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There’s a reason the French employ the adjective “ubuesque” when describing something absurd, vulgar, ludicrous, or grotesque. The genesis of that phrase is Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi, or King Ubu, the central character of which, Pere Ubu, is completely without any socially-redeeming qualities. Jarry’s play is considered one of the more important progenitors of the modern school of surrealism. Ubu Roi is absurdist in every sense of the word, its language deliberately crude and the aforementioned titular character notoriously vulgar. Act I, Scene I is set, ostensibly, in Poland, “that is to say, nowhere.” With this instant slam by the famously culturally arrogant French, the very first word uttered by the titular character is “shit.” Pere Ubu, it becomes apparent, is a man of some means and power, lending his initial exchange with his wife a particular air of the very surrealism for which the play and its central character would become known. Responding to his wife’s seemingly innocuous rhetorical question regarding Ubu’s professional ambitions, he responds, “After all, I’m Captain of Dragoons, Privy Councillor to King Wenceslas, Knight of the Red Eagle of Poland, and formerly King of Aragon. What more do you want?” What Mama Ubu wants, of course, is for her husband to be king of Poland, not merely a second-in-command or high-ranking official in the king’s Court.
Jarry’s play is a satire of Shakespearean machinations, borrowing from Macbeth – the above conversation is reminiscent of Lady Macbeth’s entreaties to her husband regarding the inadequacies of limited ambition – and other of the Bard’s works, but is also intended to satirize broader upper-class pretentiousness as well. There is absolutely nothing sophisticated about Pere Ubu. Preparing for guests for a feast, Ubu comments to his wife, “I’m bursting with hunger. Mama Ubu, you’re very ugly today. Is that because we have guests?” Virtually every exchange is punctuated with “Shit!” Jarry was being as provocative as he could, with the audience certain to be shocked, as it was on the play’s opening night. While Pere Ubu is a stand-in for Shakespearean characters, he represents much more. This is a character whose crudeness and total lack of empathy was intended as an indictment of those who would presume to rule over others and whose arrogance was usually mistaken for sophistication. Pere Ubu is physically unattractive and exceedingly overweight, the very embodiment of gluttony in a time and place when the average citizen was fortunate to have enough to eat each day. Jarry wanted this character to represent everything that was wrong with aristocracy. In Act III, Scene II, Pere Ubu, having summoned his nobles so that he can eliminate them and seize their possessions for himself, next turns to his magistrates:
PERE UBU. I’m going to first reform justice. After that we will proceed to finances.
SEVERAL MAGISTRATES. We oppose all change.
PERE UBU. Pshite! From now on, magistrates will no longer be paid.
MAGISTRATES. And what will we live on? We are poor.
PERE UBU. You can have the fines you impose and the possessions of those you sentence to death.
This could be a scene from Duck Soup, with Rufus T. Firefly as the autocrat. Jarry, though, was writing from a vastly different perspective than Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, authors of that well-respected Marx Brothers film about the fictional country of Freedonia. Pere Ubu’s unquenchable thirst for ever-more wealth and his utter disregard for the sanctity of human life was inspired by the autocrats who ruled Europe for hundreds of years. Jarry’s titular character represented all the worst in those rulers.
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