“Merdre!” This elaboration on the French word “Merde!” caused a sensation in 1896, at the premiere of Ubu Roi (King Ubu) in Paris. Half the audience was revolted, half enthusiastic. Several people walked out. Insults and variants of the offending word were exchanged. Eventually, theater seats flew in the air and those in the boxes shook their fists at the stage. The performance was halted for at least 15 minutes, and was repeatedly interrupted by the uproar.
Louise France, who played Mère Ubu, was told “You’re drunk, you slut!” The influential critic for Le Temps, Francisque Sarcey, was annoyed by a woman clapping furiously behind him. She then came close to him and whispered, “You old bastard!” He left during the first act. One spectator stood on his seat and shouted, “Can’t you see they’re making bloody fools of us?” Poet Fernand Gregh, as quoted in Alfred Jarry, A Pataphysical Life, by Alastair Brotchie (MIT, 2011), opined “It’s as beautiful as Shakespeare!” His brother retorted, “You’ve never even read Shakespeare, you imbecile!” Backstage, the composer, Claude Terrasse, who was performing the music, couldn’t hear and was reduced to clashing a cymbal every once in a while. Like many of Jarry’s works, the play reminds us of the fine line between a hoax and a masterpiece.
Roger Shattuck, in The Banquet Years, (Random House, 1955), his classic history of fin de siècle French culture, recounts the following incident, which took place at the cabaret Lapin Agile. Frédé, the proprietor, had a donkey named Lolo who participated courageously in many of the wild avant-garde celebrations. A group of young artists, led by writer Dorgelès, concocted an entire painting utilizing Lolo’s waving tail. The resulting picture was hung at the Salon des Indépendants and was reviewed favorably by several critics. It is worth noting that after Sarcey called Ubu Roi a “filthy fraud”, he was ridiculed by the rebellious artistic community. Writer Alphonse Allais published a notorious series of columns under Sarcey’s name with titles such as “How I Became an Idiot.”
As for Ubu, he represents everything that is wrong with humanity, which turns out to be quite a lot. Played by the riveting Colin Connor, he is a lunatic of genius, explaining blandly, hands fluttering, why the citizens of Poland must pay their taxes or, well, be killed. The black makeup which surrounds his eyes renders him magnificently ghoulish. As Ma Ubu, Haely Jardas has a madly cheerful twinkle in her eye as (with apologies to Lady Macbeth) she recommends various horrifying courses of action, such as the murder of King Wenceslaus (Sarah Wilby), insurrection, and war. Few citizens survive Ubu’s reign, and they are not the lucky ones.
As King Wenceslaus, Sarah Wilby is delightfully ebullient and unsuspecting. She trumpets her faith in Ubu with bumptious self-regard, and only abandons it when it is much too late to do anything else. Madeline Key is superb as Wenceslaus’ son, Bourgelas, and as the Queen, represented by a lady puppet all in blue. As Bordure, Ubu’s friend, Lee Gerstenhaber skillfully suggests one of those Shakespearean lords who are always urging the king to do this or that terrible thing. It never seems to end well, does it?
The ensemble (Sarah Wilby, Nick Martin, Scott Whalen, and Mary Myers) are outstanding not only in their performances but in their connection to one another. They are one of the finest ensembles I have seen.
Director and Set Designer Frank Labovitz, Costume Designer Ivania Stack, Puppet Designers Patti Kalil and Rachel Menyuk, Lighting Designer Mary Keegan, and Props Designer Amy Kellett provide a deeply satisfying visual interpretation of what many consider the first modern play.
Director/Composer/Musician Mike Winch, with instruments such as accordion, drum, ukulele, and others, offers a musical accompaniment that enriches the experience on every level. No one should miss this hilarious production. But the question remains; did Alfred Jarry, as Roger Shattuck and others have claimed, really turn into Ubu?
André Gide described Jarry thus:
Having a plaster colored complexion, outfitted like a circus clown, playing the role of a fantastically constructed character, resolutely artificial…[His manner of speaking was] strange, implacable, without inflection, without nuance, with a style of equally accenting each syllable, including the mute ones. A nutcracker would speak thusly.
This is distinctly Ubu-esque. But Brotchie comments that among friends Jarry could be sensitive and courteous. At times Jarry seemed to enjoy playing Ubu; still at other times it was simply what was expected of him. Franco-American poet Stuart Merrill reported that at a society banquet the hostess said to him, “But Monsieur Jarry, you are just like everybody else, not at all the extraordinary and extremely ill-mannered person described to me, indeed it is obvious that you have been very well brought up.” “Merdre,” Jarry replied. Bring back that roast, or by my gidouille (belly), I’ll have you all disembrained.” When the roast appeared, he devoured it with both hands.
Jarry was dogged by poverty and ill-health. He died at the age of 34 of alcoholism and tuberculosis. Apart from his voluminous literary output, he invented pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions. He is still principally known for King Ubu, which influenced, among others, Ionesco, Beckett, and the Theater of the Absurd. Yet it is clear that he surmounted great difficulties to achieve an exemplary artistic life. As Stephen Sondheim once said, “Art isn’t easy.”
Running Time: Two hours, with an intermission.
‘King Ubu’ at Pointless Theatre Company reviewed by Michael Poandl on DCMetroTheaterArts.