Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ooh! Ow! Help, rescue! - the great Père Ubu

Père Ubu is a monstrous inversion of Hello Kitty, bibliographing nicole boldly declares, and how can I not agree?  The character of Pa Ubu is Alfred Jarry’s greatest creation.  If Ubu is not as ubu-iqitous as Don Quixote or Faust or Falstaff, to pick some precedents, characters who escaped their creators, it is because the 20th century avant garde has so ruthlessly cannibalized him.

Pa Ubu is a titanic comic monster, a braggart and coward like Falstaff but somehow simultaneously an unstoppable, invulnerable murderer.  He massacres his enemies but also poisons his allies:

He holds an unmentionable brush in his hand and hurls it at the gathering.

PA UBU.  Try a taste of that. (Several taste and collapse poisoned.)  Now pass me the spare ribs of Polish bison, Mother, and I’ll dish them out.


PA UBU.  You’re still here?  By my green candle, I’ll do you in with bison ribs.
He begins to throw them.

ALL.  Ooh!  Ow!  Help, rescue!  Let’s stick up for ourselves!  Curses!  He’s done for me.  (Ubu Roi, I.3., Connolly and Taylor)

Then Pa complains that he has “had a lousy meal”!

I should ask the other Ubu readers – how often is Pa Ubu terrifying?  Plenty of times, says I.  The massacres of the nobles in Ubu Roi, for example, scene III.2., when what begins as lust for money and power turns into or reveals itself as something more horrifying, more empty.  “Isn’t injustice just as good as justice?” Ubu asks in the preceding scene, and he means it, as much as he means anything.  When, in Ubu Cocu, Ubu stuffs his conscience and anyone else he can get his hands down the toilet, I thought not “How horrible” but “Of course.”

Despite the loudness of his brutality, Pa Ubu frequently reminded me of the silent Harpo Marx.  Both characters are agents of chaos.  So are Groucho and Chico, but they are restrained by intelligence and stupidity, respectively.  Harpo is the one who is not quite human.  Harpo is the troll.

Rise links Ubu Roi to the dictator novel.  As you can see, I read the Ubu plays and think of Duck Soup.  Thinking of Idi Amin is too frightening.

I suppose if I have been disappointed by Jarry, it is that he created only one great character.  Ma Ubu has her moments – she starts strong, for example, as a sort of idiotic Lady Macbeth – but is undefined compared to Pa Ubu.  A thoughtful reader might point me to – or, even better, write – a feminist counter to Jarry, Hedda Gabler crossed with Lady Macbeth strained through Brecht’s, or Grimmelshausen’s, Mother Courage.  Winnie, in Beckett’s Happy Days, might be a useful reference.  All I seem to be able to do is list other works and characters.


  1. Not having read Ubu lately I'm not sure I can add much, but I have enjoyed reading your Ubu posts. While seeing and reading a play are obviously two different experiences both are valuable. Great plays all work on paper as well as on the stage. That said, the spoken word that opens the play has a different, probably stronger, affect on the audience. Still, it would not shock today.

    I think I've mentioned the production I saw, that opened with the character painting the back wall of the set with what really did look like a bucket of merde. That shocked the audience. While it didn't provoke a 15 minute mini-riot, it did provoke. The audience was clearly split on whether or not it was in very bad taste or genius.

    It was certainly something.

  2. C.B., your advice about reading and seeing plays sounds suspiciously commonsensical.

    I think you're the only person who has stopped by who is 100% sure he has seen a performance of Ubu Roi. I can see how the decor would work, how it would be unsettling. I mean, it's probably fake. Almost certainly. Probably. But there is no way to be certain, and it's in front of you, almost inescapable (you could walk out, I guess) for the entire play. If not genius, then perversely clever.

  3. I've seen two performances actually. One in a very 'avant garde' space in San Francisco and in a more traditional small theatre in Boston. While the Boston production was better acted overall, the San Francisco production went the distance with the 'merde' which has made it the one I remember most. I give it credit for that.

  4. I think you're exactly right about the horror of Ubu. I'll have a tidbit on that tomorrow. And I'm with you, on the dictator issue, although the thought did creep in here and there. It's there. But then it's not—that's not you avoiding it, that's Jarry zigging and zagging and doing something else.

    I'm with you on Ma Ubu too. She charmed me a few times, but I would get my hopes up, and she would go flat again. Oh well, you have to spend a lot of your breath puffing up Ubu Père.

  5. It's all so strange - a liberating horror, a constrained freedom, pure materialism, and then a launch into the beyond. The pataphysics stuff is the latter.

  6. I will have nightmares about Pa Ubu for the rest of my life I think. And I will think about kazoos while mowing my grass. Humph.

  7. Those nightmares will fade away, and be replaced by other nightmares.

  8. Ubu started as Jarry and the Morin brothers mocking their physics teacher; and I see him mostly from that perspective: an adult seen by kids (who were, probably, smarter than him). Jarry was steeped in guignol and popular prints, and realized they'd come up with a lively folkloric character -- who's not that different from Punch, actually.

    Anyway, nice to see all you people enjoying your Jarry. Cheers!

  9. That hapless physics teacher is now strangely immortal.

  10. Poor M. Hébert! I can only imagine what it must have been like to have Jarry in his class...