By Helen Muller
The première was more than the opening of a controversial play: it was a literary civil war.
–Maurice Marc LaBelle
Considering Ubu Roi’s history as a play that broke boundaries and began conversation, it is not surprising that it has been used to effect social change, even nearly a century after its premiere. The first performance of the play attempted “to penetrate forcefully and profoundly beneath bourgeois hypocrisy” (LaBelle 90), but how does the content translate to more modern geopolitical atmospheres and situations?
One cannot discuss the production history of Ubu Roi without first discussing the premiere performance on December 10th, 1896. As mentioned in other sections, the first performance of the play ended in “one of the greatest uproars which the French theatre has ever seen,” and which served as a catalyst for the Avant-Garde movement in French theatre (Beaumont 59). The title character was performed by Firmin Gémier, who later became an extremely successful metteur-en-scène and producer (LaBelle 118). Much emphasis was placed on vocal technique: Père Ubu (here Gémier) adapted a “brusque, staccato diction” which was modeled after Jarry’s own voice, and Mère Ubu (played by Louise France) spoke in a patois dialect (Beaumont 62). Before the production, Jarry addressed the audience, offering, “You are free to see in M. Ubu however many allusions you care to, or else a simple puppet—a school boy’s caricature of one of his professors who personified for him all the ugliness in the world” (Jarry 399). This invitation to personal and imaginative thought surely influenced the reception of the performance, and the magnitude of the water-ripples formed thereafter in the world of Avant-Garde theatre.
Ubu and the Truth Commission
“Some horrors you just can’t stage,” claims critic William Triplett, referring to the South African apartheid. Absurdism may be a key to this problem. An attempt to use the controversial and absurd power of Ubu Roi emerged in Jane Taylor’s 1997 adaptation, entitled Ubu and the Truth Commission. The “stunningly theatrical multimedia piece” used live acting, puppetry, animations, music, and documentary footage from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to convey the mayhem of apartheid-era South Africa (Triplett). Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar) and Ma Ubu (Busi Zokufa) portray characters reminiscent of the original Ubu Roi and his wife, whose relationship is strained by suspicions of philandering and the realities of unjust violence (Triplett). The play was produced by the Handspring Puppet Company in Johannesburg before enjoying a tour to Los Angeles and New York.
Beaumont, Keith. Jarry, Ubu Roi. London: Grant & Cutler, 1987. Print.
Jarry, Alfred. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard, 1972. Print.
LaBelle, Maurice Marc. Alfred Jarry, Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd. New York: New York UP, 1980. Print.
Triplett, William. “Ubu: Horror With a Silver Lining of Hope.” The Washington Post. N.p., 22 Sept. 1998. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.