Pere Ubu and the Brothers Quay present the WORLD PREMIERE of Bring Me The Head Of Ubu Roi
Unedited and unorganized ramblings by David Thomas
What is the Quay Brothers' role in the production?
Their role is to provide the staging, visually. This will be accomplished via a series of projections of animation, visuals, video, etc, on a cyc that will fill the back of the stage area. Evidently they have long been interested in doing something with the play and so it was a fortuitous set of circumstances that put us together. Being a musician, influenced by Jarry's artificial approach to theatrical spectacle, I have always been bored by having to deal with staging. Stage lighting I find particularly offensive as a LONG string of lighting guys we've run into will attest to. "What!? I need your stinking flashing lights to make me interesting to an audience?! Turn them on, take out the cheesy colored gels and go home early." I originally had the idea of creating Rube Goldberg contraptions 7-feet tall to represent Mere & Pere. These would have been ungainly awkward contraptions that we would run off the front of the stage by "accident" and abandon after about 2 scenes. I always figure once you show the "joke" it's too much trouble to keep it going just because you've blown the whole budget on it. So getting the Quays involved worked out much better.
I believe that it is an adapted version of Ubu Roi - how much has the text been changed or rewritten?
I have adapted it but chopped and channeled wholesale as I saw fit. I have taken the scenes that I feel are most important and then where I thought necessary added or subtracted. I tried to be "respectful" to the original but not slavish to it. I have not updated or made it relevant. Certain elements of the plot I have translated to song structures where elegant to do so. I believe it will be very recognizable to Ubu-afficiandos (sp?). I have added elements in the spirit of the original, particularly in the area that originally interested me in this project - the notion that the Politico-Media Industrial Complex is filled with characters far more grotesque than Jarry's character could have ever been.
Do you use any of Jarry's original song lyrics?
No, mainly because they're not really good lyrics for music. Like many/most non-musicians who write lyrics he didn't have a good grip on what makes for a song. (Sorry, ubu-philes). Plus French language lyrics are particularly ungainly. Not a good language for music unless you use accordions. (Sorry, francophiles). Of course I wanted to be able to attempt Song Of the Disembraining but it's not really a very good song. Title of course is great but it meanders on and on forever to very little effect. Typical of non-musicians dabbling in music.
To what extent are your new songs influenced by Jarry's own and his texts, and to what extent do they represent you bringing your own artistic vision to the play.
The songs are rock songs. We are a rock band. The songs are American. We are Americans. We're not going to pretend to be something we're not. Soft Machine and other great non-American bands have done Jarry-esque songs brilliantly with their own voice. It's not our voice. So what is the justification. A la Welles, I reply, We're the only band in the world who has for more than 30 years followed a Jarry-esque or even Pataphysical course in rock music. We got a right to do what we want. The play is about ideas. The clothes you put on ideas are fashions that come and go, appear stylish for awhile and then look dated. The ideas are what count and what survive. I'm a Platonic sort of dude. "Modern is just Old Hat chromed."
When did you first come across Alfred Jarry's work?
In high school. Pretty standard experience for a certain kind of teenager in late 60s/early 70s liberal education. My clique was the Outcast Geek. I was a science nerd. My best buddy was an art nerd. Usual partnership of nerds. He had a sound-on-sound recorder and an 8mm camera and we made "films." One of us, or somebody else, discovered Jarry and the word spread.
Other than giving Pere Ubu their name - and the refrain of "Merdre, merdre" on "The Modern Dance" - did Jarry's work have any influence on your or the band's approach to writing music and lyrics?
The thing that impressed me over the time of immersing myself on Jarry in high school and the point at which I formed Pere Ubu was Jarry's theatrical production ideas. It seemed to me that his method called for and encouraged the engaging of the audience's imagination(s) in the creative process. Use of placards, etc., pataphysical notions, and anti-naturalism. This method resonated with my love of 60s radio - not music radio but after-midnight talk shows on UFOs, etc, and radio plays in which clever and minimal use of concrete sound powerfully augmented the narrative. As synthesized, concrete and abstract sound techniques and technology developed, evolved and were integrated into rock music then pure sound as a powerful narrative voice in its own right came into play. The object was the same as Jarry's seemed to be, to engage the imagination of the audience in the creative process. To confound, illuminate, generate chaos for its own sake and for its reality-mimicking properties, to frustrate the will of the narrator and thereby minimize the artifice in the art, to overlay intentions with counter-intentions, self-doubt, fear and hope, to provide a God's Eye over-view of any aspiration, etc etc. In other words, to create an art that as accurately as possible in a 3-minute song mimics the human condition.
There are two particular aspects of 'Pataphysics that to my mind run through Pere Ubu's music: one is Jarry's outlining of it as dealing with Ambiguity, Innocence,Blasphemy and Absurdity; the other is that, specifically in music, refusal to drop dissonance creates an effect that could be deemed "horrible", but that relief could be found in humour. That's me paraphrasing his views a bit, but do you think that's a fair comment?
INSIGHTS INTO PROCESS
One reason that Ubu Roi endures is that, like water is the Universal Solvent, Pere Ubu is the Universal Monster. Whoever you personally think is the Bad Guy - whether you demonize those on the Left or the Right, or everyone In-Between, the Church or the State, Big Business or Big Labor - Pere Ubu can supply the face and voice. Ubu is a portrait of the soul of every do-gooder monster.
For years I have been reluctant to take on Ubu Roi. It was not the play's contemporary social criticism. Pere Ubu is a venal, corrupt and utterly grotesque caricature that to this day cannot be improved upon as a parody of any number of social roles - politician, do-gooder, ruler, would-be-ruler, social engineer, talking head, etc. And I have long been aware that the state of pre-World War I European social ambitions, the arrogant class and political mind-set, etc., are perfectly mirrored in modern Europe.
Still I hesitated because (1) of a dread of nostalgia and (2) of the same issues that are involved in choosing to do a cover version of a song. In other words, why bother to do something that's been done better by someone else first. As well, with Ubu Roi there is the trap that is sprung if you try to update it or make it relevant.
In the end I jumped because I decided that, as with Shakespeare, I was now experienced enough to understand Mere & Pere Ubu... and have affection for them. I meet them down at the pub - they're drinking buddies. I see them at the shops and on tv. And of course there is the mighty influence that Jarry had on my own "artistic" history. More on that later. As well, Jarry, it seemed to me, had a deep mistrust for visual information. Being a musician I despise anything that can be seen. If you want to see clearly close your eyes. I realize that this may be taking Jarry too far but it's my production and I get to do what I want and say what I want and change the facts into anything I want. I learned this from Oprah Winfrey and Orson Welles. Always make sure that the initials of influences you choose are identical or create a pattern.
Clarification on the Orson Welles comment: I refer you to an Orson Welles interview of years ago talking about his version of The Trial. The interviewer challenged him that his film was at odds with Kafka's characterization of Joseph K as an innocent caught up in machinations of the Faceless Soul-less State. Welles replied, "He's guilty as hell." (And who was going to press Welles past that!)
With that in mind, the first decision was to condense the play. There's too many characters and too much phaffing about and too many extraneous scenes. It's about Mere and Pere Ubu. Next insight was that the Media Industrial Complex embraces characters far more grotesque than Pere Ubu could ever be. Then I decided that it would be a musical production undertaken as much as possible by the band Pere Ubu... a personal ambition by way of paying off a debt to Jarry.
The Brothers Quay were suggested by RFH Musical Director Glenn Max. The collaborative process has been simple. If someone wants to work with me then they have the right stuff. Working with me is guaranteed career endangerment, not to be undertaken lightly. I had no idea of who the Quays were. Everybody else seems to know but I don't watch films, tv or video unless a space ship or baseball is involved. The Quays don't involve themselves with either. So how am I supposed to know? I don't make the Rules. I obey. We met. We talked. We immediately understood each other and the project and how it all would fit together. I don't trust visual information of any kind. The Quays were clearly men who were capable of taming the Eye Beast. I told them I'd be delighted to stay out of their way and let them get on with doing what they feel most. They sent me pictures. They were, as I knew they must be, perfect. No space ships. Or baseball. But perfect nevertheless. Only people who don't understand need to talk. We have no need of talking. Talking is for the weak, the uncertain... and girls. Ha-ha! (I mean it.) We are men who stand in the moment and can deliver the goods. So down to the process: Only work with people who are Masters, and who Understand. If you choose to work with such people then don't get in their way unless they appear to be set on a course that will break The Rules. Don't make up the Rules. Don't work with people who feel the need to talk to you. Don't work with children or animals. Don't run into the furniture.
THEATER AND ROCK
I came to Ubu Roi as a high school student in Cleveland Ohio. Everyone I knew was versed in Jarry - I didn't have many friends. It's the sort of thing you were into as a 16 year old in America in the late 60s. I was taken with his theatrical and production ideas. Jarry had very specific notions about the value of theatrical artifice as a means of engaging the imagination of an audience in the production. These ideas resonated with feelings I had about the use of abstract, concrete and synthesized sound in the narrative architecture of rock music, tools to engage the imagination of the listener in detailing the picture told by the sound of music and sound of the lyric. This in turn was something I had learned from my passion for AM Radio - not music radio but talk shows, radio dramas, the Goon Show, the Firesign Theater, etc. To see clearly close your eyes. Oh, and Plato is involved here too. The Cave. Sound is the only pure visual language.
The Ubu plays were also important in another way that reflects on my understanding of the Ether Festival (Glenn should correct where I may go wrong with this). At the heart of Jarry's production ideas was a gestalt of various performance media and a confusion of inputs. The characters were to be played as puppets, or BY puppets, seemingly depending on Jarry's current feelings. They were to wear masks and speak in monotones or affected voices. If the Russian Army was to cross the Vistula River then it would be played by one person. Similarly a crowd would be played by a single person. Placards described the scene. There was little use of scenary if at all. It was a play for the mind and imagination, a drama of ideas and grotesqueries rather than candy for the eyes. The narrative, in other words, was not the result of a single initiative but rather the coming together of disparate and incongruous elements allowed to inter-mingle by an over-riding, overbearing Narrative Voice. Me in this case. Jarry in his case.
Theater has two major weaknesses that have never been overcome despite the best minds working at it for hundreds of years. Problem One: Everybody on stage has to stand in a line and speak loudly. Problem Two (shared with film): The thing starts, something happens and it ends. Not very realistic at all and even that Godot guy didn't solve it, irregardless of all claims to the contrary. Jarry pointed the way around the problem but was not a musician. As with Edison an Elvis becomes inevitable. With Jarry, the theatrical role of musique concrete and abstract sound becomes inevitable. Theater must happen in the mind of the audience. Allowing the audience to look at something confuses them and straight-jackets the ideas of the theatrical production. I go further than Jarry but start with him: Why the hell do the actors have to wear costumes? Why does there have to be a damn chair on stage? Show the Eye-Candy and dump it as quickly as possible. Chop off the head of the Eye Beast.
Over the years I have been asked by any number of people if I have ever wanted to have a go at Ubu Roi. Glenn is only the latest in a long line. But he's the one I said Yes (well, "maybe") to. In the end I figured I was ready to deal with it, ready to meet it head on - not as a master to it or a servant to it but as an equal. I did the Mirror Man "opera" some years ago. I played in Shockheaded Peter in the West End. I watched and learned and I figured I was ready. So here we are.