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
Continue reading The last word on Ubu
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
Continue reading Ubu en vente partout
“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
Continue reading “Ubu Enchained”—pray, what is your rank in slavery?
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.”
Continue reading Cornegidouille, it’s Ubu Week!