More than a century after it premiered, the play Ubu Roi by French playwright Alfred Jarry remains one of the most singularly brilliant accomplishments in the history of drama, a dizzyingly absurdist mashup of Macbeth and Hamlet and King Lear. Its influence in drama is too massive to be detailed here, but more interesting is its impact on rock music. Not only did David Thomas and company decide to name their new Cleveland band after the protagonist of Ubu Roi—that’s a gimme. But much more to the point, rock heroes as diverse as the Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Coil and Henry Cow have drawn inspiration from the manic adventures of the King of Poland-assassinating revolutionary.
Finally, a veteran of the NYC stage, Tony Torn, had the brilliant idea of staging a production of Ubu Roi that incorporates the songs of Pere Ubu. The project is called Ubu Sings Ubu. Why did it take more than 30 years for someone to do this?? Not surprisingly, the unsettling genius of David Thomas and that of Alfred Jarry fit together like a fish and a trampoline, to employ a suitably Dada-esque trope.
Today is Saturday, January 10, and if you are in the New York area, you can see Ubu Sings Ubu tomorrow and Monday (January 11 and 12) at the Slipper Room at 167 Orchard Street with the appropriately eerie start time of 11 pm. Tickets cost $22 at the door but you can pre-order tix for a cool eighteen smackers.
The cast includes Julie Atlas Muz, called “the quintessence of fabulousness” by the Gay City News, and the choreography is by Dan Safer, who also co-directed. Ubu Sings Ubu was, hilariously, adapted from a version of the original French text of Jarry’s Ubu Roi that was then zapped into Google Translate.
We discussed the production of Ubu Sings Ubu with its co-director and star, Tony Torn:
Dangerous Minds: Has Ubu Sings Ubu been performed before?
Tony Torn: Ubu Sings Ubu premiered at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side in Manhattan in April 2014.
I live in Cleveland, and Pere Ubu swings a pretty big dick around here. Have you ever been to Cleveland?
Yes, my good friend the poet and artist Julie Patton lives there! Cleveland rocks.
Aside from the name, what is the connection between Ubu Roi and Pere Ubu, to you?
I was an obsessive fan of Pere Ubu’s music in high school! I wore out my LP of The Modern Dance. I later discovered Alfred Jarry’s proto-surrealist masterpiece Ubu Roi by looking into the band’s influences. The idea to mash them up came 30 years ago, and it finally happened last year. The concept is … the songs of the band, Pere Ubu, done by the character, Pere Ubu. It’s a silly joke, but it’s proved to be very deep in its own way.
Obviously Pere Ubu took their name from Jarry. Is there any thematic content in the songs that relates to Ubu Roi?
It’s more a sharing of sensibilities than any explicit correlation, at least in the genius of David Thomas’ songwriting. Although it’s true that the hook in the song “The Modern Dance” is “Merdre, Merdre.” This of course is the famous first line of Jarry’s Ubu Roi, where the character of Pere Ubu says the french word for “shit” with an extra syllable added…. this caused riots when the play premiered in Paris in 1896! Young William Butler Yeats was in the audience, and famously wrote, “After us, the savage god.”
How hard was it to match up Pere Ubu’s song titles to the plot of Ubu Roi?
It was surprisingly easy! They don’t relate directly on a lyrical level, but emotionally and dramatically they work like gangbusters. Take the two songs we turned into duets between Pere and Mere Ubu. “Non-Alignment Pact” and “Heart Of Darkness” become incredibly powerful when they are performed as playing out a relationship. And “Final Solution” is a super heavy thing to sing as Ubu goes to war against the Russian king. It all seems to fit super well.
If you could add one song by someone other than Pere Ubu, what would that song be?
Nothing but Pere Ubu! I tried to add Minutemen songs in an early concept but it was all wrong. D. Boon’s songwriting is too intellectual for Ubu!
Here’s a music video of the Ubu Sings Ubu Band’s rendition of Pere Ubu’s “Life Stinks”:
More absurdity after the jump…