Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757

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.

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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 of humanity, Jarry substitutes greed and gluttony and a world in which good exists only in the most...

(The entire section contains 1258 words.)

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