Archive for February 11, 2012

Merdre or Shrit! Ubu Roi is a lot more sensible than expected

February 11, 2012 18 comments

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry. 1896. Written circa 1888. English Title: Ubu Rex.

I’m going to watch the play Ubu Enchaîné (Ubu Bound) by Alfred Jarry in a couple of days. So I thought I might as well read it before watching it. Then I realized that Ubu Roi and Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded) came before Ubu Enchaîné, and that there was also Ubu sur la butte (1906) I downloaded the four plays, so you can expect more about Ubu.

In Ubu Roi, Père Ubu and Mère Ubu murder the current king of Poland so that Père Ubu can be powerful and rich. Follow the inevitable massacres of opponents, wars, spoliations and battles.

In French, ubuesque means totally absurd. Hmm, I’m not sure about Ubu being totally absurd. It is a parody of classic theatre, Shakespeare, Corneille and Racine in particular. It’s clear in the introduction:

Adonc le Père Ubu hoscha la poire, dont fut depuis nommé par les Anglois Shakespeare, et avez de lui sous ce nom maintes belles tragœdies par escript.

Thereatte Lord Ubu shooke his peare-head,

whence he

is by the Englysshe yclept Shakespeare, and you

have from

him under thatte name many goodlie tragedies in his own hande.

translated by C. Connolly and S. Watson Taylor.

And indeed, Ubu is a funny pot-pourri of the conventions of tragedy and of allusions to the history of France. In the first scene, Mère Ubu talks Père Ubu into killing the king of Poland to dethrone him then become rich. There are already several allusions in that scene. The most obvious one is the reference to Macbeth, especially since Ubu kills the king just after he rewarded him for his courage at war. The second one would be a historical reference to the 16thC, when Henri II, son of Catherine de Médicis became king of Poland.

Later, during the war, Ubu loses his horse. Although he’s not ready to give up his kingdom for a horse, he’s pretty upset by the loss. Ubu also wants to kill his assailants by sticking a wood pick in their ears, which reminded me of Hamlet’s father being killed with poison in his ear. By the way, after the war, Ubu sails near Elsinore on his way back to France.

Other allusions to Shakespeare are scattered throughout the text: Family Ghosts talk to Bougrelas, the son of the former king, during his sleep. He’s on the run, thinking about revenge.

O mon Dieu ! Qu’il est triste de se voir seul à quatorze ans avec une vengeance terrible à poursuivre ! O my God! How sad it is to be alone at fourteen with a terrible vengeance to pursue

The Ghosts give him a sword that won’t rest in peace until the usurper is dethroned. The idea of vengeance at any cost is also present in Le Cid by Corneille, which takes place in Spain and there are allusions to Spain in Ubu Roi too. One sentence is an open reference to Horace, also by Corneille:

Combat des voraces contre les coriaces, mais les voraces ont complètement mangé et dévoré les coriaces, comme vous le verrez quand il fera jour Fight of the voracious against the tough but the voracious totally ate and devoured the tough, as you’ll see it when it is dawn.

Here you need to read the French. Horace relates the fight between the Horatii (Horaces) and the Curatii (Curiaces), an episode of Ancient Rome history. In Jarry’s phrase, Horace becomes vorace (voracious) and Curiace becomes coriace (tough).

Jarry plays with the conventions of theatre. Somewhere in the play, Mère Ubu has her monologue, a tradition in classic plays. I also caught allusions to Molière: Ubu’s passion for money reminded me of L’Avare. Some devices come from Molière and the Comedia dell’Arte: streams of insults, tricks, beat-ups. Sometime, Ubu is convinced that he saved his crowd from a bear thanks to a prayer. What a Tartuffe!

Several episodes of our history are mentioned in the play. After ridiculous trials, Ubu executes the nobility of his country to take their properties. It’s not the guillotine, but it’s close; I thought of the Terror. Ubu visits the previous king’s son in his jail and says it would make a fuss of he escaped. I saw a mix between Louis XVII in the prison du Temple after the Revolution and their attempt to flee the country. Later, Ubu is stuck in Russia, in the snow, during a war with his enemies. Doesn’t that ring a bell?

I suspect that there were also allusions to contemporary politics. Ubu wants to create all kinds of taxes, and taxes on propriety and on revenues were actually discussed during the Third Republic in France. I also find strange that a peasant is named Stanislas Leczinski, which is the name of the last Duke of Lorraine, just at a time when reconquering Lorraine to the Germans was a major issue in the country.

In a way, I even found Jarry premonitory. Ubu calls himself Maître des Financiers (Master of Finance Men), he sees his political role as a taking good care of the finance. With the Euro crisis these days, I wonder if our politicians don’t feel the same.

That was the substance. Now the form. The language is extraordinary, literally. It’s full of play-on-words, allusions, slang, swear words and inventions. I’m not surprised his contemporaries were shocked. It mixes old French with argot, accents and onomatopoeias. It’s funny, terribly funny and very witty, like here:

Pile.— Hon ! Monsieuye Ubu, êtes-vous remis de votre terreur et de votre fuite ? Père Ubu.— Oui! Je n’ai plus peur, mais j’ai encore la fuite. Pile – Hon! Sir Ubu, have you recovered from your fright and your flight?

Père Ubu: Yes! I’m not frightened any more but I’m still flightened.

I couldn’t find a free translation online, so you’ll have to bear my translations. Be forgiving, it’s not easy to translate. The dialogues are totally whacked, surrealist we would say now. (and indeed Jarry was a precursor of the Surrealists)

Un Capitaine (arrivant).

— Sire Ubu, les Russes attaquent. Père Ubu.

— Eh bien, après, que veux tu que j’y fasse ? Ce n’est pas moi qui le leur ai dit.

A Captain, coming.

– Sir Ubu, the Russian attack.

– Well, what do you want from me? I’m not the one who asked them to.

 Sometimes, it’s also very sharp. Before Ubu, the finance men are spelled Les Financiers. After the coup, they are spelled Phynanciers, a way to show that after a revolution, the people remain but with another tag.

I had a lot of fun reading this. Under the apparent craziness, I found many perfectly sensible themes and attacks to politicians. Ubu is horrible. He kills in cold blood, only lusts for money, treats his people with contempt. He has the madness of a Nero. The parody of serious tragedies is hilarious. It’s a short play, about 60 pages and it’s a real gem. I’m sure I missed many other allusions, I’m not a specialist of classic tragedies, they rather bore me. (I prefer Shakespeare to Corneille and Racine anyway). It must have been a challenge to translate this play and keep the creativity of the language. Give it a try.

I found other reviews: one by Mel U at The Reading Life and Tom at Wuthering Expectations also wrote several entries about Ubu, (here about the use of merdre  , here  and here)

PS: I guess I know why the director chose Eric Cantona to play Ubu in the version of Ubu Bound I’ll see.

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