Arts & Events

AROUND & ABOUT THEATER: 'Ubu' at Cuttting Ball

By Ken Bullock
Friday January 31, 2014 - 03:53:00 PM

"Äfter us, the Savage God." Young W. B. Yeats' melancholy pronouncement, the morning after one of the notable theater riots that took place periodically in Paris, from the heyday of Victor Hugo in the 1830s through 'Rite of Spring' & Picabia & Satie's 'Mercure', well into the 20th century, was handwringing over the implications of what 'Ubu Roi,' which opened & closed December 10, 1893, seemingly a mad farce by a 23-year old Alfred Jarry, pumped up from a scatologically-spoken schoolboy puppet show he & his friends put on in lycee to gig an unpopular teacher. (Yeats mentions the actors playing leapfrog onstage.)  

In retrospect, 'Úbu's' been called the predecessor of Dada & the postwar, post-surrealist theater dubbed Absurdist--the first completely modern play. Starting out as a puerile parody of 'Macbeth' & a little bit of 'Hamlet' (the opening word, "Merdre,"at which the audience erupted as the pear-shaped hero waved his toilet rush imperiously, is a schoolboy combo of "le Mot de Cambron" with a bad English class reading of "Murder most foul" from Hamlet's Father's Ghost), 'Ubu' descends or ascends into inspired nonsense, as the Entire Polish Army invades the Tsar's Russia, is outflanked by a rebellion at home ... Epic stuff for a mere handful of actors who play the part, at times, of such masses. 

Jarry, though, had a deep knowledge of Baroque & German & French Romantic theater (Apollinaire called him "the last sublime debauchee of the Renaissance), & well knew how to turn conventions on their head for a purpose. He had played the part of a troll in Ibsen's 'Peer Gynt' & took the kind of foolish bourgeois speech Ibsen took from Kierkegaard's sense of banal "drivel," carrying it through the scatological realm to a kind of Symbolist purity of anality: "Cliches are the armature of the Absolute."  

He also acquired from his fellow Breton, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, poet whose plays influenced Ibsen, Strindberg & the whole Symbolist tradition, as well as sharing the fascination for a traditional Celtic character, a bombast & bore like Ubu (or Villiers' Tribulat Bonhomet), but one who can come forth with sublime absurdity, as did mad King Sweeney of the old Irish stories, who thinks he's a bird & sings exquisite tragic songs of his ludicrous fate, nesting in trees. T. S. Eliot & Flann O'Brien both appropriated Sweeney for their own as well.  

'Ubu' is seldom performed, though it's attracted attention, particularly in the music world, with the eponymous bad & the longtime interest the late Frank Zappa displayed in the big puppet-headed freak. 

But Cutting Ball Theater's putting on a production the next three weeks, directed by Russian director Yury Umov (Woolly Mammoth Theatre), from a new translation by Cutting Ball's Rob Melrose, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, with matinees Saturday at 2, sunday at 5, through February 23, Exit Theater on Taylor, 227 Taylor, san francisco (near Powell St. BART, not far off Union Square), $20-$50, with free student rush, line open 30 minutes before show. Check out what Ubu's about, presumably without the Fin-de-Siecle riot.