Monday, June 27, 2011

Ooh! What a nasty word. Pa Ubu, you’re a dirty old man. - the first word of Ubu

Act One, Scene One


PA UBU.  Merdre.*

Now, what would have happened one hundred and fifteen years ago, at the 1896 première of Alfred Jarry’s  Ubu Roi, after this utterance of the play’s first word, is a fifteen minute theater riot.  In the context of the pandemonium at the 1830 debut of  Victor Hugo’s 1830 Hernani, caused by his violation of French Classical prosody, such as misplacing the caesura in the opening line, or the fooforaw over Stravinsky and Diaghilev’s The Rite of Spring in 1913, I am not convinced that fifteen minutes is particularly long for a French theatrical riot.

Still, some patrons fled, others whistled, and still more punched each other.  The avant-gardists drowned out the philistines (decide for yourself who is which).  The Ubuistes in attendance included Stéphane Mallarmé, Edmond Rostand (the slightly more conventional Cyrano de Bergerac would debut the next year), and, most amusingly to me, William Butler Yeats, who did not understand French well but enthusiastically “shouted for the play,” but later, in his hotel room, mourned the death of literature – “what more is possible?  After us the Savage God.”**

All of this fuss is adorable.  Am I right?  Screaming and hooting over a single scatological crumb, a speck of not-quite-profanity, a malformed cousin of “Shoot” and “Sugar” and “Wednesday.”***  I have seen, or perhaps, since I can’t remember any details, only heard about movies where the first ten or twenty words are profane, a gesture that I suppose is meant to shock an audience numbed by Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet.  Does it ever actually work?  Maybe on television, where I still occasionally feel that jolt – you can say that on broadcast TV now?  But on screen or stage, please.  So the genuine outrage and horror of century-past French theater-goers – ones who specifically chose to attend an avant garde play – delights me.

Only a few years later, Dadaist theaters had to distribute rotten fruit to their patrons, had to demand that they be outraged, had to actively facilitate their anger.  Yeats was right  - Jarry’s jape had changed the world, just a little bit.

That’s the first word of Ubu Roi.  Tomorrow, the second word.  That’s a joke.  Here are versions of the second and third lines:

MA UBU.  Ooh! What a nasty word.  Pa Ubu, you’re a dirty old man.

PA UBU.  Watch out I don’t bash yer nut in, Ma Ubu!  (tr. Connolly and Taylor)

McLeish has Ma Ubu simply say “Pa Ubu, language,” which is a better gag for an actual performance, if “better” has any meaning in Ubu-world.

What has bibliographing nicole been writing?  Oh, she’s going after the first word as well.  It’s irresistible, as a part of theater history, too important to ignore.  As literature, eh, thin stuff.  Nicole presents a passage that suggests there is more to Jarry than shocking the bourgeoisie.  Oh, there is, there is.

Update: Look at what In Lieu of a Field Guide does with the first word - now that's a good pummeling - and then it just keeps going.

* “Pschitt!” as translated by Cyril Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor, and note their unnecessarily punchy exclamation point; “Shikt.” per Kenneth McLeish.  Translating Ubu Roi is fun, fun, fun.

**  I am pilfering Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years (1955), particularly pages 161-4.  The quotations from Yeats, and his entire paragraph on the performance, are on p. 163, and can also be found in the second volume of his Autobiography, the 1922 The Trembling of the Veil.

***  “Miercoles” in Spanish, a polite, and hilarious, substitute for “merde.”


  1. This first word story started to seem so boring to me, but I knew I had to tell it anyway. It's fun the first time at least!

  2. Writing about the first word is also excellent for writing around Jarry's work rather than writing about it. That was my motive, at least!

    That story is now a monument - On Dec. 10, 1896, on this very spot, occurred an Important Historical Event.

  3. The word conjuring the riot probably adds to the historical value. How delightful that the real life has received the play this way. But it must not have been the M-word alone. Could be the combination of Ubu's appearance and the M-word.

  4. Ah, that's what I'll write about tomorrow - the costume, the theater, etc. You are no doubt right. The viewer was assaulted by more than that one word.

    By the way, to anyone who stops by, if you are going to read one post on Jarry, read Rise's not mine. If you are reading this comment, it is probably too late to follow my advice.

    For example: When I borrowed Roberto Bolaño's cachet to promote Anything Ubu, I was not planning to pursue the connection. Rise gets something interesting out of it.

  5. I tried reading it in French, but I gave up after the first word because it wasn't in my dictionary!

  6. Oh good, I'm glad you're covering that. I thought about it, it's good. I still giggle somewhere deep inside ma gidouille every time I think that this stuff was actually performed with marionettes. Should that not be funny?

  7. I send out a call to all Ubuistes to overthrow and disembrain L'Académie française.

    Is Being John Malkovich a movie people still know, or is it a forgotten period piece? It's full of marionettes, and has some jokey stuff about Jarry, I now realize.

  8. Haha, I almost made a joke about Being John Malkovich in my comment, so...

  9. It's also been suggested that "merdre" is a portmanteau word: "merde" plus "mordre" (to bite). That rings true to me; it seems like the kind of joke that would become a schoolboys' catchword.

  10. I have also come across the idea that "meurtre" / "murder" is rolled up in "merdre."

  11. That could be too! The word returns in "Faustroll," when Faustroll contemplates that fifth letter.