Revolutionary ‘Roi’

Miki Johnson

The story surely sounds familiar.

Ubu, a nobleman, betrays the king of Poland, usurps the throne, hikes the taxes and slays his competition. The vengeful, deposed prince returns, bloody battles ensue and the new king is chased from the kingdom.

While its plot line is hardly revolutionary, the style and dialogue of “Ubu Roi,” a Wave production opening tonight in the Norris University Center Louis Room, was once considered just that.

“Merde.” “Shit,” loosely translated from the original French. The word has become so accepted now and its indecency so deteriorated that I can write it here without fear of censure. But on “Ubu’s” opening night in 1896 this simple word, the first word of the play, signaled a “breaking point in theatrical revolution,” as director and Communication senior Brian Deneen puts it.

Before “Ubu” theater was highly realistic and conformed to endless strict conventions. But as William Butler Yeats (who was in the audience that first night) observed with his oft-quoted “after us, the savage god,” the legacy left by “Ubu” and its writer, Alfred Jarry, would focus more and more on the crude, the absurd and the irreverent. Thus Jarry would later be claimed as the godfather of movements such as absurdist, Dadaist and surrealist theater.

But now that those revolutions have come and gone, and George Carlin has brought his “seven words you can’t say on TV” to the American public, is there anyone left to shock or offend? Deneen admits the historical context surrounding his production of “Ubu” necessarily changes the play’s impact.

“Those sort of conventions, or what theater was in France in the 1890s, doesn’t really exist anymore,” Deneen says. “That’s very remote to us … we’re not as squeamish about things.”

So while many scholars treat “Ubu” with a reverence and dedication to its exact text, Deneen and his cast spent the weeks since their rehearsals began after Winter Break cutting archaisms, updating images and improvising to fill any holes left in the script.

“I don’t think this is a museum-like piece, and I don’t think it’s worth doing unless directors want to breath life into the material,” Deneen insists. “The changes I have made have been to try to understand this play better and to make it work with these actors at Northwestern in this season and at this time.”

But it is not only the foul language in “Ubu” — where “motherfucker” and “cocksucker” pop up as often as “thee” and “wherefore” in Shakespeare — that distinguished it from its predecessors. The characters live in an essentially alternate universe that shares more with Looney Tunes than reality. In one scene the king of Poland shows his disdain for his youngest son by giving him a pube. In another sane Ubu explains his tax policy as: “I’ll get very rich, then kill everyone in the world, then tax their corpses.” Not surprisingly, “Ubu’s” cast was challenged to turn such illogical actions from two-dimensional characters into something believable and compelling.

“The key thing I have to tell myself is whatever emotional state is being played needs to be played at a 10,” says Communication senior Mamie Gummer, who plays Ubu’s power-hungry, brains-behind-the-idiot wife. “You can’t sort of have all these internal reflections,” she explains, then repeats a quote Deneen apparently has drilled into his actors: “The action precedes the thought.”

Gummer also was initially uncertain about the amount of improvisation built into “Ubu’s” rehearsal process, especially contrasted with her self-admitted affinity for “specificity” and “clarity.”

“This play doesn’t allow you to be safe,” Gummer says. “It sort of forced everyone, I think successfully, to break free from that conventional style … as much as possible Brian (Deneen) has gotten us to do it from the gut.”

Once the dust had settled from so much script simplifying and safety nets being removed, Deneen and his cast found themselves — almost accidentally — in the middle of a comedy. Jarry’s original production was in many ways comedic, but Deneen insists that he “wasn’t trying to make it funny.”

“The tone is something we have sort of arrived at in rehearsing it,” he explains. The tone, aside from being humorously overstated, leans decidedly toward toilet jokes, a “grotesque farce” as Deneen puts it. But at first the play’s preoccupation with “merde” pointed Deneen toward politics, not comedy.

“At first I had all these ideas like … ‘shit’ is this really powerful metaphor for America right now,” Deneen said. “So through rehearsing it I’ve decided that that’s not really this production.”

Of course, what this production is, or is trying to be, its production team is understandably evasive about.

“I want the audience to have whatever response they have,” says Communication junior Nicole Ripley, “Ubu’s” producer. “I want people to have a visceral response and for that response to make them think.”

“Ubu” will run tonight at 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m. Tickets are available at the Norris Box Office and at the door — $5 with a Wildcard and $8 general admission.4

Medill senior Miki Johnson is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected].