Matters arising from a translation/adaptation of The Supermale by Alfred Jarry
Donald Roy Theatre, University of Hull Department of Drama, Feb.2005
This presentation of an adaptaion of Jarry's scurrilous-but-brilliant novella, Le Surmale, provoked something of a
controversy. This had not been entirely unexpected, in view of its explicit sexuality and the multiple intoxications ( mainly
with alcohol and his own fantasy) for which Jarry is notorious. Nevertheless, the ensuing debate took some directions
which came as a surprise to me (as director).
The most forceful criticism, and the most articulate, came in the form of an email from a colleague, which I give here
The proposal: our performance
spaces offer the opportunity to provide other perspectives and alternative
modes of expression, enabling us to consider how and why we re-present
stereotypes. As staff guiding groups of students, we have particular
opportunities to foster equality - and the insight to recognise this does
not limit us to making 'dull-but-worthy' work. The Supermale raised
questions of how distanced texts which express views now recognised as
prejudiced might be framed, critiqued, and undercut. Such texts offer
possibilities for exploring and exploiting the particular capacities of
theatre to achieve interrogatory results. The style, tone, and visual
vocabulary employed by the recent production of The Supermale seemed,
because it lacked purposeful framing, gratuitous in its possession of
female bodies and of female sexualities. If we are committed to equality
and against discrimination, we should (for example) be considering with
greater care how we might avoid reperpetuating the actress-as-prostitute
role. At its most basic, we should be considering how and why naked
performance occurs - perhaps deciding that, in simulating sex, if she is
naked then so is he. --
Many questions are raised; my project in this paper is to attempt to marshall them into a systematic interrogation of the
processes and problems involved in the staging of the apparently unstageable, in the context of University Theatre
Any work of art is by nature 'distanced' in some way- even, after the moment of creation, from the artist him/herself. Less
pedantically, there is nevertheless a broad understanding of the term as meaning any work the reception of which is
removed from the immediate cultural or ideological context in which it was first created.
This is of particular importance to students and practitioners of theatre, as the distanced moment of reception, the
performance, must necessarily be the result of a moment of re-creation. Unlike Michelangelo's "David", Racine's "Phedre"
must come to a contemporary audience only through the process of reinterpretation and re-enactment.
Most frequent and most obvious, is historical distance, which subsumes cultural and ideological distance. As we all know,
and could illustrate from almost any period in history, drama is frequently predicated upon norms and values which have
become discredited, either generally - as in the violence of Jacobean revenge tragedy - or more particularly to specific
interest groups, either religious or political - say, a medieval morality play, or, to take an example from my own practice, the
representation of negro villains in the English gothic melodrama The Castle Spectre.
In our specific context as institutions of research and teaching, the question may be simplified as, do we have a duty to
present, as nearly as , from a distance, we can arrive at it, a production as a perfectly preserved, or revived, museum piece.
A specimen to be interrogated.
Or do we adopt an ironising position in those cases where our sensibilities would be offended by the 'original'. And, if we do
that, how far can we take our distanced position before we can no longer claim to be presenting a production of the original.
Again, from my own practice, I have found myself resorting to such strategies as using as a title ' The Play Formerly
Known as Lysistrata'. There is a tangled web here, involving the moral and intellectual rights of translators, and the vexed
question of theatrical authorship. The time I have at my disposal will not allow me to go further in unravelling it on this
occasion, except to point out that theatrical production differs significantly from straightforward translation, in which the
project must surely be to relay the original as faithfully as possible.
Sarah Rubidge (1996) has very usefully teased out much of the complexity surrounding these questions. A brief passage
may be offered as illustration:
The means through which we 'justly' recognise a work is at the centre of the debate concerning authenticity in the
performing arts. Measures of authenticity, which in the theatre apply as much to translations of scripts as to
productions, include accurate replication of a score or script and fidelity to the spirit of the work. In recognising a
performance as an authentic performance of a work, however, the implication is that, in some way or another, it
communicates something of what that work has to say. The criteria upon which we make that judgement are
significantly affected by the times and culture in which it is made and are inextricably linked to the work's history,
which is formed and informed by its previous performances.
from: Rubidge, Sarah ,Does Authenticity Matter? The case for and against authenticity in the performing arts. in Campbell,
P. Analysing Performance MUP 1996 p219 &ff
I propose to address some more obvious questions surrounding the presentation of potentially offensive material, as they
emerged in consequence of the presentation of The Supermale..
Other considerations aside, what is in question here is a priori an alteration , in that it is an adaptation of a piece not written
to be performed. It is and was therefore, in the term as deployed by Rubidge, very definitely 'new work':
Arthur Danto takes the notion that each instantiation of a work is a new work still further [than Jo Ellen Jacobs].
He suggests that not only each performance, but also each reception of it, constitutes a new work. (ibid)
One irony is that, right from Jarry's opening salvo in 1896 with Ubu Roi ( and it's heartening to see that, over a hundred
years later, there's life in the old dog yet) the history of twentieth century theatre is punctuated with desperate attempts to
shock and provoke audiences, in order to provoke an active engagement with, rather than passive reception of, the
There have also been several notable recent examples of public outrage at explicit sex, dead bodies, and so on. Much of
what we know as 'performance art' constitutes a direct assault upon spectatorial sensibilities.
In this instance, the potential for offence was clearly centred in the matter of sex.
(Before I begin to discuss the performance strategies adopted. I should make the point that there were other aspects of this
piece than the thematic which led to its production. In fact, my first attraction to it stemmed from the account given by
Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New, which describes the race across Siberia between a five man bicycle and an express
train, both beaten by the Supermale of the title, Andrė Marceuil. From that point I resolved to investigate the performative
and presentational possibilities of combining modes such as film., mime and puppetry. My interest was in exploring
theatrical possibilities as much as philosophical interrogation.)
There are four passages in the novella which I anticipated might give cause for offence, and which therefore would need
careful handling, both in rehearsal and performance:
a) the opening conversation, followed by the more explicit continuation of it in the bar, in which are compared historical and
mythological examples of sexual 'prowess', culminating in Andre's secret resolve to seek to challenge and surpass them
b) the passage in which the policeman recounts to Andrė the rape of a little girl, concluding with reference to her as 'that
c) the passage in which the seven prostitutes hired for Andrė's experiment fall to a lesbian orgy
d) the extended and extremely explicit sex scene between Andrė and Ellen.
The novella opens, as did the play, in much the same way as does Ubu Roi, with an 'offensive' remark : " The act of love is
of no importance, since it can be performed indefinitely". This is the translation by Barbara Wright, which I used without
acknowledgement because there seemed, simply, to be no other way to render the original French: "L'amour est un acte
sans importance, puisqu'on peut le faire indefiniment." The only substitutes might be ' copulation', or 'fucking', neither of
which achieves the slippery avoidance of explicitness (of which the parallel 'merdre' of Ubu is the prime example).
From there, the conversation between the men and women guests of Andre Marceuil proceeds to a discussion of the
question of sexual super-performance, and the suggestion of a succession of historical or mythological examples of 'super -
males', culminating in Andrė's offering of "the indian so celebrated by Theophrastus", who exceeded seventy times in a day.
There is general incredulity, except from the young Ellen, described in the French as 'la vierge', whose interest has clearly
The conversation continues, in the third chapter of the book, second scene of the performance, between Andre and two of
the men - the doctor and the general - in a bar, where it becomes more explicit, though resorting to Latin for the more
Apart from the profusion of sexual references, these passages were problematic in that they are extremely wordy, with
much circumlocution, and practically nothing in the way of dramatic action.
The student charged with the adaptation of these passages, Hannah Rogers, had hit on the notion of providing footnotes.
Some of these were simply explanatory, some witty. The idea suggested itself of including these in some way as a device
both to explain and enliven the dialogue. I hit on the idea of turning them into action, by replicating the practice at boxing
matches of having a partly dressed young woman parading between rounds with a placard announcing the round number.
As I did not imagine it possible that any likely audience member would take this seriously, particularly considering the
pantomimic style at which the production aimed, this device would serve also to ironise the drama, an effect heightened by
the choice of costume, late nineteenth century brothel underwear inspired principally by Toulouse Lautrec.
There was also the practical consideration that, because of casting difficulties, the 'placard girls' were chosen from the
ranks of the seven tarts, and wore the same costumes.
I came to regard that as a happy accident, setting up a resonance with the later scenes.
The effect depended upon the obvious anachronism, and this seems the appropriate point at which to provide some sort of
index of consciously-adopted performance strategies.
Baz Kershaw, following Philip Auslander, in his essay 'The Politics of Performance',( in Patrick Campbell's' Analysing
"….the politics of postmodern performance, if it aims in any way to be oppositional, must be one of resistance
from within the dominant. To be most effective, such politics would need to subvert, as it were, the building blocks
of the dominant, to undermine the main strategies that it uses to maintain itself….
"Auslander argues that the deconstructive techniques used by the Wooster Group in LSD…Just the High Points
aim to resist the ways in which dominant ideologies have been inscribed in the performative by mainstream
Kershaw gives a detailed list of performance strategies deployed:
"… the show is in four parts which are not related through narrative, storyline or plot. Part 1 juxtaposes the
reminiscences of LSD guru Timothy Leary's babysitter Ann Rower, with random readings from classic 1960s texts
by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others; Part 2 presents excerpts from Arthur Miller's The Crucible with the
characters played or presented in totally contrasting styles; Parts 3 and 4 are similarly obliquely related to the
previous parts and to each other. A brief list of the show's other deconstructive methods will suggest its mind-
knotting complexity. Ann Rower's reminiscences are repeated coolly by actress Nancy Riley as she listens to
Rower's recording of them on a Walkman; the reading of 1960s classics is deliberately offhand and the actual texts
are held up in the air at the end of each reading; the men are in contemporay dress and most of the women in
sixteenth century costume; the men speak through microphones (usually) but the women do not; Ron Vawter
reads his part of Proctor from Miller's play at breakneck, unintelligible speed while Kate Valk in blackface as
Tituba seems to be totally possessed by her character…and so on. Such complexity means that the audience is
almost constantly wrong-footed by an extraordinarily adroit juxtaposition and mixing of performing styles, types of
text, modes of address, performative frames, realms of representation. As all the rules of previous dramaturgies
are broken in the name of such deconstructions, the precise political purpose of the show is not at all easy to
Kershaw, Baz The Politics of Performance in Campbell P.(ed) op cit p141
Much of the performance style of The Supermale was intended similarly to achieve a set of dislocations and dissonances.
To use rhetorical terms to provide a descriptive index, the devices used in SM were principally anachronism, anachorism,
hyperbole and, on one occasion, litotes.
The use of the placards combined both anachronism and anachorism.
Having obtained literal translations of the Latin phrases, and discovering them to be progressively explicit, and, therefore,
potentially offensive, but nonetheless necessary to an understanding of the subsequent action, I decided to include them also,
The fact that the placards were displayed by women suggested the opportunity of having an attitude incorporated into the
manner of their display, ( invoking Brechtian verfremdungseffekt) ranging from flirtatiousness through boredom to, finally,
obvious resentment at the final, most extreme, translation., delivered in performance with a disgusted toss of the head and a
slap of the actress's hand over the word 'cunt'.
In the case of the conversation between Andrė and the policeman, in which a little girl is reported as having been "raped to
death" -"violėe a mort"- Jarry himself deploys the rhetorical device of litotes. " [The policeman] s'exprimait d'une maniėre
hesitante, mais assez correcte et sobre d'adverbes".
The policeman is deferential (to Andrė), apologising for bringing the matter up, and for bothering Andre with "cette petite
morveuse" (Here I retained Wright's translation as 'slut', although that is not the meaning of the original, which is closer to
'snot-nose'. 'Slut' is, of course, more offensive. This was intentional))
. Of course it becomes apparent that the culprit is Andrė himself, and, on the page, the passage is truly horrible. The actors
and I knew that our task here was to make the audience thoroughly uncomfortable - which, given the extent and fervour of
the contemporary focus on the problem of paedophilia, was anyway inevitable. Above all other passages in the novel, it was
this that convinced me of Jarry's seriousness of purpose. At other times, as I will say in due course, he appears to revel in
his sexual fantasies. At this point, that seems unthinkable.
In rehearsal, several performance strategies were considered. At first, we explored the possibility of the policeman as
bombastic - a similar overstatement (hyperbole) to that used for the character of the general. That, however, seemed to
diminish and trivialise the narrative and, in the end, we arrived at a self-deprecating, powerless representation, with the
narrative delivered hesitantly. (Litotes)
The third 'problematic' passage involves the seven prostitutes hired by Andrė for his sexual experiment. They are taken to a
room in which they are locked by Ellen, who intends to have him all to herself. In their boredom they instigate a seven-way
lesbian orgy. The passage occupies scarcely two pages of the novella, but is written by Jarry with manifest enjoyment in his
A straightforward 'museum piece' rendition of this scene would have been to have it played out by the performers. Given the
context of the production, with student actors in an educational establishment , I did not even consider this route. Another
solution, which would have been in keeping with the overall performance style, would have been to use puppets, in a
similarly staightforward rendition of the scene..
To use Barbie dolls to represent the prostitutes had already been planned for a passage which, for practical reasons, was
cut from the production. I had intended to include a film of the prostitutes, represented by Barbies, dressed like the women
in Toulouse Lautrec's posters, each in front of a famous fin-de-siecle painting of Paris (Renoir, Degas et al), receiving her
letter of invitation from Andrė. This was not included simply because the film was never made. I wish that it had been.
The orgy scene was played out by the Doctor manipulating the puppets, narrating the action verbatim from the text, while
the General filmed the action, which was simultaneously projected on a large overhead screen.
The choice of Barbie dolls as puppets for this scene , which provoked particular criticism, was not accidental. Nor was it in
spite of, nor in ignorance, but very definitely because of, the many resonances and associations surrounding one of the
iconic images of contemporary culture.
The 'puppeteers' of the scene were not anonymous operators dressed in black, which would have been appropriate to a
'straight' playing of the scene, but the two characters who had colluded most with Andre in setting up the experiment: The
Doctor and the General, who had held the smutty conversation with Andrė in the bar.
Two stereotypes, then, played as such throughout the performance. What the audience actually saw was not a dramatised
version of the lesbian orgy, but two dirty old men, bathed in lurid green light, playing it out with Barbie dolls, one
manipulating them, the other filming the simultaneous projection, and both leering and slavering quite grotesquely.
The intention was that this should be disturbing, and that the audience would find it distasteful in a similar way to the
policeman's narrative.The devices employed here were, however, anachorism, anachronism, and hyperbole.
I anticipated adverse reactions to this scene, but was surprised that the one most vociferously expressed was rooted in a
feminist critique. Of all of the critical camps this had seemed to me the one most likely to respond favourably to this
passage. Certainly the male actors involved were well aware of, and discussed on several occasions, the extent to which
their exaggerated performance might act as an agent of deconstruction.
It has occurred to me to wonder whether the reaction would have been the same had the puppeteers been cross-dressed
women, or had the director - and therefore auteur- been a woman. Even in that case, one might be reminded of the account
given by Elaine Aston, following Ellin Diamond, of the Monstrous Regiment productions of FloorShow and Time Gentlemen
"In Floorshow (1977/8) and Time Gentlemen Please(1978) Monstrous Regiment created the opportunities for
generating a critical discourse surrounding the subservient, decorative role which the orm traditionally requires
women to en-act. By deconstructing he objectification of women in this context, the company moved towards the
'looking-at-being-looked-at-ness' and the body as a site of historicity which Diamond describes. The problematics
of this, however, were highlighted in the case of Time Gentlemen Please where attempts to foreground the
construction of femininity through the deconstructive use of 'feminine' costuming was misread. One performance
of this piece ended in an angry riot, as feminist spectators did not read the foregrounding of the costuming as a
gendered sign-system, or read the traces of the repressed in the 'not-but'representation of female sexuality"
Aston, Elaine An Introduction to Feminism and Theatre p94
The fourth passage, from the outset the most obviously likely to offend, was that based on chapters 9,10 and 12 of the
novella, in which Andrė, as the Indian, and Ellen attempt, and of course achieve and surpass, the record 70 copulations
achieved by the mythical "indian". In fact they achieve 82.
In the course of the action they also eat voraciously, and dance, tarantella-like, for the entertainment of the prostitutes, who
by then have broken free. At the end of the dance Ellen falls into a coma, and Andre, thinking he has killed her, delivers a
eulogy over her body which, in the original text, he explores minutely and kisses intimately. This was not done in
The presentation of this scene posed the greatest number of questions: should it be played as written - a common or garden
sex scene, repeated eighty two times? again, should it be played by puppets? should the actors be fully naked? should it be
comic, or serious, or each by turns?
Jarry's own intentions are clear. As before, he takes obvious pleasure in his descriptions of the sex action, and Ellen's body
in particular. A major question was posed, to what extent should the performance seek to include this element of eroticism?
There is repeated emphasis on Ellen's nakedness, from the very beginning of the scene where she is described as "toute rose
et toute nue, comme transparent", to the point in mid-scene when, wearing only a mask, she complains "je ne suis pas assez
nue" - I'm not naked enough.
This is a key part of Jarry's overall project in writing the novella as a critique and commentary upon the onset of the
mechanistic age. Andrė becomes through the piece progressively more mechanical, more and more the 'super-male' of the
title as he first destroys the 'dynamometer', picture an unspecific machine constructed in the form of a woman, then wins
the race against the locomotive, until his final cataclysmic, and mortal, encounter with the electric chair.picture He is put
into the chair in an attempt to stimulate him to feel love. His lament over the seemingly dead Ellen is a cry of anguish at his
inability to feel love. His superhuman sexual performance has been a triumph of control, discipline and will, entirely lacking
It is in this deployment of stereotypical notions of gender, with woman as soft, yielding, passionate, loving, 'pink and naked',
Dionysian, juxtaposed with man as cold, disciplined, forceful, Apollonian ,that Jarry comes closest to deserving he
scepticism of feminist critics, or those at least who may consider how far his tongue is in his cheek to be an irrelevant
consideration. It is at this point also that I believe my adaptation and production, predicated as it was upon the same set of
oppositions, comes closest to deserving the same criticism. The choice was made quite deliberately as it was, in my view,
necessary to any degree of allegiance to the original. I resolved to attempt, therefore, neither a straightforward acceptance
and expression of this 'dominant ideology', nor a straightforward subversion of it. I hoped to achieve an effect of oscillation,
which I have described in a different context as akin to an electrical alternating current.
What I had hoped might suggest how far my tongue was in my cheek were the several presentational modes adopted in
playing the scene. There was an obvious practical consideration here, in that it would clearly have been impossible to ask
two live actors to simulate eighty-plus copulations in full view of the audience. The use of a film montage to represent the
actual sex was not simply for this practical consideration. My original conception had been a montage of filmic clichės
representing sex - waves lapping the shore, falling factory chimneys, trains rushing through tunnels, and so on, the intention
being to provide an ironising comment upon the imaginary stage action. This idea was ultimately developed by the two film-
makers, to include the characters of the play -Ellen's father, and the doctor - to represent some of the 'action outside the
Similarly, the device of having a real singer to perform as the phonograph would, I had hoped, ironise the dance sequence
and bring Andrė's lament (during which, behind his back, Ellen got up and strolled offstage) into sharper focus,
simultaneously subverting and emphasising its seriousness.
With hindsight it is clear to me that this scene did not succeed as intended. To a considerable extent it did not actually take
place as intended, and some of the objections raised to it might ultimately stem from this.
At the outset of the production, a year before it was even scheduled, I was already in discussion with a small group of
interested students, including the actress who ultimately played the part of Ellen. Right up to the beginning of the production
process itself the questions surrounding exactly how to do it were left open. By the beginning of rehearsals I had decided
not to use puppets, but to play the sex scene with real performers. Rehearsals up to a late stage were 'closed' with only the
actors, myself, and- deliberately- a female DSM. The possibility of actual nudity was known from the beginning, but was
not finally decided until very late.
Indeed, right up to the dress rehearsal the choice was left to the performers themselves.
In the event, they differed. Charlotte wanted to play it naked, Conor felt he couldn't. Nor was he comfortable with what I
had at first suggested, that he wear a phallus - a comically oversized prosthetic which he would manipulate like a puppet,
[insert link to design image]
Had this taken place, I am confident that the subsequent controversy would not have emerged. The deconstructive reading
of the scene would have been much more securely signposted.
The widely voiced criticism that playing the scene with the woman naked and the man not naked served to reiterate and
perpetuate misogynistic values and sexual stereotypes is, I recognise, entirely reasonable. The impression given was,
however, exaggerated, in that the actual nakedness took place very briefly, for only a fraction of the time in the original.
Ellen began the scene clothed, shedding her nightgown only at the point where she invites Andre " It's your move, dear
master". This in itself was a deliberately iconic - and ironic- gesture. Apart from the point at which she complains that she
is "not naked enough", Ellen played the rest of the scene - the dance, the collapse, the feast, clothed, albeit not very.
Given another week, or a different production context, I would have hoped to find a more satisafactory solution to this
The Supermale was an experiment. Or, rather, several concurrent experiments. It was an experiment in performance and
presentational style, in production organisation, in translation and adaptation, and in the politics of performance.
The results of an experiment, as any scientist knows, are sometimes negative as well as positive. In this instance there was a
mixture, and which was which may be a matter of personal positioning.
It may be felt by some that such an experiment contained too many risks to be conducted in a university, among and with
students. To those I would say that the only place where there is any value in a scientific experiment the results of which
are known in advance is in a school laboratory. Such an experiment has no claim to be called 'research' , and that is the
significant difference between a school and a University Department. Huge sums are expended by Industry to support the
research which is essential to continued industrial development. Sadly, this is not true of the Arts in general, and theatre in
particular. In mainstream theatre commercial imperatives preclude genuine experiment.
As I asked my colleagues in Hull on presenting a preliminary version of this paper, If not here, then where ?
In conclusion I quote Jean-Francois Lyotard:
The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that
which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share
collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy
them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. A postmodern artist or writer is in the position
of a philosopher; the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules,
and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgement, by applying familiar categories to the text or to
the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then,
are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work
and text have the characters of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author, or, what amounts
to the same thing, their being put into work, their realization (mise en oeuvre) always begin too soon. Post modern
would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo).
from: The Postmodern Condition; A Report on Knowledge (1979)
trans. Bennington and Massumi, M.U.P., 1984
in Counsell,C. and Wolf,L.(eds) Performance Analysis 2001 p.55