Themes and Meanings
The title character of Ubu Roi is, in critic Martin Esslin’s words,a savage caricature of a stupid, selfish bourgeois seen through the cruel eyes of a schoolboy, but this Rabelaisian character, with his Falstaffian greed and cowardice, is more than mere social satire. He is a terrifying image of the animal nature of man, his cruelty and ruthlessness.
The play’s setting is a wholly imaginary Poland, a land which in its history has literally been torn to pieces, partitioned out of existence, a nowhere that Alfred Jarry’s telling makes an any-or everywhere, just as his palindromic hero becomes a modern Everyman, as ridiculous and empty as the oaths he likes to utter: “shittr,” “gadzookers,” “by my green candle.” Based upon Jarry’s physics teacher, Félix Hébert, at the Lycée of Rennes, a man as unjust and incompetent as he was physically absurd, Ubu appears as a grotesque, nearly hairless figure, an enormous belly surmounted by a pear-shaped head, the very embodiment of the bourgeoisie that Jarry despised for their stupidity, avarice, and moral posturing. Utterly egocentric and entirely cash-minded, Ubu is exactly what the play’s other characters call him: swine, idiot, imbecile, oaf, coward, ass, creature, beast, blockhead, villain, and, above all, traitor and (as suggested by the title’s echo of Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos, c. 429 b.c.e.; in French, Oedipe roi) tyrant. Gluttony is the outward sign of his avaricious nature; additionally, his avarice is coupled with that inertness of mind and spirit that his physical bulk connotes. He is on one hand the embodiment of sloth and simple-minded self-satisfaction, unwilling to do anything but be what he is, a machine for ingesting and growing fat; yet, on the other hand, he is marked by his ever-increasing appetite...
(The entire section is 757 words.)