The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
King Ubu (1888)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
King Ubu (original: Ubu Roi) was written by Alfred Jarry and first appeared as a private puppet show in 1888. Jarry (1873-1907) was a French poet and dramatist who is best-known for the Ubu trilogy and for his Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician (original: Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien, 1911). Jarry’s work anticipates the Dadaists and Surrealists and was an influence on them. King Ubu is a satire about the rise and downfall of a monstrous Trumpian glutton.
Father Ubu is a Captain of Dragoons for the Polish King Venceslas. Father Ubu is relatively content with his life, but he is also the former King of Aragon, and his wife, Mother Ubu, is not content with being the mere wife of a Captain of Dragoons. She suggests that Father Ubu kill King Venceslas and take his place, and Father Ubu, who is a victim to greed and cannot resist temptation, gives in to her suggestions. Father Ubu meets and conspires with Captain Bordure, who hates Venceslas. Venceslas visits Ubu and promotes him to the Count of Sandomir, but this does not stop Ubu (“You’re very kind. - Yes, but King Wenceslaus, all the same you’re going to be slaughtered.”1), and he plots the King’s assassination with a group of fellow conspirators. The Queen and her son, Bougrelas, try to dissuade Venceslas from holding a review of the troops, but Venceslas is so sure that Ubu is trustworthy that Venceslas says that he will appear at the review unarmed and without a sword. Ubu betrays Venceslas’ trust and kills the King. Bougrelas and the Queen escape to the mountains in the ensuing melee, but the Queen is in poor health and soon dies. Bougrelas is visited by the spirits of his ancestors and is inspired to keep fighting against Ubu. Now king, Ubu immediately demonstrates his overwhelming greed. He refuses to share any of the kingdom’s gold with anyone else, and, avid to get more gold, Ubu raises taxes, kills all the noblemen and financiers and takes their property, and begins a general reign of greed and terror. Captain Bordure escapes from prison, goes to Russia and enlists with Czar Alexis. Ubu, desperate for more money, hears about Bordure’s flight to Russia and decides to declare war on Russia. Ubu marches off with the troops, and Mother Ubu immediately begins looking for Father Ubu’s hidden gold. But a voice from a tomb scares her away. The war with Russia goes badly, and Ubu is forced to flee to Lithuania and hide in a cave. After an encounter with a bear, which kills Ubu’s companion, Ubu accidentally meets up with Mother Ubu, who was forced to flee from Poland after the Russians marched in. The Russian troops corner the Ubus in the cave, but some of Ubu’s loyalists rescue him, and during the battle the Ubus escape and flee to France.
King Ubu influenced the Surrealists and Dadaists, who saw in its absurd incongruities and defiance of traditional dramatic verities an anticipation and confirmation of their own theories. In King Ubu Jarry also acts as a forerunner to the theories and plays of Artaud, Beckett, and Ionesco and of postmodern experimental theater. Some critics have even seen the influence of King Ubu and Jarry extending into early twentieth century poetry and painting. W.B. Yeats saw the opening night performance of King Ubu and was saddened by it, later calling Jarry in print “the Savage God;”2 Stephen Mallarmé was thrilled by it.
King Ubu is a satire and a farce, and if the reader is in the right mood they will find it amusing and entertaining. But King Ubu works better as comedy than satire. The play’s comedy is of the over-the-top variety. It combines amusing wordplay (which works equally well in French as in English, viz. “merdre” and “shittr”), a Punch-and-Judy approach to violence, and a coarse, broad sense of humor. An appreciation of King Ubu depends on the right frame of mind and the right sense of humor. Those whose senses of humor are too different from Jarry’s won’t be amused by the vulgar, profane Father Ubu, with his constant, nonsensical but obscene-sounding curses, or by his beating of Mother Ubu, or by the way in which Ubu literally tears his enemies to pieces or throws a bear’s carcass at them, and how grossly he acts the glutton and coward. As with most humor, those who do not find this sort of thing amusing probably can’t be persuaded to enjoy it.
As satire the play lacks the immediacy it had when Jarry wrote it. Jarry’s satire in King Ubu was more apposite at the time of its creation. The play provoked violent condemnation when it first appeared as well as rapturous praise; the bourgeois were greatly offended by it, while the more perceptive critics hailed its satire and compared Jarry with Shakespeare and Rabelais. Jarry meant Ubu to stand as a symbol of everything he hated, of baseness, venality, cupidity, stupidity, and brutality, but Ubu is so cartoonishly extreme in his behavior and his desires–though, oddly, lust is the one sin which Ubu is not prey to in King Ubu–that today he will only provoke amusement, rather than ire. Ubu was intended to be a bourgeois Everyman, but the Everyman that today’s readers identify with is a long way from Father Ubu.
The plot of King Ubu is a parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with the Lady Macbeth-like Mother Ubu pushing Ubu into rebellion. But the play’s parody and satire goes deeper than that. Jarry sends up other Shakespearian elements, including Calpurnia’s dream in Julius Caesar and her warning to Caesar. Jarry also parodies one of the clichés of the historical romances of the time with the deposed Bougrelas seeing his parents die and swearing vengeance on Ubu, and Jarry even satirizes, in the Warsaw Cathedral scene, the Gothic cliché of the haunted cathedral and the mysterious voice emerging from a tomb. Beyond that, King Ubu is a parody of traditional plays; it lacks the customary theatrical logic and identifiable characters. The putative hero, Ubu, is a monster, the play’s plot is anecdotal, the play lacks narrative coherence, and the play is often so absurd as to be comical.
“Ubu Roi does not resemble a polemical work but is, instead, a youthful work, the potache’s (“student’s”) vision of the functioning of society. There is also a more specifically French strain in the creation of Ubu: the ferocious hatred of the French artist for the lumpish bourgeoisie.”3
Print: Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi, transl. Beverly Keith. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003.
Online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000348390 (in French; there is no English language translation available online).
1 Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi, transl. Beverly Keith (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003), 18.
2 William B. Yeats, Autobiography, qtd. in Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 209.
3 Wallace Fowlie, “Ubu Roi,” in John Gassner and Edward Quinn, eds, The Reader’s Encyclopedia of World Drama (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002), 880.