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Ubu “We” — Jarry and/as Ubu

A Dig Deeper Article by Production Dramaturg Zhuohao Li


We are all Ubu, still blissfully ignorant of our destructiveness and systematically practicing the soul-devouring ‘reversal’ of flushing our conscience down the john.



Portrait of Alfred Jarry in 1896, Atelier Nadar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scholar Roger Shattuck made this statement, declaring that we all have Ubu’s nature within us and that, sometimes, we enjoy it. What does Ubu mean? What is Ubu’s nature? To what degree do we relate to Ubu? The word comes from the character Père Ubu in French playwright Alfred Jarry’s best-known play Ubu Roi, the first performance of which took place on the night of December 10, 1896, at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre in Paris. The play caused violent exclamation and applause, and has been noted as “one of the greatest scandals in French theatre history” (Berghaus 47).

The character of Ubu not only impacted Jarry’s life but also exposed humanity’s potential hidden nature. At first, it is hard to see anything in common between the real Alfred Jarry and the essential character of Père Ubu. Ubu, in the original vision, has a pear-shaped head with no hair and an enormous and flabby stomach. He was conceived as “hideous, grotesque” with the characteristic of “cupidity, stupidity, brutality and ferocity” (Fowlie 20). Jarry himself was “stubborn, shy, arrogant, incredibly proud” (20). He liked to show off but was “fundamentally mild and good-tempered” (20). He loved outdoor activities such as exercising, bicycling and fishing. However, Jarry became possessed by his creation and began absorbing Ubu’s particular way of life into his own. He started referring to himself as Le Père Ubu and took to a peculiar way of speaking by using the royal “we.” Tragically, when he was 34, he was found with his legs paralyzed in his indescribably filthy bed, unaware of what was going on around him. He died not too long after. His last request in the hospital was for a toothpick.

Jarry’s life seemed to be haunted by Ubu, and the two eventually became “we” as he had asserted. Different from Ubu, whose life was destroyed by his ignorant stupidity and brutality, Jarry’s life, as Gabriel Brute commented, seemed to have been “directed by a philosophical concept” — a way to overcome one’s stupidity and resist absurd reality — the destruction of the self. His assertion of a disdain for the conventions and conditions of life exposes his own bizzare way of living as a sort of “humorous and ironic epic” (23). To some extent, we are all Ubu, but Jarry shows us that every person is capable of showing their contempt for the cruelty and absurdity of the world by making their own life “a poem of incoherence and absurdity” (23).


References

Berghaus, Günter. Theatre, Performance, and the Historical Avant-Garde. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.


Fowlie, Wallace. “Introduction of Ubu Roi.” 4 Modern French Comedies. New York, 1960, pp. 20-27.


Shattuck, Roger. Introduction. Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, edited by Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor, Grove Press, 1965, pp. 9-22.

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