Programme from the première
|Written by||Alfred Jarry|
|Date premiered||December 10, 1896|
Ubu Roi (Ubu the King or King Ubu) is a play by Alfred Jarry. It was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre, causing a riotous response in the audience as it opened and closed on December 10, 1896. It is considered a wild, bizarre and comic play, significant for the way it overturns cultural rules, norms, and conventions. To some of those who were in the audience on opening night, including W. B. Yeats and the poet and essayist Catulle Mendès, it seemed an event of revolutionary importance, but many were mystified and outraged by the seeming childishness, obscenity, and disrespect of the piece. It is now seen by some to have opened the door for what became known as modernism in the twentieth century. It is a precursor to Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd. It is the first of three stylised burlesques in which Jarry satirises power, greed, and their evil practices—in particular the propensity of the complacent bourgeoisie to abuse the authority engendered by success.
The title is sometimes translated as King Turd; however, the word "Ubu" is actually merely a nonsense word that evolved from the French pronunciation of the name "Herbert", which was the name of one of Jarry's teachers who was the satirical target and inspirer of the first versions of the play.
Jarry made some suggestions regarding how his play should be performed. He wanted King Ubu to wear a cardboard horse's head in certain scenes, "as in the old English theatre", for he intended to "write a guignol". He thought a "suitably costumed person would enter, as in puppet shows, to put up signs indicating the locations of the various scenes". He also wanted costumes with as little specific local colour reference or historical accuracy as possible.
Ubu Roi was followed by Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded) and Ubu Enchaîné (Ubu in Chains), neither of which was performed during Jarry's 34-year life. One of his later works, a novel/essay on "pataphysics", is offered as an explanation behind the ideas that underpin Ubu Roi. Pataphysics is, as Jarry explains, "the science of the realm beyond metaphysics". Pataphysics is a pseudo-science Jarry created to critique members of the academy. It studies the laws that "govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one". It is the "science of imaginary solutions".
The story is a parody of Shakespeare's Macbeth and some parts of Hamlet and King Lear. Though the writing and dialogue is obscene and childish, the material began to express something deeper, an inner consciousness in a way that is similar to the Symbolists, with some critics considering Jarry a Symbolist author.
As the play begins, Ubu's wife convinces him to lead a revolution, and kills the King of Poland and most of the royal family. The King's son, Bougrelas, and the Queen escape, but the latter later dies. The ghost of the dead king appears to his son and calls for revenge. Back at the palace, Ubu, now King, begins heavily taxing the people and killing the nobles for their wealth. Ubu's henchman gets thrown into prison; who then escapes to Russia, where he has the Tsar declare war on Ubu. As Ubu heads out to confront the invading Russians, his wife tries to steal the money and treasures in the palace. She is driven away by Bougrelas, who is leading a revolt of the people against Ubu. She runs away to her husband, Ubu, who has, in the meantime, been defeated by the Russians, been abandoned by his followers, and been attacked by a bear. Ubu's wife pretends to be the angel Gabriel, in order to try to scare Ubu into forgiving her for her attempt to steal from him. They fight, and she is rescued by the entrance of Bougrelas, who is after Ubu. Ubu knocks down the attackers with the body of the dead bear, after which he and his wife flee to France, which ends the play.
The action contains motifs found in the plays of Shakespeare: a king's murder and a scheming wife from Macbeth, the ghost from Hamlet, Fortinbras' revolt from Hamlet, the reneging of Buckingham's reward from Richard III, and the pursuing bear from The Winter's Tale. It also includes other cultural references, for example, to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (Œdipe Roi in French) in the play's title. Ubu Roi is considered a descendant of the comic grotesque French Renaissance author François Rabelais and his Gargantua and Pantagruel novels.
The language of the play is a unique mix of slang code-words, puns and near-gutter vocabulary, set to strange speech patterns.
"The beginnings of the original Ubu", writes Jane Taylor, "have attained the status of legend within French theatre culture". In 1888, when he became a student at the Lycée in Rennes at the age of fifteen, Jarry encountered a brief farcical sketch, Les Polonais, written by his friend Henri Morin, and Henri's brother Charles. This farce was part of a campaign by the students to ridicule their physics teacher, Félix-Frederic Hébert (1832–1917). Les Polonais depicted their teacher as the King of an imaginary Poland, and was one of many plays created around Père Hébé, the character that, in Jarry's hands, eventually evolved into King Ubu. Les Polonais was performed as a marionette play by the students at their homes in what they called the "Theatre des Phynances", named in honor of Père Hébert's lust for "phynance" (finance), or money. This prototype for Ubu Roi is long-lost, so the true and complete details of the authorship of Ubu Roi may never be known. It is clear, however, that Jarry considerably revised and expanded the play.
While his schoolmates lost interest in the Ubu legends when they left school, Jarry continued adding to and reworking the material for the rest of his short life. His plays are controversial for their scant respect to royalty, religion and society, their vulgarity and scatology, their brutality and low comedy, and their perceived utter lack of literary finish.
According to Jane Taylor, "the central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification". Jarry's metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero—fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil—who grew out of schoolboy legends about the imaginary life of a hated teacher who had been at one point a slave on a Turkish galley, at another frozen in ice in Norway and at one more the King of Poland. Ubu Roi follows and explores his political, martial and felonious exploits.
"There is", writes Taylor, "a particular kind of pleasure for an audience watching these infantile attacks. Part of the satisfaction arises from the fact that in the burlesque mode which Jarry invents, there is no place for consequence. While Ubu may be relentless in his political aspirations, and brutal in his personal relations, he apparently has no measurable effect upon those who inhabit the farcical world which he creates around himself. He thus acts out our most childish rages and desires, in which we seek to gratify ourselves at all cost". The derived adjective "ubuesque" is recurrent in French and francophone political debate.
Both Ubu Cocu and Ubu Roi have a convoluted history, going through decades of rewriting and, in the case of the former, never arriving, despite Jarry's exertions, at a definitive version. By the time Jarry wanted Ubu Roi published and staged, the Morins had lost their interest in schoolboy japes, and Henri gave Jarry permission to do whatever he wanted with them. Charles, however, later tried to claim credit, but it had never been a secret that he had had some involvement with the earliest version.
The first word of the play ("merdre", the French word for "shit", with an extra "r") may have been part of the reason for the response to the play in Paris. At the end of the performance a riot broke out, an incident which has since become "a stock element of Jarry biographia". After this, Ubu Roi was outlawed from the stage, and Jarry moved it to a puppet theatre.
Jarry said to the audience in a curtain speech just before that first performance in Paris: "You are free to see in M. Ubu however many allusions you care to, or else a simple puppet—a school boy's caricature of one of his teachers who personified for him all the ugliness in the world".
The poet W. B. Yeats, though he did not understand French, attended the premiere with a companion who interpreted the action for him. He recalled, in his memoir The Trembling of the Veil, his dismay that the play challenged the symbolist, spiritual-themed literature he advocated: "Feeling bound to support the most spirited party, we have shouted for the play, but that night at the Hotel Corneille I am very sad, for comedy, objectivity, has displayed its growing power once more. I say, “After Stephane Mallarme, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.”.
Ubu Roi was translated into Serbian in 1964 by Ljubomir Draškić and performed at Atelje 212 theatre in Belgrade for the next 20 years when Zoran Radmilović who played Père Ubu, died. The play was so successful at the box-office that it was adapted into a movie in 1973.
In 1976–1977 Oakley Hall III translated and adapted Ubu Roi (called Ubu Rex) and its sequels, and directed them in New York City Off-Off-Broadway and at the Lexington Conservatory Theatre in Lexington, New York. The adaptations starred Richard Zobel, who also produced the play and created the masks for it.
The play has been adapted for an opera with libretto by Michael Finnissy and Andrew Toovey with music by Andrew Toovey. Production by the Banff Centre Theatre, Canada, in collaboration with Music Theatre Wales (May 1992). Directed by Keith Turnbull.
A musical adaptation, Ubu Rock, book by Andrei Belgrader and Shelly Berc, music and lyrics by Rusty Magee, premiered at the American Repertory Theater in 1995 and was remounted at ART the following year.
The play was adapted for the Czech film Král Ubu, directed by in 1996. The film received three Czech Lion Awards.
Sherry C. M. Lindquist's adaptation was performed in Chicago, at The Public Theater in New York City, at the International Festival of Puppet Theater, and at the Edison Theater, St. Louis, Missouri, by Hystopolis Productions, Chicago, from 1996 to 1997.
Jane Taylor adapted Ubu Roi as Ubu and the Truth Commission (1998), a play critical of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was formed in response to the atrocities committed during apartheid.
The play was translated by David Ball in in 2010, and performed at the University of Virginia the same year.
Inspired by the black comedy of corruption within Ubu Roi, the Puerto Rican absurdist narrative United States of Banana (2011) by Giannina Braschi dramatizes, with over-the-top grotesque flourishes of "pataphysics", the fall of the American Empire and the liberation of Puerto Rico.
The play was adapted and directed by Dash Kruck as part of Vena Cava Production's 2013 mainstage season. Performed in Brisbane, Australia, the adaptation made cultural political references to Queensland's Premier Campbell Newman, even including him in the show's promotional poster.
In 2014, Toronto's One Little Goat Theatre Company produced Ubu Mayor: A Harmful Bit of Fun, combining the merde-filled sensibilities of Ubu Roi with the internationally renowned antics, absurdities and obscenities of Toronto's mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug.
In 2016, the play was adapted by Jared Strange into UBU ROY: An American Tale, an updated version of the original play through the lens of the 2016 United States presidential election. The show opened November 3, 2016, in Lubbock, Texas, as the Lubbock Community Theatre's first play in their "LCT After Dark" season.
In 2020, the play was also adapted into a musical by Kneehigh Theatre company.
References in popular culture
Alfred Jarry is one of the few real figures to appear among the many literary characters in Les Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters), by André Gide. In Part III, Chapter 8, Jarry attends a literary banquet, where the fictional Comte de Passavant introduces him as the author of Ubu Roi, saying that they (the literary set) "lui confèrent du génie, parce que le public vient de siffler sa pièce. C'est tout de même ce qu'on a donné le plus curieux au théâtre depuis longtemps". They "have dubbed him a genius because the public have just damned his play. All the same, it's the most interesting thing that's been put on the stage for a long time".
Joan Miró used Ubu Roi as a subject of his 50 1940 lithographs called the Barcelona Series. These pictures could be Ubu Roi but they also satirise General Franco and his generals after he had won the Spanish Civil War.
In her book Linda McCartney's Sixties: Portrait of an Era, Linda McCartney mentions that Paul had become interested in avant-garde theatre and immersed himself in the writings of Jarry. This is how McCartney discovered the word "'pataphysical", which he used in the lyrics of his song "Maxwell's Silver Hammer".
- Hill, Phillip G. Our Dramatic Heritage. Vol. 6. Fairleigh Dickenson, 1995, p. 30. ISBN 0838634214
- Ford, Mark (May 10, 2012), "The King of Charisma", The New York Review of Books. 59 (8): 63–64
- Ball, David. "UBU-ing a Theatre-Translation: Defense and Illustration". Metamorphoses, a Journal of Literary Translation. Spring and Fall. 2006 
- Fell, JIll. Alfred Jarry, an Imagination in Revolt. Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp. p. 142
- Jarry, Alfred. Ubu Roi. Dover (2003)
- Benedikt, Michael and Wellwarth. Modern French Theatre. Dutton. 1966. pp. x-xi
- Taylor, Jane. "Ubu and the Truth Commission". University of Cape Town Press. 2007. ISBN 978 19197 13168 p. iii
- Hill, Phillip G. Our Dramatic Heritage. Vol. 6. Fairleigh Dickenson, 1995, p. 31. ISBN 0838634214
- Innes, Christopher. Avant-Garde Theatre: 1892 1992. Routledge. 1993, p. 24. ISBN 0-415-06517-8
- Faustroll, Dr. Pataphysica 2: Pataphysica E Alchimia, Volume 2. iUniverse (2004). ISBN 9780595337453
- Offord, M. H. Francophone Literatures: A Literary and Linguistic Companion. Psychology Press (2001). ISBN 9780415198400 page 123
- Jarry, Alfred. The Ubu Plays. Nick Hearn Books, Ltd. 1997. Introduction.
- Pindar, Ian. "Merrrrdrrrre! Alfred Jarry and Pere Ubu". The Times Literary Supplement. 17 April 2013.
- Jarry, Alfred. Ubu Roi. Dover. 2003
- Ubu carries as his weapons a pshittasword and a pshittashook, while his sceptre takes the traditional form of a commode scrubber; at one point, he thrusts his conscience down said commode. His peers, meanwhile, bear such names as MacNure, Pissweet and Pissale. In addition, the first word of Ubu Roi is "merdre", deliberately close to merde, meaning "excrement".
- Ubu Roi has a loose narrative thread, a large number of characters who appear for only a short scene and a mashup of high literature and slang, much of it invented.
- The third play was the only one wholly written by the adult Jarry.
- Yeats, Autobiographies: Reveries Over Childhood and Youth and The Trembling of the Veil, London: Macmillan.
- Oakley Hall III (2010). Jarry and Me: The Autobiography of Alfred Jarry. Absintheur Press.
- Oakley Hall III. "UBU ROI by Alfred Jarry; Translated by Oakley Hall III" (Script and Production Notes). Firlefanz-Gallery.com. Retrieved December 23, 2017.
- Braschi, Giannina (September 2012). "What to Read Now: Mixed-Genre Literature". World Literature Today. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
- Vena Cava Productions presents UBU ROI. Wherevent (2013-07-22). Retrieved on 2014-05-25.
- Kelly, Aden. "LCT After Dark debuts Thursday". Retrieved 2016-11-03.
- Falkenberg, Emily (2016-11-01). "Looking to Find Humor in this Election? Lubbock Community Theatre Has You Covered". EVERYTHINGLUBBOCK. Retrieved 2016-11-03.
- Les Faux-Monnayeurs, André Gide. edition Folio Plus Classiques. p. 319
- The Counterfeiters, André Gide, translated by Dorothy Bussy. Vintage Books. p. 289 
- Searle, Adrian (11 April 2011). "Joan Miró: A fine line". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 September 2011.
- McCartney, Linda. Linda McCartney's Sixties: Portrait of an Era. Bullfinch Press, p. 153. 1992
- "Long Live Père Ubu!"
- Atomic Caravan Blog
- "Methyl Ethel - Ubu". DIY. Retrieved 2018-07-28.
- Jarry, Alfred. Ubu Roi. Translated by Barbara Wright and illustrated by Franciszka Themerson. Gaberbocchus Press. 1951
- Jarry, Alfred. Ubu Roi. Translated by David Ball as Ubu the King. [Norton Anthology of Drama, 2010.]
- Jarry, Alfred. Ubu Roi. Translated by Beverly Keith and Gershon Legman. Dover, 2003.
- Innes, Christopher. Avant-Garde Theatre 1892-1992. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. 0415065186.
- Taylor, Jane. Ubu and the Truth Commission. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007.
- Pile, Stephen, The Return of Heroic Failures, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1988.
- Fell, Jill: Alfred Jarry: An Inagination in Revolt. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. 2005
- Brotchie, Alastair. Alfred Jarry, a Pataphysical Life. MIT Press. 2013. ISBN 978 0 262 01619 3