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King Ubu


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AT: Ubu Rex; King Turd A: Alfred Jarry W: 1888 Pf: 1896, Paris Pb: 1896 Tr: 1951 G: Farce in 5 acts; French prose S: Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Livonia, and at sea, indeterminate period C: 18m, 2f, extras (including ‘the entire Russian and Polish armies’)‘Shrit!’ shouts Pa Ubu, as his wife urges him to murder King Wenceslas of Poland and seize the throne for himself. At a banquet Ubu poisons several of his guests with a toilet brush, then enlists Captain Bordure's support in his plot against the King. Wenceslas summons Ubu, who fears that his treachery has been discovered, but the King ennobles him further. Ubu and Bordure murder the King and his two older sons at the royal parade the following day. The youngest, Bougrelas, fighting bravely, escapes with his mother into the mountains. She dies, but the souls of his ancestors give Bougrelas a sword with which to avenge his parents. Urged by Ma Ubu, King Ubu buys popularity by distributing food and putting up prize money for a race. Ubu consolidates his royal power by ‘debraining’ the nobility and seizing their wealth. He then rids the kingdom of judges and tax-collectors and personally goes off to gather swingeing taxes from the grumbling peasants. When Bordure is cheated of his promised reward and rebels, Ubu has him locked up. Bordure escapes to Russia and obtains the Tsar's help in opposing Ubu. Ubu marches off to meet the impending Russian invasion. While Ma Ubu hunts for treasure in the vaults of Warsaw cathedral, Bougrelas takes the city, and Ma Ubu only just escapes. Meanwhile in the Ukraine, Ubu kills Bordure in battle and almost captures the Tsar, but is then forced to run away. Hiding in a cave in Lithuania, Ubu is attacked by a bear but is saved by two of his men. Boasting of his bravery, he falls asleep and has terrible dreams. Ma Ubu, on the run from Poland, arrives in the cave and admits to trying to steal the treasure. Ubu hurls the dead bear at her and begins to torture her, when Bougrelas and his troops arrive. Fighting his way out, Ubu and his wife get on board ship and dream of the countries they will visit but already miss Poland.

AT: Ubu Rex; King Turd A: Alfred Jarry W: 1888 Pf: 1896, Paris Pb: 1896 Tr: 1951 G: Farce in 5 acts; French prose S: Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Livonia, and at sea, indeterminate period C: 18m, 2f, extras (including ‘the entire Russian and Polish armies’)

Written by Jarry at the age of 15 as an attack on an authoritarian physics teacher, Ubu Roi was premiered by Lugné-Poe and became a rallying point for iconoclastic modernism. With obvious echoes of Macbeth, the piece, beginning with one of the most famous opening words in world theatre (‘Merdre!’), is a joyously anarchic and amoral voyage through murder, oppression, and gross vulgarity. Jarry wrote sequels: Ubu Cuckolded, written in 1891, and Ubu Enchained, published in 1900, but the joke, once told, could not easily be repeated. That King Ubu has been turned into an excellent cartoon film says much about the nature of the piece. Small wonder that Yeats on seeing the premiere wrote: ‘After this the savage god!’

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Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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