What I should do is make an argument about the Ubu plays. I should interpret them. I have read two different versions of the three plays, plus an additional volume of Jarry’s writing, plus a certain amount of background reading on Alfred Jarry and his world. I should be brimming with interpretive fervor.
I don’t know. Let’s see.
At first, before reading Ubu Roi, and maybe even after, I had thought that Jarry was a particularly imaginative and forceful example of the French bourgeoisie shocker. Not that these creatures do not exist, but I should have learned my lesson by now. Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Arthur Rimbaud – like Alfred Jarry, these writers could not have cared less about the so-called bourgeoisie, or they quickly found more interesting things to do with their talents, or both.
I do believe that Jarry was interested in shock, but his target was the avant garde, French Bohemia. He wanted to shake up, or provoke, or perhaps merely amuse, his own world, his own friends, his own audience of painters and poets and theatrical thrill-seekers and weirdos. He succeeded, I think; he stands right at the head of the explosion of conceptual art that was about to wash over Paris and the new century.
Whether his work was really at all a cause of the conceptual revolution, providing useful models or ideas, or merely a colorful early example of the rapidly changing, formally inventive art and anti-art created soon after by Stravinsky, Picasso, Tzara, and so on, who knows. Apollinaire was openly influenced by Jarry, and Duchamp has to have been, right? Otherwise, I have some doubts. I find it helpful to remind myself that the most openly outrageous Ubu play, the one I find the most shocking, at least, the toilet-obsessed Ubu Cuckolded was neither performed nor published until 1944.
The Ubu plays make a complicated and possibly contradictory argument for some sort of radical freedom. Jarry demonstrates his argument less in the content of the play than in its form. Thus, the puns and obscenities and nonsense, but thus, also, the move to a more controlled and coherent work in the third play, Ubu Enchained, the one where Pa Ubu repeatedly refuses freedom and demands slavery and imprisonment. As a result, he inspires the supremely free citizens of France to choose slavery of their own free will:
PISSWEET: Forward, comrades! Hurrah for freedom!... We are free to do what we want, even to obey. We are free to go anywhere we choose, even to prison! Slavery is the only true freedom!
ALL: Hurrah for Pissweet!
PISSWEET: In response to your pleas, I agree to take over command. Forward! Let’s break into the prisons and abolish freedom! (V.1., tr. Taylor)
Ubu Enslaved is full of scenes like this, many of them openly structured like gags. So this is the argument I would make if I had the energy to make an argument, that in the Ubu plays, Jarry was deliberately demonstrating different kinds of radical artistic freedom – freedom to be chaotic, freedom to use form, freedom to offend, freedom to reform. That Pa Ubu is not always working to the same purpose as his author shows how far Jarry was willing to push the idea.