Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I only discussed Ubu Roi with you because it has the advantage of being the sort of play that most of the public will appreciate.

“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).


  1. I think I did actually once attend a production of Ubu Roi when I was about nine or ten (or perhaps twelve), which was being put on at my brother's secondary school. Although it all seems a bit unlikely now, I do still have this strong and unaccountable memory of the fact.

    I can't remember a thing about it though. I suppose at that age all theatre would likely have been incredibly perplexing and seemed like incomprehensible madness, and Ubu Roi wouldn't have stood out at all.

  2. I believe your crazy story. Perhaps you actually saw a performance of "Ubu sur la butte," which packs the best parts of "Ubu Roi" into twenty minutes, plus adds songs.

  3. I think I was expecting (God knows why) something more predictable from Jarry in the places where I read his theories and ideas about the theatre, but he turned out to be pretty out there. Or maybe it would have seemed less so if I had known more about the history of French drama. But some of his apparent "issues," e.g., with acting, scenery, etc., were...a little funny.

    The more I think about it, the more I want to watch this with marionettes.

    What all is in the Selected Works? I tried to find out from the internet and failed. Does it have the almanacs? They may be my favorite part of ubuworld.

  4. ... the body appropriate to the part.

    Even the stage direction is in pun!

    I agree. Immobile and monotone delivery sounds appealing only in theory. Actually it's very funny in theory. But in practice is a disaster that would provoke stampede instead of riot.

    I wonder where one can get a collectible action figure of Pa Ubu?

  5. Hi A.R.

    A play is a performance. You can’t really read a play. You can only read the script. It’s like the difference between hearing music and reading the notes on a sheet of paper.

    “The play’s the thing” – not the script.

    We should not confuse the words for things with the things themselves.


  6. I really love your likening of the Ubus to George Costanza's parents on Seinfeld. That just made Ubu roi twice as funny to me in one fell swoop. And it also made Seinfeld funnier to me, because now I can imagine the Costanzas threatening to eat each other.

  7. I want to see A Very Ubu Festivus. Imagine the feats of strength!

  8. Since when, Vince, has language worked that way? Words have more than one meaning. Do we have to resort to a dictionary? I know how to read a play.

    Am I the only Seinfeld viewer who has never seen the Festivus episode?

    Googling "Ubu action figure" would have been a bust, except that it led to my discovery of Ubu and the Truth Commission, a 1997 puppet play by South African Jane Taylor. Also mentioned: Woyzeck on the Highveld and Faustus in Africa. Tantalizing.

    Shattuck's Selected Works contains Ubu Cocu and the horrifying fragment Ubu, Colonialist, and lots of theater writings, but only a hint of the almanacs, which I now, after your post of today, find amazing. But Shattuck is far more interested in pataphysics than in Ubu. A third of his collection is a complete Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician.

  9. It's a crying shame that more of the almanacs aren't there. I don't know if they're all available in English at all. Really worth it if you can read them though.

    Pataphysics, I'm not so sure about, though I'm probably intrigued enough to give Doctor Faustroll a shot. I am sure, though, that you are the only one who hasn't seen "The Strike." One of my favorites, largely because it's George's parents at their ubuest.

  10. I'm not so sure about pataphysics, either! Lack of certainty is fundamental to the concept. Shattuck defines pataphysics as "the metaphysics of exceptions," with what degree of seriousness I do not know.

  11. I have not yet read Jarry, but I really must do so soon: certainly, this post has encouraged me to do so.

    I do agree fully, though, with your opening lines: a great many of my favourite works are plays that I have seen only in my imagination as I have been reading them. In some cases, the finest production I have seen has been the one going on in my head while I was reading.

  12. Absolutely - I have seen Shakespeare that far surpassed my imagination, but, boy, have I seen worse, too. My imaginary Iago would be pretty hard to beat.