Playwright Interview: Helen Richardson on Ubu in 2017
2017 has left many Americans stunned by our nation’s politics, and artistic communities around the country are finding ways to get politically involved on a local level. Today we chat with playwright, professor, and theatre historian Helen Richardson. Richardson is an authority on most things theatrical, and she joins us today to talk about her adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s seminal play, Ubu. For those unfamiliar with this title, Ubu is a political play that heralded the avant-garde movement in theatre. The play has been used as a tool to critique those in power for over a century, and is more topical today than many Americans would like it to be. Whether you have seen a production of Ubu, are looking to stage a piece of political theatre, or just want to brush up on your theatre history, Richardson’s insights (not to mention her play) make for some worthwhile reading.
Where are you from (originally and currently)?
I would say I am a nomad, though I have spent most of my time in New York, I was born in Texas, lived in Austria and Germany as a child, then in New York until I went off to college. After college, I moved to Berkeley, California and lived there for over fifteen years, then on to Paris to study with the Théâtre du Soleil, a life-changing experience, and then on to Amsterdam for five years as Artistic Director of the English Theatre of Amsterdam, an international company and also a life-changing experience, and then to Colorado, Utah, Ohio, and finally back to New York.
When you’re not wearing your playwright hat, how do you spend your time?
Director of the Performance and Interactive Media Arts Program and teaching at Brooklyn College. Writing about the Théâtre du Soleil. I have a design background and also experiment with digital photography.
When was the first moment you considered yourself a playwright/writer?
When as a grad student at UC Berkeley in Directing, I realized that there were certain things I needed to say, particularly about the politics of our nation, that hadn’t been written. For my Directing thesis project, I contemporized and directed the medieval play Everyman to comment on U.S. obsession with prosperity consciousness.
What are you most interested in exploring through your playwriting right now?
The current political situation. Inequality. Gender and age issues. As well as writing a music-theatre piece with composer Chris Drobny on the 19th century American transcendentalist and feminist, Margaret Fuller.
How would you describe your adaptation of Ubu?
A political satire on power politics, fame, wealth, and the media.
How did you begin working on this project?
Well, originally, I wrote this in response to the Bush/Cheney leadership, and that was in 2006. And I've always loved Ubu by Jarry, and it has a lot to say for us today, but I felt that it was just a little dated, and I wanted to do something that really spoke to our times. And then when Trump came around, I went and reread the play to see how it held up, and I was amazed that in some ways it is even more appropriate for Trump. I thought it would also be interesting to give it more of a flavor of what's happening in the White House now. So, I no longer saw it as a pairing of Bush and Cheney, but of Trump and Putin as Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu (a.k.a. Vladimira MacPoohtin).
Where did you draw artistic inspiration from for your play?
US politics, Alfred Jarry, Molière, Brecht, Kushner, Parks, Stephen Colbert, SNL, Gail Collins of The New York Times.
Could you talk about the history of Ubu?
Ubu is probably not a play that everybody is familiar with. But, it was a seminal play: it heralded the beginning of the avant-garde and the Theatre of the Absurd. It was performed first in 1896 in Paris, and created a scandal: within a few minutes of the start of the play people were rioting. The playwright, Alfred Jarry, intended to critique the emerging middle class, that seemed to be only bent on profiteering. And also (in a sense) to attack rapacious imperialism, which was a dominant part of nineteenth century politics. So, he took Shakespeare's Macbeth, and he transformed Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into Ma and Pa Ubu, revealing the vulgarity of evil. It's a play that has been adapted repeatedly to critique leadership within various countries: to critique tendencies toward megalomania, self-serving motives, dictatorship. It's timeless in many ways.
Do you have any thoughts as to why something like Ubu works so well under shifting political climates?
I think that has always been true of theatre that is satirical. You can go back to the ancient Greeks and Aristophanes, where they put on plays that directly skewered the leadership of that time. Today we tend to depend on our TV comics, like Stephen Colbert and The Daily Show, Samantha Bee and SNL. But up until very recently theatre was the form that could provide that kind of satirical vision. Whether it's Molière or Restoration comedy, or Commedia dell’arte, or Absurdism, there's always been that need in theatre to critique our limitations when it comes to exercising power, and that seems to be a timeless problem.
I'm curious, are we revisiting plays like Ubu because the material is so flexible, or are we just running into the same problems again and again in society?
I think this is very interesting. Yes, I do think that we repeat ourselves. It’s part of the nature of who we are. I think there is an Ubu in all of us: a child that grabs for whatever it wants; at worst a bully. There's certainly also a hero in all of us. Part of our life's struggle is trying to educate the Ubu in us to become more responsible; to make heroic choices, or at least responsible ones. We look to leaders to be charismatic and to have a larger-than-life presence. I think we're somewhat wired through evolution to look for that, but we also want our leaders to be moral, and we want them to be receptive, and we want them to take care of us. But the reality is that such leaders are hard to find – who have that powerful presence and yet use it wisely. And when we have them we become complacent and in particular in our country we are so used to an infinitude of choices that we think something new and exciting is going to have the wit to take care of the remaining problems, and quickly at that. We get comfortable, we leave ourselves open, then something goes wrong and it’s easy for greed, or hate, or insecurity to sneak back into the picture. That's an eternal struggle. It's not something that's going to go away and suddenly we're all going to be good and happy people. The nature of Ubu is that he rises, behaves without restraint, is ultimately defeated by his own hubris, and then when the time is ripe, he comes back and behaves outrageously again, but we, who have gotten used to sanity and order, forget to be vigilant.
Political theatre or avant-garde: where do you see Ubu?
I think that Ubu by Jarry was avant-garde for its time because really the commedia tradition, the Punch and Judy tradition had always been more of a street theatre form and to see it in the theatre, onstage, was shocking. Once the middle class or the elite accepted the avant-garde, it became convention. The fact is that Ubu by Jarry starts with the word "Shit." It is very visceral, and that was something that people had not experienced on the serious stage before. However, today everything's been done. The avant-garde has been absorbed into more conventional theatre. I would say for today it would be more political theatre than avant-garde, though I think it all depends on where you do it.
My last question: Do you have any tips for people who are interested in producing your adaptation of Ubu?
Have fun working on it with your cast; it's really an ensemble piece. It works best if it’s like being shot out of a cannon at the top of the show, like at the circus, and then just keeps going. The pacing is fast and intense. Think of it as a farce and a civic course at the same time. I see it as a piece that is constantly evolving, and it should be open to cross-dressing, diverse casts, gender-bending, whatever. It's very playful, and the characters are over-the-top. But while it's about having fun, it is important to be aware of the issues you are dealing with, and I have found that it’s very conducive to thoughtful post-show discussions. Laughter opens us up to confronting the madness, and from there we can start to contemplate solutions.