Alfred Binet of the Sorbonne, was also his therapist. The audience included society's crème de la crème.
Millionaires and aristocrats were regulars. "For premieres, audiences often attended in evening dresses and tuxedos, bringing their own champagne and glasses." Much of this societal success was owing to Max Maurey, an entrepreneur/showman who bought the Guignol from Méténier in 1898 and ran it till 1915. Maurey's ethos resembled P.T. Barnum more than Naturalist guru Emile Zola, supplanting a scientific theatre with pure theater, "where every social taboo of good taste was cracked and shattered." Maurey spread reports of patrons fainting from shock. Later Guignol producers advertised the hiring of in-house physicians, presaging William Castle.
The perversity, more than any stage gore, is this spectacle of the leisure, professional, and intellectual classes gawking at "authentic" underclass types on stage, thrilled by their own imagined wickedness at viewing the shattering of their own "taboos." As the Guignol was a world-renowned tourist attraction by 1910, recommended in Parisian guidebooks of every language, its patrons evoke the armchair revolutionaries of later decades. Not surprisingly, after the Guignol's novelty wore off in the 1930s, its remaining patrons were largely French university students necking in the balconies. And American tourists.