Plays by Alfred Jarry

Cuckold Ubu

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Alfred Jarry’s Cuckold Ubu (Ubu Cocu) is the second in his cycle of Ubu plays about Pa Ubu, the grotesquely comical character first encountered in King Ubu (Ubu Roi).

This version is translated by Kenneth McLeish, who in his introduction to the published text calls the play 'the darkest and most surreal of the [Ubu] plays.' It is relatively short compared to its predecessor King Ubu, and is incomplete: Jarry never produced a definitive version of the play. He is believed to have begun its composition in 1897, a year after the premiere of King Ubu, and it was performed in various versions during his lifetime. It is written in the same style as King Ubu, with a characteristic combination of surrealism, ribaldry and biting satire.

The action of the play is summarised by McLeish as follows: 'Pa Ubu takes up residence in the home of Peardrop, a breeder of polyhedra, and he and his Barmpots tyrannise the neighbourhood, despite the efforts of Pa Ubu’s Conscience and Peardrop to stop them. There is war, led on Peardrop’s side by Memnon (the singing Egyptian statue with whom Ma Ubu is cuckolding Pa Ubu) and by the banker Swankipants, and eventually a crocodile appears in true Punch-and-Judy style to chase off all the others. (We don’t know whether it does or not: the play as it survives is incomplete.)'

King Ubu

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

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.'

Slave Ubu

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Alfred Jarry’s Slave Ubu (Ubu Enchaîné, ‘Ubu in chains’) is the third in his influential cycle of plays about Pa Ubu, the grotesquely comical character first encountered in King Ubu (Ubu Roi) and then in Cuckold Ubu (Ubu Cocu). Written in 1899, the play was first published in 1900.

This version of the play is translated by Kenneth McLeish, who in his introduction to the published text summarises the action as follows: 'Pa Ubu decides that he has had enough of tyranny, and that the only way to be free is to become a slave. He attaches himself and Ma Ubu to the dear old man Peebock and his daughter Eleutheria, and rules their household. The Three Free Men and their Sergeant Pisseasy (Eleutheria’s fiancé) come to the rescue, and Ma and Pa Ubu are transferred to jail, preparatory to being sold as galley-slaves to Sultan Suleiman of Turkishland. The jail is so comfortable that the Three Free Men and the Populace break in to become convicts themselves. Two convoys of convicts set out to Turkishland, one consisting of the Ubs and the convicts (who have generously exchanged clothes and manacles with their guards) and the other led by Pisseasy. Sultan Suleiman makes them all galley slaves, and they row into the sunset and live happily ever after.'

Picture of Alfred Jarry

Alfred Jarry was born in the provinces of France in 1873 and attended schools in Brittany and Rennes. From the age of twelve onwards, he developed a passion for comic writing and composed many poems, playlets and stories. Aided by two schoolmates, he also wrote skits parodying his teachers. One of these, The Poles, would go on to form the basis of his groundbreaking satirical play, King Ubu. It was while studying in Paris that Jarry’s literary career began to take off. He began supporting himself as a writer producing reviews, satirical essays, songs and fiction. He was invalided out of military service in 1895 on account of his five-foot frame, an experience which would later inform his novel Days and Nights, Novel of a Deserter. An earlier version of what would become his defining work, King Ubu, was published in 1895 in the magazine Mercure de France under the title Caesar-Antichrist. The play finally received its first performance at the Théâtre de l’Oevre on 10 December 1896. Its infamous opening line ‘Merdre’, roughly translated as ‘shikt’, caused chaos amidst the audience and ensured that its opening night would be its last. The sequel, Cuckold Ubu, was performed in a marionette production at painter Pierre Bonnard’s theatre in 1898 and the third part of the trilogy, Slave Ubu, though never performed, was published in 1900. The trilogy is seen as a significant forerunner to twentieth-century art movements such as Surrealism, Dadaism and Futurism and a major work of the avant-garde. It has eclipsed everything else that ever Jarry wrote but has acted as an inspiration to generations of artists who followed after. Towards the end of his life Jarry had two novels published: Messalina (1901) and The Supermale (1901). He fell gravely ill in 1906 after years of hard drinking and died in 1907. On his sickbed, he had himself photographed in the guise of a corpse and had copies sent to his friends as keepsakes.