Ubu Roi: Alfred Jarry’s Scandalous Play Strikingly Adapted for Television (1965)

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Lynch Presents the His­to­ry of Sur­re­al­ist Film (1987)

Watch Dreams That Mon­ey Can Buy, a Sur­re­al­ist Film by Man Ray, Mar­cel Duchamp, Alexan­der Calder, Fer­nand Léger & Hans Richter

Un Chien Andalou: Revis­it­ing Buñuel and Dalí’s Sur­re­al­ist Film

The Hearts of Age: Orson Welles’ Sur­re­al­ist First Film (1934)

Man Ray and the Ciné­ma Pur: Four Sur­re­al­ist Films From the 1920s

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.