Theater is a live art. When Alfred Jarry employed “merdre” as the first word of his play, Ubu Roi, he fully intended it to be a slap in the face. The premier showing of Ubu Roi caused a literal and metaphorical uproar in the face of naturalism. "What does absurd mean today?" asked the director of the Cutting Ball Theater’s 2014 production of Ubu Roi. In other words: how can Jarry’s Ubu continue to shock the thick-skinned audiences of today? Costume design. Modern interpretations of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi hinge on costume design. Whereas most interpretations attempt to incorporate their idea of Jarry’s original intention, that of Jarry’s masked, restricted actor, my fascination lies with those interpretations which forgo this typical application of Jarry’s theory for more creative, intertextually meaningful ones. My costumes are informed by many contemporary adaptations of Papa Ubu, the disparity between these interpretations, and Jarry’s own theories of drama.
The first productions I want to look at are those that employ puppets for the main characters. These are instances where the desires of Jarry are foregone in an effort to fully realize them. In the essay “On the Futility of the ‘Theatrical’ in the Theatre” Jarry praises the “solid structure of the skeleton” (On the Futility 164). He believes in a drama of the restriction a body, and by extension restriction by costume, place on ephemeral characteristics of actors like voice. The costume restricts the body and, as a result, ephemeral characteristics of the body become more significant in displaying character on stage. He touted that “it is better for them [lips] not to move, and that the whole play should be spoken in a monotone” because if one is wearing a mask, it will change how the voice sounds and that change is best heard if everything is spoken in monotone “as if the cavity forming the mouth of the mask were incapable of uttering anything other than what the mask would say” (On the Futility 164). It is easy to see how one could make the assumption that one step further in the direction of this theory is puppets because, with puppets, their mouths are literally not moving and the puppeteer has complete control over the body of the puppet. However, this only works if one is solely concerned with the precision of physical function.
However, the human body being involved in the acting is a key point for Jarry in Ubu Roi. This precision of movement without the body’s performance goes against what he wanted. For Jarry, human bodies have the ability to express “the inner man” and the “soul” of man (Dover 1-2). For bodies to express this most clearly they must be restricted, but that doesn’t mean that they should be abandoned. “Ubu Roi is a play that was never written for puppets, but for actors pretending to be puppets, which is not the same thing,” Jarry said before the curtain at the first performance of Ubu Roi (Dover 2).
In Eugenia's discussion post she looked at Rough House’s 2016/2017 production of Ubu Roi as an example of puppeteering which incorporates the puppeteer into the play. “Rough House’s production is interesting to consider as an example of this as it externalizes that process of the actor embodying an object as a means of bodily expression” (Eugenia). The faces of the puppeteers are clearly shown during the play. She termed this a “disembodied embodiment.” This example gets closer to Jarry’s theories than other instances of Ubu played by puppets, but it ultimately as Eugenia states at the end of her discussion post, still does not restrict the main performers’ bodies through objects, as the main performers are the puppets, and not the puppeteers.
There have been productions that have mimicked Jarry’s original costume design of the play. Kung Ubu, directed by Michael Meschke at the Marionetteater, Stockholm, in 1964 had Mama and Papa Ubu in large fat suits that impaired their movement. Franciszka Themerson, the costume designer, put Mama Ubu in an almost full head mask with a simple slit for the mouth and surrounded Papa Ubu's head with a complex wiring system after plastering it with loads of makeup. The Papa Ubu of Jean-Christophe Averty’s 1965 film adaptation probably looks the most like Jarry’s original wood carving of Papa Ubu, complete with the tall white pointy hat.
These certainly look like the original production and do to the body what the original costumes did. But the question remains of how to continue to preserve the original value of the play in a modern context.
Jarry intended “that when the curtain went up, the scene should confront the public like the exaggerating mirror in the stories of Mme Leprince de Beaumont, in which the depraved saw themselves with… whatever corresponded to their particular vice,” the public was supposed to be forced to come face to face with “its ignoble other self” (Theater Questions 124). Fat suits don’t do this. The only thing they do is propagate a prejudice and damaging association between weight and comedy. Jarry stated in his preface that the reason Papa Ubu is circular is because he personifies that “rudimentary creation” that most resembles beings that are complete, in that both achieve a spherical form from complete opposite modes of being, one from lacking all qualities and one from having an abundance of them (Dover 1). I think this can be shown without fat suits.
Therefore, for Papa Ubu, I abandon the fat suit and also the puppets, and instead begin to focus on interpretations that do the same. Other contemporary productions of Ubu Roi seem to have abandoned Jarry’s theories altogether, opting for actors to perform even without masks and in contemporary dresswear. Both productions by the Cutting Ball's Theater in 2014 and Cheek by Jowl in 2015 have characters in formal dresswear and setting. I believe this aids the current audiences in feeling the shock Jarry was trying to do originally. As Emily Mulholland. said about Cheek by Jowl’s rendition in her discussion post, “The elegance of costume and setting in the photo further emphasize the juvenile and crass nature of the play.”
But these productions achieve more than just an emphasis of the crassness of the play. Formal attire physically restricts the body. Especially in Cheek by Jowl, where the most of the AMAB actors are in three-piece suits, their movement must have been largely dictated by what was on their body. So in a sense, Jarry’s desire to restrict the body and his reasoning for it is still present in these plays and even bring Jarry’s other desire to shock the audience with an exaggerated image of themselves into a modern context.
The image from the Cutting Ball Theater where Papa Ubu is preparing for war has him adorned with various kitchen utensils. It is with this play that I want to take a closer look at examining Jarry’s theories behind the spherical Papa Ubu costume. Papa Ubu is supposed to be the most rudimentary creation while people are the opposite, having “added so many personal details that they remain equally spherical” (Dover 1). In today’s very capitalist western society we increasingly create our own identities and identify ourselves to each other with the products we use and love. If we take the Cutting Ball Theater’s Papa Ubu dressed in dinner attire, free of objects, as that rudimentary creation of Jarry’s mindscape that best topically presents as ourselves, then the Papa Ubu dressed with kitchen utensils disillusions us from the identities we have created. He is the rudimentary character with details that are just sparse enough to be noticeable and just ridiculous enough (kitchen utensils) to be an exaggeration of our own concepts of what objects should be used for. He is the shape with an exaggerated point, where we are the shapes with the most sharp edges as for them to be indistinguishable.
This idea led me to the idea to retain the spherical shape of Papa Ubu. Not as a fat suit, but with a human hamster ball. Papa Ubu would be completely physically enclosed in a human hamster ball. Whenever he physically interacted with anything, he would have to do it within the confines of his ball. If he wanted to pick something up, he could do that, but he or another character would have to reach though the ball to put it in the ball with him and he can either chose to hold the object or let it lay in his ball with him. This way, he is completely physically restricted by his costume, and so is his voice. It is also physical representation of his rudimentary being and the limits this imposes on his interaction with the world. I think Jarry would have liked this. Inside the ball, the actor will wear a three piece suit as to limit his body through exaggerated modern means. In a world where the New Yorker can write a non-satirical essay on how “the agents of propaganda recognize how moored our notions of civic engagement have become to our sense of ourselves as consumers, and how easy that fact is to aggravate and exploit” (Crouch). I think directors should recognize this, too, and that it can be revealed to the public through costume choice, if tailored enough to the public.
My other idea is to continue in the vein of masks. However, masks can do so much more than just look vaguely ridiculous, limit the audience from seeing facial movements, and change vocal sounds. Masks can suggest whole modes of being through imitation of real faces. When this being has pursed lips, angry eyes, orange skin, and a tuft of blonde hair upon its plastic, it can even suggest to a contemporary society the President of the United States in all his glory. I would have Papa Ubu wear a Donald Trump mask. Just as Jarry said “Ubu Roi is a play that was never written for puppets, but for actors pretending to be puppets, which is not the same thing,” my Papa Ubu would not be Donald Trump, but would be Papa Ubu pretending to be Donald Trump, which is not the same thing (Dover 2). The actor would be acting as Papa Ubu pretending to be Trump. If Papa Ubu was Donald Trump, Ubu’s desire to be Donald Trump would not be present in the play, and the desire is the most important aspect of this costume. It is the conscious adornment of the Trump face by Ubu that highlights for the audience a better understanding of their ignoble selves: the part that craves capitalistic power, an over abundance of wealth and the political position to gain it. It exaggerates the privilege of Ubu, an upper-class male, and his neverending desire for more. Papa Ubu will be forced to hold Trump’s face to his face the entire show, as the mask must be on a stick, restricting his dominant hand so that he may hold it up. His clothes will also imitate the Cheek by Jowl three piece suits.
There is a twist, however: just as in The Cutting Ball Theater’s production, Papa Ubu will look like any regular guy at first. He will be dressed maybe a little too nicely, but otherwise in normal clothing. The Trump mask is, at first, worn by the King Wenceslas. It is tied around his face, no need for a stick to hold it up. It is only when Ubu kills King Wenceslas does he attach the stick in order for it to become part of his own costume. This is how the play revives the original uproar it produced in 1896: it shows us, through the most exaggerated rudimentary creation, what happens if we let our ignoble selves, governed by greed and idiocy, run our lives and our country.