Critical Overview

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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.

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Critical Context

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Essays and Criticism