28 June 2011

The Ubu Plays (Alfred Jarry)

Twelve Theater Impressions


   1) Ubu (Homo sapiens Jarry) is an amoral organism, "crappy creature", ancestor of Jabba the Hutt, the star of a comedy to be taken seriously. Anti-Quixote, he is not enchanted, but he tilts his own windmill. He is a war strategist (he must have scanned pages of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli) and a war freak. (He thinks) he's in control. He has state-of-the-art weapons in his arsenal. And he knows his arithmetic.

I recommend you to load your rifles with as many bullets as they will hold, since eight bullets can kill eight Russians and that's just so many more I won't have on my back. We shall station the light infantry around the bottom of the hill to take the brunt of the Russian attack and slay a few of them, with the cavalry behind to charge around and add to the confusion, and the artillery set up around this windmill here to fire into the general mêlée. As for ourselves, we shall assume our command position inside the windmill, fire through the window with our phynancial pistol, bar the door with our physic-stick, and if anyone tries to break in he'd better look out for our pschittahook!!!


PA UBU. Pschitt!
MA UBU. Ooh! what a nasty word. Pa Ubu, you're a dirty old man.

Pschitt! according to translators Cyril Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor. (In the original: Merdre! In other versions: Pshit!, Shitteth!, Shittr!, Shikt!, Shrit!, and Shitsky!) Not since Anonymous's Beowulf has there been a first utterance - Hwæt, rendered as So by Seamus Heaney and elsewhere as Lo, Hark, Attend, Behold, or Listen - that stretched the English language, fashioned Shit into various Shit-permutations, and elevated the Shit-discourse of Shit-derivative.

What makes it a nasty word? Addressing the audience during the debut performance of Ubu Roi (Dec. 10, 1896), Alfred Jarry introduced the play, thus, "And the action, which is about to start, takes place in Poland, that is to say Nowhere."

So, nowhere. That is to say, here, there, and everywhere. Nowhere, as in nothing. Merdre! is nothing but the opening sesame. Just like Nonada in Grande Sertão: Veredas, in which Piers Armstrong had this to say:

We’re talking about the first word, and the difficulty of just the translation of the first word. And we could think of it not only in the degree of difficulty, but in openness, possibility, and the multitude of possible renderings. You could go this way or that way; and it’s like this sentence by sentence by sentence. Even if we restrict ourselves to the “good” translations, there are an infinite number of alternate translations.

So why bother? Shat!

   3) Pa Ubu began as a creation of Ma Ubu, the wretch. She planted the seed of a poisonous tree in him, which grew and later bore fruit - the overthrow of the rightful king. Pa Ubu, now king, became his own master. The unlimited power granted him poisoned his mind. As a soldier, he was already abusive. As ruler, he was worse. In pursuit of cruelty, greed, and more power, Ubu went out of bounds. He perpetrated heinous crimes to satisfy his base appetites. Ma Ubu couldn't control him anymore.

   4) Says Jarry in one of his writings on the theater: You are free to see in Mister Ubu as many allusions as you like, or, if you prefer, just a plain puppet, a schoolboy's caricature of one of his teachers who represented for him everything in the world that is grotesque.

And also: In any written work there is a hidden meaning, anyone who knows how to read sees that aspect of it that makes sense for him.

Ubu is bad, objectively. But "that aspect of it that makes sense" for the reader makes him a champion of subjectivity.


MA UBU (Running after [Pa Ubu]). Oh! Pa Ubu, Pa Ubu, I'll give you some fine fat sausages. [10]

BOGGERLAS. He's done for. M'Nure has just split him in two like a sausage. [16]

What is it with sausages? Could it be that the pliant, juicy texture, and intestinal softness of the sausage have something to do about the helplessness of the victims?

Says Wiki: Sausage is a logical outcome of efficient butchery. Traditionally, sausage makers put to use tissues and organs which are edible and nutritious, but not particularly appealing - such as scraps, organ meats, blood, and fat - in a form that allows for preservation: typically, salted and stuffed into a tubular casing made from the cleaned intestine of the animal, producing the characteristic cylindrical shape.

So there. Sausage-like butchery.

PA UBU. Oh, tripe! Isn't injustice just as good as justice? Ah! you're taking the piss out of me, Madam, I'm going to chop you into tiny pieces.

Ma UBU flees for her life, pursued by PA UBU. [23]

    6) The three core texts of Ubu form a trilogy of sorts. Ubu Rex is the forerunner of the dictator novel. Ubu Cuckolded - a play that's more a segue than a sequel - is The Empire Strikes Back, with the Ewoks prematurely appearing in it. Ubu Enchained is The Return of the King. The best part of the lot.

    7) Ma Ubu and Gyron's songs (Act Four, Scene One) and the Song of Poland by Pa Ubu and the Chorus (Act Four, Scene 3), both in Ubu Rex, can be performed by a combination of rapping and beatboxing.

    8) Wordplays and puns abound. The challenge to translation is evident when one compares the version of Ubu Rex by Connolly-Taylor (Methuen, 1968) with the version by David Copelin (Pulp Press, 1977).

PA UBU (countering). Take that, great clot, pisspot, son of a harlot, nose-snot, bigot, faggot, gut-rot, squawking parrot, Huguenot!
MA UBU (hitting him too). Take that, pork-snout, layabout, whore's tout, pox-riddled spout, idle lout, boy scout, Polish Kraut!

PA UBU: (riposting). There! Polack, drunkard, bastard, buzzard, Tartar, fathead, cockroach, stool-pigeon, greaseball, communist!
MA UBU: (joining in). There! eunuch, pig, felon, ham, rascal, sloven, bedspread!

Whether the original French insults are rhymed or not, then Connolly-Taylor bests Copelin in the "inspired" word choices.

But words are words alone. Copelin also holds his own through "erudite" puns on the countries of Germans and Poles.

PA UBU. Wild and inhospitable ocean which laps the shores of the land called Germany, so named because it's exactly half way to Jermyn street as the blow flies.
MA UBU. Now that's what I call erudition. It's a beautiful country I'm told.
PA UBU. Beautiful though it may be, it's not a patch on Poland. Ah gentlemen, there'll always be a Poland. Otherwise there wouldn't be any Poles!

PA UBU: Fierce and inhospitable sea which washes the country called Germany, so named because the inhabitants thereof are always germinating.
MA UBU: That's what I call erudition. They say it's a lovely land.
PA UBU: Gentlemen: it may be beautiful but it can't equal Poland. Without Poland, there would be no spit and Polish!

Ah, France was such a country of residence and French a language of choice for Frenchman Jarry. Without the French he is left with doors, windows, and fries!

    9) In the second play Ubu Cuckolded, the character of Ubu was cuckolded because he was given less screen time in it. The supporting characters have strangely dominated this play. Lots of song numbers here. Again, a beatbox performance may turn out to be robust on stage. And, by my green lantern, the appearance of the stuffed monkey reminded me of the baboon in the novel Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician.

    10) The final play Ubu Enchained was the height of this slapstick-physick. It started as a straightforward case of mistaken identity. Then along the way, it unravelled as a psychotic parable. An allegory of malcontents.

Deep Dada, if there was one.

An Ubu-topian society was born, a place where freedom and slavery coexist like Greek masks placed side by side. Where the master is enslaved by the slave, and where the slave prevailed.

The culmination of the trilogy - the abolition of freedom - was one of the best expressions of the freedom of the theater, the great inversion being proclaimed by Pissweet, in shocking bittersweet exclamation:

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!

    11) At the end of the play, Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu were driven away from prison - "we aren't in Poland any longer". If Poland is Nowhere, and they're out of it, where are they now?

The final scene will not say. I hope it wasn't a prophetic ending, too:

MA UBU. We're getting farther and farther away from France, Pa Ubu.
PA UBU. Ah, my sweet child, don't you worry your pretty head about our destination. It will certainly be a country extraordinary enough to be worthy of our presence, since we are transported there in a trireme equipped with an extra bank of oars - not just three, but four!

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. Juan and Eva Perón of Argentina. Any country will fit with Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu.

    12) The Ubu plays are some of the books that marked Roberto Bolaño's life. Like Jarry, Bolaño constructs an edifice of references in the texts and worked from there to create his enchained reality. He invented his own tools, built his own concepts, and erected markers to navigate the labyrinth of his poetry. For it is in Bolaño's poetry that the influence of Jarry is readily apparent.

Ubu had his neologisms and set of references (e.g., the pschitt-prefix, his uniquely named weapons, his Palcontents) that he constantly used throughout his fantastical adventures. In the same manner Bolaño's poety is riddled with internal references. His First Infrarealist Manifesto, for one, is full of surrealist touches and invented references ("THE EYE OF TRANSITION", "The Constellation of the Beautiful Bird", "Nightclub of misery", "THOUSAND DRAWN-AND-QUARTERED VANGUARDS OF THE SEVENTIES").

The poetry triptych Tres is likewise full of internal references that call on itself and are also embedded in his works elsewhere. There's the "immeasurable room in Hell", the "Atlantis moment", the "Neochilenos", and the "Unknown University". The latter is a kind of testing-ground for the curious vagabond (which is also to say the minor poet), a higher education institution that persists in the novels, poems, and letters. The poet is also fond of word labels or assignments:

... you arrive at the moment that you name the autumn and discover the stranger.
... the word kaleidoscope slips like saliva from her lips and then the scenes become transparent in something you could call the moan of the pale character or geometry around your naked eye.

The effect is rather like weaving a tapestry of reality. It is populating the universe with elements of one's own devising. An exercise in world-making. For Jarry, it's the Nowhere place, the pschittaworld of Ubu; for Bolaño the worlding of real viscerealismo, that is to say the abyss. 

The Anything Ubu Readalong Opportunity is initiated by Nicole (bibliographing) and Amateur Reader (Wuthering Expectations).


  1. reminded me of the baboon in the novel Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician.

    You dropped that bomb pretty softly! This is an excellent post, all too good, and wonderfully Ubuesque. Your last item is particularly thoughtful and important. I knew about the Bolaño-Jarry connection, in the sense that the former liked to read the latter, but I haven't read enough Bolaño myself to really understand the similarities.

    Thanks so much for joining in, you have far outdone in one day what I will do this week!

  2. Thank you, nicole. I'm looking forward to your posts this week. There are lots of entries and exits in these plays that the Ubu spirit provokes. And a week of relishing Ubu is bound to be invigorating. The first word alone gives the word 'riotous' its latent meaning. :) Attempting to think through the Jarry-Bolaño connection is value-adding pleasure. And the Faustroll novel is becoming more than a novel of curiosity for me in the light of this monkey business!

  3. Delightful post, and some fascinating observations, Rise. I haven't read Ubu since a beloved high school French teacher had us read some passages aloud, but holy hæat! - I'm amazed by the juxtaposition of those translations, particularly under your #8. The rich acidity of the Connelly-Taylor utterly shames the Copelin. Not only does it drive home the impact of a good (or bad) translation, but it also makes me want to run over to the library to pull out the original French to try my own hand at it!

  4. This post is so good that my great dilemma is determining exactly which parts to steal. I'll figure that out as the week goes on.

    I think I read that last scene of Ubu Cocu four times today, in two translations. I am baffled and then some. That baboon is definitely making a cameo appearance from Gargantua and Pantagruel - I mean Mardi - I mean Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician.

  5. Wonderful post, Rise, as the others have duly noted. I will return and leave a more specific comment whenever I get around to reading more of Ubu (unfortunately, maybe Ubu fortnight or Ubu month will be required). In the meantime, thanks for the infotainment as they say!

  6. Scott, I think the preponderance of word equivalents and alternatives is both blessing and curse for translators of the word/plays. One had to think like Ubu, talk like Ubu, walk like him, to transfer his stink in another language. All that pungent essence. Real mind-exploding experience.

    Amateur Reader, ooh so the monkey had travelled far and wide before alighting in Cocu! (And it must be The Whale, before its reincarnation as ape.)

    Richard, thanks. Watching Ubu strut on stage will be cool intermission to some feverish reading.

  7. I just read and posted on Ubu Roi-it is a great rehasing of French Imperial history, among other things-I enjoyed your post a lot and profited from it-I can for sure see the influence of him on Bolano

  8. Oh wow, I'm so glad I read the Connolley-Taylor translation. So much more fun - an a huge contributor to what enjoyment I got from the plays. I love the bits you dug out about sausages! Great post.

  9. Thanks, Sarah. Yes, the sausage was one of the unusual Merdric elements in the plays. Taylor also produced a beautiful translation of Jarry's Doctor Faustroll. Whether the book is tolerable, though, is another matter. If Ubu is motley confusion, then Faustroll is disembodied disorder.

  10. Fantastic post, loving the wordplay,I'm guessing with your fondness for word games that you've read Georges Perec.

  11. Gary, I haven't yet. I finished the first chapter of Life A User's Manual before putting it on the TBR-LRTS (to be read later rather than sooner) pile. :p

  12. Recently finished Void (La Disparition) a 300 odd page lipogrammatic novel written without using the letter e (except for the author's name), following the constraints of Oulipo & thoroughly enjoyed it, my next Perec will probably be - Life a users manual.

  13. Yeah, I've heard of that unusual "e"-book. I think Richard had a group read of that last year. What a feat of writing and translation. In Scrabble E had the most number of tiles among the vowels. It's like removing those tiles and not allowing E to represent the two blank tiles. I'm not playing that game. :p

    Related to that, I have Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa to sink my teeth into. It's conceptually similar to A Void.