Posted by: Sally Ingraham | July 2, 2011


ubuI assume that not many people grab an Ubu play and head to the beach. I have done it once, and I have no aspirations for a repeat performance. Imagine: There I am, stretched out on a blanket spread over comfy cobblestones, under a beaming sun, with the frigid Atlantic creeping ever closer to my naked toes, nose buried in the “Pschitt” of Ubu Rex. Without warning a panting and ecstatic golden retriever appears at my ear, scaring me into a crabish scuttle to the left accompanied by a shout of “By my green candle!!” (or yes, maybe something closer to Pa Ubu’s historic first utterance). Since my Conscience is NOT shoved head first down a latrine (between two stone footrests) I easily avoided any hard feelings toward the dog or his apologetic owners, and soon after I was waving farewell to Ma and Pa Ubu as they sailed further and further away from France headed for a country extraordinary enough to be worthy of their presence.

Who would this extraordinarily unfortunate country be inflicted with? One of the least likable but most amusing literary characters I’ve had the unhappy pleasure of knowing. What can I possibly say about Pa Ubu, the notorious creation of Alfred Jarry? He is grotesque, abominable, loathsome. He is a greedy, weighty, violent lout. He overthrows kings and kills their sons, invades homes and impales their owners, kidnaps helpless maids and forces them…to enslave him? He murders his enemies during the day and poisons his friends over dinner. He nearly tears his wife apart limb from limb. He is the embodiment of stupidity, the caricature of the modern man, scrabbling to the top by hook or by crook (and by his green candle). Ugg, Ubu, for shame.

So then why in the world would I inflict such a character upon myself? Without hesitation I will point my finger and fling my unmentionable slave brush at Amateur Reader of Wuthering Expectations for providing me with the opportunity. Aside from the briefest of mentions of Alfred Jerry in Whatever Happened to Modernism? I had never heard of the Ubu plays. It doesn’t really take a whole lot to intrigue me, and I felt that my blog and my brain were ready for a proper defilement. Therewith, I dove into the pschitt and didn’t even plug my nose or hold my breath (should have done though…)

ubu twoFinding myself here at the tail end of Ubu Week, my best bet is to direct any interested parties to Amateur Reader’s myriad of Ubu posts, to Nicole of Bibliographing’s Ubu posts, and to Rise of In Lieu of a Field Guide’s brilliant sum-up, for further exploration and deconstruction of Jerry’s world. As for my own input…

My reaction to the Ubu plays, as translated by Cyril Connelly and Simon Watson Taylor, is a shiver and a shrug and a retching sound. Also a snicker and a gawf and a knee slap. Because, OMG, Pa Ubu is THE PITS while at the same time being THE PSCHITT. I wouldn’t say I liked Ubu Rex, Ubu Cuckolded, or Ubu Enchained but I certainly enjoyed them. For me it was all about the word-play, the delightful language, the ridiculous turns of phrase. Attend:

TAILS. Hey, Heads, do you have any idea what happened to little Renski?
HEADS. He got a bullet through the head.
PA UBU. Just as the poppy and the dandelion are scythed down in the flower of their youth by the pitiless scythe if the pitiless scyther who pitilessly scythes their pitiful pans, so poor Renski has played the pretty poppy’s pitiful part – he fought gallantly, but there were just too many Russians around.


There isn’t a moment in these plays that strays from the bizarre, the utterly surreal. Favorite parts: anytime Pa Ubu consults his Conscience, and the thing about the Free Men. (FIRST FREE MAN – to the SECOND. Where are you off to, comrade? To drill, same as every morning? Hey, I suspect you’re obeying. SECOND FREE MAN. The Corporal has ordered me never to turn up for drill at this particular hour. But I’m a Free Man, so I go every morning. FIRST and THIRD FREE MAN together. So that’s why we keep meeting by accident every morning – so that we can all disobey together as regular as clockwork.) The crocodile was good too. Part of the fun comes from imagining how these plays were meant to be performed – with marionettes of all things. Now that I would like to see! There is song and dance and various other shenanigans. It’s a riot – a barely controlled, hilarious, horrific riot.

Basically, I haven’t the faintest idea what the heck is up with this Ubu guy. Having accomplished little beyond a thorough debraining through my reading of the stuff, in a muddled state I find myself joining the Palcontents’ chorus and shouting, “Hip hip arse-over-tip! Hurray for Old Ubu!”

Good grief and good riddance.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your post, Sarah, far more than I suspect I would anything Ubu itself. As I’ve popped around to the other reader’s blogs, I’m more baffled then ever, but at least the name is familiar to me now. Thanks for that, because I probably won’t be reading it anytime soon myself.

    • Probably a wise decision Bellezza. Glad you enjoyed the bafflement though!

  2. Ubu has always been important in my life, ever since I read all the plays. I found them so funny, naughty and witty and love to call people I don’t like “You’re such an UBU”. They never even get the offense. I’m a silly person at heart. It’s another book where I wonder how it can be translated. What about merdre? Is that pschitt?

    • Yes, pschitt is Pa Ubu’s dirty word, but it doesn’t really match “merdre” blow for blow. Actually, since the French word is rather well known, I wonder why translators couldn’t have just kept it – there are an assortment of words from other languages that are in common use in English. Rise has some notes on the various Ubu translations in his post that you might find interesting.

      I may follow your lead and let Ubu enter my vocabulary!

  3. Ooh you made a beach book out of old Ubu! Hehe. Your mixed reaction plays well with the playful play. It’s really great that the translation has somehow communicated the “richness” of the original language. Interesting what you say about how the French M-word could stand by itself in translation. I suppose it could because it already had a (riotous) life of its own in the history of theater, for better or worse.

    • The M-word would definitely have worked for me – in fact I found myself silently editing it back in as I read.

  4. long Live King Ubu!

    • Indeed.

  5. Death to King Ubu! Or a long exile, at least.

    I have my arguments with that Josipovici book,but it would be a great, great project to convert it into a reading list. And a listening list, and a viewing list. Jarry may have had more impact on visual arts than on literature.

    The place of Jarry and Ubu will approach something like sense in the context of Josipovici’s definition of modernism.

    • Death to Ubu indeed. I agree with you just as much as with Andy’s comment above!

      I am a step ahead of you in regards to the Josipovici reading list – in the sense that I kept a list as I read Whatever Happened to Modernism? of most of the books and authors mentioned – I may have edited my list slightly to skip authors I was familiar with (but only in some cases) so it is a personalized list and not an entirely complete one. I didn’t keep a listening or viewing list, although I now wish I had – especially for the music. I intend to post something about my Josipovici reading list (among others) sometime soon…

  6. Love your reaction–the PITS and the PSCHITT! It’s really perfect for Ubu, to both love and hate. Thanks so much for reading along!

  7. The pleasure was mine, Nicole – and the pain! Let’s keep a Josipovici-inspired reading challenge in mind (as I see, after popping back to your post, that you are tempted!) For several years from now, perhaps. 🙂

  8. I’m still trying to put together a post on Ubu, Sarah, but I really enjoyed yours! I only read the first one, but even so I empathize with your final line. And how on earth to write about the thing?

    Also looking forward to your Josipovici-themed reading list, especially since I had the bad timing to miss out on that Wolves read…

    • Ha! Can’t wait to see what you come up with in regards to Ubu. And all this talk about the Josipovici reading list will certainly inspire me to post about it soon – and start reading off of it. There are a couple authors that I am REALLY curious about.

  9. […] by Carl V. was comfort-food fun, while the Anything Ubu Readalong hosted by Amatuer Reader was another thing entirely. Carl V.’s R.I.P. VI was fiendish once again (dang, no wrap-up post. *sigh* Book reviews are […]

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