Alfred Jarry

Unlike Antonin Artaud, who wrote several lengthy explanations of the "theater of cruelty" he was trying to create in the 1920s and 1930s, his predecessor and inspiration Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) didn't have a name or comprehensive theory for his theatrical works and wrote sparingly on the subject. During his short life, the author of Ubu Roi (the first play ever performed by the Surveillance Camera Players) only wrote seven short pieces on the theater, all of which are collected in Roger Shattuck & Simon Watson Taylor's Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, published by Grove Press in 1965. Most of these short pieces are strictly concerned with the logistics of performing Ubu Roi in the late 1890s; none of them constitute a complete, mature or "proper" statement of Jarry's theory of theatrical presentation.

Nevertheless, Jarry's writings on the theater are just as useful to the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) as Artaud's writings on the subject; both can be used to exploit the weird little "theaters" created in public places by the presence of surveillance cameras. Like Artaud, Jarry was fascinated with the possibilities of theatrical space (the theatrical "spectacle") and relatively uninterested in dialogue, story-lines and character development. Drawing upon puppet shows and plays performed by marionettes, Jarry attempted to create a flat or two-dimensional theater ("an ABSTRACT theater," as he refers to it in "Twelve Theatrical Topics"). He used placards to announce the time and location of the dramatic action, and to take the place of scenery and on-stage crowds. In his short essay "On the futility of the 'Theatrical' in the Theater," Jarry explains, "the placard brought in to mark each change in scene saves the onlooker from being regularly reminded of base 'reality' through a constant substitution of conventional sets which he really only sees properly at the moment the scene is being shifted." In any event, as Jarry says in a letter concerning the first performance of Ubu Roi, "No scenery, no array of walkers-on, could really evoke 'the Polish Army marching across the Ukraine.'" And so, rather than attempt to make the pretense work anyway, Jarry used a single actor to hold a placard that said "[I am] The Polish Army."

So as to reinforce the impression that the actors on stage were actually "man-sized marionettes" (a phrase that appears in his "Preliminary Address at the First Performance of Ubu Roi, December 10, 1896"), Jarry insisted that all of the players be masked. "The actor should use a mask to envelop his head, thus replacing it by the effigy of the CHARACTER," Jarry writes in "On the futility of the 'Theatrical' in the Theater"; the actor's mask "should not follow the masks in the Greek theater to indicate simply tears or laughter, but should indicate the nature of the character: the Miser, the Waverer, the Covetous Man accumulating crime. . . ." The use of masks accomplished two things that were important to Jarry: it frustrated the ambition of the actors to be stars ("It is not 'stars' that are needed, but a homogenous array of somber masks: docile silhouettes"); and it frustrated the desire of the audience to escape from its own situation ("I intended that when the curtain went up the scene should confront the public like an exaggerating mirror in the stories of Madame Leprine de Beaumont, in which the depraved saw themselves with dragons' bodies, or bulls' horns, or whatever corresponded to their particular vice").

If the members of the SCP have been followers of "Jarryism," they have been so out of necessity, not by choice. Like Artaud's carefully elaborated theories, Jarry's stage directions happen to be very well-suited to the production of "surveillance theater," that is, to performing in front of surveillance cameras. Because it is a political group that uses culture to get its message across, rather than a cultural group that has a political consciousness, the SCP has been primarily concerned with calling attention to the way surveillance cameras "theatrify" or spectacularize the public places in which they are installed, and only secondarily concerned with the things -- dialogue, story-lines and character development -- that most people still associate with "theater." (These things are only used to call attention to the existence of the cameras, and not for their entertainment value.) Similarly, if the SCP uses such silent devices as placards, speech bubbles and other printed materials to identify the scene and to convey the meaning of the action, it does so because surveillance cameras are barred by law from picking up sound, and thus are rarely equipped with microphones.

Due to the fact that masks inadvertently play into the hands of those who propagate the cynical myth that "only those who have something to hide are opposed to surveillance cameras," the members of the SCP have made sparing use of masks and most often show their naked faces when they perform. But when they have used masks -- as they did to call attention to the implications of face recognition software -- the SCP have defined mask-wearing and role-playing as essential human behaviors, as essential aspects of human social life. "The 'false face' is the true one, since it is the only personal one," Jarry writes in "Concerning Inverse Mimicry in the Characters of Henri De Regnier."

But just as the methods of the SCP validate Jarry's insights into the theatrical spectacle, the success that the SCP has had among ordinary people with these very methods invalidates Jarry's simplistic and elitist views of society.

We must not forget [Jarry writes in "Twelve Theatrical Topics"] that there are [..] at least two [different kinds of theater audiences]: there is the audience of a few intelligent people, and the one that is just a crowd. For the crowd, spectacular shows (with scenery and dancing and visible and tangible emotions [...]) are mainly a pastime, and maybe just a little bit of a lesson since they are not forgotten quite immediately, but a lesson in mock sentimentality and mock esthetics, which are the only real kind for people like that, and for whom the minority theater seems an incomprehensible bore. This other theater is neither a holiday for its audience, nor a lesson, nor a pastime -- it is something real.

Mais, non, Monsieur Jarry! The "spectacular shows" are frequently very real, very real indeed, and the minority theater is all-too-often an incomprehensible bore.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998

Return to

Surveillance Camera Players


Return to