King Ubu

by Pericles Lewis

Alfred Jarry’s King Ubu was the first modern play in a theatricalist avant-garde tradition that deliberately called attention to the artificiality of theatrical conventions, in order to celebrate them. At its first performance, in Paris, on December 10, 1896, the audience broke into factions after the main character, Father Ubu, uttered the first word of the play: “Shite” (“Merdre”). In a grotesque parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Ubu, a dimwitted bourgeois based loosely on Jarry’s high school physics teacher, is convinced by his wife (a “hag”) to declare himself king of Poland. Father Ubu repeats the word “shite” over and over (along with a range of other obscenities), and slaughters 300 nobles and 500 magistrates by shoving them down a trap door. The play’s obscenity and violence may have been enough on their own to cause a riot. What made the play particularly bizarre, however, was its rejection of most of the nineteenth-century methods for creating the illusion of reality on the stage. Jarry described his ideal staging of the play as follows:

A mask for the chief character, Ubu… A cardboard horse’s head, which he would hang around his neck, as in the old English theatre, for the only two equestrian scenes, both these suggestions being in the spirit of the play, since I intended to write a “guignol” [Punch and Judy puppet show]… A suitably costumed person would enter, as in puppet shows, to put up signs indicating the locations of the various scenes… Costumes with as little specific local color reference or historical accuracy as possible.[1]

In addition, Jarry wanted to do away with realistic sets, have crowds of soldiers represented by a single soldier on each side, and have Ubu speak with an unusual accent or voice. All of these innovations, drawn from the early modern stage or from puppet shows, were intended to break with theatrical realism, to call attention to the artificiality of the play. Yeats, who attended the first performance (though he did not speak French well), later wrote: “The players are supposed to be dolls, toys, marionettes, and now they are all hopping like wooden frogs, and I can see for myself that the chief personage, who is some kind of King, carries for Sceptre a brush of the kind that we use to clean a closet [toilet].” Although Yeats supported the play, preferring to stay on the side of the avant-garde, he wondered later that night what experiments would come after his own symbolist generation. His answer: “After us the Savage God.”[2] The avant-garde tradition established by Jarry was developed during and after the war by futurists, dadaists, and surrealists.[3]

  1. ↑ Michael Benedikt and George E. Wellwarth, ed. and trans., Modern French Theatre (New York: Dutton, 1966), pp. x-xi.
  2. ↑ Quoted in Benedikt and Wellwarth, eds., Modern French Theatre, p. xiii. See also Oscar G. Brockett and Robert R. Findlay, Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre and Drama Since 1870 (Prentice-Hall, 1973), pp. 136-39.
  3. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 197.