Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ubu, Thane of Glamis

“We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well.”

I'm reading Alfred Jarry's "Ubu" plays right now (they're short and I read all three of Ubu Rex, Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu Enchained on Sunday afternoon, but I'm reading them each a couple of times because they're just that much fun), and because Ubu Rex is a twisted version of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," I'm reading that play, too.

"Macbeth" is a real page-turner, and has some of Shakespeare's best lines. Macbeth himself is a wonderful character, convinced that he's fated (through no conscious desire of his own) to be king of Scotland but not quite willing to be an assassin in order to reach that end. Oh, he admits that he'd do the deed if it were easy and there were no repercussions. He'd do it if it were merely fulfilling neutral destiny and not murdering his cousin, his liege. Well, we all know his hesitation doesn't last.

Lady Macbeth is wonderful, too. She recognizes that her husband is "too full of the milk of human kindness" to bring about his fated kingship on his own, so she'll take charge of the mission if you don't mind, ta awfully much. She'll "unsex" herself (that is, stop being a woman because to be violent is to be a man) and do what's necessary. Anyway, it's all been fated so nobody, really, is to blame personally, right? Besides, she loves her husband and the two of them are each other's confidantes, something you see nowhere else in Shakespearean marriages.

Pere Ubu, the hero of Jarry's plays, is a vile and selfish creature, lacking in depth but more than making up for it in creative obscenity and comic violence. He wants in Ubu Rex to be king mostly, I think, for the fancy clothes. There are some hysterical bits about finance (or Phynance, as Ubu would say), especially the part where Ubu hands out gold to the peasants so they can afford to pay their taxes. Just like real life! Alas, Ubu seems forever doomed to failure, losing his kingdom in the end, despite having prayed a bear to death and saving his surviving Palcontents (who betray him! but then don't!).

Ubu Cuckolded is more "Timon of Athens" than "Macbeth," maybe, but it's also frighteningly side-splitting. What can be said of a play where the main character keeps his conscience in a suitcase and only speaks to it when it tells him what he wants to hear? The best bit (aside from the scary resemblance of the three Palcontents to Dr. Seuss's Thing 1 and Thing 2) comes when Ubu accuses the innocent Rebontier of having cuckolded him (the irony is that Ubu has been cuckolded, but by someone else). Pa Ubu declares of infidelity:

"Basically, we are of the opinion that cuckoldry implies marriage and therefore a marriage without cuckoldry has no validity. But for form's sake we have decided to punish him severely. Palcontents, knock him down for me!"

And there you have Ubu in a nutshell: if you don't cuckold him, you imply that his marriage is a sham and you insult him. If his marriage isn't a sham, he must have been cuckolded and he's obliged to execute the offender. It's that sort of logic that keeps the trains running on time, you know.

I've read a few articles which talk about the Ubu plays and having written this brief bit I realize that there's no way, really, to describe the works. What are they? Well, extreme theater of the absurd that mocks power and cruelty. But there's more to it than that, because they're funny and horrible as Pa Ubu is, once you've met him you wonder how you ever did without him. You wonder how you can gather your own small group of palcontents. You worry about being disembrained.

And also, you can't read "Macbeth" quite the same way ever again.


  1. I need to add the Ubu plays to my reading list. I likes me some absurdity.

    Also, while reading this, I kept thinking of the TV shows that ended with "Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog" (Bark). Wikipedia tells me that was likely Spin City or Family Ties.

  2. I remember that signoff, but I never watched either of those shows. Huh. Google tells me the dog's name was Ubu Roi. Mr Jarry's work has a wider cultural impact than he could ever have imagined.

  3. On the surface they're really juvenile and violent (like a Punch and Judy show, maybe), but there's so much just beneath the childish surface. Only Ubu Rex got to the stage during Jarry's lifetime, but all of them get performed here and there nowadays. The Paris premiere of Ubu Roi/Rex was allegedly the scene of a riot. Make sure you get the translations by Cyril Connelly and Simon Watson Taylor. They seem pretty fine to me.