Two major premiers which have been observed in Paris in 1896 and 1913 caused real outburst of emotions. “Ubu Roi” by Alfred Jarry and “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky are considered to be the greatest performances having been remembered in the history of theatre. The paper is focused on true causes of people’s uproar over the premiers. There was something that could strike and shock theatre goers getting into arguments and demanding their money back. So, the investigation of events happening at the period of premiers in Paris will allow recognizing the real causes of riots among the population.
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The Analysis of the Premiers
The premier of “Ubu Roi” by Alfred Jarry took place in 1896 in Paris, France. Jarry managed to disclose the style of take-no-prisoners character combining vulgarity, low comedy and gore; he illustrated direct interference with high society, royalty and political leaders. The play describes the king Ubu who is depicted as a stupid and coward character. Jarry happened to describe the murder of the king in humorous and comic conditions resulted in disastrous breakage of king’s power.
The play is considered to be experimental and revolutionary. The opening night of the performance cause the breakage of riot among the theater goers of Paris. Ubu Roi could not have been perceived by people as a usual and ordinary play as it was aimed at disclosure of unapologetic arguments about religious and social aspects and it reflected complete disrespect of royalty being filled with scatology and brutality. The trouble of the first night started immediately after the opening word of the flatulent protagonist: “Merdre!” This word is a bastardized form of the French word Shit! During the premier everyone was completely shocked by the style and manner of presentation of the performance. William Butler Yeats expressed his dissatisfaction with what he had seen at the first night:
“What more is possible? After us the savage God…” (William Butler Yeats)
It was difficult to predict such a reaction of the public on performance, but maybe there was some tension in the air from the very beginning. It should be noted that the play was prohibited after the first presentation. The premier of the play was successfully introduced by Jarry from the very beginning. He started with the opening word highlighting the meaning and importance of the play. (Krulick, 2006)
“The play having been put on prematurely, and with more enthusiasm than anything else, Ubu hasn’t had time to get his real mask and the other characters will be fitted out, like him, somewhat approximately. Ubu Roi is a play that was never written or puppets but for actors pretending to be puppets, which is not the same thing – for us to have carnival music….” (Jarry, 2003).
Nevertheless the initial phrases of the performance resulted in disastrous reaction of the audience. It is difficult to analyze the real causes of riot because much depended on the mentality of the generation and moral values accepted in the society. Offensive remarks on the part of play characters contradicted the norms of the society. Historians stress the introduction of new art movements by Jarry such as Dadaism, Absurdism and Surrealism. But is should be noted that the audience of that time could not be regarded as prescient.
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Speaking about the peculiarities of the performance creation process it should be stressed that Ubu Roi was written in the form of cruel burlesque with repressive and ugly aspects. The author was young when he started his work at the play. With every passing year the play obtained new and new details absorbing the notes of fighting, toilet humor, king’s depiction and jokes.
Frankly speaking there is a contradictory tendency to evaluate the mistakes of Jarry’s performance. Certainly, the performance itself did not meet the requirements of its time contradicting the standards and norms of the society and political order. The mixture of black humor with rude and unpredicted flow of events caused riotous reaction of the audience (Taylor, 2007).
The next performance to analyze is The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. The first night took place in 1913 in Paris. The causes of this performance appeared to be similar to those of Ubu Roi. The Rite of Spring is a ballet score the premier of which caused scandalous reaction of the audience. But what was the reason for such riot of public?… The style of the performance appeared to be too vulgar for that time. Unusual choreography, outrageous costumes and pagan sacrifice story appeared to be the last straw for the public… Musical innovations involved into the play of Stravinsky tested the audience patience completely.
It should be noted that the play of Stravinsky influence the musical direction in general. This performance introduced new musical elements which gave a start to the development of new musical era. Tremendous impact was reached due to cooperation of two well known composers, Stravinsky and his partner Diaghilev. Thus, the music used in The Rite of Spring was made for Diaghilev production.
There were different views as to the true reasons of riot during the premiere in Paris. Thomas Kelly, the professor of Harvard University, stated that furor was caused by the fact that the play shattered people’s expectations. The program performed that evening started with the play “Les Sylphides”. The Rite of Spring appeared to be completely different from what had been expected by the audience. The dancer recalled the fact that shocking choreography they had to perform was far from natural.
“With every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us.” (Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. With Thomas Kelly, 1999).
The music used in the performance was unusual, unpredictable, dissonant and angular. At the very beginning of the play Stravinsky asked for a bassoon to provide higher play in the range than whoever could have heard before. Nevertheless it was difficult to recognize that the instrument was a bassoon. After the rising of the curtain the audience observed the dancing which was followed by a so called “musical composition”. There was no music at all but a dissonant and loud chord followed by irregular, jarring accents. As a result the audience burst out with a din of catcalls and hisses and the actors could hardly hear each other.
Nijinsky shouted at the performers and dancers; Diaghilev wanted just to suppress the people’s riot through house lights flashing. As to Stravinsky, he fumed at the public’s response to his compositions. The atmosphere was disastrous, but in case of success the premier of the ballet could have awoken people’s spirit of music. Thomas Kelly stated:
“The pagans on-stage made pagans of the audience” (Thomas Kelly).
Despite the frustrations of the first nights of The Rite of Spring is considered to be the real musical masterpiece of modern time. The innovations provided by Stravinsky turned to be the important element in further musical development. Great composers use this play as a magnificent example of musical innovations introduction (Hill, 2000).
So, it is necessary to draw a line between the analyses of two various plays caused public riot in Paris in different periods. Ubu Roi and The Rite of Spring caused the outburst of people’s emotions, but the emotions appeared to be negative and were followed by indignations. Ubu Roi broke fixed norms and values of the society mocking the political system and using rude and unacceptable expression in the performance. The Rite of Spring managed to contradict the natural rules and features of musical area – unnatural screams and unusual choreography happened to produce shocking effect on the audience of theatre goers.
So, the effects produced by premiers of “Ubu Roi” by Alfred Jarry and “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky appeared to be shacking. The riots caused by the first nights made people experience art innovations provided by the authors of the performances. It is difficult to guilty the authors themselves because they tried to provide something unordinary and unusual for the theatre goers; it is important to stress that nowadays these plays are considered to be the significant masterpieces of modern art even though some years ago they were strongly prohibited in the society. The population of Paris happened to experience the greatest works of their time; the riotous reaction of the audience can be explained by fixed norms of the time which should have been strictly followed and could not have been ever rejected.
- Hill, Peter. Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Cambridge University Press. 2000.
- Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. With Thomas Kelly. NPR’s Performance Today. 1999.
- Jarry, Alfred. Ubu Roi. Translated by Beverly Keith and Gershon Legman. Dover, 2003.
- Krulick, Al. Ubu Roi. Orlando Weekly Review. 2006.
- Taylor, Jane. Ubu and the Truth Commission. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007.