A Dig Deeper Article by Production Dramaturg Brandon Shalansky
Though famous for its wild impact in the theatre, Ubu Roi’s life in print also has significance in the history of art, graphics, and publication. Accompanying the text in most published copies of the play are lively, crudely-drawn doodles that seem to spring from the same font of the comic and grotesque that inspires Alfred Jarry’s words themselves. In most cases, these doodles are integrated with the printed text itself, rather than being cordoned off to the side.
William Blake was the first to fully integrate text and image in 1788 with a method he called “Illuminated Printing” in which both the text of his poems and his own accompanying illustrations were etched in relief into the same copper plate. A century later, after several significant advances in the field, the combination of word and image became immensely popular among the avant-garde community of fin-de-siècle Paris. Jarry was a semi-professional graphic artist himself and was an editor on two graphic art reviews: L’Ymagier and Perhinderion. He was immensely curious about the relationship between the textual and the graphical and thoroughly explored the many interwoven possibilities of both in his work.
This fascination of his was most ardently expressed in Ubu Roi and its various sequels, derivatives, and extended print ephemera. Jarry found the visual language of illustration equally rich as text — if not, at times, more so — for the expression of the grotesque and absurd at the centre of Ubu’s world. The image of Père Ubu in widespread media became inextricably linked to Jarry’s original illustration of the character (Figure 1). He was also, according to Barnaby Dicker, “palpably engaged with the graphic dimension of writing and typography” itself and employed the technique of autographic text — handwritten, as opposed to typeset, text — in his publications. In 1897, one year after the première and original typeset publication of the play, Jarry issued a “republication” of Ubu Roi in autographic facsimile. It is clear, as Stephen Goddard notes, that “Jarry’s use of the graphic arts was no simple pictorial detour, it was an extension of his critical thinking.” He was obsessed with extending the performance of Ubu beyond the confines of the stage, into the real world and into his real life. Through illustration, Jarry could perform Ubu on the printed page.
Jarry’s illustrations in the original program (Figure 2) spawned an iconography of Ubu that persists to this day. The image of Père Ubu was immediately popular in the Paris art community. It inspired several artists, including Pierre Bonnard — a founder of Les Nabis, a group who are noted for ushering the transition to modernism in Paris — to create their own imitations and versions of the character, which were likewise incorporated by publishers, producers, even Jarry himself into the print media of the many ensuing productions, publications, and translations of the play.
Most notable among these is the first major English translation by Barabara Wright — the version used in this production — which was first published in 1951 by Gaberbocchus Press. Like Jarry’s 1897 facsimile, the majority of the text in the publication was autographic and also included drawings — some by Jarry but most by Polish-British artist Franciszka Themerson (who founded and ran Gaberbocchus with her husband Stefan). Unlike Jarry’s publication, however, which contained only a handful of illustrations, the pages of the Gaberbocchus edition were practically overflowing with Themerson’s doodles — 204 of them, to be exact. The images flow through the text on the page with impeccable precision. As Barnaby Dicker notes, the arrangement of the page is, in many ways, modelled directly on Jarry’s 1897 facsimile, evident in the way “Themerson habitually anchors an illustration (frequently a head) to each page number … in much the same way as Jarry does four of the six drawings” in his publication. The drawings themselves are intoxicating in their bizarre, comically-exaggerated form, allowing the figuration of the grotesque to leak from the text and almost leap off the page. Barnaby Dicker aptly (and lovingly) uses the term “slovenly” to name the “apparently simplistic, naïve, and rough-hewn graphic idiom” of Themerson’s illustrations, drawing on Friedrich Vischer’s assessment of illustrations by Jarry-inspiration Rodolphe Töpffer: … these capricious, lawless networks of lines coalesce into the most decided characterization, this quite crazy, slovenly drawing becomes a well-considered and systematic instrument in the hand of a man who makes sense of nonsense, is wise in delirium, and steers his mad steed to its certain destination, following the rules of a secret calculation.
Jarry himself can easily be seen as a man who makes sense of nonsense — or perhaps, more accurately, in the inverse, making nonsense of sense — and Ubu Roi likewise fits nicely into what could be called a “slovenly idiom” of theatre. Themerson was greatly inspired by this facet of Jarry’s work and became obsessed with drawing Ubu. In 1970, she published UBU Comic Strip, a collection of drawings dedicated to the subject. The Gaberbocchus publication of the play also became quite influential overseas when it was reproduced in facsimile by New Directions Publishing, who were famous in theatre for their publications of Tennessee Williams’ plays.
Dicker, Barnaby. “Franciszka Themerson’s Ubu Comic Strip: Autography, Caricature, and the Avant-Garde.” The Popular Avant-Garde, 2010, pp. 227–249.
Goddard, Stephen. Introduction. Ubu’s Almanac: Alfred Jarry and the Graphic Arts. Spencer Museum of Art, 1998, pp. 1-21.
“Nabis.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 31 May 2018, www.britannica.com/art/Nabis-French-artists. Accessed 13 November 2022.
Phillips, Michael. “‘Printing in the infernal method:’ William Blake’s method of ‘Illuminated Printing.’” Interfaces, vol. 39, 2018, pp. 67-89.
Themerson, Franciszka, illustrator. Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry. Translated by Barbara Wright. New Directions Publishing, 1961.
Vischer, Friedrich. “Töpffer’s Comic Picture-Novels.” Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer, edited by David Kunzle, UP of Mississippi, 2007, pp. 187-189.