“Merdre,” the very first word spoken in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, needs no introduction. When it first opened — and closed — on stage in 1896, it didn’t have to do much more than that to get its audience worked up. As soon as this hyper-vulgar satire of the powerful came to its deliberately undramatic end, a “riot” broke out, history books invariably note. Something in Jarry’s tale of the savage, infantile, and all-desiring royalty of the title touched a nerve, and the Surrealist and Theatre of the Absurd movements that followed would strive to keep on touching it. But the strange, low-minded Ubu Roi and its sequels would, while no longer liable to prompt fisticuffs, retain a kind of power over the next century and beyond. That legacy is visible even in French political discourse, where the insult “Ubuesque” tends to get thrown around to describe a certain impulsive, self-satisfying kind of public figure.
Jean-Christopher Averty’s television production of Ubu Roi above first aired in 1965. Its content, presumably by then familiar enough to the viewing audience, no longer shocked, but its aesthetic choices still look striking today. “I can almost guarantee you will never see another film that looks even remotely like this,” says The Sick, the Strange, and the Awful. It “dispels any types of camera panning, zooms and even moving the camera at all,” placing, “at any one time, three, four, six different mini-scenes onscreen, all interacting with each other in bizarre ways. Characters will pass things to each other, and the item will change size depending on where the camera is. It’s visually disorientating, and cool as hell.” The simply attired characters against backgrounds reduced to their most basic elements (when not just a black void) retain the theatricality of the material, but it all comes together visually with the kind of optical effects that had only recently become possible. Jarry’s daring presaged the era of anything-goes theatre; only natural that his work would go on to explore the limitless visual possibilities opened at the dawn of the video age. But if it started any riots in middle-class French living rooms, history has left them unrecorded.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.