Ubu Roi, by gay French playwright Alfred Jarry (1873 – 1907), is a classic of French theatre. In 1896, on opening night, with a traditional audience of members of the Paris avant-garde, “King Ubu”, played by Firmin Gémier, stepped forward and uttered the opening word: “Merdre!“. The first 15 minutes of the new play was pandemonium with outraged cries and booing, from those offended, countered by cheers and applause by the more degenerate in the crowd. More interruptions continued through the evening. At the time, only the dress rehearsal and opening night performance were held, and the play was not revived until after Jarry’s death.
There were three Ubu plays written by Jarry, but only Ubu Roi was performed during his short lifetime. Jarry contracted flu in 1890. He recovered, but his mother and father were taken by the virus. He was left with a small inheritance which he quickly spent. He soon discovered the pleasures of cocaine and absinthe, which he called his “green goddess”. He once painted his face green and rode through Paris on his bicycle in its honor and under its influence.
He was actively gay in his early 20s, and interestingly, his two serious boyfriends later married (one was poet Léon-Paul Fargue). Sexuality was something that Jarry wrote about a lot, while being mostly apparently absent from much of his life. Unlike Oscar Wilde, whom he met on at least two occasions, Jarry did not hang out in gay company so far as my research shows. He died in Paris in 1907 of tuberculosis, aggravated by his drug and alcohol use. His final request was for a toothpick.
The Ubu trilogy was conceived to be played actors and marionettes, and Jarry’s stage direction suggest that the costumes not reflect any particular historical period. The plays are vicious satires of greed, royalty, religion, stupidity and abuse of power. The two other plays are Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded) and Ubu Enchaîné (Ubu In Chains).
The main character, Père Ubu, was based on the lampooning of a stuffy teacher written with two friends from Jarry’s from school. He used the character as the vessel for his cutting critique of bourgeois society.
Most of the audience that night absolutely hated Ubu Roi; it was lewd, crude, and rude, and they also hated its controversial playwright. Fist fights broke out in the orchestra pit. There was a riot instead of a curtain call. Jarry’s supporters yelled: ”You wouldn’t understand Shakespeare, either! ” The haters joined in with their variations on the theme of ”merde”. The title is sometimes translated as ”King Turd’; however, the word “Ubu” is actually a nonsense word.
William Butler Yeats was in the audience that night in 1896 and wrote:
”What more is possible? After us, the Savage God.”
Maybe if the great Irish poet had been portentous, he might have remarked: ”What more is possible? A dim-witted racist bully man baby put in charge of the nuclear codes who tells his people they should drink bleach? ”
Ubu Roi was thought of as politically subversive, the work of an anarchist, or even that it was a joke made at the expense of the gullible middle-class audience.
But Jarry wasn’t an anarchist. He was an absurdist agitator who cared little about any of this. His characters have names like ”MacNure”, ”Pissweet” and ”Pissale”, pissing off the audience was practically the entire point of his play. King Ubu’s scepter is a shit-smeared toilet brush.
In the play, Ubu is notorious for his infantile behavior. His world is the domain of greedy self-gratification. He is a gross, grotesque, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupendously stupid, voracious, cruel, cowardly, evil, fraud leader. Ubu Roi follows the political, martial and criminal exploits of this king with situations and plotlines lifted from William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth and Richard III. Like Macbeth, Ubu, on the urging of his wife, murders the king who helped him and takes his throne, and is in turn defeated and killed by his son.
There is particular pleasure for an audience watching this character’s tantrums and attacks. Jarry invents a kingdom where there is no place for consequence for his crooked dealings. Ubu is relentless in his political aspirations, and brutal in his personal relations, yet he apparently has no real effect on those who live the orbit which he created around himself. He acts out in childish rages and desires, selfishly seeking to gratify himself at all cost. The adjective ”ubuesque” is often used in French political debate.
Sound like a certain president you know? All that’s missing is his shit-smeared toilet brush.
After achieving infamy for his scatological play, 23-year-old Jarry obnoxiously began to model his own patterns of speech after Gémier, the actor who played Père Ubu. Interestingly, Gémier had modeled his portrayal of Ubu on Jarry’s strange way of drawing out each syllable in a nasally staccato. He also began to walk like Ubu: puffed-up chest, leaning forward as if he can’t quite hear.
Like his fictional blubbering king, Jarry used the royal “we’ and called the wind “that which blows”. His bicycle was “that which rolls”. Jarry was a big druggie, and eventually he could hardly tell himself from his fictional characters.
Jarry lived his art. Evicted from his apartment for non-payment of rent, in an act of absurdity that aped his artistic output, he moved into the “second and half floor” at 7 rue Cassette, a flat created by subdividing a larger apartment with a horizontal rather than a vertical partition. Diminutive Jarry could just barely stand up in the place, and his guests had to bend or crouch. Jarry also started carrying a loaded revolver. In response to a neighbor’s complaint that his target shooting endangered her children, he replied:
“If that should ever happen, madame, we should ourselves be happy to get new ones with you.”
After his death, Jarry became a figure of fascination for Pablo Picasso, who purchased Jarry’s revolver and carried it with him whenever he went out at night.
Artist Joan Miró used the image of Ubu Roi to satirize General Francisco Franco in 50 lithographs after the fascists won the Spanish Civil War. In 1978, with Franco finally dead, Miró staged Mori el Merma, a play where Ubu (here called ”Merma”) is a thinly disguised version Franco: a vicious, anti-intellectual, bloodthirsty tyrant.
“Pataphysics” is Jarry’s self invented but universally recognized philosophy/ science. It focuses on studying the exceptional and the coincidental. In 1948, a collective of avant-garde writers and artists formed the College de Pataphysique. Members included Miró, Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco and Dada artist Marcel Duchamp.
Paul McCartney was reading Ubu Roi when he was writing Maxwell’s Silver Hammer for the The Beatles‘ Abbey Road (1969) album. The lyric: ”Joan was quizzical; studied pataphysical science in the home…” refers both to Miró, who illustrated a famous 1966 publication of the play and Jarry. The rock group Pere Ubu is named after the main character. Their album Long Live Père Ubu! (2009) is an adaptation of Jarry’s play.
Below is Ubu Roi as it was produced for French television in 1966. It uses the Kinoscope process of filming off a video screen.