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1st ed. cover
|Written by||Alfred Jarry|
|Date premiered||December 10, 1896)|
Ubu Roi (Ubu the King) is a play by Alfred Jarry, premiered in 1896. It is a precursor of the Theatre of the Absurd and Surrealism. It is the first of three stylised burlesques in which Jarry satirises power, greed, and their evil practices—in particular the propensity of the complacent bourgeoisie to abuse the authority engendered by success. It was followed by Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded) and Ubu Enchaîné (Ubu in Chains), neither of which was performed during Jarry's 34-year life.
"The beginnings of the original Ubu," wrote Jane Taylor, "have attained the status of legend within French theatre culture." It was as a student in 1888, at the age of fifteen, that Jarry perused Les Polonais, a brief teacher-ridiculing farce by the brothers Henri (of whom he was a good friend) and Charles Morin. This, one of many plays created around the character of Père Ubu (or Hébé, as he was known at the time), is long lost, so the true and complete authorship of Ubu Roi can never be known. It is clear, however, that Jarry considerably revised and expanded the play, endowed it with the marionette concept and gave its protagonist the handle under which he became famous.
While his schoolmates lost interest in the Ubu legends when they left school, Jarry continued adding to and reworking the material for the rest of his short life. His plays were widely and wildly hated for their scant respect to royalty, religion and society, their vulgarity and scatology, their brutality and low comedy, and their perceived utter lack of literary finish.
According to Jane Taylor, "The central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification." Jarry's metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero—fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, cruel, cowardly and evil—who grew out of schoolboy legends about the imaginary life of a hated teacher who had been at one point a slave on a Turkish Galley, at another frozen in ice in Norway and at one more the King of Poland. Ubu Roi follows and explores his political, martial and felonious exploits, offering parodic adaptations of situations and plot-lines from Shakespearean drama, including Macbeth, Hamlet and Richard III: like Macbeth, Ubu—on the urging of his wife—murders the king who helped him and usurps his throne, and is in turn defeated and killed by his son; Jarry also adapts the ghost of the dead king and Fortinbras's revolt from Hamlet, Buckingham's refusal of reward for assisting a usurpation from Richard III and The Winter's Tale's bear.
"There is," wrote Taylor, "a particular kind of pleasure for an audience watching these infantile attacks. Part of the satisfaction arises from the fact that in the burlesque mode which Jarry invents, there is no place for consequence. While Ubu may be relentless in his political aspirations, and brutal in his personal relations, he apparently has no measurable effect upon those who inhabit the farcical world which he creates around himself. He thus acts out our most childish rages and desires, in which we seek to gratify ourselves at all cost." The derived adjective "ubuesque" is recurrent in French and francophone political debate.
Both Ubu Cocu and Ubu Roi have a convoluted history, going through decades of rewriting and, in the case of the former, never arriving, despite Jarry's exertions, at a definitive version. By the time Jarry wanted Ubu Roi published and staged, the Morins had lost their interest in schoolboy japes, and Henri gave Jarry permission to do whatever he wanted with them. Charles, however, later tried to claim credit, but it had never been a secret that he had had some involvement with the earliest version.
After only the first word ("merdre", the French word for "shit", with an extra "R", and meurtre: murder (fr.)) of the play, a riot, which has since become "a stock element of Jarry biographia", broke out. After further rioting during the first (and final) performance, Ubu Roi was outlawed from the stage, and Jarry moved it to a puppet theatre.
Ubu Roi was the basis for Jan Lenica's animated film Ubu et la grande gidouille (1976) and was later adapted into Jane Taylor's "Ubu and the Truth Commission" (1998), a play critical of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed in response to the atrocities committed during Apartheid. Ubu Roi was also adapted for the film Ubu Król 2003 by Piotr Szulkin, highlighting the grotesque nature of political life in Poland immediately after the fall of communism.
Inspired by the black comedy of corruption within Ubu Roi, the Puerto Rican absurdist narrative "United States of Banana" by Giannina Braschi, dramatizes, with over-the-top grotesque flourishes known to pataphysics, the fall of the American Empire and the liberation of Puerto Rico.
Ubu Roi has been translated most recently by David Ball in the Norton Anthology of Drama (2010), and performed at the University of Virginia the same year; and by Sherry CM Lindquist, an adaptation of whose version was performed in Chicago, at The Public Theater in New York, at the International Festival Of Puppet Theater and at the Edison Theater, St. Louis, Missouri, by Hystopolis Productions, Chicago, from 1996 to '97.
References in popular culture 
Joan Miró used Ubu Roi as a subject of his 50 1940 lithographs called the Barcelona Series. These pictures could be Ubu Roi but they also satirise General Franco and his generals after he had won the Spanish Civil War.
The American experimental rock group Pere Ubu is named after the main character. Their 2009 album Long Live Père Ubu! is an adaptation of Jarry's play. "City Hobgoblins", a song by Manchester pop group The Fall, contains the Mark E Smith penned lyric "Ubu Roi is a home Hobgoblin." The British band Coil have a song named "Ubu Noir" on their 1984 album Scatology, inspired by the Ubu Roi character.
In October, 2012, an adaptation called "The Ubu Project", directed by Michael Haverty, was performed at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia.
- Jarry, Alfred. Ubu Roi. Translated by David Ball as Ubu the King. [Norton Anthology of Drama, 2010.]
- Jarry, Alfred. Ubu Roi. Translated by Beverly Keith and Gershon Legman. Dover, 2003.
- Innes, Christopher. Avant Garde Theatre 1892-1992. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. 0415065186.
- Taylor, Jane. Ubu and the Truth Commission. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007.
- Pile, Stephen, The Return of Heroic Failures, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1988.
- Taylor 2007, p. iii.
- Ford, Mark (May 10, 2012), "The King of Charisma", The New York Review of Books 59 (8): 63–64
- Ubu carries as his weapons a pshittasword and a pshittashook, while his sceptre takes the traditional form of a commode scrubber; at one point, he thrusts his conscience down said commode. His peers, meanwhile, bear such names as MacNure, Pissweet and Pissale. In addition, the first word of Ubu Roi is "merdre," deliberately close to "merde," meaning "excrement."
- Ubu Roi has a loose narrative thread, a large number of characters who appear for only a short scene, and a mash-up of high literature and slang, much of it invented.
- Innes (1993, 24).
- Taylor 2007, pp. 3-4.
- The third play was the only one wholly written by the adult Jarry.
- Some English translations use the spelling "shittr", "sheeyit" or other variations
-  World Literature Today, What to Read Now: Mixed-Genre Literature, Giannina Braschi
- Searle, Adrian (11 April 2011). "Joan Miró: A fine line". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 September 2011.
- "Long Live Père Ubu!"
- UBU-ing a Theatre-Translation: Defense and Illustration by David Ball (with his translation of the first act). Metamorphoses, Spring 2001 (9.1).
- Ubu Roi at Project Gutenberg in the original French