“Plays are meant to be seen!” How often have I come across some variant of this sentiment, on book blogs or elsewhere, a bromide I uncharitably interpret as “I do not know how to read plays.” But of course, I do see the plays I read, while I read them. I use my imagination.
For the reader who wants the assistance, Jarry and others left behind a substantial amount of documentation about the performance of Ubu Roi – the other Ubu plays were not performed during or anywhere near Jarry’s lifetime. The Selected Works of Alfred Jarry (1965), ed. Roger Shattuck, tr. by many hands, is packed with all sorts of wonderful nonsense on the theater. Pa Ubu, for example, really should look like Jarry’s drawing on the left, with the spiral on his enormous belly and the strange, long-nosed mask destroying any ordinary notion of acting. Through much of the play, he should be carrying a toilet brush, and when mounted, he wears a cardboard horse head.
Jarry stands at the head of what is now a long French tradition of anti-acting. If I remember correctly, the director Robert Bresson even avoided the word, calling the people appearing in his films “models.” Jarry not only wanted to obscure the face of the actors, but to destroy their voices and form:
And it is better for them not to move, and that the whole play should be spoken in a monotone.
And we have also said that the actor must take on the body appropriate to the part. (Selected Works, 74)
The imagined voice is crucial, and the delivery. Ubu Roi is a comedy, I guess. Some readings are funnier than others. So I read lines aloud, try out different registers. I have convinced myself that Jarry’s advice is not quite right – the nightmarish Pa and Ma Ubu should certainly bellow their idiotic lines, like George Costanza’s parents on Seinfeld, the couple that knows each other so well they simply skip to the screaming at the first hint of conflict – more efficient, don’t you know. But the effect is funnier if other characters act as if they are in a Shakespeare or Racine play or, I don’t know, Long Day’s Journey into Night, as if they are method actors squeezing every drop of meaning out of their lines.
But then none of this works if the actors are replaced by puppets. Kenneth McLeish’s version of The Ubu Plays (1997) includes “Ubu sur la butte,” or “Up Ubu,” Jarry’s compressed adaptation of Ubu Roi for marionettes. Frankly, when I was imagining my way through Ubu, I was mostly thinking of marionettes. Screeching, flailing, insane puppets, tearing each other to shreds. Somehow the appearance of bears and crocodiles, and the impalings and ghosts and characters falling in the toilet all made more sense.*
The backdrop at the premiere was painted by Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others, and included “a bed, and at the foot of the bed a bare tree and snow falling,” as well as palm trees and a dangling skeleton. Scene changes were signified by a sign hung from a nail, the responsibility of “[a] venerable gentleman in evening dress.” All of this from Arthur Symons's description of the first night, pp. 256-7 of Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd (1961).
None of this is remotely necessary to read Jarry. Let fly. After all, if you “simplify it somewhat… we would have something which could not fail to be funny,” since, Jarry writes, Ubu Roi is “the sort of play that most of the public will appreciate” (Selected Works, 67-8).
* Not that Jarry’s special effects are that special. Nothing that, for example, the 18th century Italian stage could not handle. See Carlo Gozzi’s The King Stag (1762), as found in Eric Bentley’s The Servant of Two Masters and Other Italian Classics (1986).