Theatre of the Absurd

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It is highly doubtful that Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi will be performed on a high school stage any time soon. Why then subject it to academic scrutiny in a reference work aimed at the high school audience? The answer, quite simply enough, is because it was the first. In art, establishing a precedent is most important. Once Pere Ubu waddled to the middle of the stage and uttered his scandalous, foul-mouthed opening line, the theater could never be the same again. The entire dramatic experience had been fashioned into something new and different. Jarry opened a Pandora’s box and neglected to close the lid.

Jarry rebelled, not only against the prevailing traditions and conventions of fin de siecle (‘‘end of the century’’) drama, but against absolutely everything. He rejected the world of reality and the world of ideas and constructed his own world detailed in his Pataphysics. For example, Jarry’s refusal to use ‘‘realistic’’ stage props is built on the idea that these artificial trappings prevent the audience from seeing its own personal vision of the setting in which the action (or non-action) occurs. The raising and lowering of the curtain, then, disrupts the creative relationship between the audience and the drama. The elaborate recreation of a room or an outdoor location would be the vision of the set designer and not the audience.

Instead, Jarry used descriptive placards and representational devices (a single actor for a parade of soldiers; wicker mannequins for the nobles) to shock his blockhead audience ‘‘so that we can tell from their bear-like grunts where they are—and also how they stand.’’

Nearly every anti-realist artistic movement of the twentieth century used Jarry’s confrontational dramatic format as a model. Todd London explained in his essay ‘‘My Ubu, Myself’’ that the Dadaists took inspiration from Jarry’s chaos, while the Symbolists emulated Jarry’s emphasis on image over action. The description of the Ubu set illustrates a rough, contradictory beauty: ‘‘You will see doors open on fields of snow under blue skies, fireplaces furnished with clocks and swinging wide to serve as doors, and palm trees growing at the foot of a bed so that little elephants standing on bookshelves can browse on them.’’ The Surrealists admired Jarry’s unwillingness to distinguish art from life, especially as he came more and more to embody his creation—Pere Ubu—in his public life. As Andre Breton explained in Free Rein, ‘‘Beginning with Jarry ... the differentiation long considered necessary between art and life has been challenged, to wind up annihilated as a principle.’’

It is odd that so much attention has been paid to a play that has not been performed that many times since its debut in 1896. Rather, it is the transformation of Alfred Jarry into his character Pere Ubu that garners the notice of scholars. The shift from Jarry to Ubu did not happen all at once but occurred progressively as the distinctions between the life and the work of art blurred and fused into a unique continuity. Roger Shattuck stated in The Banquet Years that this living creation was Jarry’s attempt to abandon himself to ‘‘the hallucinatory world of dreams ... Jarry converted himself in a new person physically and mentally devoted to an artistic goal ... He had found his Other, the flesh of his hallucination.’’

In late-nineteenth century France farces and well-mannered plays with polite plots controlled the mainstream theater. Pere Ubu’s explosive opening line disrupted this veneer of civility and established the rules for the avant-garde of the new century. The rules, of course, were there were no rules. Jarry not only put ‘‘the...

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word’’ on the stage, he also brought ‘‘the object’’ in the form of a toilet brush which Pere Ubu serves as one of the courses at a banquet. With this new level of tastelessness (the guests lick the brush and are poisoned), Jarry illustrates the satirical qualities of scatology to degradation and violence.

John Updike, quoted in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, provided an excellent summation:

How are we to judge Alfred Jarry? Apollinaire expressed the hope that his weird words will be the foundation of a new realism which will perhaps not be inferior to that so poetic and learned realism of ancient Greece. Gabriel Brunet explained him by saying, ‘‘Every man is capable of showing his contempt for the cruelty and stupidity of the universe by making his own life a poem of incoherent absurdity.’’ I think the second estimate more plausible; Jarry’s life, as a defiant gesture, matters more that his works, which are largely pranks and propaganda of a rarefied sort. Compared to Jarry, most of today’s so-called Black Humorists seem merely ex-admen working off their grudges in sloppy travesties of a society whose tame creatures hey remain still. Though we cannot grant him the comprehensive sanity and the reverent submission to reality that produce lasting art, we must admire his soldier’s courage and his fanatic’s will.

Jarry turned the theater upside-down and inside-out. He took reality and placed it into a magician’s top hat. With a wave of his wand and a magic word or two, he produced not a loveable furry white rabbit but the grotesque and foul-mouthed Pere Ubu. People have not been able to look at drama in the same way since.

Source: William P. Wiles, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

The International Dictionary of Theatre

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In this five-act satirical farce, Jarry adapts the serious story of seizure of power to the comic aims of ridicule and relief. Mère Ubu, playing upon her husband’s bestial instincts, urges him to overthrow Wenceslas, King of Poland. After enlisting Bordure’s assistance, Ubu usurps the throne in the second act, murdering the ruler and his two sons. Bourgelas, one of the King’s sons, escapes with his mother. Meanwhile, in order to placate the Poles and satisfy his greed, Ubu offers the people gold that he reclaims through taxation. In the third act, Ubu assumes authority, liquidating the nobility and magistrates and confiscating national wealth. He also condemns Bordure who, taking refuge in Russia, requests Czar Alexis to help restore order and justice. Alexis attacks, and Mère convinces Ubu of the necessary recourse to war.

In Act IV, while Ubu battles against the Russians, his wife plunders the treasures of Poland. Ubu kills Bordure, but the decimation of his army compels him and his two Palotins to retreat. In fending off a rapacious bear, the Palotins perceive their leader’s cowardice and abandon him. In the final act, Ubu’s wife flees Bourgelas’s avenging army, arriving at the cave where Ubu is sleeping. Darkness enables her to impersonate the angel Gabriel which, in turn, impels him to confess his wrongdoings. The light of daybreak, though, reveals her identity, and Ubu reverts to his former ways. Bourgelas attacks, and the Ubus, along with the Palotins who return, sail home with nostalgia for Poland.

Ubu’s grotesqueness evokes caricature and disbelief. His rotund body and pear-shaped head seem ludicrous and fantastical, and the opening trite insults between Mère and Père suggest a slapstick show or a puppet-play. Like the closing scenes in farce, a comic resolution dispels danger as husband and wife return home, physically secure and morally unchanged. Lack of development of character excludes introspection: throughout the play, Ubu remains stupid, indolent, and totally egocentric; his wife stays avaricious, complaining, and domineering. Through incongruities and inversions, Jarry employs irony to elicit surprise and to induce absurdity. Besides his ridiculous appearance, Ubu swears meaningless oaths (‘‘by my green candle’’, ‘‘shitter’’), exaggerates the ordinary (his feast becomes a two-day orgy), and misconstrues reality (a bear is a ‘‘little bow-wow’’). By exploiting the unexpected, Jarry has this Falstaff-like personage debunk the solemn and dignify the preposterous: his stepping on Wenceslas’s toe incites revolution; unlike the agile Czar, he jumps over a trench; and, seated safely on a rock, he recites a paternoster during the Palotins’ struggle with the bear. Jarry also uses dramatic parody: like Macbeth urged to depose Duncan, Ubu yields to his wife’s goadings, but his clumsiness, moral blindness, and inanities turn potential pathos into rollicking burlesque. Disparities of language and action heighten the ridiculous. During deliberations and battles, Ubu blends religious and literary references with nonsensical statements, thereby reducing the serious and dignified to the trivial and foolish. And, in the dream-sequence that recalls epic conventions, medieval allegories, and Renaissance romances, Mère convinces Père that her ugliness is comparable to Aphrodite’s beauty and her depravities to saintly accomplishments.

The deceptions and distortions, though, present a superficial enjoyment that obscures the horrors of human bestiality and bourgeois shallowness. Ubu’s self-absorption and obsession with material wealth and sensual gratification explain his callous disregard and vicious abuse of others; and, prodded by his unbridled instincts, he acts irrationally and erratically. In depicting this primal nature devoid of reason and discipline, Jarry converts innocuous horseplay into actions provoking appalling disgust. For example, Ubu’s attack on his guests with bison ribs provokes amusement; but his subsequent serving of human excrement at table replaces laughter with repugnance. Mère’s duplicity punctures pleasure. By injecting false courage into Ubu’s cowardly character, she yields to her insatiable greed for wealth and power, manipulating her husband to commit pillage and genocide.

As caricatures, they resemble cartoon animations; but their self-interest, insensitiveness, and indignities reflect the values and evils in bourgeois society. Exemplifying the ethos of this post-Darwinian era, Ubu disregards spiritual values; religion lacks belief, and Ubu facilely recites prayers to escape danger and death. He is a survivor whose instincts endure, and whose bestial superiorities destroy the weak and unfortunate. If Ubu is Everyman, he is also, paradoxically, Nobody, with his prosperity encasing a spiritual void. Instead, Ubu’s obesity suggests a material gluttony that assures an aggression necessary for success and stature.

In neglecting the unities of time, place, and action, Jarry constructs a series of scenes resembling a montage of inconsistent happenings and absurd characterizations. Ubu’s ludicrous appearance, irrational behavior, and vile words demonstrate a rejection of the established principles of verisimilitude and decorum; and at the first performance, the audience, expecting entertaining farce, was stunned and outraged. But by shattering the illusions that often, paradoxically, define reality, Jarry reveals the potential evils inherent in the subconscious. Through the humor, resulting from fantasy and foolishness, Jarry attacks the materialism, egocentricism, and superficialities which, embodied by Ubu, reflect bourgeois aims and attitudes. Ubu’s jokes are meaningless, insensitive utterances, and his unscrupulous deeds become unconscionable crimes. Satire, moreover, evolves into a probing of the dynamics of human impulses. Time and place dissolve, and Ubu emerges as an emblem of man’s primal nature. Futility and absurdity characterize Ubu’s endeavors: his actions end at the beginning; speech is claptrap; his uncontrolled affections and merciless, unrelenting aggressions destroy order and civilization. Jarry goes beyond a renunciation of conventional dramatic practice and accepted social standards. By creating a drama that suggests the later theories and plays of Artaud, Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco, he forces the spectator to confront, through Ubu, the savagery, isolation, and pain of human existence.

Source: Donald Gilman. ‘‘Ubu Roi’’ in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 847–49.

Ubu Rides Again: The Irondale Project and the Politics of Clowning

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Few dramatic works have attained the iconographic status of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. Its original twoperformance production by Lugne-Poe in 1896 caused the greatest sensation in the French theater since Hugo’s Hernani sixty years earlier. Jarry’s play took only one word—the infamous merdre—to cause a near riot. Amidst the hysterical audience demonstrations, fist-fights and shower of missiles, the actors found themselves spectators to a theatrical event that dwarfed the one on stage. Although Ubu remains central to the avant-garde tradition, one might wonder: ‘‘Why revive Ubu?’’ And if one answers that question, a larger one looms: How to do Ubu ninety years later?

The Irondale Ensemble’s New York production of Ubu Roi (1984–87) put itself in an active relationship to the text, using it simply as a starting point, a ‘‘pre-text’’ for a performance. They approached Ubu as a comedy-parody of the bourgeois world spirit, an ironic celebration of its endless adaptability and will to survive. Furthermore, they had fun with Ubu. The Irondale’s Ubu Roi in some ways resembles a series of cabaret or burlesque skits. Just as much of Ubu is cartoon Shakespeare, the Irondale’s is a cartoon Ubu. Very little of the actual Jarry text is used, but it follows the plot and incidents of the play fairly closely. The production is irreverent from its opening moment, which finds Ubu enthroned on the toilet, grumbling ‘‘Shit!’’ Taking the cue from Jarry, the scatological metaphor is sustained throughout. When Ubu has to think hard or soliloquize, he retreats to his toilet seat; the cue for the beginning of Ubu coup d’etat is the password ‘‘shit.’’ Pa Ubu (Josh Broder) is not a fully realized ‘‘character,’’ but a grab-bag of comic techniques, most often the comic straight man or the deadpan stand-up comic. Pa Ubu is dimwitted and gross. He picks his nose, substitutes turds for meat at a state dinner to save money. He is an Aristophanic creation, operating from the basest, bottom-line human instincts, viz. food, sex and money. Ma Ubu (Molly Hickcock) is heavily camped, sometimes a la Mae West. The production is filled with low comedy, one liners, gags and intricate ‘‘bits’’ perhaps similar to the commedia dell’arte’s lazzi. Its success is not due to any particularly brilliant comic moments but rather to the cumulative effect of the rapid succession of gags and routines and the almost endless invention of the company.

The level of humor ranges widely from slapstick and crude farce to literate satire. Irondale borrows from Shakespeare almost as much as Jarry did. Wenceslas is possibly even costumed to look like Duncan, and Ma Ubu’s exhortations to her husband more than a little resemble Lady Macbeth. Wenceslas’ wife has prophetic dreams very similar to those of Caesar’s wife. A bear right out of The Winter’s Tale eats most of Ubu’s army near the end. In a parody of the parade of ghostly apparitions in Act V of Richard III, Pa Ubu has a similar vision. ‘‘Why have you come?’’ he questions the shades of his victims. ‘‘Because the show is going badly’’ they respond. It is surprising that the production holds together, since the audience is addressed directly so often. One scene is stopped halfway through because Ubu remembers that two scenes have been skipped. The humor is free-wheeling, at times reminding me of the old Firesign Theater. When the old Nobility beg King Ubu to spare their lives, he gives them a chance by presenting a mock ‘‘game show’’ where the category is ‘‘Reagan Fuck-ups.’’ The nobility are executed for the wrong answer. Likewise, the ‘‘Financial advisors,’’ an identically costumed chorus of moustached, cigar-chomping Groucho Marxes who move in unison, get a similar opportunity to play charades for their lives. They get the right answer. but are executed for not getting a laugh. There are references to everything from My Favorite Martian and ‘‘Eggo Waffles’’ to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, evoked by Ma and Pa Ubu in the last scene as they sneak out of Poland and sail into the sunset.

The Jarry plot is the basic scene-by-scene scenario for Irondale’s Ubu. The hen-pecked Pa Ubu is pushed by his wife into leading a coup to topple King Wenceslas of Poland and seize the crown for himself. He is aided, in the Irondale production, by Manure, Duke of Lithuania. Ubu redistributes the wealth (‘‘Ninety per cent of the wealth for me!’’), double-crosses everyone and is transformed from ‘‘a skinny little runt’’ to a bloated hedonist with pillows padding his belly. But Ubu remains the Master of Ceremonies, the clown controlling the action, also doubling as narrator and interpreter. He is constantly improvising one-liners and slipping quick jokes to the audience. Each sequence or scene is like a Saturday Night Live version of the Jarry original. The play becomes a pretext for the company to hang its jokes on. When the conspirators plan the murder of Wenceslas, Manure (Paul Lazar), Duke of Lithuania, gets a little carried away in his enthusiasm:

MANURE. My plan ... is to take my stiff, hard, gleaming sword out of its sheath and shove it into his parted flesh and start to thrust, thrust, thrust (getting excited).

UBU: Cut through the hormones, Manure!

Later, when Manure gets similarly excited by the prospect of total war against the anti-Ubu armies, Pa Ubu cuts him off with: ‘‘That’s fine for you, you’re into that quasi-homosexual ritualistic behavior.’’ Ubu continuously switches from character to actor to clown. He taunts the chained and manacled Manure with:

This is it. You’re no getting out of here. You’re gonna die. You ain’t ever gonna be in Shakespeare in the Park, you’re never gonna do that Dr. Pepper commercial, never be on David Letterman.

The most interesting incorporation of the audience into the performance is a series of abrupt interruptions of the play’s action, modeled on the Aristophanic parabasis. Sometimes Ubu steps out of the play to explain some aspect of improvisational theater or the company’s work. At one point Ubu paces through the audience and muses:

Those of you who’ve seen our plays before know that we’re a political company. You may be wondering why is this political company doing a play about shit? Not only about shit, but shit for shit’s sake.

Ubu promises that the play will get more political. Later, General Lasky, Commander of the pro-Ubu armies, marches out and tells the audience that the company has been heavily criticized by ‘‘textual purists’’ for mutilating Jarry’s text. In an effort to be more faithful to the original script, a simultaneous French reading of the text will now be given so that the critics can check for accuracy. He then introduces Sven, a Swedish-born graduate of the Sorbonne, who proceeds to translate everything being said into French (with a noticeable Swedish lilt). The situation becomes hilarious as Sven tries to ‘‘take over the play,’’ getting in the way of the actors and turning even commonplace exchanges into wildly funny sequences. In effect, we are following several different levels of action or ‘‘texts within a text:’’ the text of Jarry’s Ubu, the Irondale’s commentary on that text, and another ‘‘text’’ created by the improvisation and dialogue with the audience.

Despite the numerous contemporary references, the production is not overtly or obviously political. The specific political references, jokes and parallels all seem part of the overall comedic momentum, not its point. But Ma and Pa Ubu perhaps represent a more insidious attack on middle class values, habits and ethics. Pa Ubu is so likeable (‘‘the Santa Claus of the Atomic Age’’ as one critic has put it) not because he is a negation of bourgeois values, but their apotheosis. Ubu knows no moderation—he is bourgeois values writ large, taken to extremes. He is the ultimate glutton, miser, sadist and egomaniac. Ubu is cold, raw bourgeois instinct with bad manners and without tact. He has no pretenses and the Ubu Administration has no P.R. director. Ubu is the bourgeoisie seen from the belly down. Appropriately, the distinguishing mark of the pro-Ubu armies is their stomachs: the Ubu Loyalists all have padded paunches like their leader.

The production attempts to move to a political level through the use of non-specific and non-verbal techniques. The play begins with the company singing ‘‘I’m so happy to be an American’’ and ends with a flag-waving rendition of ‘‘It’s a Grand Old Flag.’’ Beginning with the anti-Ubu Revolution, led by Buggerless, son (played by a woman) of the executed King, the purely physical, mimed aspect of the production increases. When Ubu exhorts his troops into war frenzy, a loud electronic metronome starts. The actors begin a sequence which I can only describe as a ‘‘biomechanical gestus of war ritual.’’ This is repeated during battle sequences. In the middle of the rousing flag-waving finale, the electronic cue comes again; the actors almost robot-like respond frantically to the cue. The metronome beats faster and faster as the lights fade while the gestus of war continues.

The Irondale’s eclectic techniques, their ability to bring a contemporary feel to the imagination of the performance and, above all, the intense and dynamic audience-actor bond created by the improvisational nature of the performance, puts the audience in a very active relationship to the text and the theatrical event. The Irondale’s work is always ‘‘in progress;’’ a play is rehearsed and performed over a period of years. The rehearsal process never stops, and the company stresses that performances are actually ‘‘shared rehearsals.’’ The Irondale’s commitment to improvisational performance encourages the actors to experiment and make changes during performance, so that no two performances are the same. The performance text continues to evolve with parts being added or dropped. What we have is a very close parallel to the textual/performance process of the classical age of commedia dell’arte. Actors can discover a specific burla or ‘‘running gag’’ that works for this specific audience, or try to see how far the audience will go in a specific vein. They are also free to comment broadly on anything from current events to the performance and the audience. Rather than attempting to create any type of consistent or conventional characterization, the Ubu company is a company of clowns that seems to be making up the characters as they go along, employing anything from song-and-dance, stand-up comedy, acrobatics, to low farce and mime.

Most theater seeks to render the audience passive; the result is the deadening feel to so many contemporary productions. It seeks to bludgeon us into a lethargic loss of individuality, to surrender up our consciousness so that our experience can be shaped and manipulated by the production. This technique is not without its social ramifications. Brecht was quick to realize that although this model can be made to work for Shakespeare and Ibsen, it also worked for Goebbels and Hitler—something about this ‘‘fascist’’ theater experience can effect our reactions to situations and events outside the theater. Interestingly, the theories of Wagner, Appia and Craig reached their zenith not at Bayreuth but at Nuremburg.

The Irondale’s Ubu Roi employs another model of consciousness. Its production lives, moment-to-moment, only by the direct, active involvement of its audience. There is no pre-determined terminal point when the production is ‘‘finished’’ or ready. It is a commonplace that comedy is subversive. The ‘‘low comedy’’ technique that marks clowning is perhaps anti-authoritarian by its very nature, and this type of satire is itself an act of rebellion. Clearly, Jarry’s play is a rebellion against bourgeois values, ethics and ‘‘good taste.’’ The Irondale Ensemble attempts to extend this revolt further not simply by rebelling against Jarry’s text but by the company’s revolt against the notion of the fixed text and their refusal to accept the authoritarian restraints imposed upon conventional theater performance.

Source: Michael Zelenak, ‘‘Ubu Rides Again: The Irondale Project and the Politics of Clowning’’ in Theatre, Vol. XVII, no. 3, Summer/Fall, 1987, pp. 43–45.


Critical Overview