When first performed, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi shattered the boundaries of traditional French theatre styles, immediately resulting in riots and its outright ban from the stage. This becomes one of the biggest problems in presenting the play to a modern audience, and one to which we need to pay attention. While it was a foundational text in the development from avant-garde theatre into the Theatre of the Absurd, many of the elements of the play are simply not as shocking to a modern audience as they would have been for the Parisian audience of 1896.
Though Jarry clearly characterizes a complacent and gluttonous political class, the wildly scatological and vulgar methods (such as starting the play by yelling a loud, bastardized version of the word “shit” at the audience) he uses to convey it may not be enough. The Parisian audience of the 1890s was used to calmly and passively watching a structured, moral, representative portrayal of bourgeois life onstage, and were therefore shocked by the disorganized structure and abrasive content, which was full of strangely and amorally re-written stories they were used to seeing on the stage. In order to perform a worthwhile production of Ubu Roi today, we must decide whether our object is to have the audience react and be taken aback in the way they did during the premiere, or to present an accurate representation of the play itself, disregarding the modern numbed tolerance for shocking elements.
As a dramaturgical team, we believe that the second method is a way to focus on the identity and actions of Ubu himself as a reflection of an equally abhorrent modern political system. This approach would also mirror the style in which Jarry initially presented the play, that is, through a bastardized and contorted version of symbolism, by which truths are described indirectly and their forms are veiled in order to imply their shape. This is a play that explores basic human desire masked in intentions of nobility, and the futility of that pursuit.
Sincerely, Your Dramaturgical Team
*For further reference, we have included a few videos that may prove to be useful.
Firstly, to prove the point that the content of Jarry’s Ubu Roi would no longer have the same shocking impact on audiences that it did when it premiered, we conducted interviews and asked an important question:
Due to these responses, we as a dramaturgical team came to the conclusion that the presentation of Ubu Roi to a 21st-century audience would result in comic responses at best and distaste at the worst- it certainly wouldn’t evoke a riot. In fact, we argue that there would be no way to provoke a riot from a general audience with any content in the play. So, then, we encourage the director to take a different approach; we encourage him or her to recreate Jarry’s play with a modern intention and a focus apart from “upsetting the norm.”