The Play

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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 magistrates, enacts new tax laws that will enable him to take the rest of the country’s wealth. He also reneges on his promise to Bordure, who is imprisoned but escapes to Russia. The Czar sees Bordure for what he is, a traitor and an opportunist, but nevertheless agrees to help him overthrow Ubu. As Poland continues to suffer under his tyranny, Ubu occupies himself, Nero-fashion, by inventing systems “to bring good weather and exorcise rain” until Mère Ubu explains how dire his situation is. Ubu “weeps and sobs” for himself but finally agrees to wage war, as his wife urges. Refusing to pay his soldiers and looking “like an armed pumpkin,” Ubu goes to war as Mère Ubu plays the part of the good bourgeois wife seeing her husband off to work: “Adieu, Père Ubu. Be sure to kill the Czar.” Then she turns to more important matters: stealing the royal treasure for herself.

At the front, Ubu, as incompetent as he is gluttonous, decides to eat rather than prepare for the Czar’s attack. Although shot by a Russian soldier, Ubu cuts his assailant to pieces. Shot at a second time, Ubu believes himself mortally wounded, but, upon learning from Bordure that the charge was only a blank, Ubu recovers and tears his former ally to pieces as well. His army routed, Ubu manages to escape to a cave with two of his Palotins, Pile and Lotice. When a huge bear attacks Lotice, Ubu climbs out of harm’s way to recite the Lord’s Prayer, while Pile struggles to save...

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his companion. Referring to himself by the royal “we” (nous), Ubu tells his shaken and disgusted Palotins, “We did not hesitate to climb on to a higher rock so that our prayers would have less distance to travel to reach the heavens.” Still lazy and fearful, he will not even help prepare the bear for supper. That night, Pile and Lotice debate whether to stay with their king or abandon him; under cover of darkness, and with Ubu asleep, they leave.

As the fifth and final act begins, Mère Ubu enters the cave, offers a reprise of all that has befallen her, and only then realizes that her husband is there, talking to himself in his sleep. Claiming to be the archangel Gabriel, she orders Ubu to forgive his wife, but dawn breaks, and Ubu literally sees through her ruse and in Grand Guignol fashion “begins to tear her to pieces.” The fight expands when Bourgelas and his men enter the cave, followed shortly after by Ubu’s Palotins, inexplicably returned. The Ubus and their party escape, however, and are last seen aboard a ship, passing Hamlet’s Elsinore Castle, cheerfully making their way home (either to Spain or to France), with Père Ubu saying, “Ah, gentlemen! However beautiful [Germany] may be, it can never equal Poland. If there weren’t any Poland, there wouldn’t be any Poles!”

Dramatic Devices

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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, so to speak. Neither Ubu nor any of the others are “characters” in any traditional sense; they are caricatures, abstract and depersonalized, played by actors whom Jarry directed to suppress all traces of their own individuality and whom for a time Jarry wanted attached to strings (an idea as interesting as it is impracticable when dealing with actors rather than puppets).

The actors were to appear onstage either wearing masks or as if wearing masks, to speak in a distinctive monotone, and to employ the simplest and, therefore (according to Jarry), the most universal gestures. Possessing no psychological depth whatsoever, the figures appear cartoonish in word, deed, and costume. Indeed, the very logic of the play follows that of the cartoon and puppet show—a character may die in one scene yet return quite alive in the next; not surprisingly, Ubu Roi was several times staged by Jarry as a puppet play and was later turned into an animated cartoon by Geoff Dunbar (which aired on the BBC in 1978). Clearly, the frequent and sudden shifts in time and place contribute to the play’s cartoonish, anti-illusionistic effect, especially since these shifts are not indicated by any change in the set.

The play is acted out against either a plain backdrop or one painted so as to suggest simultaneously a discordancy of scenes: indoors and out, city and country (Jarry, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Paul Sérusier, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec all had a hand in the painting of the original backdrop, and other prominent painters have been connected with later productions: Max Ernst in 1937; David Hockney, 1966; and Joan Miró, 1981). In keeping with the play’s essential antirealism and anti-illusionism, Jarry wanted all scenery to be kept to the barest possible minimum and whatever scenery was necessary to be treated as props. If a window is needed, for example, one will be brought onstage, used, and then removed, all in full view of the audience. As in a puppet show, changes in setting are indicated by placards posted onstage. The frequency of these changes contributes to the play’s irrealism and, given the large cast of characters and equally large number of scenes (thirty-three in five acts), its surprising continuity.

This continuity of action, which has been likened to cinematic montage, parallels Jarry’s belief in the continuity of all life, including waking and sleeping, reality and hallucination, the rational and the irrational. Jarry used these and other innovative techniques in order to shock his audience out of their accustomed modes of perceiving a world that had been made to conform to bourgeois conceptions by showing them an exaggerated version of themselves. Although some have held that the riot that occurred on opening night evidences the public’s failure to understand Ubu Roi, Jarry himself, a little perversely perhaps, believed otherwise—the public “resented it because they understood it too well.”

Historical Context

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The New Wave of Arts and Letters ‘‘We want to demolish museums and libraries!’’ These fighting words come not from the mouth of a fanatic or a terrorist but rather from the pen of Italian poet Emilio Marietti. He, along with other artists and writers, wanted to destroy all that preserved traditional art and learning in Western Europe. These ‘‘futurists,’’ who spurned the value of tradition, wanted to break completely free from the past. They wanted to fashion an entirely new civilization that would divorce itself from the serious moral and cultural crises of the late-nineteenth century.

Jarry’s Europe was preoccupied with change. Developments in the sciences brought into question the role of a divine creator (particularly the work of Charles Darwin which presented validation of the theory of evolution). Changes in communication (the telephone, the ‘‘wireless’’) and in transportation (the bicycle, the automobile) skewed traditional understandings of time and space. The introduction of moving pictures and X-rays redefined the ways in which people saw the world around them. What had once been the province of magic became reality in the waning years of the nineteenth century.

Liberation from the past and all of its traditions could only be achieved through acceptance of and immersion in these rapid changes. Painter Umberto Boccioni stated the goal: ‘‘Let’s turn everything upside down ... Let’s split open our figures and place the environment inside them.’’ Another futurist proclaimed, ‘‘A speeding automobile is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace’’; contemporary achievement, rather than an ancient Greek statue, reigned supreme.

Fin de Siecle Political Turmoil Two major events before World War I that transformed political life in France were the Boulanger Affair and the Dreyfus Affair. General Boulanger attempted to seize power in France in the 1880s. Molded by a carefully orchestrated publicity campaign, Boulanger appeared as the ‘‘messiah,’’ the proverbial knight in shining armor who would save France’s honor at all costs. His play for power failed, however, and Boulanger left France in disgrace amid allegations of treason.

Accused of selling military secrets to the Germans, Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus, on the other hand, sparked debate between those who were convinced of his innocence and expected the Republic to uphold the ideals of justice and freedom and those associated with the traditional institutions—the Church, the army—who considered themselves to be upholding and defending the honor of France. Intellectuals organized themselves and pressed for the exoneration of Dreyfus. Novelist Emile Zola, in his famous front page letter to the editor J’Accuse, demonstrated the power of the written word in changing governmental decisions.

Jarry’s written words would not bring political change, though they would, with the production of Ubu Roi, change the way in which a pompous caricature could impact the literary consciousness of an age.

Literary Style

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Jarry had definite ideas, not only about the staging for Ubu Roi, but for the theater in general. In an essay, translated by Barbara Wright as ‘‘Of the Futility of the Theatrical,’’ Jarry discusses ‘‘a few things which are particularly horrifying and incomprehensible ... and which clutter up the stage to no purpose.’’

It would be dangerous, says Jarry, for the writer to impose the decor [stage setting] that he himself would imagine and conceive. For ‘‘a public of artists’’ (as opposed to the general public), each audience member should be able to see a play in a decor that does not ‘‘clash with his own view of it.’’ The general public, on the other hand, can be shown any ‘‘artistic’’ decor because ‘‘the masses do not understand anything by themselves, but wait to be told how to see things.’’ A colorless background, an unpainted backdrop or the reverse side of a set, can allow the spectator to ‘‘conjure up for himself the background he requires.’’ Better still, Jarry continues in this essay, ‘‘the spectator can imagine, by a process of exosmosis [the passage of gases or liquids through membranes], that what he sees on the stage is the real decor.

The actor in a play should use a mask to cover his head, argues Jarry, and replace it with the ‘‘effigy of the CHARACTER.’’ The masks should not be a copy of the ancient Greek dramatic masks—one for tears, one for laughter—but should somehow indicate ‘‘the nature of the character: the Miser, the Waverer, the Covetous Man.’’ Six main positions (and six in profile) are enough for every expression. Jarry uses the example of a puppet showing bewilderment by ‘‘starting back violently and hitting its head against a flat’’ to illustrate his point (Ubu Roi made one its first appearances as a marionette drama.)

Another important element for Jarry is that the actor have a ‘‘special voice.’’ The voice must be ‘‘appropriate to the part, as if the cavity forming the mouth of the mask were incapable of uttering anything other than what the mask would say.’’ The whole play, Jarry concludes, ‘‘should be spoken in a monotone.’’

Compare and Contrast

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Late-1800s: In the Franco-Prussian War (1870- 71) France loses the Alsace and Lorraine regions. It is the end of the French monarchy. The war, however, does not slow industrial expansion, which continues at a rapid pace. The artistic and cultural scene flourishes and witnesses the Impressionists, Art Nouveau, and the novels of Flaubert and Zola.

Today: With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, the Cold War ends. The U.S. economy thrives, even in the face of ‘‘mini-wars’’ with Iraq and Serbia. The Impressionists still draw a crowd as museums sell out shows of Monet.

Late-1800s: The Industrial Revolution changes the face of England, the Continent, and the United States. Factories are churning out goods at an unprecedented rate.

Today: The Industrial Revolution has moved to other countries where consumer goods, like electronic equipment and clothing, can be manufactured for less. Charges of ‘‘sweatshop labor’’ are leveled against many prominent American companies.

Late-1800s: Pere Ubu shocks the Paris theatre-going audience and causes rioting in the seats when the first word he utters is considered profanity.

Today: Cable television brings profanity in film to living rooms while the internet makes other unsavory forms of content—such as hate propaganda and child pornography—available.

Media Adaptations

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The Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre has plans to present UBU WEDNESDAYS, ‘‘an exciting new multi-media look of the creation of the innovative UBU PROJECT. Collaborating with artists in Japan and Russia, GSRT is developing new theatre for the twenty-first century by integrating traditional stage-bound techniques with the limitless space of the World Wide Web.’’ The UBU PROJECT is the GSRT’s original, full-length adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 work, Ubu Roi. The project features live actors present in the performance space, projected characters via video-conferencing, and ‘‘Digital Puppets’’ derived from the Japanese performance traditions of bunraku and ningyo buri. More information can be found on the World Wide Web at htm.

The American Repertory Theatre presented Ubu Rock by Shelley Berc and Andrei Belgrader based upon Ubu Roi. Music and lyrics by Rusty Magee, directed by Andrei Belgrader. A special return engagement was sponsored by the Boston Phoenix and WFNX-FM. This performance closed March 23, 1996, at the Loeb Drama Center.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Bell, David F., Romance Notes, Spring, 1975.

Breton, Andre, ‘‘Alfred Jarry as Precursor and Initiator’’ in Free Rein, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Church, Dan M., ‘‘Pere Ubu: The Creation of a Literary Type’’ in Drama Survey, Winter, 1965, pp. 233-43.

Goddard, Stephen, ‘‘Alfred Jarry (French, 1873-1907)’’ on

Grossman, Manual L., ‘‘Alfred Jarry and the Theater of his Time’’ in Modern Drama, May, 1970, pp. 10-21.

Lindsey, Heather, ‘‘‘Merdre!’ Most Foul: Scatology on Stage’’ on

London, Todd, ‘‘My Ubu, Myself: The Singular Hallucination of Alfred Jarry’’ on myself.html.

‘‘Projects: The Gertrude Stein Repertory Theater: UBU’’ on

Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 14, Gale, 1984, pp. 266-77.

Wellworth, G. E., ‘‘Alfred Jarry: The Seed of Avant-Garde Drama’’ in Criticism, Vol. 4, no. 1, Winter, 1962, pp. 108-19.

FURTHER READING commence.html. This site has a brief biography of Jarry, as well as links to other Jarry sites. The Bibliography of English Translations link may prove especially helpful. This site for a production of Ubu Rock also contains an interesting set of links to online articles concerning Ubu Roi. The article on the play’s opening night in December of 1896 may prove particularly illuminating.

Shattuck, Roger, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France 1885 to World War I: Alfred Jarry, Henry Rousseau, Erik Satie and Guillaume Apollinair, Random House, 1979. This influential volume examines the cultural upheaval brought about by such turn-of-the-century artists as Jarry and Composer Erik Satie. Shattuck discusses how the arts were driven into a period of renewal and accomplishment and how the ground-work for Dadaism and Surrealism was laid.


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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, 1985.

Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years; The Arts in France, 1885-1918: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire. London: Faber and Faber, 1958.

Stillman, Linda Klieger. Alfred Jarry. Boston: Twayne, 1983.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide