The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Ubu Roi (“Ubu the king”) begins as a Punch-and-Judy show, with the Ubus—Mère and Père Ubu—trading accusations, insults, and threats. Mère upbraids her husband, the former king of Aragon, who is now content to be a captain of dragoons and confidential officer to Wenceslas, king of Poland. He is at first appalled by her suggestion to overthrow the king, but when she says that as monarch he will have a new umbrella and “a great big cloak,” Ubu yields to temptation and becomes, in Mère’s view, “a real man.” Together they enlist the aid of Captain Bordure, offering him the Dukedom of Lithuania and “a magnificent meal” that includes “cauliflower à la shittr” and a lavatory brush. Summoned by the king, the cowardly Ubu immediately begins to confess the plot, putting all the blame on Bordure and Mère Ubu, only to realize that the king wishes to make him the Count of Sandomir, for which honor Ubu absurdly repays the king with a toy whistle.

Even the king’s fourteen-year-old son Bourgelas knows “what an ass that Père Ubu is”; the kindly but myopic king does not. Back at the Ubu residence, the conspirators meet to work out their plan. All reject as “beastly” Ubu’s suggestion that they poison the king but agree that splitting him open with a sword, as Bordure suggests, is quite “noble and gallant.” Standing before Mère Ubu (who substitutes for the requisite priest) the conspirators swear to fight “gallantly,” and then, in a parody of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600), fall upon the deceived king, assassinating him and two of his sons, and winning the Polish army to their side. Bourgelas, having fled to the mountains, is visited by the ghosts of his ancestors, who charge him with avenging his father’s murder.

Meanwhile, as the new king, Ubu reluctantly heeds his wife’s and Bordure’s advice and distributes food and money to the people in order to win their support. He then kills three hundred nobles, appropriates their property and titles, and, after murdering five hundred...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Ubu Roi is a play in which the lavatory brush replaces the scepter, and in which the first word, merde (“shit,” childishly but deliberately misspelled merdre), declares Jarry’s intent, épater les bourgeois. The play is an assault on the audience and theater of the belle époque. Viewed against a backdrop of labor unrest, anarchist attacks on the political system, bourgeois smugness, and late nineteenth century French theater, with its emphasis on the well-made play, its star system, its commitment to theater as entertainment, and its preservation of the status quo, it becomes clear how revolutionary a work Ubu Roi actually is.

In subject and treatment, content and form, Jarry designed his play to subvert the audience’s assumptions and expectations about both theater and humankind. He conceived the play as a funhouse mirror in which the viewer would be able to see an exaggerated image of “its ignoble other self.” Not surprisingly, Jarry described the theatergoing public in Ubu-like terms as “a mass—inert, obtuse, and passive—that . . . need to be shaken up from time to time.” Jarry shakes his audience up by offering them a carnival theater of exaggeration and grotesquerie rather than either the pseudo-realistic clichés of the era’s popular plays or the naturalistic dramas that Émile Zola had been demanding. Ubu Roi innovatively suggests the stylized naïveté of Jarry’s friend, the painter Henri Rousseau, as well as the primitivism of Paul Gauguin, but mixed with a certain expressionistic brutality and childlike perversity.

Jarry’s most startling and important innovation involves his having conceived the play not simply as a funhouse mirror but as a puppet play. Dispensing entirely with the dramatic unities of time, place, and action, Jarry chose to let his title character loose,...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The New Wave of Arts and Letters
‘‘We want to demolish museums and libraries!’’ These fighting words come not...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Jarry had definite ideas, not only about the staging for Ubu Roi, but for the theater in general. In an essay, translated by Barbara...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

Late-1800s: In the Franco-Prussian War (1870- 71) France loses the Alsace and Lorraine regions. It is the end of the French...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Playwright Eugene Ionesco has written that his plays are not exercises in absurdity but denunciations of our decaying language. How might...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre has plans to present UBU WEDNESDAYS, ‘‘an exciting new multi-media look of the creation of the...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Two works by French author Albert Camus explore the concept of the absurd in modern literature.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Beaumont, Keith, Jarry: Ubu Roi, Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1987.

Bell, David F.,...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Beaumont, Keith S. Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 3d ed. London: Methuen, 2001.

LaBelle, Maurice Marc. Alfred Jarry: Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

Remshardt, Rolf Erik. “King Ubu and Scenes from Macbeth.” Theatre Journal 46 (May, 1994): 262-267.

Schumacher, Claude. Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire. New York: Grove Press,...

(The entire section is 102 words.)