Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi: Andy Capp Meets Macbeth

Alfred Jarry: This may be a Victorian mug shot.

Alfred Jarry: This may be a Victorian mug shot.

What do you get when you lock an absurdist and a surrealist in the world of Shakespearean tragedy?  Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi.  The play reads like Andy Capp meets Macbeth and serves as an interesting experiment that appropriates the romanticized notions of regality and ambition and casts them in the realm of the base and common, creating a brilliant juxtaposition that serves to lampoon the unreasoned loyalty to tradition and regality, while illuminating how base human desires such as avarice and lust apply to all walks of life, discouraging the romanticizing of tyranny in any form, but perhaps most especially in the form of royal nepotism.

 

Jarry's Ubu is like Andy Capp misplaced in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Jarry’s Ubu is like Andy Capp misplaced in a Shakespearean tragedy.

The play opens with Ubu in the role of a slothful, unhygienic, unmotivated Macbeth, whose wife has higher aspirations than does her husband, somewhat akin to Lady Macbeth.  Ubu’s initial response is reminiscent of Buddhist mentalities, stating that he’d “rather be poor as a thin rat than rich like a wicked fat cat.”  When his wife lists the wealth he could procure, were he to employ his faculties, Ubu asks: “And then what”?  The sentiment behind this dialogue seems almost Taoist in its recognition that chasing after the material is a never-ending process, and that to obtain true happiness, one must expunge desire.  Ubu seems to have an utter lack of desire at the onset of the play, but his Spartan existence does not last long.  Though this might seem like a flaw in the character development, it is crucial in outlining the flaws of power.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, which is true in the case of Ubu, and which clearly demonstrates that the ideals one holds can change quickly.

 

 

Ubu quickly transform from Taoist philosopher to a blood-thirsty tyrant akin to Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus.

Ubu quickly transform from Taoist philosopher to a blood-thirsty tyrant akin to Joaquin Phoenix‘s Commodus.

This transformation is particularly pronounced in the scene where Ubu is encouraged to give away gold in order to ingratiate himself to the people of Poland.  He initially resists this, wanting to keep his wealth for himself, but as gold is thrown to the crowd, mobs begin to fight each other for it.  When his wife points out a person whose head is broken, Ubu says: “Hey, this is fun.”  We see here how Ubu employs his power and wealth to exploit the destitute and impoverished, forcing them to fight amongst themselves for the pittance that he casts out to them.  Ubu finds entertainment in this violence, and by it, the people are dehumanized in his view.

 

The romanticizing of war and violence is displayed in its full absurdity.  When deciding which manner should be employed to dispose the current king, it is soon arrived upon that he must be split “from head to tail”.  Once this is purposed, others fall into agreement, stating: “That’s noble!  That’s the manly thing.”  This demonstrates the absurdity of concepts of nobility.  Surely slicing a man in half with whom you have no personal qualms cannot be considered noble, but these men feel that overtly killing a man is better than poisoning him, as if there were some difference.  Jarry also demonstrates how these notions of nobility are conflated with patriarchy as nobility and manly are used interchangeably here.  This confusion demonstrates the flaw in notions of patriarchy.  The flaw is further illustrated by how Ubu does almost everything on the whim of his wife, despite openly detesting her.  His inability to rid himself of either his wife, or a 14-year-old adversary in the form of Buggerlaus, son to the deposed king, further emasculates Ubu, enhancing Jarry’s satirical attack on the patriarchy.

 

Art work for the play Ubu Roi, also by Alfred Jarry.

Art work for the play Ubu Roi, also by Alfred Jarry.

This lack of understanding true nobility comes up several time throughout the play.  When the Russian Czar is offered plans that would help him defeat Ubu, he says: “I don’t want to owe my victory to treachery.”  Like the soldiers who believe using a sword instead of poison, Alexis fails to respect another person’s autonomy and seeks to kill them, but believes there is some sort of valiant method in which to forcibly conquer another person.  This overtly farcical form of what Orwell might call double-think is made transparent by Ubu who asks: “Isn’t injustice just as good as justice?”  Clearly there is no sense of ‘justice’, only ‘honour’ or ‘noble’ or ‘manly’.  Justice seems to be something these characters see as outside the realm of nobility, a sentiment reinforced by Ubu when he says that war is “the honorable thing to do!”  All the characters seem to be completely indifferent to the barbarities of war and fail to see any sort of link between justice, or morality, and nobility and honour.

 

Alfred Jarry seems like a cross between Shakespeare and Mark Twain, with a heavy dose of Twain.

Alfred Jarry seems like a cross between Shakespeare and Mark Twain, with a heavy dose of Twain.

The language is carefully constructed to note the foolishness of the values projected by the characters.  Before a group of soldiers about to go into battle, Ubu announces that they must “swear to fight gallantly”.  It seems the oath is more important than the act itself.  Ubu does not say: “We have to fight gallantly”, but rather “We have to swear to fight gallantly”.  Though not overt, the word selection does demonstrate how rhetoric is often valued above actions, calling to mind the kind of language one might expect from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, who follows traditions blindly without understanding their value.  Ubu is going through the motions of battle and actually impeding the forward progress of the soldiers by stopping them before the battle in order to hear them speak, much like Tom Sawyer feels the need to jump through hoops to make his real-life interactions as romantic as the books he has read.  Similar foolishness is exuded when Buggerlaus finds his parents are dead.  He bemoans: “Oh, my God! how sad it is to find oneself alone at the age of fourteen, with a terrible vengeance to pursue!”  He seems to have stepped outside of his own narrative and observed himself, noting the tragic overtones of the life path he is about to take, drawing out the romantic notion without recognizing how his self-awareness serves to undermines the tragic and romantic undertones of his new path.

 

 

Ubu seems to confuse the Cash4Gold people with St. Peter.

Ubu seems to confuse the Cash4Gold people with St. Peter.

There are a number of humourous lines with implications that extend far beyond the reactive laugh.  When Ubu finds his life in danger after committing mass murder, he prays, asking all the saints to protect him and offering to “pay cash.”  Such a suggestion seems outlandish as heaven surely has no earthly currency, but if one laughs at this, then one might also consider that if paradise has no form of currency, then the human construct must surely be flawed in such a way as it sounds foolish when put in the context of a utopian realm.  Aside from noting the impracticality and absurdity of currency, the statement also suggests that the Catholic Church is associated with the corporeal more than the spiritual.  This man suggesting offering money to the church is fitting recompose, suggesting that this may be a commonly accepted approach, which questions whether or not the church values mammon over spirit.

 

Another line that is cast off in passing but has interesting implications occurs when Ubu is executing the wealthy aristocracy in order to usurp their wealth.  He says that once the body drop into the room beneath the trap door, “their brains will be removed by the printing press”.  This is an interesting word selection in that Ubu does not state that their heads will be crushed, but rather that their brains will be removed.  The printing press, a representation of the press and media in general, can serve as a means to dispense propaganda.  Though ideally the printing press should be employed educate, it can also be employed to mislead and misguide the masses, giving them misinformation and in turn ‘removing their brains’.

 

Some of Jarry's dark humour share similarities with the satire of Jonathan Swift.

Some of Jarry’s dark humour share similarities with the satire of Jonathan Swift.

Though preposterous for much of the play, there is a scene that is quite dark.  Ubu, who had formerly been king and lost crown, speaks to his ‘Champions and Soldiers’ as he seeks to defend his second reign as king.  He tells his new Champions that they are not as handsome as his former champions, and then goes on to describe how his former Champions looked upon defeat, describing their light skin as a map of the arterial blood and phrasing their deaths as an economic loss, stating that “financial bile oozed out of them”.  He goes on to witness “how happily the women aborted [their babies], because the babies would be born like them”.  To kill one’s own child for no other reason than the fact it will be too much like its parents amounts to a metaphorical suicide, a death that is akin to the killing of babies in Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’.  The mothers rescue their youths from the perpetual scene of misery that would serve as their lives.  This is not a laugh-out-loud moment.

 

Jarry seems to take some sage advice from Oscar Wilde.

Jarry seems to take some sage advice from Oscar Wilde.

In borrowing from classic tragedies like Macbeth (Ubu’s wife spurns him to overthrow his king) and Hamlet (Buggerlaus speaks to the ghosts of his relatives and swear revenge for them), Jarry calls upon these plays, which have been so heavily romanticized.  He draws out the absurdity present in them, making clear the utter and irrational manner in which the aristocracy disregards the wellbeing of the common people, and all for constructs the prove valueless.  This is made clear in scenes where Ubu offer to pay off the saints, but is also demonstrated in terms of the geographical conquest of the play: Poland.  Jarry’s preface notes that the play takes place in Poland, “which is to say nowhere”.  This is not a ‘Polish’ joke, or a knock on Poland in suggesting it is irrelevant.  At the time there was no Poland on the map as surrounding countries had appropriated pieces of Poland into their own territories, leaving no region named Poland left on the map.  Ubu and his cohorts, then, are fighting for a construct that has no value.  The complete ridiculousness highlights the flaws on notions of nationalism.  Loyalty to a nation, and to a monarch, should not be offered blindly, but rather only offered to a just cause.  Jarry’s work is extremely prophetic when one considers the nature of WWI and WWII.  In invoking Shakespearean tragedy in such an absurdist setting, Jarry’s work share similarities with Twain’s, as Twain employs a similar approach in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, paralleling the Romeo and Juliet narrative in an American setting, replacing the Montagues and Capulets with Grangerfords and Shepherdsons.  Jarry likewise replaces Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with Usu and his wife, whilst replace Hamlet with Buggerlaus.  Like Twain, Jarry also uses a tact recommended by Oscar Wilde: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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