PRINT February 1964

Ubu Roi

UBU, A UNIQUE fin de siecle drama, preceded the theatre of the absurd by 50 years, yet is as modern as Ionesco and Beckett.*

The play has 34 scenes and 45 characters; we used 11 actors. Jarry’s production note says “. . . adoption of a single set or rather of a plain backcloth. . . . The costumes should give as little as possible the impression of local color or chronology. They should preferably be modern as the satire is modern; and sordid, to make the play appear more wretched and horrific.”

In 1961 sculptor Robert Hudson and I collaborated on a Happening, or as we called it an EVENT, in which Bill Wiley added his paint brush and influence. The idea was to develop improvisational theatre; the object, to create images on a stage, to use the theatre as it had not been used before by performers (in this case mimes).

From this first show, “Shultz Eats Rats,” or EVENT 1, we formed a creative friendship that grew during our collaboration for UBU. Wiley and I talked about the play; he read it. I said, “Just send in your designs and I’ll have other people do them.” (For some reason I thought I was running a large organization.) Wiley accepted and did most of his own painting, costuming and often building of props. What this meant for the play and for the company was that the designer—despite earlier dreams—was right there working alongside the actors and the director.

Wiley and I talked about some basic ideas, about color for the show. As I started to direct, Wiley began to see what he wanted; it was a dialectical process. Wiley would get an idea, put it on paper, or give it to the costumer, or bring in something he found at the second hand stores. We told actors to put on anything, anything around the studio to define character, bits of costumes, props. One group used paper swords and an actor asked: “When are we going to get the real swords to use?” I said, “You’ve got it in your hand.” As I got the actors to move on stage, Wiley saw visually what he might do with each scene. Which came first, the conception or design? Let us say we grew side by side and crossed when it seemed reasonable.

We wanted surrealism, we got surprise, constant surprise in action and in design. The whole process was an interaction between the theatre and the artist—or was it theatre in the arts? The artist did not have a job to do, simply to design, to paint a set, to sculpt a prop. Wiley functioned as an integral part of the esthetic whole. He contributed to its conception; in turn his own work for the play was shaped by his vision of actors on a stage, being directed.

R. G. Davis

* On December 10, 1963, the 67th Anniversary of the original opening in 1896, the San Francisco Mime Troupe opened its presentation of UBU ROI, by Alfred Jarry. The production was directed by R. G. Davis, with music by Steven Reich. The sets, props and costumes were disguised by William Wiley.