The Author of Ubu Roi

Jarry’s reputation as a genius provocateur solidified at the premiere of his play Ubu roi. The violent satire stemmed from puppet shows that were collaborations between Jarry, his sister, and two classmates in high school. Ubu, a grotesque buffoon inspired by their physics teacher, remained the vehicle for Jarry’s creative projects for the rest of his life.

The plot was simple: A tyrant usurps the Polish throne. He slaughters his enemies, meets defeat at the hands of the Russians, and escapes on a vessel headed toward France. The first word uttered on stage was Ubu’s yawp: “Merdre.” Jarry’s neologism added a second r to merde, the French word for “shit.” Wearing a cardboard mask, Ubu appeared barely human and spoke in an unmodulated voice. His feral physicality unsettled the crowd, as did the scenery (every setting was combined on one painted backdrop). As a whole, Ubu roi seemed to signify the imposition of artistic will on established modes of making art, heightened by its absurdities and the author’s apparent indifference to the audience’s comprehension. The play’s public dress rehearsal and single performance reverberated for years to come.