The scenery looks familiar: a well-appointed, upper-middle-class home that could be the setting for any number of the domestic dramas that still dominate the mainstream American stage. Everything is white and modern: the couch, the dining table, the place settings for six, the white-on-white paintings on the upstage wall, flanking its two doors. Only the tall flowers in a crystal vase splash a little primary color into the space.
Of course, this decorous home is just waiting to be trashed, but not in the conventional metaphoric manner of the standard dysfunctional family play. Rather, it will soon be the site of regicide, mass executions, and torture; battles in Ukraine; and a cave in Lithuania—during a snowstorm. Last month, director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, joint artistic directors of the London-based company Cheek by Jowl, shrewdly staged Alfred Jarry’s 1896 brutal burlesque Ubu Roi at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival in New York City as the fevered Oedipal fantasy of a bourgeois adolescent. The fellow, that is, who, though not listed among Jarry’s characters, is nevertheless curled up on the chalky colored couch. His parents are preparing for a dinner party as he sulks and plays around with a camcorder. Abruptly, crass, ruthless Ubu intrudes. The parents assume the roles of Mère and Père Ubu, who kill their king, usurp the throne, and pillage their way across a continent. The boy takes up the part of the king’s vengeful son, and the three dinner guests those of all of the Ubus’ collaborators, rivals, and victims.
The conceit makes good historical and theatrical sense. Jarry’s inspiration for Ubu Roi was a juvenile prank: boys in his high school made fun of a fat, pompous teacher, Mr. Hébert, by featuring him as Père Ebé, the protagonist of satirical sketches; the 15-year-old Jarry adapted one into a marionette show. Later, at age 23, Jarry adjusted the vowels in the character’s name and elaborated the plot to create Ubu Roi, without bowdlerizing the puerile potty jokes or the flailing attacks on authority. Jarry even set up the two-night run of the play at Paris’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre (the first really just an invited dress rehearsal) to erupt into a scandal. The apocryphal story, long taught in modern drama classes, describes an uptight, upscale audience beginning to stomp and boo after the very first word of the play was uttered by Père Ubu: “Merdre!” which is translated in the Cheek by Jowl version (in supertitles—the production is performed in French by a compact company of six actors) as “Shitka!”
As it happens, Jarry had recruited his drinking buddies to stir up squabbles during the performance, but the work has come down to us as the epitome of épater la bourgeoisie. Some scholars have gone so far as to say Jarry founded avant-garde theater (though he was following, if not in lockstep, Symbolist dramas that had already played at the same theater).