Themes and Meanings

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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 for food and wealth.

In the depths of his gluttonous self, the folds of his fat, Ubu alone exists; all others are merely things, commodities, to be used or consumed and then discarded. “But look here, Père Ubu,” his wife admonishes him, “what sort of a king do you think you are, you kill everyone.” Ubu’s brutality is part of a larger problem, his inability to consider anyone other than himself. He has no feelings, no conscience, and (as Roger Shattuck has noted) no “insight into his own monstrosity.” Ubu’s obtuseness exceeds his obesity. Chased by the Czar, he cries out with all apparent sincerity, “This madman is chasing me! What have I done. . . .” Any wrongs he has committed, he claims, were not done “on purpose” and are not his fault. Ubu’s language proves no closer to reality than he himself is, and it is this discrepancy between word and world that Jarry exploits so well. His aim, however, is not merely to be humorous. “Ubu’s speeches were not meant to be full of witticisms,” Jarry has pointed out, “but of stupid remarks, uttered with all the authority of the Ape.”

Jarry repeatedly punctures the emptiness of bourgeois language (and with it bourgeois morality), as in the conspirators’ concern over exactly how “to kill a king properly.” Jarry largely accomplishes this aim by inverting words and meanings, turning gallantry, for example, into treachery and human dignity into bestiality. Jarry has named the characters significantly: Some of the names are scatological puns—Bordure has been translated as “Macnure,” Bourgelas as “Buggerlas.” Further, Mère and Père Ubu (“ma and pa”) not only are childless, but also are the very antithesis of idealized bourgeois parents. Jarry also turns the material he has borrowed from the tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare upside down, transforming them into Rabelaisian farce. For the tragic dignity...

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of humanity, Jarry substitutes greed and gluttony and a world in which good exists only in the most attenuated form and certainly does not triumph. “Your kindness knows no bounds,” Ubu says to King Wenceslas, then adds in an aside, “Yes, but . . . you won’t be any the less slaughtered, you know.” Ubu is not an exception; he is the very type of bourgeois man. Ubu, his wife, Bordure, and even the Poles are all driven by self-interest in a plot in which treachery and duplicity are the norm, and where understanding, justice, fidelity, and compassion (of, for example, the magistrates and Bourgelas) are clearly the exceptions.Ubu Roi is a truly disturbing work. As Barbara Wright has claimed, “it shamelessly displays what civilization tries hard to hide, and that is more than lavatory brushes and schoolboy swearwords, it is an aspect of truth.”


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As a philosophical term, absurdity describes the lack of reasonableness and coherence in human existence. As a literary term, absurdity seems to have been coined especially for Pere Ubu. Throughout the play, Pere Ubu appears to be unaware of what is happening around him. Murder, dismemberment, the trampling of a townsperson when Pere Ubu distributes gold—none of these atrocities faze Ubu. The character of Pere Ubu is absurd in another way: his reason for living seems to be to kill everyone; his actions that lead up to these killings can be described as ‘‘irrefutably logical.’’ Logic equals killing everyone.

Art and Experience
Alfred Jarry’s view of a new theater centered on two conditions: the need to ‘‘create new life’’ in the theater by creating a new type of character and the need to transcend the ‘‘things that happen all the time to the common man.’’

Pere Ubu fulfills the definition of the new type of character—as did Jarry himself. Jarry not only wrote the adventures of Pere Ubu, he lived them. He walked like Ubu; he talked in the clipped robotic speech of Ubu. Novelist Andre Gide wrote that Jarry showed no human characteristics. ‘‘A nutcracker, if it could talk, would do no differently. He asserted himself without the least reticence and in perfect disdain of good manners.’’ Jarry fished for his neighbors’ chickens from a tree and drove waiters crazy by gorging himself on meals ordered, and eaten, in reverse order, dessert first. In time, Jarry became known to his friends as Pere Ubu.

As for the need to transcend everyday actions and situations, Jarry advanced a type of ‘‘shock treatment.’’ Ubu’s opening line (‘‘Merdre!’’) accomplished that rather handily. Jarry’s admitted intention was to stir up the passive audiences pandered to by the realistic theater. Stock characters and slapstick action, the staple of Punch and Judy marionette performances, could express universal concerns and escape the narrow confines of the ‘‘lived reality’’ of the realistic theater.

DadaismUbu Roi predates the official founding of Dadaism by about ten years. Nevertheless, Pere Ubu and his alter ego Alfred Jarry seem worthy ancestors to this literary and artistic movement. Dadaism was devoted to the negation of all traditional values in philosophy and the arts. The Dada review proclaimed its intention to replace logic and reason with deliberate madness and to substitute intentionally discordant chaos for established notions of beauty or harmony in the arts.

Ubermensch (‘‘Superman’’)
The term Ubermensch comes from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. It is used to designate the goal of human existence. Humans should commit themselves to earthly goals. They should sacrifice their lives for these goals and out of the destruction that would result from such sacrifice would rise the ‘‘Ubermensch.’’

Out of the destruction in Ubu Roi, Pere Ubu rises, though more like a ‘‘Stupidman.’’ Ubu is the antithesis of Nietzsche’s Superman, although he is an individual process of self-creation, unique and undefinable, and, like his creator Alfred Jarry, forever unfinished.