Alfred Jarry’s play “Ubu Roi” opened in Paris in 1896, but the play was born much earlier, when the teenage Jarry and two of his friends began writing pieces featuring one of their teachers, whom they demonized as the seat of all that was bad and evil in the world. Poor Professeur Hébert had his name devolve, by way of “ébé” and so forth to “ubu,” as his character devolved into a charicature of man at his most venal.
Père Ubu is gross: gluttonous, repulsive, rude, violent, impulsive, greedy, foul, obscene, murderous, deceitful. In “Ubu Roi” he will scheme and murder to become king of Poland, at least until he is quickly ousted and forced into hiding in a cave with his similarly gross wife. He and his retinue will make their escape back to France by boat, by way of Elsinore. But first, he will begin the play with a single word: “Merdre!”
This little word, French for “shit” with an extra “r” thrown in (Cyril Connolly, whose excellent translation I read alongside the original French, translates this [I think] very well as “Pschitt!”), famously started a riot on opening night. Other than the dress rehearsal and the premiere, “Ubu Roi” was never performed by actors in Jarry’s lifetime, and along with the other Ubu plays was confined to the Théâtre des Phynances, a marionette theatre.
The Ubu universe is rife with this type of wordplay or slang. Aside from the fact that there are a lot of words that don’t appear in the dictionary, the plays are very easy to read and hysterically funny. In “Ubu Cocu” (“Ubu Cuckolded”), the second play in the main trilogy, Père Ubu invades the house of Achras, a breeder of polyhedra. He presents his card, denoting him a “pataphysician.”
Père Ubu: Pataphysicien. La pataphysique est une science que nous avons inventée et dont le besoin se faisait généralement sentir.
Achras: O mais c’est qué, si vous êtes un grand inventeur, nous nous entendrons, voyez-vous bien; car entre grands hommes…
Père Ubu: Soyez plus modeste, Monsieur! Je ne vois d’ailleurs ici de grand homme que moi. Mais puisque vous y tenez, je condescends à vous faire un grand honneur. Vous saurez que votre maison nous convient, et qu nous avons résolu de nous y installer.
Achras: O mais c’est qué, voyez-vous bien…
Père Ubu: Je vous dispense de remerciements.
From the Cyril Connolly translation:
Pa Ubu: Pataphysician. Pataphysics is a branch of science which we have invented and for which a crying need is generally experienced.
Achras: Oh but it’s like this, if you’re a famous inventor, we’ll understand each other, look you, for between great men…
Pa Ubu: A little more modesty, Sir! Besides, I see no great man here except myself. But, since you insist, I have condescended to do you a most signal honour. Let it be known to you, Sir, that your establishment suits us and that we have decided to make ourselves at home here.
Achras: Oh but it’s like this, look you…
Pa Ubu: We will dispense with your expressions of gratitude.
I liked both “Ubu Cocu” and the last of the three, “Ubu Enchaîné” (“Ubu Enchained”) better than “Ubu Roi.” I somehow felt that moving the action from among nobles in Poland to among the French bourgeoisie gave these two better depth of Ubu. I enjoyed Père Ubu riding out to meet the Russians on his Phynance Charger, but, Horn of Ubu!, I died laughing when Ubu stuffed his conscience into his commode. The satire also seemed more pointed, especially in “Ubu Enchaîné.” Is that supposed to be a plus? Well, as much as I love the absurd, Ubu and “Ubu” kind of spray pschitt all over the place, and I think there’s something to be said about focusing that a little bit.
But Ubu demands chaos because he is chaos. As he reminds us when his Polish reign falls apart: “Décervelez, tudez, coupez les oneilles, arrachez la finance et buvez jusqu’à la mort, c’est la vie des Salopins, c’est le bonheur du Maître des Finances.” (“Debraining, killing off, perforation of nearoles, money grabbing and drinking oneself to death, that’s the life for a Phynance-extortioner, and the Master of Phynances revels in such joys.”)