ALFRED JARRY 1896
The plays of Alfred Jarry are considered by many to be the first dramatic works of the theatre of the absurd. They are credited with a great number of literary innovations and are seen as major influences of the dada and symbolist movements in art. Ubu Roi (translated as King Ubu and King Turd) is Jarry’s most famous work. Ubu Roi eliminates the dramatic action from its Shakespearean antecedents and uses scatological humor and farce to present Jarry’s views on art, literature, politics, the ruling classes, and current events.
Ubu Roi first saw life as schoolboy farce, a parody of Felix Hebert, one of Jarry’s teachers. Co-authored with his friend, Henri Morin, the skit was transformed into a marionette play through several versions. In 1891, Jarry published a story, “Guignol,” reminiscent of the Punch and Judy performances popular throughout Europe, which showcased a vile and murderous Pere Ubu. A two-act version of Ubu Roi with songs for marionettes, Ubu sur la Batte, appeared in print in 1906.
The opening night of December 11,1896, caused quite a stir according to Roger Shattuck in his work The Banquet Years. Actor Firmin Gernier stepped forward to speak the opening line—“Merdre!” (translated as “Shifter!”). The audience erupted in pandemonium. It took nearly fifteen minutes to silence the house and continue the play. Several people walked out without hearing any more. Fist fights broke out in the orchestra. Jarry supporters Page 250 | Top of Articleshouted, “You wouldn’t understand Shakespeare either!” Those who did not appreciate Jarry’s attack on theatrical realism replied with variations of le mot Ubu.
The stage manager startled the audience into silence by turning up the house lights and catching several screaming patrons standing on their seats and shaking their upraised fists. Gernier improvised a dance and the audience settled back down long enough for the action to proceed to the next “merdre,” when the audience exploded once again. The interruptions continued throughout the play until the curtain fell. One audience member, a stunned and saddened William Butler Yeats, remarked “[W]hat more is possible? After us the Savage God.”
In his book Jarry: Ubu Roi, Keith Beaumont detailed three accusations that were made against Ubu Roi by spectators and critics in the aftermath of the outrageous performance. The first focused on the play’s “alleged” vulgarity and obscenity. Secondly, perhaps in view of the political atmosphere of the time, critics condemned the play and its performance as the theatrical equivalent of an “anarchist” bomb attack and as an act of political subversion. The third accusation leveled against the play and its performance was that they in no way constituted a “serious” piece of literature or of theater but rather a gigantic hoax.
Alfred Jarry, considered by some to be the father of the theater of the absurd, was born in Laval, France, on September 8, 1873. His father, Anselme, represented a wool factory as a traveling salesman, and his mother (nee Caroline Quernest) was the daughter of a judge. As a youth, Jarry won scholastic prizes in foreign languages and science. But the rebellious spirit and biting wit that marked his adult life were already making themselves known. With his school friends, Jarry mounted productions that made fun of his physics teacher, Felix Herbert. These parodies of Herbert were rewritten as Ubu Roi (1896; translated as King Turd in 1953).
The Ubu saga continued with Ubu enchaine (1900; translated as King Enslaved in 1953) and Ubu cocu (1944; translated as King Cuckolded). Jarry also wrote two novels. Le Surmale: Roman moderne (1902; translated as The Supermale: A Modern Novel ) tells the story of a man who has a love making contest with a machine. The other novel, Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien (1911; translated as The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician ) defined “pataphysics” as the science of imaginary solutions.
In his later years, Jarry demonstrated outrageous behavior; he mimicked the monotonous speech and the jerky walk of Pere Ubu; his abuse of ether and alcohol distorted his ability to distinguish himself from the characters he had created. Jarry died in a charity hospital in Paris on November 1,1907. He was just thirty-four years of age.
Pere Ubu, along with Mere Ubu and Captain Bordure, plot the killing of the King of Poland. Pere Ubu poisons Bordure’s men, who have assembled at a sumptuous feast, by providing an excrement covered toilet brush for all to taste. The act ends with Pere Ubu demanding that Mere Ubu, Captain Bordure, and the other conspirators “swear to kill the king properly.”
Pere Ubu attacks and kills King Venceslas of Poland. Queen Rosemonde and her youngest son, Bougrelas, escape to a mountain cave, but the Queen dies. The dead ancestors appear to Bougrelas and demand vengeance, giving him a large sword.
After some prompting from Mere Ubu about sharing some of his newly ill gotten wealth, Pere Ubu throws gold coins to the crowd. Several are trampled in the mad rush. Pere Ubu’s response is to provide more gold as a prize to whoever wins a footrace. Afterwards, Pere Ubu invites the assembled multitude to an orgy at the palace.
Pere Ubu and Mere Ubu discuss what to do now that they are the sovereigns of Poland. Pere Ubu has decided, now that he no longer has any need of Captain Bordure, not to elevate him to the rank of Duke of Lithuania. Bordure ends up in Pere Ubu’s dungeon but escapes to ally himself with Czar Alexis. Meanwhile, Pere Ubu executes all of Poland’s nobles so that he can then lay claim to their Page 251 | Top of Articleproperties. Then, he follows suit with the magistrates and the financiers, claiming a reform in both the law and financial dealings of the government. When he realizes that all of the government workers have been killed, Ubu shrugs and simply says that he himself will go door to door to collect the taxes.
Bordure sends Ubu a letter in which he reveals his plans to invade Poland and re-establish Bougrelas as the rightful King. Ubu weeps and sobs in fear until Mere Ubu suggests they go to war. Pere Ubu agrees but refuses to “pay out one sou” for its expense. With the cardboard cutout of a horse’s head around his neck, Ubu leads his army off to battle against Bordure, Czar Alexis, and Bougrelas.
Mere Ubu searches the crypt that holds the remains of the former Kings of Poland for the Polish treasure. She discovers it among the bones of the dead kings but cannot carry it all out at once. When she says that she’ll come back tomorrow for the rest of the treasure, a voice from one of the tombs shouts, “never, Mere Ubu.” Bougrelas advances to Warsaw and wins the first battle. Mere Ubu escapes amid rifle shots and a hail of stones. Meanwhile, Pere Ubu and the czar do battle in the Ukraine. The tide shifts, first one way, then another. Finally, Pere Ubu and his army are bested. They escape to a cave in Lithuania. A bear attacks while Ubu is in the cave with two of his soldiers; Ubu climbs to safety on a rock, and, when asked for help, responds by mumbling a Pater Noster (“Our Father, who art in heaven... “). After the soldiers kill the bear, Ubu falls asleep, and the two men decide to escape while they have the opportunity.
After crossing Poland in four days to escape Bougrelas and his army, Mere Ubu arrives at the cave where Pere Ubu is sleeping fitfully. Unseen by her husband, Mere Ubu pretends to be a supernatural apparition to make Pere Ubu ask forgiveness for his “bit of pilfering.” Instead, Mere Ubu is treated to a litany of her faults. When he discovers that it is Mere Ubu in the cave, Pere Ubu throws the dead bear on top of her. Not taking any chances that it might still be alive, Pere Ubu climbs up on the rock and begins the Pater Noster routine again. Angered that Mere Ubu laughs at him, Pere Ubu begins to tear her to pieces. But, before he can do much damage, Bougrelas and his army arrive and soundly beat the Ubus, who just manage to escape to a ship on the Baltic Sea. Pere Ubu plans to get himself
nominated Minister of Finances in Paris so that the whole sordid series of events can begin again.
Bourdure kills King Venceslas of Poland, paving the way for Pere Ubu to become the king. Later, Bordure abandons Ubu, goes over to the Russians, and plots the death of Pere Ubu and the reclamation of the Polish throne by Bougrelas with the czar. Pere Ubu recognizes Bordure in the middle of the battle, and, the stage directions indicate, tears him to pieces.
Bougrelas is the sole surviving son of King Venceslas and Queen Rosemonde. He escapes from the battle with Pere Ubu, receives a visit from all his dead ancestors demanding vengeance, and eventually defeats Pere Ubu and regains the crown.
Queen Rosemonde tries to warn King Venceslas by recounting one of her dreams. In the dream, Ubu
kills Venceslas and becomes King of Poland. During the battle, the queen escapes down the secret stairway with her son, Bougrelas, but dies shortly after in a cave in the mountains.
Other than her outrageous husband, Mere Ubu is the only character in the play who exhibits more than two or three basic character traits. That is not to say, however, that Mere Ubu is a fully rounded, complex character in the play. On the contrary, she is merely a watered down version of her pompous husband. She does act like Lady Macbeth early in the play by suggesting that Pere Ubu slaughter the entire Polish royal family and ascend to the throne. After that, she makes no additional contribution to the plot of the drama.
Pere Ubu is less than a “king,” even lesser than a traditional dramatic character. He kills the royal family of Poland in order to gain the throne, plunders their wealth, and steals whatever and whenever he desires. When threatened by the Polish king’s surviving son, Ubu runs and hides. And, through everything, he stuffs himself with food and drink and shouts obscenities. Jarry uses the perverse behaviors of Pere Ubu—greed, ambition, tyrannical behavior, absolute stupidity—to satirize the middle class life he hated.
The original character of Pere Ubu was first seen as a marionette. The clipped speech and robotlike movements of the play’s Pere Ubu derive from this earlier incarnation. Jarry wanted Ubu to be played masked, but the actor who portrayed the character in its outrageous performance at the Theatre de l’Oeuvre, Firmin Gernier, refused. However, the rapid speech, the jerky stylized movements, and the bulging pear-shaped costume were maintained.
Unlike characters in more conventional plays, Pere Ubu is free from the restraints of good and evil. He experiences his own perversity with a sick joy, a bombastic attitude, and a foul tongue. It has been suggested that the character of Ubu is played “in life itself” rather than dreamed or written. Pere Ubu lives on, not so much because of the play that bears his name, but because of Jarry’s transformation into his own creation.
Venceslas is King of Poland. He raises Pere Ubu to the rank of Count of Sandomir. Venceslas ignores the warning of his wife and goes to the “Review” without a sword. There, the army of Pere Ubu, led by Captain Bordure, kills the King. The ghost of King Venceslas visits his sole surviving son, Bougrelas, as part of the assembled dead who demand vengeance.
As a philosophical term, absurdity describes the lack of reasonableness and coherence in human Page 253 | Top of Articleexistence. As a literary term, absurdity seems to have been coined especially for Pere Ubu. Throughout the play, Pere Ubu appears to be unaware of what is happening around him. Murder, dismemberment, the trampling of a townsperson when Pere Ubu distributes gold—none of these atrocities faze Ubu. The character of Pere Ubu is absurd in another way: his reason for living seems to be to kill everyone; his actions that lead up to these killings can be described as “irrefutably logical.” Logic equals killing everyone.
Art and Experience
Alfred Jarry’s view of a new theater centered on two conditions: the need to “create new life” in the theater by creating a new type of character and the need to transcend the “things that happen all the time to the common man.”
Pere Ubu fulfills the definition of the new type of character—as did Jarry himself. Jarry not only wrote the adventures of Pere Ubu, he lived them. He walked like Ubu; he talked in the clipped robotic speech of Ubu. Novelist Andre Gide wrote that Jarry showed no human characteristics. “A nutcracker, if it could talk, would do no differently. He asserted himself without the least reticence and in perfect disdain of good manners.” Jarry fished for his neighbors’ chickens from a tree and drove waiters crazy by gorging himself on meals ordered, and eaten, in reverse order, dessert first. In time, Jarry became known to his friends as Pere Ubu.
As for the need to transcend everyday actions and situations, Jarry advanced a type of “shock treatment.” Ubu’s opening line (“Merdre!”) accomplished that rather handily. Jarry’s admitted intention was to stir up the passive audiences pandered to by the realistic theater. Stock characters and slapstick action, the staple of Punch and Judy marionette performances, could express universal concerns and escape the narrow confines of the “lived reality” of the realistic theater.
Ubu Roi predates the official founding of Dadaism by about ten years. Nevertheless, Pere Ubu and his alter ego Alfred Jarry seem worthy ancestors to this literary and artistic movement. Dadaism was devoted to the negation of all traditional values in philosophy and the arts. The Dada review proclaimed
its intention to replace logic and reason with deliberate madness and to substitute intentionally discordant chaos for established notions of beauty or harmony in the arts.
The term Ubermensch comes from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. It is used to designate the goal of human existence. Humans should commit themselves to earthly goals. They should sacrifice their lives for these goals and out of the destruction that would result from such sacrifice would rise the “Ubermensch.”
Out of the destruction in Ubu Roi, Pere Ubu rises, though more like a “Stupidman.” Ubu is the antithesis of Nietzsche’s Superman, although he is
an individual process of self-creation, unique and undefinable, and, like his creator Alfred Jarry, forever unfinished.
Jarry had definite ideas, not only about the staging for Ubu Roi, but for the theater in general. In an essay, translated by Barbara Wright as “Of the Futility of the Theatrical,” Jarry discusses “a few things which are particularly horrifying and incomprehensible... and which clutter up the stage to no purpose.”
It would be dangerous, says Jarry, for the writer to impose the decor [stage setting] that he himself would imagine and conceive. For “a public of artists” (as opposed to the general public), each audience member should be able to see a play in a decor that does not “clash with his own view of it.” The general public, on the other hand, can be shown any “artistic” decor because “the masses do not understand anything by themselves, but wait to be told how to see things.” A colorless background, an unpainted backdrop or the reverse side of a set, can allow the spectator to “conjure up for himself the background he requires.” Better still, Jarry continues in this essay, “the spectator can imagine, by a process of exosmosis [the passage of gases or liquids through membranes], that what he sees on the stage is the real decor.
The actor in a play should use a mask to cover his head, argues Jarry, and replace it with the “effigy of the CHARACTER.” The masks should not be a copy of the ancient Greek dramatic masks—one for tears, one for laughter—but should somehow indicate “the nature of the character: the Miser, the Waverer, the Covetous Man.” Six main positions (and six in profile) are enough for every expression. Jarry uses the example of a puppet showing bewilderment by “starting back violently and hitting its head against a flat” to illustrate his point (Ubu Roi made one its first appearances as a marionette drama.)
Another important element for Jarry is that the actor have a “special voice.” The voice must be “appropriate to the part, as if the cavity forming the mouth of the mask were incapable of uttering anything other than what the mask would say.” The Page 255 | Top of Articlewhole play, Jarry concludes, “should be spoken in a monotone.”
The New Wave of Arts and Letters
“We want to demolish museums and libraries!” These fighting words come not from the mouth of a fanatic or a terrorist but rather from the pen of Italian poet Emilio Marietti. He, along with other artists and writers, wanted to destroy all that preserved traditional art and learning in Western Europe. These “futurists,” who spurned the value of tradition, wanted to break completely free from the past. They wanted to fashion an entirely new civilization that would divorce itself from the serious moral and cultural crises of the late-nineteenth century.
Jarry’s Europe was preoccupied with change. Developments in the sciences brought into question the role of a divine creator (particularly the work of Charles Darwin, which presented validation of the theory of evolution). Changes in communication (the telephone, the “wireless”) and in transportation (the bicycle, the automobile) skewed traditional understandings of time and space. The introduction of moving pictures and X-rays redefined the ways in which people saw the world around them. What had once been the province of magic became reality in the waning years of the nineteenth century.
Liberation from the past and all of its traditions could only be achieved through acceptance of and immersion in these rapid changes. Painter Umberto Boccioni stated the goal: “Let’s turn everything upside down.... Let’s split open our figures and place the environment inside them.” Another futurist proclaimed, “A speeding automobile is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace”; contemporary achievement, rather than an ancient Greek statue, reigned supreme.
Fin de Siecle Political Turmoil
Two major events before World War I that transformed political life in France were the Boulanger Affair and the Dreyfus Affair. General Boulanger attempted to seize power in France in the 1880s. Molded by a carefully orchestrated publicity campaign, Boulanger appeared as the “messiah,” the proverbial knight in shining armor who would save France’s honor at all costs. His play for power failed, however, and Boulanger left France in disgrace amid allegations of treason.
Accused of selling military secrets to the Germans, Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus, on the other hand, sparked debate between those who were convinced of his innocence and expected the Republic to uphold the ideals of justice and freedom and those associated with the traditional institutions—the Church, the army—who considered themselves to be upholding and defending the honor of France. Intellectuals organized themselves and pressed for the exoneration of Dreyfus. Novelist Emile Zola, in his famous front page letter to the editor J’Accuse, demonstrated the power of the written word in changing governmental decisions.
Jarry’s written words would not bring political change, though they would, with the production of Ubu Roi, change the way in which a pompous caricature could impact the literary consciousness of an age.
When actor Firmin Gernier stepped forward and spoke his opening line as Pere Ubu—“Merdre!” (often translated as “Shitter!”)—the audience erupted. Some would say the controversy still rages. What those who study late-nineteenth century theater do agree on is that Jarry attacked theatrical realism head-on and things just haven’t been the same since.
Brian E. Rainey in an essay in the Wascana Review noted that “Ubu is at once a commentary on and a revolt against the world in which Jarry lived.” Anarchy, greed, corruption, and cowardice all play prominent roles in Ubu Roi. Pere Ubu seeks to destroy everything; he holds nothing sacred. Jarry provided the prototype for much of what would come to be known in the future as a Brechtian or “alienation effect.” Pere Ubu may speak en Francais, but his vices are not exclusively French. He has achieved real universality.
Many critics have dismissed Ubu Roi as immature and childish. G. E. Wellwarth in his article “Alfred Jarry: The Seeds of Avant-Garde Drama” argued that the “superficial childishness of the Ubu plays should not prevent the reader from taking them seriously. The fact that Jarry’s mind remained in many essentials that of a child in no way diminishes his importance as the originator of a scream of
protest which Antonin Artaud later decreed as the official theme of avant-garde drama.”
Ubu Roi presents Jarry’s warped version of a naive childish fantasy—the good king killed by an evil person who wants the throne, the young and virtuous heir to the throne avenging his father, battles resembling those fought with toy soldiers, eerie (but not too scary) “supernatural” events, a fight with a pretend bear, and so on.
“If Pere Ubu exerted a profound influence on the young intellectuals of the period,” stated Dan M. Church in Drama Survey, “it was not because they had seen him on the stage or had read about him in a book; it was because they saw him and knew him through his flesh-and-blood incarnation: Alfred Jarry.” The nihilism of Ubu appealed to the young late nineteenth-century intellectuals. The foul-mouthed, rotund comic figure and the nascent revolutionaries stood side by side. But, argued Church, with two World Wars and the rise of dictators, Pere Ubu has changed from the symbol of the revolutionary to the embodiment of all that they are revolting against: the shining emblem of totalitarianism, the perfect representation of bourgeois bureaucracy, and the poster boy for the insanity of war and mass murder.
William P. Wiles
In this essay, Wiles examines Jarry’s play as a ground breaking work, what is considered by many to be the first drama in the Theatre of the Absurd.
It is highly doubtful that Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi will be performed on a high school stage any time soon. Why then subject it to academic scrutiny in a reference work aimed at the high school audience? The answer, quite simply enough, is because it was the first. In art, establishing a precedent is most important. Once Pere Ubu waddled to the middle of the stage and uttered his scandalous, foul-mouthed opening line, the theater could never be the same
again. The entire dramatic experience had been fashioned into something new and different. Jarry opened a Pandora’s box and neglected to close the lid.
Jarry rebelled, not only against the prevailing traditions and conventions of fin de siecle (“end of the century”) drama, but against absolutely everything. He rejected the world of reality and the world of ideas and constructed his own world detailed in his Pataphysics. For example, Jarry’s refusal to use “realistic” stage props is built on the idea that these artificial trappings prevent the audience from seeing its own personal vision of the setting in which the action (or non-action) occurs. The raising and lowering of the curtain, then, disrupts the creative relationship between the audience and the drama. The elaborate recreation of a room or an outdoor location would be the vision of the set designer and not the audience.
Instead, Jarry used descriptive placards and representational devices (a single actor for a parade of soldiers; wicker mannequins for the nobles) to shock his blockhead audience “so that we can tell from their bear-like grunts where they are—and also how they stand.”
Nearly every anti-realist artistic movement of the twentieth century used Jarry’s confrontational dramatic format as a model. Todd London explained in his essay “My Ubu, Myself” that the Dadaists took inspiration from Jarry’s chaos, while the Symbolists emulated Jarry’s emphasis on image over action. The description of the Ubu set illustrates a rough, contradictory beauty: “You will see doors open on fields of snow under blue skies, fireplaces furnished with clocks and swinging wide to serve as doors, and palm trees growing at the foot of a bed so that little elephants standing on bookshelves can browse on them.” The Surrealists admired Jarry’s unwillingness to distinguish art from life, especially as he came more and more to embody his creation—Pere Ubu—in his public life. As Andre Breton explained in Free Rein, “Beginning with Jarry... the differentiation long considered necessary between art and life has been challenged, to wind up annihilated as a principle.”
It is odd that so much attention has been paid to a play that has not been performed that many times since its debut in 1896. Rather, it is the transformation of Alfred Jarry into his character Pere Ubu that garners the notice of scholars. The shift from Jarry to Ubu did not happen all at once but occurred progressively as the distinctions between the life and the work of art blurred and fused into a unique continuity. Roger Shattuck stated in The Banquet
Years that this living creation was Jarry’s attempt to abandon himself to “the hallucinatory world of dreams.... Jarry converted himself in a new person physically and mentally devoted to an artistic goal.... He had found his Other, the flesh of his hallucination.”
In late-nineteenth century France, farces and well-mannered plays with polite plots controlled the mainstream theater. Pere Ubu’s explosive opening line disrupted this veneer of civility and established the rules for the avant-garde of the new century. The rules, of course, were there were no rules. Jarry not only put “the word” on the stage, he also brought “the object” in the form of a toilet brush which Pere Ubu serves as one of the courses at a banquet. With this new level of tastelessness (the guests lick the brush and are poisoned), Jarry illustrates the satirical qualities of scatology to degradation and violence.
John Updike, quoted in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, provided an excellent summation:
How are we to judge Alfred Jarry? Apollinaire expressed the hope that his weird words will be the foundation of a new realism which will perhaps not be inferior to that so poetic and learned realism of ancient Page 259 | Top of ArticleGreece. Gabriel Brunet explained him by saying, “Every man is capable of showing his contempt for the cruelty and stupidity of the universe by making his own life a poem of incoherent absurdity.” I think the second estimate more plausible; Jarry’s life, as a defiant gesture, matters more that his works, which are largely pranks and propaganda of a rarefied sort. Compared to Jarry, most of today’s so-called Black Humorists seem merely ex-admen working off their grudges in sloppy travesties of a society whose tame creatures hey remain still. Though we cannot grant him the comprehensive sanity and the reverent submission to reality that produce lasting art, we must admire his soldier’s courage and his fanatic’s will.
Jarry turned the theater upside-down and inside-out. He took reality and placed it into a magician’s top hat. With a wave of his wand and a magic word or two, he produced not a loveable furry white rabbit but the grotesque and foul-mouthed Pere Ubu. People have not been able to look at drama in the same way since.
Source: William P. Wiles, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following essay, Gilman provides an overview of Jarry’s play, explaining the plays concepts and themes.
In this five-act satirical farce, Jarry adapts the serious story of seizure of power to the comic aims of ridicule and relief. Mere Ubu, playing upon her husband’s bestial instincts, urges him to overthrow Wenceslas, King of Poland. After enlisting Bordure’s assistance, Ubu usurps the throne in the second act, murdering the ruler and his two sons. Bourgelas, one of the King’s sons, escapes with his mother. Meanwhile, in order to placate the Poles and satisfy his greed, Ubu offers the people gold that he reclaims through taxation. In the third act, Ubu assumes authority, liquidating the nobility and magistrates and confiscating national wealth. He also condemns Bordure who, taking refuge in Russia, requests Czar Alexis to help restore order and justice. Alexis attacks, and Mere convinces Ubu of the necessary recourse to war.
In Act IV, while Ubu battles against the Russians, his wife plunders the treasures of Poland. Ubu kills Bordure, but the decimation of his army compels him and his two Palotins to retreat. In fending off a rapacious bear, the Palotins perceive their leader’s cowardice and abandon him. In the final act, Ubu’s wife flees Bourgelas’s avenging army, arriving at the cave where Ubu is sleeping. Darkness enables her to impersonate the angel Gabriel
which, in turn, impels him to confess his wrongdoings. The light of daybreak, though, reveals her identity, and Ubu reverts to his former ways. Bourgelas attacks, and the Ubus, along with the Palotins who return, sail home with nostalgia for Poland.
Ubu’s grotesqueness evokes caricature and disbelief. His rotund body and pear-shaped head seem ludicrous and fantastical, and the opening trite insults between Mère and Père suggest a slapstick show or a puppet-play. Like the closing scenes in farce, a comic resolution dispels danger as husband and wife return home, physically secure and morally unchanged. Lack of development of character excludes introspection: throughout the play, Ubu remains stupid, indolent, and totally egocentric; his wife stays avaricious, complaining, and domineering. Through incongruities and inversions, Jarry employs irony to elicit surprise and to induce absurdity. Besides his ridiculous appearance, Ubu swears meaningless oaths (“by my green candle”, “shitter”), exaggerates the ordinary (his feast becomes a two-day orgy), and misconstrues reality (a bear is a “little bow-wow”). By exploiting the unexpected, Jarry has this Falstaff-like personage debunk the solemn and dignify the preposterous: his stepping on Wenceslas’s toe incites revolution; unlike the agile Czar, he jumps over a trench; and, seated safely on a rock, he recites a paternoster during the Palotins’ struggle with the bear. Jarry also uses dramatic parody: like Macbeth urged to depose Duncan, Ubu yields to his wife’s goadings, but his clumsiness, moral blindness, and inanities turn potential pathos into rollicking burlesque. Disparities of language and action heighten the ridiculous. During deliberations and battles, Ubu blends religious and literary references with nonsensical Page 260 | Top of Articlestatements, thereby reducing the serious and dignified to the trivial and foolish. And, in the dream-sequence that recalls epic conventions, medieval allegories, and Renaissance romances, Mère convinces Père that her ugliness is comparable to Aphrodite’s beauty and her depravities to saintly accomplishments.
The deceptions and distortions, though, present a superficial enjoyment that obscures the horrors of human bestiality and bourgeois shallowness. Ubu’s self-absorption and obsession with material wealth and sensual gratification explain his callous disregard and vicious abuse of others; and, prodded by his unbridled instincts, he acts irrationally and erratically. In depicting this primal nature devoid of reason and discipline, Jarry converts innocuous horseplay into actions provoking appalling disgust. For example, Ubu’s attack on his guests with bison-ribs provokes amusement; but his subsequent serving of human excrement at table replaces laughter with repugnance. Mère’s duplicity punctures pleasure. By injecting false courage into Ubu’s cowardly character, she yields to her insatiable greed for wealth and power, manipulating her husband to commit pillage and genocide.
As caricatures, they resemble cartoon animations; but their self-interest, insensitiveness, and indignities reflect the values and evils in bourgeois society. Exemplifying the ethos of this post-Darwinian era, Ubu disregards spiritual values; religion lacks belief, and Ubu facilely recites prayers to escape danger and death. He is a survivor whose instincts endure, and whose bestial superiorities destroy the weak and unfortunate. If Ubu is Everyman, he is also, paradoxically, Nobody, with his prosperity encasing a spiritual void. Instead, Ubu’s obesity suggests a material gluttony that assures an aggression necessary for success and stature.
In neglecting the unities of time, place, and action, Jarry constructs a series of scenes resembling a montage of inconsistent happenings and absurd characterizations. Ubu’s ludicrous appearance, irrational behavior, and vile words demonstrate a rejection of the established principles of verisimilitude and decorum; and at the first performance, the audience, expecting entertaining farce, was stunned and outraged. But by shattering the illusions that often, paradoxically, define reality, Jarry reveals the potential evils inherent in the subconscious. Through the humor, resulting from fantasy and foolishness, Jarry attacks the materialism, egocentricism, and superficialities which, embodied by Ubu, reflect bourgeois aims and attitudes. Ubu’s jokes are meaningless, insensitive utterances, and his unscrupulous deeds become unconscionable crimes. Satire, moreover, evolves into a probing of the dynamics of human impulses. Time and place dissolve, and Ubu emerges as an emblem of man’s primal nature. Futility and absurdity characterize Ubu’s endeavors: his actions end at the beginning; speech is claptrap; his uncontrolled affections and merciless, unrelenting aggressions destroy order and civilization. Jarry goes beyond a renunciation of conventional dramatic practice and accepted social standards. By creating a drama that suggests the later theories and plays of Artaud, Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco, he forces the spectator to confront, through Ubu, the savagery, isolation, and pain of human existence.
Source: Donald Gilman. “Ubu Roi” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 847–49.
Zelenak reviews a revival production of Jarry’s play, one that takes considerable liberties with the playwright’s text. The critic opines that by placing an emphasis on slapstick and scatological humor —as well as adding modern pop culture references —the Irondale production company captures the essence of Jarry’s play while making it accessible to modern audiences.
Few dramatic works have attained the iconographic status of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu roi. Its original two-performance production by Lugne-Poe in 1896 caused the greatest sensation in the French theater since Hugo’s Hernani sixty years earlier. Jarry’s play took only one word—the infamous merdre—to cause a near riot. Amidst the hysterical audience demonstrations, fist-fights and shower of missiles, the actors found themselves spectators to a theatrical event that dwarfed the one on stage. Although Ubu remains central to the avant-garde tradition, one might wonder: “Why revive Ubu ?” And if one answers that question, a larger one looms: How to do Ubu ninety years later?
The Irondale Ensemble’s New York production of Ubu Roi (1984-87) put itself in an active relationship to the text, using it simply as a starting point, a “pre-text” for a performance. They approached Ubu as a comedy-parody of the bourgeois world spirit, an ironic celebration of its endless adaptability and will to survive. Furthermore, they Page 261 | Top of Articlehad fun with Ubu. The Irondale’s Ubu Roi in some ways resembles a series of cabaret or burlesque skits. Just as much of Ubu is cartoon Shakespeare, the Irondale’s is a cartoon Ubu. Very little of the actual Jarry text is used, but it follows the plot and incidents of the play fairly closely. The production is irreverent from its opening moment, which finds Ubu enthroned on the toilet, grumbling “Shit!” Taking the cue from Jarry, the scatological metaphor is sustained throughout. When Ubu has to think hard or soliloquize, he retreats to his toilet seat; the cue for the beginning of Ubu’s coup d’etat is the password “shit.” Pa Ubu (Josh Broder) is not a fully realized “character,” but a grab-bag of comic techniques, most often the comic straight man or the deadpan stand-up comic. Pa Ubu is dim-witted and gross. He picks his nose, substitutes turds for meat at a state dinner to save money. He is an Aristophanic creation, operating from the basest, bottom-line human instincts, viz. food, sex and money. Ma Ubu (Molly Hickcock) is heavily camped, sometimes a la Mae West. The production is filled with low comedy, one liners, gags and intricate “bits” perhaps similar to the commedia dell’arte’s lazzi. Its success is not due to any particularly brilliant comic moments but rather to the cumulative effect of the rapid succession of gags and routines and the almost endless invention of the company.
The level of humor ranges widely from slapstick and crude farce to literate satire. Irondale borrows from Shakespeare almost as much as Jarry did. Wenceslas is possibly even costumed to look like Duncan, and Ma Ubu’s exhortations to her husband more than a little resemble Lady Macbeth. Wenceslas’ wife has prophetic dreams very similar to those of Caesar’s wife. A bear right out of The Winter’s Tale eats most of Ubu’s army near the end. In a parody of the parade of ghostly apparitions in Act V of Richard III, Pa Ubu has a similar vision. “Why have you come?” he questions the shades of his victims. “Because the show is going badly” they respond. It is surprising that the production holds together, since the audience is addressed directly so often. One scene is stopped halfway through because Ubu remembers that two scenes have been skipped. The humor is free-wheeling, at times reminding me of the old Firesign Theater. When the old Nobility beg King Ubu to spare their lives, he gives them a chance by presenting a mock “game show” where the category is “Reagan Fuck-ups.” The nobility are executed for the wrong answer. Likewise, the “Financial advisors,” an
identically costumed chorus of moustached, cigar-chomping Groucho Marxes who move in unison, get a similar opportunity to play charades for their lives. They get the right answer, but are executed for not getting a laugh. There are references to everything from My Favorite Martian and “Eggo Waffles” to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, evoked by Ma and Pa Ubu in the last scene as they sneak out of Poland and sail into the sunset.
The Jarry plot is the basic scene-by-scene scenario for Irondale’s Ubu. The hen-pecked Pa Ubu is pushed by his wife into leading a coup to topple King Wenceslas of Poland and seize the crown for himself. He is aided, in the Irondale production, by Manure, Duke of Lithuania. Ubu redistributes the wealth (“Ninety per cent of the wealth for me!”), doublecrosses everyone and is transformed from “a skinny little runt” to a bloated hedonist with pillows padding his belly. But Ubu remains the Master of Ceremonies, the clown controlling the action, also doubling as narrator and interpreter. He is constantly improvising one-liners and slipping quick jokes to the audience. Each sequence or scene is like a Saturday Night Live version of the Jarry original. The play becomes a pretext for the company to hang its jokes on. When the conspirators plan the murder of Wenceslas, Manure (Paul Lazar), Duke of Lithuania, gets a little carried away in his enthusiasm:
MANURE. My plan... is to take my stiff, hard, gleaming sword out of its sheath and shove it into his parted flesh and start to thrust, thrust, thrust (getting excited).
UBU. Cut through the hormones, Manure!
Later, when Manure gets similarly excited by the prospect of total war against the anti-Ubu armies, Pa Ubu cuts him off with: “That’s fine for you, you’re into that quasi-homosexual ritualistic behavior.” Ubu continuously switches from character to actor to clown. He taunts the chained and manacled Manure with:
UBU. This is it. You’re no getting out of here. You’re gonna die. You ain’t ever gonna be in Shakespeare in Page 262 | Top of Articlethe Park, you’re never gonna do that Dr. Pepper commercial, never be on David Letterman.
The most interesting incorporation of the audience into the performance is a series of abrupt interruptions of the play’s action, modeled on the Aristophanic parabasis. Sometimes Ubu steps out of the play to explain some aspect of improvisational theater or the company’s work. At one point Ubu paces through the audience and muses:
Those of you who’ve seen our plays before know that we’re a political company. You may be wondering why is this political company doing a play about shit? Not only about shit, but shit for shit’s sake.
Ubu promises that the play will get more political. Later, General Lasky, Commander of the pro-Ubu armies, marches out and tells the audience that the company has been heavily criticized by “textual purists” for mutilating Jarry’s text. In an effort to be more faithful to the original script, a simultaneous French reading of the text will now be given so that the critics can check for accuracy. He then introduces Sven, a Swedish-born graduate of the Sorbonne, who proceeds to translate everything being said into French (with a noticeable Swedish lilt). The situation becomes hilarious as Sven tries to “take over the play,” getting in the way of the actors and turning even commonplace exchanges into wildly funny sequences. In effect, we are following several different levels of action or “texts within a text:” the text of Jarry’s Ubu, the Irondale’s commentary on that text, and another “text” created by the improvisation and dialogue with the audience.
Despite the numerous contemporary references, the production is not overtly or obviously political. The specific political references, jokes and parallels all seem part of the overall comedic momentum, not its point. But Ma and Pa Ubu perhaps represent a more insidious attack on middle class values, habits and ethics. Pa Ubu is so likeable (“the Santa Claus of the Atomic Age” as one critic has put it) not because he is a negation of bourgeois values, but their apotheosis. Ubu knows no moderation—he is bourgeois values writ large, taken to extremes. He is the ultimate glutton, miser, sadist and egomaniac. Ubu is cold, raw bourgeois instinct with bad manners and without tact. He has no pretenses and the Ubu Administration has no P.R. director. Ubu is the bourgeoisie seen from the belly down. Appropriately, the distinguishing mark of the pro-Ubu armies is their stomachs: the Ubu Loyalists all have padded paunches like their leader.
The production attempts to move to a political level through the use of nonspecific and non-verbal techniques. The play begins with the company singing “I’m so happy to be an American” and ends with a flag-waving rendition of “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” Beginning with the anti-Ubu Revolution, led by Buggerless, son (played by a woman) of the executed King, the purely physical, mimed aspect of the production increases. When Ubu exhorts his troops into war frenzy, a loud electronic metronome starts. The actors begin a sequence which I can only describe as a “biomechanical gestus of war ritual.” This is repeated during battle sequences. In the middle of the rousing flag-waving finale, the electronic cue comes again; the actors almost robot-like respond frantically to the cue. The metronome beats faster and faster as the lights fade while the gestus of war continues.
The Irondale’s eclectic techniques, their ability to bring a contemporary feel to the imagination of the performance and, above all, the intense and dynamic audience-actor bond created by the improvisational nature of the performance, puts the audience in a very active relationship to the text and the theatrical event. The Irondale’s work is always “in progress;” a play is rehearsed and performed over a period of years. The rehearsal process never stops, and the company stresses that performances are actually “shared rehearsals.” The Irondale’s commitment to improvisational performance encourages the actors to experiment and make changes during performance, so that no two performances are the same. The performance text continues to evolve with parts being added or dropped. What we have is a very close parallel to the textual/performance process of the classical age of commedia dell’arte. Actors can discover a specific burla or “running gag” that works for this specific audience, or try to see how far the audience will go in a specific vein. They are also free to comment broadly on anything from current events to the performance and the audience. Rather than attempting to create any type of consistent or conventional characterization, the Ubu company is a company of clowns that seems to be making-up the characters as they go along, employing anything from song-and-dance, stand-up comedy, acrobatics, to low farce and mime.
Most theater seeks to render the audience passive; the result is the deadening feel to so many contemporary productions. It seeks to bludgeon us into a lethargic loss of individuality, to surrender up our consciousness so that our experience can be Page 263 | Top of Articleshaped and manipulated by the production. This technique is not without its social ramifications. Brecht was quick to realize that although this model can be made to work for Shakespeare and Ibsen, it also worked for Goebbels and Hitler—something about this “fascist” theater experience can effect our reactions to situations and events outside the theater. Interestingly, the theories of Wagner, Appia and Craig reached their zenith not at Bayreuth but at Nuremburg.
The Irondale’s Ubu roi employs another model of consciousness. Its production lives, moment-to-moment, only by the direct, active involvement of its audience. There is no pre-determined terminal point when the production is’ ‘finished” or ready. It is a commonplace that comedy is subversive. The “low comedy” technique that marks clowning is perhaps anti-authoritarian by its very nature, and this type of satire is itself an act of rebellion. Clearly, Jarry’s play is a rebellion against bourgeois values, ethics and “good taste.” The Irondale Ensemble attempts to extend this revolt further not simply by rebelling against Jarry’s text but by the company’s revolt against the notion of the fixed text and their refusal to accept the authoritarian restraints imposed upon conventional theater performance.
Source: Michael Zelenak. “Ubu Rides Again: The Irondale Project and the Politics of Clowning” in Theatre, Vol. XVII, no. 3, Summer/Fall, 1987, pp. 43–45.
Beaumont, Keith. Jarry: Ubu Roi, Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1987.
Bell, David F. Romance Notes, Spring, 1975.
Breton, Andre. “Alfred Jarry as Precursor and Initiator” in Free Rein, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Church, Dan M. “Pere Ubu: The Creation of a Literary Type” in Drama Survey, Winter, 1965, pp. 233-43.
Goddard, Stephen. “Alfred Jarry (French, 1873-1907)” on http://www.ukans.edu/~sma/jarry/jarrytxt.htm.
Grossman, Manual L. “Alfred Jarry and the Theater of his Time” in Modern Drama, May, 1970, pp. 10-21.
Lindsey, Heather. “’Merdre! Most Foul: Scatology on Stage” on http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~art/merdre.html
London, Todd. “My Ubu, Myself: The Singular Hallucination of Alfred Jarry” on http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~art/myself.html.
“Projects: The Gertrude Stein Repertory Theater: UBU” on http://www.gertstein.org/details/pro-ubu.htm.
Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 14, Gale, 1984, pp. 266-77.
Wellworth, G. E. “Alfred Jarry: The Seed of Avant-Garde Drama” in Criticism, Vol. 4, no. 1, Winter, 1962, pp. 108-19.
This site has a brief biography of Jarry, as well as links to other Jarry sites. The Bibliography of English Translations link may prove especially helpful.
This site for a production of Ubu Rock also contains an interesting set of links to online articles concerning Ubu Roi. The article on the play’s opening night in December of 1896 may prove particularly illuminating.
Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France, 1885 to World War I: Alfred Jarry, Henry Rousseau, Erik Satie and Guillaume Apollinair, Random House, 1979.
This influential volume examines the cultural upheaval brought about by such turn-of-the-century artists as Jarry and Composer Erik Satie. Shattuck discusses how the arts were driven into a period of renewal and accomplishment and how the ground-work for Dada-ism and Surrealism was laid.