“Ubu Enchained”—pray, what is your rank in slavery?

“Ubu Enchaîné” (“Ubu Enchained”) is the last and most pointed of the three main Ubu plays. It opens with Ubu informing his wife that he no longer wants to say “that word,” which has “got me into too much trouble.” He goes on to inform her of a radical lifestyle change he is planning: to live “by the work of our hands”! It’s all because they’ve moved to France:

Puisque nous sommes dans le pays où la liberté est égale à la fraternité, laquelle n’est comparable qu’à l’égalité de la légalité, et que je ne suis pas capable de faire comme tout le monde et que cela m’est égal d’être égal à tout le monde puisque c’est encore moi qui finirai par tuer tout le monde, je vais me mettre esclave, Mère Ubu!

Now that we are in the land where liberty is equal to fraternity, and fraternity more or less means the equality of legality, and since I am incapable of behaving like everyone else and since being the same as everyone else is all the same to me seeing that I shall certainly end up by killing everyone else, I might as well become a slave, Ma Ubu!

Translation, again, the Cyril Connolly one. And you can see here that while it’s very good, all the same, you don’t get this nice “l’égalité de la légalité” business and things of that sort. Other wordplay works great: Ma Ubu replies that Ubu is too fat (“gros”) to be a slave, to which he rejoins that it will be “all the better for doing a fat lot of work” (“gross besogne”). Wait, I meant to tell you about the story…

So since Ubu wants to be a slave, he has to find people to enslave himself to. Unfortunately, he’s forced to kidnap them and make them accept his services whether they want them or not. “No one shall prevent me from performing my slavish duty. I shall serve pitilessly. Killemoff, debrain!” What Jarry does here is not exactly subtle, but it is funny and I like it:

Ma Ubu: Someone’s ringing, Pa Ubu.

Pa Ubu: Hornphynance! it’s doubtless our faithful mistress. As we all know, sensible dog-owners tie little bells around their pets’ necks so that they won’t get run over, and to prevent accidents bicyclists are required by law to announce their presence by ringing a bell loud enough to be heard fifty feet away. Similarly, the faithfulness of a master can be judged by his ringing non-stop for fifty minutes. He simply means: ‘I am here, take it easy, I am watching over your leisure moments.’

A band of free men break into the house when Ubu is hosting a ball for himself and carry him off to jail, where he and Ma Ubu are “well-dressed” and “well-housed”—”just as comfortable as the palace of Wenceslas.”

Ah, how right you are! The trouble with the houses in this country is that the front doors can’t be locked and people shoot in and out like wind through the sails of a windmill. But I have had the foresight to order this particular building to be fortified by strong iron doors and by solid bars at all the windows. And the Masters obey our insturctions punctiliously by bringing our meals to us twice a day. What’s more, we have made use of our knowledge of physics to invent an ingenious device whereby the rain drips through the roof every morning, so that the straw in our cell may remain sufficiently moist.

I can't escape; I'm a slave to tum

(I can't escape; I'm a slave to tum)

Ubu is even happy to be convicted, demanding to be sentenced to be a galley slave, “a fine green cap on our head, foddered at State expense and occupying our leisure hours in petty tasks.” Ubu’s enemy Pissweet and his band of very confused free men are reduced to trying to force Ubu to be free. Ah! But he will remain “Ubu Enchained, Ubu slave, and I’m not giving any orders ever again. That way people will obey me all the more promptly.”

Amateur Reader noted in yesterday’s comment section that “Ubu Cocu” was more Ubuish, and it is. Here, Jarry risks making Ubu seem like only a contrarian. Or maybe that’s my fault—there’s no shortage of strumpots or violence in this installment, after all. But this send-up of freedom and slavery is right up my alley, and you know, there’s something to be said for accessibility. If anyone is unsure whether Ubu is for them, maybe start with this. It’s a very funny play firmly in the spirit of the Theatre of the Absurd.

Rise, in his all too wonderful post on the three Ubu plays, nails this one much better in many fewer words in his items 10 and 11. Go read them!

4 comments to “Ubu Enchained”—pray, what is your rank in slavery?

  • “I am watching over your leisure moments.” Awesome! Probably worth reading for that line alone.

  • Mmm hmm. This is it, here. This is the idea I need to figure out how to extend – following the path of how Jarry got from one play to the next. There is an actual argument amidst the nonsense, or the nonsense itself makes an argument.

    Did I call Ubu Enslaved more conventional yesterday? I meant relative to Ubu Cocu. In fact, the third play is the most like, I don’t know, Duck Soup or Monty Python. More actual gags, right from the beginning. It really is the funniest of the plays.

  • Monty Python is such a good comparison I’m ashamed I didn’t think of it sooner. “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”

    Not sure how much of the “secondary” materials you’ve read (see my forthcoming comment at your place…), but I found the Almanachs really help flesh out that “argument,” such as it is—an argument in the shape of a world(view). That’s for tomorrow.

  • Enchained appears to wear its wit very lightly, given the concepts it spouts (liberty, fraternity, equality, freedom). Yet for me it had the most sustained comedy. It is just masterful. (Or should one say, slaveful?)

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