French puppet character, invented end of 1808 in Lyon by Laurent Mourguet. He clothed this glove puppet in the clothes of a silk weaver, a powerful symbol for the people of Lyon where this industry had just been shut down. Guignol dresses in a brown woollen coat with gold buttons, a square hat, hair plaited at the back of his head, and with the refined and distinguished appearance worthy of a worker in a luxury industry. At first Guignol played, like Polichinelle, in the commedia dell’arte style, with Mourguet embroidering his performance wherever his satiric inspiration took him. “C’est guignolant!” is an expression borrowed from the dialect of the weavers meaning, “It’s funny!” The expression gave the puppet its name and created its reputation, in time causing the disappearance of Polichinelle.
Coming from the working class, Guignol has all of its good instincts, and all of its bad habits: credulous because he’s ignorant, confident because he means well. If he leans towards overeating, it is because he has often gone hungry; sometimes he becomes violent, but never murderous, limiting himself to picking up the stick that initially belonged to Polichinelle. Soon Mourguet gave him a wife, Madelon, cunning but embittered by the circumstances of life. A few years before Guignol, Mourguet had created the character of the one who became his confidant, Gnafron, an often-inebriated shoemaker with a red face and a blue beard.
The shows were performed in cafés, to the amusement of the public, with Guignol taking the role of a gazetteer, commenting on the daily events of the town or the neighbourhood. He also appeared in Mystery plays, alongside the Three Kings, begging Jesus to protect the poor weavers, and to clear Lyon of its humid fog. The style gave rise to imitations, and new troupes appeared in all of the neighbourhoods of Lyon, playing in cabarets, cafés, or outdoors. The puppeteers also went to Saint-Étienne, Roanne, Montbrison, Rive-de-Gier, and Paris. Guignol adapted to the various milieus, taking on the costume and the speech of each new region. In Paris, he became the typical Parisian kid, disrespectful, cunning and practical, named Guillaume, or Guignolet when he acted as his father. In this repertoire, the nicest people are not the most commendable, but when the blows came, they were usually for representatives of authority. As a result, the police of the Second Empire forbade Guignol to improvise and forced the artists to present their texts to the prefectural authorities in advance: this form of censorship worked efficiently against a style based on improvisation, without written texts. As a result of this action and other changes in society such as increased literacy and freedom of the press, Guignol slowly lost his edge and the public turned its back on him. From 1878, in Lyon – under the influence of Rousset – Guignol became polite and started to parody the comic or lyric hits of the day.
In 1908, the hundredth anniversary of Guignol was celebrated with style by the Neichthauser brothers who, in their theatre of the Quai Saint-Antoine in Lyon, gave Guignol back his honest and rebellious character while diversifying the repertoire. He attracted the attention and the fidelity of intellectuals, artists, and politicians in his audience until the 1950s. At the beginning of the 1970s, on the death of his new guardians and the move to a different location, Guignol fell from grace once again. However a few years later, thanks to the Théâtre du Petit Bouif, his renaissance occurred once more in Lyon.
Jean Brunel (b.1929) adopted the name of Jean-Guy Mourguet. He invented new plays, placed Guignol back in his time and returned him to the role of local newscaster, commenting on the re-building of Lyon, which threatened the troupe with expulsion, for example, Vade metro Satolas (the construction of the metro and the airport of Lyon), L’Épouvantable Nuit de l’infortunée Baronne Ecologia de Creys-Malville (The Terrible Night of the Unfortunate Baroness Ecologia of Creys-Malville, about the construction of a nearby nuclear power plant), Marionnettes sur le trottoir (Puppets on the Pavement, about the restructuring of Lyon threatening the eviction of the troupe). Guignol’s problems with the authorities continued in 1981 with La Marianne à pompons (Marianne with Pompoms), when the troupe was partially censured by the Paris City Hall for representing a “socialist” Marianne (national emblem of France, allegorical figure of Liberty and Reason) arguing with Chiracula (a caricature of Mayor Jacques Chirac represented as a vampire).
Guignol remains a character that attracts stage directors such as Marcel Maréchal who, in 1975 when Guignol was about to leave Lyon, created Une anémone pour Guignol with the artistic and technical collaboration of Paul Fournel. To this day, contemporary, original interpretations of Guignol continue, notably in Lyon (Compagnie des Zonzons) and in Puy (Théâtre Chignolo).
- Fournel, Paul. Histoire véritable de Guignol [The True History of Guignol]. Lyon: Federop, 1975; rpt. Genève: Slatkine, 1981.
- Fournel, Paul, ed. Les Marionnettes [Puppets]. Paris: Bordas, 1982; repr. 1985 and 1995.