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Ubu in San Francisco with R.G. Davis

"I was there..."

by Marcus Duskin, Christy Rogers, and R.G. Davis

R.G. “Ronnie” Davis is the founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and was its artistic director from 1959 to 1970. I ran in to him about three years ago at a Mime Troupe-sponsored dramatic reading of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. I had produced and directed a reading of the same play for Laborfest three months earlier. Ronnie, who still serves on the Mime Troupe’s board, was interested in my observations about the play and the Mime Troupe’s production. I had known him back in the ‘60s when I was in junior high school – he was part of my parents’ circle of leftist Jewish intellectual friends that also included Saul Landau, Paul Jacobs and Jerry Mander. With my partner Christy Rodgers, who also is an admirer of Ronnie, we’ve gotten together periodically to chew the fat regarding issues of our day, including the theatre, culture in general, ecology/global warming, war, fascism, the Democratic Party, etc.

Recently Ronnie invited me to attend Cutting Ball Theatre’s production of Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry. Apparently the producers had known about the Mime Troupe’s production of Ubu in 1963, though the two productions bear little resemblance to each other. A week after the show Christy and I met up with Ronnie and talked about the three productions – the original in 1896, the Mime Troupe’s in 1963, and Cutting Ball’s in 2014.

MD: I read in Cutting Ball’s program notes that the original Ubu story was about an incompetent, abusive teacher of Jarry’s. He then later expanded it to other representations of authority.

RGD: In the original there’s an image; this is the image he wanted (he shows Jarry’s drawing of Ubu on the book cover). He looks like a pear. Jarry wanted it to be something other than naturalistic or realistic. In his head he’s got some idea about how it’s supposed to be done. If you think of it historically, which seems to me is what you first have to do: what did the guy want to do with this play? Where did it come from? What was the reception? Well, it was really surprising and had a disturbing reception.

MD: There was supposedly a riot because of the obscenities.

RGD: I read a story about Schoenberg in 1911, that there was a riot in the audience. But now when you play Schoenberg nobody is going to get up, no one is going to say “I don’t like this music” and walk out. I read Ubu again recently and I thought, Jesus, the jokes are corny. You could do the jokes, but you’ve got do them now sort of out the side of your mouth. You’d have to do it like W.C. Fields or somebody. If you know Macbeth then it begins to make sense; it’s a takeoff on Macbeth.

MD: Right, it’s a parody.

RGD: So you have to be somewhat erudite to remember what Macbeth was about. Macbeth is an enormous tragedy and so you have to figure out: what is Jarry making fun of? Is it just the ideas in Macbeth? Or he is making fun of the politics?

MD: The original production of Ubu was done at the height of so-called European civilization – before it completely falls apart in the First World War. And that is mirrored in the play: everything completely falls apart over and over again.

RGD: It’s a parody of bourgeois culture, bourgeois thinking, official rationality. You say something negative and positive; it’s almost the same: “You’re very nice, but you’re also a pig.”

MD: The emotional trajectory of the characters, even within scenes, is intense. For example, Ubu gets called to appear before the King of Poland and says, “Oh, they’re going to kill me.” Then he finds out he’s not going to be killed, he’s actually going to be given an award. So then he decides that’s his chance to kill the King. It’s all within a single page of dialogue.

CR (to Ronnie): So how would you play it now? Like Duck Soup, like the Marx Brothers?

RGD: But they’re going for jokes; Jarry’s not going for jokes.

CR: He’s making jokes; they’re just not funny to us.

RGD: Well, then you have to find a way to deliver it in such a way as it has some meaning or it becomes absurd. Then you really work the absurdity until you get close to the bone, and by the time the show ends people are going to stop laughing.

CR: How did you deal with that problem when you did Ubu?

158 Wiley Mime-Troupe Soldier-trying-to-get-into-Lock.jpg
RGD: We didn’t do it realistically. For example, Mere Ubu has cords on her wrists attached to these gigantic pendulums which are her tits, so her tits move every time she moves around. And Pere Ubu’s got a little dickie and a three-pronged hat, a kind of folk hat. If he did anything seriously, really acted seriously, his whole costume is saying: “you’re out of your mind.” That’s the way to do it: then you play it as straight as you possibly can and as honestly as you can, whatever that is. “By my green candle!” You say it as if was poetry.

MD: What stood out for you in your production?

RGD: One thing was the pooping offstage. For some reason [at one point] Ubu is in the bathroom and he’s talking to Mere Ubu. We had him behind the curtain and he goes “aaahhh!” and we dropped carrots into a pot of water: “aaahhh!” plop! The reviewers got really bothered by this. It was so adolescent and silly it was perfect.

CR (seeing Marcus’ laughter): Marcus loves that stuff, adolescent humor.

RGD: I like it also if you do the right way. Don’t do it like it’s a big deal. Just matter of fact, and it’s your problem if you don’t like it. (Lyndon) Johnson used to do it: he used to go into the bathroom and piss and talk to people.

MD: That’s right, he did, and he liked to show off his scar. He had an appendectomy when he was President, and he would go around to heads of state and show off his scar.

RGD: I did this in The Minstrel Show, and this is where {Saul} Landau (who co-wrote the play) comes in. Bob Slattery, this gigantic guy, six foot five and looking like Clark Kent, would sing “Viejo Negrito Jose.” He sang “Old Black Joe” in English and then in Spanish. I never understood why Landau wanted to do it in Spanish but in any case it worked for me; it seemed perfect. While he’s doing it, John Broderick has his back to the audience and he’s going like this (simulating masturbation). Then he goes “uh, uh, uhhh!” (simulating ejaculation) and he puts the white glove he’s wearing on the shoulder of the actor next to him, wipes it off, and then stands there. How dumb can you get, how silly? Well, but Broderick was so good at it. I didn’t invent it, he did. It was the kind of thing that these kids, he and Jason Marc Alexander, were just great (at). But you have to set it up right and don’t make a big deal about it and then go on with the rest of the show.

Another thing I remember in Ubu was “shooting cannonballs.” There was a wooden floor, in the old Abandoned Church. Somebody had given me a piano sounding board, and I put it against a wall and thought that eventually we’d do something with it. I used it in two shows. In Ubu somebody behind the curtain takes a bowling ball and rolls it across the floor and it hits the sounding board and the whole building shakes. And of course everybody just starts screaming. Then we threw actors down the hatch with two ladders and a big four-by-eight board that opened up. They would go down and the thing would crash!

I did scene breaks by announcing the scenes. I had a pipe that went right through the wall at the lobby and all the way to the back of the theater. And these three foot pieces of wood with a scene title on them would come out. As I pulled the pipe one would drop, bang! I don’t want to read Brecht into it that much, but it was a way of saying: here’s what going on. Here’s a scene, every scene is a new location, another thing.

At the end we showed a film shot by Robert Nelson on a houseboat (Varda's) in Sausalito. He filmed the actors talking and moving around, no sound, and then onstage I had them say the lines of the last scene as you watched the film. I realize in hindsight that I was applying mime constructions to events on stage.

MD: In what way?

RGD: The bowling ball and the two ladder trap doors were essences of events in the text. Not a cannon but a bowling ball for the shot. No trap hole in the floor, but a four-by-eight board that is opened and closed with a bang. No steel weapons but weapons made of rolled up paper, so when the actors hit each other they really banged each other. The actors asked me “Well, when are we going to get the real swords?” I said, “You got them”. You get the essence of fighting without any fear that somebody is going to get hurt.

CR: Who designed those great costumes?

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RGD: William Wiley. He was one of the Marin County artists who had been at the Art Institute, and I was married to a woman who taught at the Art Institute.

MD: You had a talented group of collaborators.

RGD: Steven Reich is a famous minimalist now. He did [the music for] a number of shows for me: Ubu, The Minstrel Show, and I think he did one of the Ruzzante plays. These guys were very inventive. Then there was Nelson, the filmmaker, and Landau. Nelson made the film O Dem Watermelons, which Landau had written; it was fifteen ways of killing a watermelon. I was in the film also: I’m riding a motorcycle. And the Minstrel Show cast is in it; we’re fooling around with a watermelon, and one of the guys is dancing with it, and so on.

CR: What was the response to your Ubu?

RGD: Well, the first night was standing ovation and a really good performance. The second night was amateur night. They didn’t do the show very well and the reviewers left at half time (I don’t know why we had an intermission, but we did). And they thought it was awful and wrote terrible reviews. Morton Sobotnick, who was a composer, said to me the next day “If you’d gotten these reviews in New York or some big town you’d have hundreds of people at the theater.” I said “Not in the Mission District.”

CR: But you didn’t think of Ubu as having a political message?

RGD: It had the political stuff of being an “opener.” Historically it’s the beginning of so-called “disturbing” Western theater.

CR: So why did you decide to do the play?

RGD: It opened the Mime Troupe’s indoor theater in the Mission District, the “Abandoned Church”, 20th and Capp St. It was my first play inside. Eventually the fire marshal came around and closed the place. Later the building was taken down and now it’s oddly enough “Alioto Park”. Mayor Alioto went there and made a speech. They should have named it Mime Troupe Park.

MD: In ’63, when the Mime Troupe performed Ubu, the US was becoming increasingly militaristic. It was the beginning of the escalation of the Vietnam War, from after Kennedy’s death to ‘68, when Johnson quit the race. He’d make a speech saying we have to send another fifty thousand. The next fifty thousand was going to win the war for us. It seemed absurd, but there was this constant drum-beating going on.

RGD: Yury (Yury Urnov, who directed the current production of Ubu) says it’s a commentary about all rulers. Well, I don’t agree with that at all. That diffuses the critique of existing rulers in capitalist countries such as ours. Certainly in the United States, what are we hearing from the administration? Lies and absurd statements, etc.

MD: I saw none of that kind of critique in the current production.

RGD: I just was reading Brecht: he said that great art is done easy. It’s relaxed; doesn’t have to get excited, to push. A thinking person wants to hear the (playwright’s) thoughts. But if they keep on jawing at you, you get the emotion, but you are overwhelmed by the sincerity of the performer. Like the actor playing Ubu in the current production (David Sinaiko). He completely hit every note and then when he got mad he took off his glasses and gave somebody a real look. I thought well, that’s a good gesture. I don’t know what he said, no idea what he said. He’s also screaming a lot. You’re no longer listening because he’s so energetic about his presentation that you can’t hear; the language is not strong enough to overcome the gestures. If there’s so much trickery on stage, you get involved in the trickery.

MD: With this [Cutting Ball’s] production, I would have to force myself to listen to the dialogue because there was so much business on the stage, and it didn’t seem to be particularly related to the dialogue. There are a lot of references to Poland and the Czar in the script, so you’re trying to decipher what’s actually going on. Meanwhile you have these actors cavorting around in a kitchen. There was another bit I remember where the actors would have the audience read lines off cue cards.

RGD: What for and why? It’s like people running through the audience, because the audience wants to be closer to the action.

CR: I think [they do it because] they think you’re going to fall asleep; you’re too distracted already, you’re not paying attention.

RGD (laughs): That’s as good an interpretation as any. You have a bomb explode and everybody wakes up. It’s gimmick upon gimmick. What was also bizarre in the current show is the formal wear. The women are in gowns and the guys are in tuxedos. If this play was originally a critique of bourgeois thinking - not of lifestyle but of thinking - or of rationality/irrationality, then how do you have upper bourgeois-costumed characters making a critique of the bourgeoisie? It’s not an Oscar Wilde play. How are you going to say, “By my green candle!” in a tuxedo? It doesn’t connect at all. Would you do Oscar Wilde in Ubu dress? It would just be absurd.

I always wanted to do Grotowski. Years ago Grotowski invented this technique of acting, which is excruciatingly difficult but performed with an enormous amount of energy. Plays he’s done have been filmed in New York, especially at Richard Schechner’s Performance Garage. And the audience is inside the play; somebody’s [filming them]. So some guy is going aaaggggh because Jesus and Catholic guilt about the concentration camps or whatever is making him suffer. And the audience is looking like, death. They know they’re being filmed so they don’t smile too much. They have to look like they’re observing but not closely, and they have to learn how to be an audience. It’s like training the audience to be actors.

CR: If you were going to do Ubu again today, would you do the same production again?

RGD: I don’t even know if I would do it. Let’s say you think you want to do Shakespeare, well, which one? You want one that fits this particular historical moment, and then how you would interpret that play? Brecht was good about this, very sharp about it. Why don’t you put it in the repertory? Well, it may not fit. Maybe it should be only done at certain historical moments. Because if you do a play that’s right-on historically then you’re got reception, comprehension; you’ve got a reason to do it. If you can’t really justify it, then don’t do it; find something else that fits. But that means you’re really thinking on two or three levels.

CR: I recently saw a production of King Lear where they dressed up Edgar as an Iraq war vet and had Lear watching a big screen TV. But that doesn’t make the play fit the time, doesn’t make the play have something to say about the time.

RGD: That’s the way they change the interpretation; they just change costumes. That’s not the way to do it. But that’s the difference between epic and bourgeois drama. You want it to be distant. Once you place it at a distance, then you have this ability to do a little extraction. Seeing a Shakespeare play done by the Brits in full Elizabethan costume, you don’t have to worry about it; you start to listen to what’s being said. Your attention goes to the story, not the setting and costumes. Giorgio Strehler did Three Penny Opera in Italy, and he changed the location of the setting from London to New York, and Brecht said OK, fine. Besides which Strehler was a great director. So you change the location, but you still have to do an interpretation of the play that reflects on what’s happening in Italy even if you set it in New York.

MD: Any other thoughts about Cutting Ball’s production of Ubu?

RGD: I thought the production was very European, very Russian. The music is Russian and so is the attitude. The intensity, the jumping on tables. It’s interesting because it’s exotic in a way - but again, what’s that got to do with this 1896 French play, or what’s it got to do with the United States at this moment? Are we talking about Putin and Obama?

In the attempt to be “real” today we now have “verbatim theater,” where people are reciting lines from a real transcript and they wear the clothes of the person they’re imitating. I saw one production here; it may have been called “Guantanamo.” They took a transcript, put it on stage, and every word was accurate to the person who originally said it. Like reality TV or something. So what you’re still back to: Well, what does it mean? What are you telling me?

In America, film is much more real than the stage, and everybody sees three or four films a week. So you go to a live show and you see these people overacting, with extreme physical activities as they charge at each other. Are they making fun of rationality or just replicating chaotic behavior? Are they trying to do something more than a film? Both ways it’s still confusion upon chaos. It doesn’t work at all; you have to do something else. Maybe that’s one reason theater in the United States is in trouble.

San Francisco Mime Troupe's Ronnie Davis arrested