On December 10, 1896, Parisian theatergoers attended the premiere of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi(King Ubu). An obese grotesque carried a toilet brush as a scepter. He greeted them with the first word of the play, “Shit!” The audience erupted with a fifteen-minute riot. After it settled, the figure spoke again. “Shit!” The audience rioted again. The play opened and closed that night. It would be banned and like its successors, Ubu Cucu (Ubu Cuckolded) and Ubu Enchaîné (Ubu Enchained), it would not be produced again theatrically during Jarry’s short lifetime. The impact of the condemnation of bourgeois values would impact the Symbolists, Surrealists, and the Theatre of the Absurd.
Alfred Jarry embodied fin de siècle decadence. He was 17 when both of his parents died in 1893. He squandered his inheritance. Alcohol was his “sacred herb” and absinthe was his “green goddess.” A small man, he divided his apartment horizontally for an additional floor. His notoriety from Ubu Roi led to him adopting mannerisms from the play into his real life. He affected a staccato, nasal delivery to his speech, peppered with the royal “we.” He rode around Paris with loaded pistols. Jarry died at 34 in 1907 of tuberculosis, aggravated by drink and drugs.
Ubu Roi concerns Pere Ubu, a treasonous Captain of a fictional Poland. He usurps and kills the King of Poland, executes the nobility and taxes the populace out of all they own. He starts a war with Russia and fights a bear. Jarry borrows liberally from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet. The play functions as an obscene, vulgar burlesque.
The Ubu plays began with Les Polonias, a farce that Jarry wrote as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy. His teacher Felix-Frederic Herbert became the marionette Père Hébé who became Pere Ubu. Performance came full circle, as Jarry would perform his banned play as a puppet theater.
Cleveland avant-garage punk band Pere Ubu took their name from the play, and some of its mannerisms in its portly singer David Thomas. After thirty-odd years of existence, they adapted the play for the 2009 album “Long Live Père Ubu!” Recently, Ubu Sings Ubu added the band’s music to Jarry’s play for a New York stage production.
“You are free to see in M. Ubu however many allusions you care to,” Jarry explained when introducing his marionette show, “or else a simple puppet—a school boy’s caricature of one of his professors who personified for him all the ugliness in the world.”