UBU ROI—“Under the Microscope”

As its production at the 2019 Elgin Fringe Festival, INDEPENDENT PLAYERS is producing UBU ROI a revolutionary comic masterpiece (which, to IP’s knowledge,) has only been presented in Elgin once. That production was staged by a local high school director who produced theatre pieces which were new to the audience he served. He worked some of the scenes with his drama students, and they talked him into directing it so they could have the experience of doing it in its entirety.  In searching for an ideal play to present at the 2019 EFF, this little gem emerged as an ideal choice.

Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi was first performed in Paris at the Theatre de Oeuvre, causing a riotous response in the audience as it opened and closed on December 10, 1896.  It is considered a wild, bizarre and comic play, significant for the way it overturns cultural rules, norms and conventions. To some of those who were in the audience on opening night, including W. B. Yeats, it seemed an event of revolutionary importance, but many were mystified and outraged by the seeming childishness, obscenity, and disrespect of the piece. It is now seen by some to have opened the door for what became known as modernismin the twentieth century. It is the precursor to Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd.  It is the first of three stylized burlesques in which Jarry satirizes power, greed, and their evil practices—in particular the propensity of the complacent bourgeoisie to abuse the authority engendered by success.

Incidentally, the word “Ubu” is actually merely a nonsense word that evolved from the French pronunciation of the name “Herbert”, which was the name of one of Jarry’s teachers who was the satirical target and inspirer of the first versions of the play.

Ubu Roi was followed by Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu in Chains, neither of which was performed during Jarry’s 34-year life. One of his later works, a novel/essay on “pataphysics”, is offered as an explanation of the ideas that underpin Ubu Roi. Pataphysics itself is, as Jarry explains, “the science of the realm beyond metaphysics”.  It is a pseudo-science Jarry created to critique members of the “academy”.  It studies the laws that govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one”.  It is the “science of imaginary solutions”.

The action contains motifs found in the plays of Shakespeare:  a king’s murder and a scheming wife from Macbeth, the ghost from Hamlet, Fortinbras’ revolt from Hamlet, the reneging of Buckingham’s reward from Richard III, and the pursuing bear from The Winter’sTale. It also contains other cultural references, for example to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex(OEdipeRoiin French) in the play’s title. Ubu Roi is considered a descendent of the comic grotesque French Renaissance author Francois Rabelais and his Gargantua and Pantagruelnovels.  The language of the play is a unique mix of slang code words, puns and near-gutter vocabulary, set to strange speech patterns.

Although the writing and dialogue is obscene and childish, the material began to express an inner consciousness, in a way that is similar to the Symbolists, with many critics considering Jarry as a symbolist author.  As the play begins, Ubu’s wife convinces him to lead a revolution and kill the King of Poland and most of the royal family. The King’s son, Bougrelas, and the Queen escape, but the latter soon dies.  The ghost of the dead king appears to his son and calls for revenge.  Back at the palace, Ubu, now King, begins heavily taxing the people and killing the nobles for their wealth. Ubu’s henchman gets thrown into prison; he then escapes to Russia, where he convinces the Tsar to declare war on Ubu.  As Ubu departs to confront the invading Russians, his wife tries to steal the money and treasures in the palace.  She is driven away by Bougrelas, who is leading a revolt of the people against Ubu.  She consequently runs away to her husband who has, in the meantime defeated the Russians, been abandoned by his followers and been attacked by a bear. Mere Ubu pretends to be the apparition of the angel Gabriel in order to scare Ubu into forgiving her for attempting to steal from him. They fight, and she is rescued by the entrance of Bougrelas, who is still pursuing Ubu, but Ubu knocks the assailants down with the body of the dead bear, after which he, his wife and their two accomplices flee to France which ends the play.

“The beginnings of the original Ubu,” according to Jane Taylor, “have attained the status of legend within French theatre culture.” In 1888, when he became a student at the Lycee in Rennes at the age of fifteen, Jarry encountered a brief farcical sketch, Les Polonais, written by his friend Henri Morin, and Henri’s brother Charles. This farce was part of a campaign by the students to ridicule their physics teacher, Felix-Frederic Hebert (1832-1917).  Les Polonais  depicted their teacher as the King of an imaginary Poland, and was one of many plays created around Pere Hebe, the character that, in Jarry’s hands, eventually evolved into King Ubu. Les Polonaiswas performed as a marionette play by the students at their homes in what they called the “Theatre of Phynances,” named in honor of Pere Hebert’s lust for “phynance” (money). This prototype for Ubu Roi is long-lost, so the true and complete details of the exact authorship of Ubu Roi may never be known. What is known, however, is that Jarry considerably revised and expanded the play.  While his schoolmates lost interest in the “Ubu” legends when they left school, Jarry continued adding to and reworking the material for the rest of his short life. His plays are controversial for their lack of respect for royalty, religion and society, their vulgarity and scatology, their brutality and low comedy and their perceived utter lack of literary finish.”

Taylor continues, “The central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with the world.  Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification.”  Jarry’s metaphor for the modern man is that he is an antihero—fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil—who grew out of schoolboy legends about an imaginarylife of a hated teacher who had been, at one time, a slave on a Turkish galley, at another time frozen in ice in Norway and at one more the King of Poland.  Ubu Roi follows and explores his political, martial and felonious exploits.

“There is,” writes Taylor, “a particular kind of pleasure for an audience watching these infantile attacks.  Part of the satisfaction arises from the fact that in the Burlesque mode which Jarry invents, there is no place for consequence.  While Ubu may be relentless in his political aspirations, and brutal in his personal relations, he apparently has no measurable effect upon those who inhabit the farcical world which he creates around himself. He thus acts out his most childish rages and desires, in which he seeks to gratify himself at all cost.”

The first word of the play (“merde,” the French word for “shit,” with an extra “t” and an ‘r”), may have been a large part of the reason for the response to the play that evening in Paris. At the end of the performance, a huge riot broke out, after which, the play was outlawed from the stage and Jarry moved it to a puppet theatre.  While on stage before the first performance in Paris, Jarry said “You are free to see in M. Ubu however many allusions you care to, or else‘a puppet”—a school boy’s caricature of one of his teachers who personified for him all the ugliness in the world.”

The poet W.B. Yeats, who joined in the shouting on that first night, later described his experience and made this comment regarding the event:  “After Stephane Mallarme, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chanannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? —After us the SavageGod.”

UBU ROI will be presented on Friday, September 13 at 7:30 PM, on Saturday, September 14 at 6:00 PM and on Sunday, September 15 at 1:30 PM—three performances only!  This year, IPis again performing at the Elgin Art Showcase, 164 Division Street, Elgin.  The cost of admission is $5.00 and all patrons are reminded that tickets can only be purchased at Fringe Central which is located at Side Street Studio Arts, 15 Ziegler Court, Elgin.