King Ubu’s One-Night Stand

December 10, 1896 … Ubu Roi opens and closes in Paris

ubu roi

The horrid hero of Alfred Jarry’s notorious play Ubu Roi (King Ubu) is an infantile, bourgeois Macbeth, who wears a target on his sizable belly and has a toilet brush for his scepter. Ubu’s first line is “Merdre,” French for shit, but – for reasons known only to its  author – with an extra “r.”

On opening night, that first line provoked a violent melee that stopped the performance – almost before it had begun – for fifteen minutes, and reports of the evening provoked enough outrage among the good French bourgeoisie to ensure that Ubu Roi was never again produced during its author’s short life.

Viewed in the most elementary way, the play – Jarry’s obscene depiction of a hated teacher – is little more than a schoolboy prank, but it takes such delight in its own comic savagery … so steadfastly refuses limitation … that it ends up being profound. Ubu Roi is cited as a precursor to not only Surrealism and Dada, but Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty as well as the Theatre of the Absurd … not to mention Andy Kaufman and Punk.

Countless authors have used themselves as models for a character, but only Jarry (that I’m aware of) used one of his characters as a model for himself. After the play’s riotous opening, he adopted aspects of the Polish King’s dress, manner, and stilted speech, and – aided and abetted by rivers of absinthe – became indistinguishable from Ubu. Jarry died at age 36.

The New Directions edition of Ubu Roi is still the best translation and it features the author’s illustrations. An extended portrait of Jarry is included in the brilliant book by Roger Shattuck called The Banquet Years (1968), which also has bios of fellow French avant-gardeists (composer Erik Satie, painter Henri Rousseau, and poet Guillaume Apollinaire).

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