Thursday, March 12, 2009

Opening night, 1896

From a MilkMag detailed story on Ubu's creator and the notorious opening-night (and preview-night) responses to the play:

On the evening of [December] 9th, [1896], friends, intellectuals, and fellow supporters gathered to see what sort of monstrosity Jarry had created. Many of them had already read the play [...]. What was a little unnerving though was Jarry's curtain speech. Rachilde had tried to talk him out of this, but he insisted following the fashion of the day. In front of the curtain a table was placed. Jarry appeared and walked over to it like an android. He was dressed in a "baggy black suit" and his hair was "plastered down like Bonaparte." Beaumont describes him as looking like a "circus clown in a white shirt with a huge starched front and an enormous bow-tie" and his face white from fear. The speech was "delivered in the clipped tones of Ubu." Jarry thanked many of the critics in the audience and followed with what I believe to be quintessential pataphysics.

[...] He then made a number of apologies as to the final state of the production. He claimed there was not enough time for rehearsal, and that this had resulted in certain cuts to the script―including "several passages indispensable to the meaning and equilibrium of the play.". He also admitted that "he and his celebrated scene painters (which included Toulouse-Lautrec, Sérusier, and Bonnard) had been 'up all night' painting last minute props" and that the grand orchestra had to be reduced to a piano and a drum. He ended by saying, "as to the action that is about to begin, it takes place in Poland―that is to say, nowhere." He bowed awkwardly and left.

In front of a restless audience, Ma and Pa Ubu took to the stage. Playing the title role was the "magnificent actor Fermin Gémier, on loan from the Comédie Francaise." Most accounts claim a riot began as soon as Gémier spoke the first word of the play. This is not true of the général. The performance actually went along without any real interruption until Act III, Scene 5. The scene involved the newly crowned King Ubu visiting his former friend Bordure at the Thorn prison. "Here in place of the door of the prison cell, an actor stood with one arm outstretched; Gérmier 'inserted' a key into his hand, made a clicking noise, and turned the arm as if opening a door." "At that moment, the audience, doubtless finding that the joke had gone on long enough, began to shout and storm.". Everything halted, until a furious Gérmier hit upon the idea of dancing a jig. "The audience broke into laughter, and the performance was able to continue, although further periodic interruptions occurred until the end."

The premiere, the following evening, was a different matter indeed. In attendance were "all the leading in the worlds of politics, journalism and letters." Grémier once again spoke the opening 'Merdre!' ('Shite'). The audience immediately burst out with a roar. Grémier was "unable to get a word in edgewise for the next fifteen minutes." It was the first time that someone had spoken such a word on the modern stage. Gémier tried to silence the audience by blowing a tramway horn. Many people left the theatre. A fight broke out in the orchestra pit, while Jarry's supporters yelled, "You wouldn't have understood Shakespeare or Wagner either!" Others shouted, "Can't you see that the author is taking us for a bunch of damned fools?" When Grémier had finally gotten slight control of the audience, he spoke the second word―another 'Merdre!' Needless to say, the audience started to howl once more. They shouted at the stage and at each other. When things quieted down again, the play proceeded as planned. Smaller outbursts continued throughout the performance. In the days that followed, the violent battle for and against Ubu Roi would move on into the Parisian press.

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