Alfred Jarry orchestrated the riot at the opening night performance of “Ubu Roi,” inviting his drinking companions from a local bar to heckle and, if possible, provoke a fight or two when “Merde!” was pronounced as the first word of his play.
Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life, Alastair Brotchie
It’s Friday, opening night of “Six Playwrights in Search of an Ashtray,” the annual ten-minute play festival put on by The Bovine Players, a local theatre company in Waltham, Mass. I’m not happy that I didn’t make the cut for Saturday night, and am relegated to the slate of performances that will be staged before an audience tired from a week of work.
Waltham, Mass., back in the day.
I’m sitting in The Busted Watch, a friendly neighborhood bar that recalls the days when this little burg was known as “The Watch City” because of all the timepieces it cranked out year after year. “Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution” is another monicker it is known by, although I wouldn’t refer to it that way unless you’re really good friends with it; not just Christmas card friendly, in other words, but hey-let-me-buy-you-a-drink friendly.
It was in Waltham that I had an early success in the highly-competitive world of ten-minute drama. My ten-minute play about ten-minute plays, “The Ten-Minute Workshop,” was voted best comedy of the festival and got a rave review–the only review I’ve ever received, good or bad. I thought the world was my oyster, or at least my littleneck clam, but I found soon enough that the shimmering surface of unpaid drama festivals was just a thin veneer that covered a worm-ridden table beneath it, not to wear out my metaphoric welcome or anything.
I then hit a dry patch that has continued for two years; no performances, just one “finalist” designation that was like ashes in my mouth, not that I know what ashes taste like apart from the well-done ribeye I’ve just finished. I’m stewing in my own foul juices, bitter about my lack of prospects, when who should appear beside me but Alfred Jarry, the playwright who rocked the world of French drama out of its realistic complacency in 1896 with the opening line of “Ubu Roi”–simply “Merde!”–or colloquially shit French absurdists say.
“Alfred?” I say hesitantly. I try not to impose on celebrities, even when I’m stuck in an elevator with them, as I was with four-time Boston Marathon Champion Bill Rogers in the early 80′s. I figure they’re entitled to some privacy, even if they’re standing right next to me in a confined space trapped between two floors of an office tower.
“Correct,” Jarry says.
“Wow!” I say, stupidly speechless. I bite my tongue to keep myself from saying “You’re one of my biggest fans!” as people in my position–neophyte meeting heirophant–are wont to do.
“Blind and unwavering undisciplined at all times constitutes the real strength of all free men,” he says, then orders a 12-ounce Pabst Blue Ribbon–what a hipster!
“So’s your old bowling ball!” I reply as he is served, and we clink bottles–”Ching ching!” I add. “What are you doing in the western suburbs?”
“I came seeking an alligator watch,” he says as he takes a long sip, Jeff Bridges-style, holding the bottle by its neck with two fingers. “My alligator’s always late. How about you?”
“I live in the next town over,” I say. “I’ve got a play being performed tonight.”
“Cool,” he says as he grabs a fistful of Pepperidge Farm Pizza-Flavored Goldfish. “Applause that comes thundering with such force you might think the audience merely suffers the music as an excuse for its ovations,” he adds, almost as an afterthought.
“I wish,” I say mournfully as I sip at my Malbec, a wine still so new to the American market nobody can pull the snob on me when I drink it. I like it that way.
“What’s the matter?” Jarry asks, and I’m heartened to find that the great dramatist is interested–if only a little–in my humble career.
“I can’t get any traction,” I say. “If I get a play performed, I never hear from the theatre again. It’s like Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill.”
“Well, you know what I say,” he says, shaking his head and twisting his mouth into a bitter expression.
“God is the tangential point between zero and infinity.”
I ponder this for a moment and, after figuring out that I’m not going to figure it out, return to the matter at hand. “Do you have any suggestions . . .”
“On how I can . . . get noticed?”
He gives me a sidewise glance and a sly smile. “You’re talking to the master,” he says proudly.
“I’m all ears,” I say, signaling to the bartender to bring us another round.
“No you’re not,” he says. “I can see eyes and a nose and . . .”
“I was speaking figuratively.”
“Oh–gotcha,” he says. “You’d be a monster if you were all ears, and it is conventional to call ‘monster’ any blending of dissonant elements.”
“For a brief and shining time I played monster man on my high school football team.”
“And you’ve been dining out on it ever since–correct?”
“Yeah,” I say sheepishly.
“I call ‘monster’ every original inexhaustible beauty.”
Fair enough, I figure–I’ll take that any day of the week, including Sundays. “So-any suggestions?”
“You know anybody here? Besides me, I mean.”
“Sure, there’s Smitty, and Mad Dog, and Clem and Toad.”
“Sounds like a terrific bunch of guys.”
“You sound like a fraternity rush chairman.”
He draws himself up to his full five feet height, apparently offended by the comparison. I realize I shouldn’t have said it, but it’s too late. “We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well,” he says, fairly bristling, “But the only way I can see of doing that is to use them to put up a lot of fine, well-designed buildings.”
I apologize again and he calms down a bit, sufficient for me to renew my inquiry. “So . . . what would you suggest if I want to break out of the dull round of the Boston Globe’s twice-weekly Metrowest section?”
“Your friends who you just mentioned?”
“Bring them to the performance tonight. Have them heckle you–maybe even start a fight.”
“Because all publicity is good–even bad publicity!”
I allow this to soak in–think of my job, my wife, my family. Not sure I’m ready to take the leap until the mortgage is paid off and the kids are out of college.
“Isn’t there something offensive about your play?” he asks, pursuing his questioning.
“Let Me Buy You a Drink? Well, sure there is. It’s a ground-breaking treatment of a taboo sexual subject.”
“Oh come on–it’s 2013. There are no sexual taboos left!”
For the first time, like Mike Tyson in the ring with Buster Douglas, somebody has rocked the Great Jarry.
“You . . . may have something there.”
“In a light-hearted way, of course.”
“Sure, sure,” he says, and I can tell he’s thinking things through. “You know . . . you might not want to go there.”
“Oh, please–Mr. ‘The theater, bringing impersonal masks to life, is only for those who are virile enough to create new life: either as a conflict of passions subtler than those we already know, or as a complete new character’? You’re going to go wobbly on me now?”
“Don’t sling that Thatcherite slop at me!”
“What’s the matter with a little bestiality among friends?”
“It’s . . . not commercial.”
“You . . . coward,” I fairly spit out in disgust. “You care whether something’s commercial?”
“Sure I do. As Yogi Berra said, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’”
“I don’t think Yogi said that.”
“Well who then?” he says.
“Maybe Bill Veeck.”
“The guy who sent a midget to bat for the St. Louis Browns to draw a walk? What a nut!”
“Anyway–why isn’t bestiality a good idea?”
“Because,” he says, with a withering look that expresses his contempt for my naivete, “animals don’t buy tickets to community theatre.”
All italicized quotes guaranteed verbatim Jarry. Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”