In Erich Segal’s study of comedy, which I just finished reading (my brief account on Goodreads is here), Segal says, “Arguably the first agent provocateur of [the modern revolution in comedy] was Alfred Jarry, whose Ubu Roi deliberately violated or methodically threw away all the traditional rules.” Segal goes on to label the play “shocking, scatological, unstructured, oneiric, and puerile” (as you may detect, he’s not a fan of modern comedy), describes its plot as a “deranged travesty of Macbeth,” and reports that its first performance, in 1896, caused major upsets in its Parisian audience, as did Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring some years later. By a stroke of luck, I’ve seen it produced, by a college theater program, with a cast that included Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley as Père and Mère Ubu. Perhaps wisely, that production didn’t aim for shock—Jarry’s opening word, “Merdre,” was rendered as “Suck-egg-mule”—but I recall it as achieving a kind of crazed, maniacal fun.
Regrettably, I didn’t get around to seeing the play again last month, when the Cheek by Jowl company presented it in New York under the auspices of the Lincoln Center Festival, but that production has been made available for online streaming for a brief period. Though I received notice of the stream as a subscriber to the LCF’s email list, it appears that anyone can watch it here, through August 9.