translated by Kenneth McLeish
Alfred Jarry's King Ubu (Ubu Roi) is an absurd farce that riffs on several of Shakespeare’s plays and warns of the dangers of tyranny. It is the first in Jarry's cycle of Ubu plays, all featuring the grotesquely comical character of Pa Ubu. Since its first, riotously-received performance at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, Paris, in 1896, it has been recognised as a forerunner to the Surrealist and Modernist movements, and has been hugely influential in world drama.
This translation by Kenneth McLeish was commissioned by Hilary Norrish for the BBC World Service, and was first performed in her production by a cast including Alan Armstrong, Alan Corduner, Pip Donaghy, Richard Pearce, Alison Peebles and Emily Richard.
The first stage production, at the Gate Theatre, London, in April 1997, was directed by John Wright, designed by David Roger and performed by Allison Cologna, Frazer Corbyn, Mark Stuart Currie, Stephen Finegold, Jonathan Ferguson, Joanna Holden, Jonny Hoskins, Richard Katz and Asta Sighvats.
In his introduction to the published text, Kenneth McLeish outlines what happens in the play: 'In King Ubu, Pa Ubu is a cowardly toady, one of the hangers-on of Good King Wenceslas of Baloney. Nagged by his fearsome wife Ma Ubu, he gathers a band of Barmpots, led by the obnoxious Dogpile, assassinates Wenceslas and seizes the throne. He and the Barmpots fight Wenceslas’s army, led by Princes Willy, Silly and Billikins, and defeat them. Billikins escapes to the hills, where the ghosts of his ancestors give him a great big sword and order him to organise resistance.
'Ubu starts his reign by crawling to the people, but soon turns into a tyrant, debraining anyone who disagrees with him, murdering all the aristocrats and middle classes and extorting triple taxes from the peasants. The peasants revolt and go over to Billikins – and Dogpile, whom Ubu has rashly insulted, defects to Tsar Alexis of All the Russkies and leads him and his army to attack Baloney and restore Billikins to the throne. Ma Ubu steals the Balonian state treasure and a handsome Balonian soldier, and flees into exile.
'Defeated in battle, Pa Ubu holes up in a cave with his cronies Wallop and McClub, and barely survives when a bear attacks them. Ma Ubu eventually reaches the same cave. She and Pa Ubu make up their differences, give up all claims to the Balonian throne and set off with Wallop and McClub on a voyage of exile to Engelland.'