Critical Context

Ubu Roi is not Jarry’s only work; he also wrote poems and novels as well as other plays. It is, however, the work on which his reputation largely rests and to which he devoted much of his brief career. Its history goes back to the play Les Polanaise (the Poles), which Jarry either wrote or collaborated on in 1888 while still at the lycée. Numerous versions followed, including one in book form in July, 1896, which received favorable notices. The play itself was performed five months later, on December 9 and 10, at Aurélien-Marie Lugne-Poë’s Théâtre de l’uvre, and thanks to the riots which occurred (and which Jarry may have helped orchestrate), Ubu Roi became a succès de scandale. Although it was never again performed during Jarry’s lifetime, Jarry continued to revise, plunder, and publish parts, versions, and spin-offs, including two new puppet plays and a sequel, Ubu enchaîné (pb. 1900; Ubu Enchained, 1953), named after Aeschylus’s Prometheus desmts (c. 450 b.c.e.; Prometheus Bound), in which Ubu seeks his same goals by adopting precisely the opposite course—becoming a slave rather than a king. The two have often been performed together; Ubu Cocu (pb. 1944; Ubu Cuckolded, 1953), the earliest of the three Ubu plays and also the most scatological and least coherent, has very rarely been performed.

Perhaps the most disconcerting result of the two December performances was the diminutive author’s own subsequent metamorphosis into his huge Ubu, thus breaking down the barrier separating author from character, life from art, and sanity from madness. Although some have interpreted this transformation as a sign of the pain Jarry felt upon seeing his play rejected, others have offered a quite different explanation. It was, they claim, Jarry’s way of “showing his contempt for the cruelty and stupidity of the universe by making his own life a poem of incoherence and absurdity.” Jarry was not the only one influenced by Ubu Roi. Just as he had been influenced by the Symbolists (especially Stéphane Mallarmé), he in turn had a pronounced effect on avant-garde writers, painters, composers, and movements that were to follow: Surrealism, Dadaism, Futurism, Fauvism, Theater of the Absurd, Guillaume Apollinaire, Eugène Ionesco, René Clair, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prevert, Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Samuel Beckett.