Avant-garde theatre


Blue Heart

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Caryl Churchill's Blue Heart consists of two related short plays, Heart's Desire and Blue Kettle, both examining strained family – and especially filial – relationships. It was first performed at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, on 14 August 1997 in a touring co-production by Out of Joint and the Royal Court Theatre.

In Heart’s Desire, Brian and his wife Alice, together with Brian's sister Maisie, are waiting for the arrival of their daughter Susy, who is returning home after some years spent in Australia. A simple domestic scenario is replayed over and over with widely differing developments – some heartbreaking, some wildly comical or surreal.

In Blue Kettle, a middle-aged man, Derek, and his girlfriend, Enid, are involved in a con trick, making a series of elderly women believe that Derek is the son they once gave up for adoption. But as the situation develops, the play's dialogue undergoes a radical distortion with characters using the words 'blue' and 'kettle', apparently at random, and to an extent that grows increasingly disruptive.

The Out of Joint/Royal Court touring production was directed by Max Stafford-Clark and designed by Julian McGowan, with a cast including Gabrielle Blunt, Jacqueline Defferary, Karina Fernandez, Barnard Gallagher, Valerie Lilley, Mary Macleod, Eve Pearce, Jason Watkins and Anna Wing. Following the performances at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, it opened at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on 19 August 1997, and at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs (at the Duke of York's) on 17 September.

Cuckold Ubu

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Alfred Jarry’s Cuckold Ubu (Ubu Cocu) is the second in his cycle of Ubu plays about Pa Ubu, the grotesquely comical character first encountered in King Ubu (Ubu Roi).

This version is translated by Kenneth McLeish, who in his introduction to the published text calls the play 'the darkest and most surreal of the [Ubu] plays.' It is relatively short compared to its predecessor King Ubu, and is incomplete: Jarry never produced a definitive version of the play. He is believed to have begun its composition in 1897, a year after the premiere of King Ubu, and it was performed in various versions during his lifetime. It is written in the same style as King Ubu, with a characteristic combination of surrealism, ribaldry and biting satire.

The action of the play is summarised by McLeish as follows: 'Pa Ubu takes up residence in the home of Peardrop, a breeder of polyhedra, and he and his Barmpots tyrannise the neighbourhood, despite the efforts of Pa Ubu’s Conscience and Peardrop to stop them. There is war, led on Peardrop’s side by Memnon (the singing Egyptian statue with whom Ma Ubu is cuckolding Pa Ubu) and by the banker Swankipants, and eventually a crocodile appears in true Punch-and-Judy style to chase off all the others. (We don’t know whether it does or not: the play as it survives is incomplete.)'

King Ubu

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Alfred Jarry's King Ubu (Ubu Roi) is an absurd farce that riffs on several of Shakespeare’s plays and warns of the dangers of tyranny. It is the first in Jarry's cycle of Ubu plays, all featuring the grotesquely comical character of Pa Ubu. Since its first, riotously-received performance at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, Paris, in 1896, it has been recognised as a forerunner to the Surrealist and Modernist movements, and has been hugely influential in world drama.

This translation by Kenneth McLeish was commissioned by Hilary Norrish for the BBC World Service, and was first performed in her production by a cast including Alan Armstrong, Alan Corduner, Pip Donaghy, Richard Pearce, Alison Peebles and Emily Richard.

The first stage production, at the Gate Theatre, London, in April 1997, was directed by John Wright, designed by David Roger and performed by Allison Cologna, Frazer Corbyn, Mark Stuart Currie, Stephen Finegold, Jonathan Ferguson, Joanna Holden, Jonny Hoskins, Richard Katz and Asta Sighvats.

In his introduction to the published text, Kenneth McLeish outlines what happens in the play: 'In King Ubu, Pa Ubu is a cowardly toady, one of the hangers-on of Good King Wenceslas of Baloney. Nagged by his fearsome wife Ma Ubu, he gathers a band of Barmpots, led by the obnoxious Dogpile, assassinates Wenceslas and seizes the throne. He and the Barmpots fight Wenceslas’s army, led by Princes Willy, Silly and Billikins, and defeat them. Billikins escapes to the hills, where the ghosts of his ancestors give him a great big sword and order him to organise resistance.

'Ubu starts his reign by crawling to the people, but soon turns into a tyrant, debraining anyone who disagrees with him, murdering all the aristocrats and middle classes and extorting triple taxes from the peasants. The peasants revolt and go over to Billikins – and Dogpile, whom Ubu has rashly insulted, defects to Tsar Alexis of All the Russkies and leads him and his army to attack Baloney and restore Billikins to the throne. Ma Ubu steals the Balonian state treasure and a handsome Balonian soldier, and flees into exile.

'Defeated in battle, Pa Ubu holes up in a cave with his cronies Wallop and McClub, and barely survives when a bear attacks them. Ma Ubu eventually reaches the same cave. She and Pa Ubu make up their differences, give up all claims to the Balonian throne and set off with Wallop and McClub on a voyage of exile to Engelland.'

La Ronde

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Schnitzler’s comic masterpiece shows a spectrum of social class from prostitutes to noblemen in a series of drily observed sexual encounters. It is a cycle of ten dialogues, retaining one character from each scene into the next one, so that a prostitute picks up a solider who then seduces a housemaid who then falls into bed with her master. The cycle is completed by a return to the prostitute of the first scene. Famously, each scene features a set of dashes, denoting sexual intercourse. It is a witty, knowing examination of the rituals of seduction and shame and the hollow sounds of courtship.

La Ronde formed the basis of a famous film in 1950, but its real notoriety goes back to 1900 when it was privately printed and subsequently banned. It was not performed until 1920 in Berlin, where anti-Semitic riots broke out, resulting in the arrest and trial of the cast and director, allegedly for obscenity. The controversy continued with David Hare’s 1998 adaptation, The Blue Room.

Frank Marcus’s translation was aired on the BBC in 1982.

Life of Galileo (Student Edition)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Life of Galileo examines the tension between the pursuit of knowledge and the power of official ideology, and contains one of Brecht’s most human and complex central characters. It was first performed in Zurich in 1943.

The play opens on Galileo, wild with excitement about a new world of scientific upheaval and improvement, teaching his servant’s young son the remarkable theories of Copernicus with the assistance of an apple and a lamp. But his hopes of a general enlightenment are cut short when his heretical discoveries about the solar system bring him to the attention of the Inquisition. Broken by torture, Galileo is forced to publically abjure his theories, and though Galileo’s name is the one we remember today, Brecht’s character does not forgive himself for his betrayal and his new world disappears with his recantation.

As an examination of the problems that face not only the scientist but also the whole spirit of free inquiry when brought into conflict with the requirements of authority, Life of Galileo has few equals. This version is translated by the great Brechtian scholar John Willett.

The Messingkauf Dialogues

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Written between 1939 and 1942 The Messingkauf Dialogues are among the most concise, witty and light-hearted of all Brecht’s theoretical discussions of theatre. In Brecht’s words they constitute a ‘four-sided conversation about a new way of making theatre’ and provide the blueprint for Brecht’s radical aesthetic of the 1930s and 1940s.

The Actor who seeks admiration; the Actress interested in politics; the Dramaturg (or literary advisor) hoping for a new lease of life for theatre; these three argue with the Philosopher who wants to exploit their talent for imitation for his own purposes. The result is a lively and sharp debate about the place of art in society.

This text is translated by John Willett.

Mother Courage and Her Children (Student Edition)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Brecht's classic play is here presented with ample scholarly material to aid in the study of this great work.

A chronicle play of the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, the remarkable Mother Courage follows the armies back and forth across Europe, selling provisions and liquor to both sides from her canteen wagon. As the action of the play progresses, between the years 1624 and 1646, she remains indomitable in her profiteering, refusing to part with her wagon and her livelihood even as she loses her each of her three children to the conflict. The play demonstrates poignantly that those trying to profit from a war cannot escape its costs.

The play is one of the most celebrated examples of Epic Theatre and of Brecht's use of alienation effect to focus attention on the issues of the play, over and above the individual characters. First performed in Switzerland in 1941, it is regarded as one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century and one of the great anti-war plays of all time.

This version is translated by John Willett.

Mother Courage and Her Children (trans. Hare)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

This version of Brecht's great anti-war play by playwright David Hare was premiered by the National Theatre, London, in November 1995. It adopts a freer approach to the text than many editions, adapting the original rather than offering a close translation. In this chronicle of the Thirty Years War, Mother Courage follows the armies back and forth across Europe, selling provisions and liquor from her canteen wagon. One by one she loses her children to the war but will not part with her livelihood - the wagon. The Berlin production of 1949, with Helene Weigel as Mother Courage, marked the foundation of the Berliner Ensemble.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is an opera chronicling the development and demise of the ‘paradise city’ of Mahagonny in a series of tableaux capturing the baser aspects of human nature.

Three criminals create the city in order to trap money: it is a place of pleasure, where no one works, everyone drinks, gambles, brawls and visits prostitutes, and all that matters is whether you can pay your way. A hurricane passing dangerously close to the city encourages complete lawlessness and debauchery, and soon the raving, delirious city destroys itself.

A pivotal work in the genesis of Brecht’s theory and practise of epic theatre, it is a classic of the twentieth-century avant-garde and represents his first major collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill. It premiered in Leipzig in 1930 where it provoked a major scandal. This version is translated by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Slave Ubu

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Alfred Jarry’s Slave Ubu (Ubu Enchaîné, ‘Ubu in chains’) is the third in his influential cycle of plays about Pa Ubu, the grotesquely comical character first encountered in King Ubu (Ubu Roi) and then in Cuckold Ubu (Ubu Cocu). Written in 1899, the play was first published in 1900.

This version of the play is translated by Kenneth McLeish, who in his introduction to the published text summarises the action as follows: 'Pa Ubu decides that he has had enough of tyranny, and that the only way to be free is to become a slave. He attaches himself and Ma Ubu to the dear old man Peebock and his daughter Eleutheria, and rules their household. The Three Free Men and their Sergeant Pisseasy (Eleutheria’s fiancé) come to the rescue, and Ma and Pa Ubu are transferred to jail, preparatory to being sold as galley-slaves to Sultan Suleiman of Turkishland. The jail is so comfortable that the Three Free Men and the Populace break in to become convicts themselves. Two convoys of convicts set out to Turkishland, one consisting of the Ubs and the convicts (who have generously exchanged clothes and manacles with their guards) and the other led by Pisseasy. Sultan Suleiman makes them all galley slaves, and they row into the sunset and live happily ever after.'

Term applied since the end of the nineteenth century to theatre as well as other arts and practitioners involved in introducing original and experimental ideas, forms and techniques. Examples range from Jarry and Apollinaire to Cage and Robert Wilson.

A loose term, often meaning Experimental Theatre, that has been widely used since the middle of the twentieth century and has gone by many other names: ‘event’ or ‘Happening’ in the 1950s; ‘multimedia’ in the 1960s; ‘visual theatre’ in the 1970s; Performance Art in the 1980s; Live Art in the 1990s. Rarely have these names been chosen by the practitioners; they have for the most part been coined for the sake of critical convenience, often (particularly in Britain) because when critics are confronted by theatre which is not a play – by work not based in text – they see it as so foreign to their tradition that it must be defined as separate, an ‘experiment’. They have been unable to develop a vocabulary which can cope with the physicality and volatility of experimental performance or its multiplicity of meaning. (The work of Robert Wilson, for example, was reviewed in one paper early in his career by its dance critic.)

A glance at the history of world theatre, however, reveals the dramatic play as a comparatively recent and primarily European preoccupation. There is another, ancient tradition at work in the great folk theatres of the world; in Commedia Dell’Arte, Music Hall and popular Musical Theatre; in the consummate combined artistry of kabuki; even in Greek theatre, the other elements of which have been largely forgotten in the single legacy of the text. It is in this other tradition that theatre now defined as ‘experimental’ has its roots, a tradition which seeks to yoke together as a single live event all the necessary but disparate skills of spectacle – design, music, choreography, performance and text. Such theatre has always been – and still is – a compromised art of process, a mucky, mutable, dirty, competitive, collaborative business. From within this ancient and variegated work, the development of printing permitted the recording of just one element: the text. Theatre no longer had to be discovered or taught in the body. It had achieved a means of distribution through the immutable word from which other productions could be reconstructed. Soon, the word preceded production, the solitary task of the writer was born, and the intellectual domination of the play took hold.

The making of a play can be the most authoritarian theatre process: in the beginning of rehearsals is The Word; the director is the Papal power that interprets The Word, and guides all others in service of It. There is a less authoritarian approach which leaves more to the individual conscience – to the actor, for instance, at an extreme in the devised theatre work of Mike Leigh. But even in comparison with this approach, experimental theatre is truly heretical. For here, at the beginning of rehearsals, there is no word – there is nothing but the artists and the potential work which they will uniquely create together.

By the end, the music may drown out the text, the performers may be reduced to ciphers by the design, the demands of the choreography may condition all other aspects of the work. It is by virtue of the unpredictability of the creative process that such theatre is most appropriately dubbed ‘experimental’. And the most successful experiment is likely to allow equal significance to design, music, performance, choreography and text.

Just as the process of experimental theatre differs from playmaking, so does the product. A play’s performance aims at singularity of meaning. It seeks to control all the theatrical elements in an accurately repeatable form, proposing an interpretation of the writer’s meaning with the greatest precision and clarity. Ask ten different members of an audience about this meaning, though, and paradoxically they will probably come up with ten different interpretations and ten more if they go to see it again. That is one of the joys of the richness of theatre, and one which experimental work turns to advantage. For here there is a conscious multiplicity of meaning. The work is poetic, allusive, ambiguous, possibly contradictory, certainly asking its audiences to trust their own perceptions as to its truth for them. It is also fluid and rarely ‘finished’.

Discoveries are made through performance, and the final showings are likely to be very different from the first. Thus each performance is a development of the work as product. By comparison, a play is fixed. In an age dominated by the recorded media of film and television – dead drama – experimental work keeps live theatre at its liveliest.

The confusion between experimental theatre and dance is innocuous; the confusion with performance art, however, is not. Performance art is a term of the fine arts, with a fully documented tradition of its own, and, at the end of the twentieth century, displaying a vigour which experimental theatre lacks. Here, artists use themselves as material. They do not necessarily adopt the mask of character, nor make fictitious use of time and space. These are qualities of theatre. To misunderstand such distinctions is not simply professionally inept – it points to a history of journalistic criticism which has constantly ducked issues of theoretical analysis.

Experimental theatre is born of long creation periods, and the single-minded commitment of genuine ensemble companies has become a rarity – such circumstances have long since become a financial impossibility. Many of those who might once have advanced experimental theatre now work in the equally innovative and collaborative fields of opera, video, television or film. Those few who continue to experiment do so increasingly intermittently, or as solos or duos.

from John Ashford, Marvin Carlson, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).