One of my classes this semester bears the title Radical Theatre. So far, we have studied Mac Wellman’s 7 Blowjobs, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Dutchman by Amiri Baraka (né LeRoi Jones) and the choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange. Each embraces the term in a different way: Wellman using form and language, Jarry with obscenity-streaked nonsense, Baraka racial politics, and Shange form and feminism. Yet to come are the Futurist, Dada, and surrealist movements.
All the examples are 20th century works, but it made me reflect about earlier forms of radical theatre as well. Only a couple decades before Jarry, Ibsen was considered radical. Today, he’s considered classic, almost staid, but in his time, some of his plays were so incendiary that they played only in private clubs – they were too scandalous to be performed for the general public. His topics: women’s rights, syphilis, societal conventions; got him banned in several European countries.
In fact, one of the elements of Jarry’s play that was so scandalous would scarce raise an eyebrow today. The first word of the play is “shit.” (Technically, the first word is “merdre”, which is the French word for shit — merde — slightly modified.) Reminiscent of the “frak” used by TV’s Battlestar Galactica, Jarry’s opening line caused a shitstorm of protest. According to an eyewitness, it was 15 minutes before the play could continue any further, as arguments, catcalls, and even fist-fights broke out in the audience.
Even light, comic pieces could be considered radical if they threatened the status quo. The Marriage of Figaro, by Beaumarchais, now known to most of us in its opera form (or via the famous Bugs Bunny cartoon) was banned in France in the late 18th century. Worse yet, entire plays have been lost because of censorship. We know that Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson wrote a play called The Isle of Dogs, but after the first performance, the material was deemed to be unsuitable, the playwright was thrown in prison, and the text has not survived.