The last word on Ubu

On Wednesday, I let Ubu speak for himself a bit, through his almanacs. Today, to finish off Ubu week, I’ll let Jarry speak for him a bit à son tour. Les Paralipomènes d’Ubu (The Omissions of Ubu) was published in La Revue Blanche at the end of 1896.

Jarry begins by describing Ubu, whom he believes will be misunderstood:

Ce n’est pas exactement Monsieur Thiers, ni le bourgeois, ni le mufle: ce serait plutôt l’anarchiste parfait, avec ceci qui empêche que nous devenions jamais l’anarchiste parfait, que c’est un homme, d’oú couardise, saleté, laideur, etc.

He’s not exactly Mr. Thiers [former French prime minister and queller of the 1871 Paris Commune], nor a bourgeois, nor a boor: he’s more like the perfect anarchist, with that which prevents us from ever becoming the perfect anarchist, a man full of cowardice, filth, ugliness, etc.

I think this goes right to the heart of what Amateur Reader calls “something more horrifying, more empty” than a simple “lust for money and power.” The real, true, 100% anarchist—if we want to believe Jarry at least—is just too hardcore. He is not only lawless but completely unbound by social or even physical norms, and unpredictable.

Jarry also describes Ubu physically:

S’il ressemble à un animal, il a surtout la face porcine, le nez semblable à la mâchoire supérieure du crocodile, et l’ensemble de son caparaçonnage de carton le fait en tout le frère de la bête marine la plus esthétiquement horrible, la limule.

If he resembles an animal, it’s above all in his piggish face, his nose like the upper jaw of a crocodile, and his cardboard tack makes him look like the brother of the most aesthetically horrible marine animal, the horseshoe crab.

I must say, I thought the most aesthetically horrible marine animal would be the walrus—especially considering what Ubu looks like—but I suppose in context the choice makes sense. They are grotesque. Once, years ago, I came upon a great number of them mating, and I would have to say the sight was ubuesquely awful.

Once again, translations from yours truly, and original text collected in the wonderful Tout Ubu, edited by Maurice Saillet. Any Francophone ubuphile should have this book; I was skeptical at first but it’s really worth it (not that it’s at all expensive, just not readily available in US stores of course). Ubu Week is just about over, so thanks to Amateur Reader, Rise, and any other Ubu readalongers. May your gidouilles always be full!

Not only was this a readalong opportunity for everyone, it also represented Amateur Reader’s bibliographing reading challenge. So double thank you for that—wonderful challenge!

Ubu en vente partout

Père Ubu is more than just the star of a few plays; he’s a character. The Hello Kitty of early absurdist theatre, say. There is an Ubu for all seasons, all circumstances, every purpose under heaven. And just as Ms. Kitty brings her…sweet…personality wherever she goes, so does Ubu.

Angel Kitty, not so much

Jarry makes more Ubu available to us in the Almanachs du Père Ubu, which are, totally, almanacs. I mean they start out giving the times of high tides and the dates of elipses of the sun, the moon, and the Père Ubu. Lists of important holidays, like February 8, copulation day. Helpful instructions for turning bronze into gold by way of a salamander (nine salamanders, actually).

There are also lots more sketches of Ubu, here holding an umbrella, there researching alchemy. And he makes his appearance in several short plays or skits. In “L’Ile du Diable,” he takes some Ubuesque shots at Catholicism (“il s’est confessé de son crime à notre Chanoine, il en a été absous, il n’est plus coupable, il ne l’a jamais commis”—“he confessed his crime to our canon, he was granted absolution, he is no longer guilty, he never committed it”*). He is interrogated, or at least interviewed, by his conscience on the event of the turn of the twentieth century. Here he is given a chance to explain himself—almost an Inside the Actor’s Studio for a crazed, obese marionette come to life. “Monsieur ma Conscience, nous n’avons jamais honte, d’abord, c’est un principe.”—”Sir Conscience, we are never ashamed, first of all, that’s on principle.” No kidding!

My consumption partner, smartypants that he is, thought to ask how the Jarry/Ubu timeline fit in with the Paris World’s Fair. I, of course, was so ignorant I didn’t realize quite how many expositions universelles Paris hosted in the latter half of the nineteenth century (five). The interview between Ubu and his conscience appears in the 1901 almanac, and one of the conscience’s questions is whether Ubu attended the one, presumably, the previous year. This gives him a chance to talk about art:

Tandis que le plus bel objet d’art se banalise dès qu’il est mis à la portée de plusieurs. Je n’ai pas regardé l’Exposition pour la même raison que je n’ai pas l’habitude de lire des manuels vulgarisateurs, vêtir ma gidouille sinon sur mesure, ni de prendre l’omnibus!

Just as the most beautiful work of art becomes common once it’s put within reach of the masses. I didn’t go to the Exposition for the same reason I am not in the habit of reading popularizations, clothing my strumpot off the rack, or taking the bus!

Ubu, is that you? Oh, it is you!

Also, Ubu on language—now this is really good. His conscience asks him whether he isn’t a fan of the latest spelling reform, what with his contrariness, especially in the verbal department:

Ceci est tout différent. Les bougres qui veulent changer l’orthographe ne savent pas et mois je sais. Ils bousculent toute la structure des mots et sous prétexte de simplification les estropient. Moi je les perfectionne et embellis à mon image et à ma ressemblance. J’écris phynance et oneille parce que je pronounce phynance et oneille et surtout pour bien marquer qu’il s’agit de phynance et d’oneilles, spéciales, personnelles, en quantité et qualité telles que personne n’en a, sinon moi; et si l’on n’est pas content, je me mettrai à rédiger nouneilles et pfuinance, et ceux qui réclameront encore ji lon fous à lon pôche!!!

That’s completely different. The guys that want to change the spelling don’t know, and I know. They’re knocking the whole structure of words about, and under the pretext of simplifying things, they’re mangling them. I perfect them and embellish them in my image, to look like me. I write phynance and near [meaning “ear”] because I say phynance and near and above all to show that I’m talking about special, personal phynance and nears, of just such a quantity and quality that only I have; and if people don’t like it, I’ll start writing nouears and pfynance, and anyone who still won’t shut up, I’ll stuffeminmypocket!!!

Rise talked about “construct[ing] an edifice of references in the texts and work[ing] from there to create [an] enchained reality.” The almanacs can only follow from that reality, and their complete reliance on the edifice of Ubuesque references—“his neologisms and set of references (e.g., the pschitt-prefix, his uniquely named weapons, his Palcontents) that he constantly used throughout his fantastical adventures”—is what makes them great, at least from a fan’s perspective. Ubu will not be confined to Poland, or France, or a Turkish galley! His strumpot is larger than the earth, and it sprawls to encompass every last piece of trivia imaginable.

*Sorry, folks, translations all mine this post.

“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!

Cornegidouille, it’s Ubu Week!

Anything Ubu Readalong OpportunityAlfred 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.

Dans votr' maison, MOVIN' INI 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.”)


It will be all Ubu all week—except when it isn’t—here (and on Twitter and on Tumblr). Revel in the Anything Ubu Readalong Opportunity, hosted by me and