Alfred Jarry and the Ubu Plays - Historical Context
“Talking about things that are understandable only
weights down the mind and falsifies the memory, but
the absurd exercises the mind and makes the memory
19TH CENTUARY THEATRE
Theatre in the late 19th century (The time Ubu was published) was taking large
steps into what we know today. The length of the shows became longer,
copyright was invented. Theatre made more advances in different areas.
Theatre companies were made up of designers, directors, and actors. They
would come together for one year. Every person would be in charge of a
different role. Because of these Repertory Companies tours were beginning to
increase in great amounts. Actors were paid for one year or they were paid
through the amount of time that the show ran.
Costume and Props in the Theatre
During the Renaissance in Europe, small acting troupes
functioned as cooperatives, pooling resources and dividing any
income. Many performers provided their own costumes, but
special items—stage weapons, furniture or other hand-held
devices—were considered "company property;" hence the term
"property."[The relationship between "property" in the sense of
ownership and "property" in the sense of a stage or screen object
imply that they "belong" to whoever uses them on stage.
WOMEN- Bustle is mainly fullness around the waist of a dress
and a pad or framework can be used in order to exaggerate the
cut of a dress. During the Bustle period the focus moved from
the front of the dress to the back, in which the back of the dress
was exaggerated. Corsets were used to push up the womens'
bust and abdomens while a pad of horsehair or a tiny metal cage
was used to exaggerate the waist and also the back of the dress.
MEN- As it was in the Crinoline era, the importance of wearing
certain styles during certain occasions carried into the late
Such as a starched shirt, standing collar, ascot tie, waistcoat, dark
double-breasted frock coat, light trousers or for evenings white
tie, waistcoat with black tails, trousers .Hairstyles during this time
continued to be full, many men had beads, side whiskers, and/or
Theatre Make-Up, 1890’S
In the 19th Century the limelight, gas lighting, and arc lightings that
were introduced to theatre affected the type of makeup and how much
makeup the actors would apply for their performances. Makeup was not
only used in order to make characters distinguishable, but also so the
audience could see and recognize the actors.
According to "Arts and Entertainment: Stagecraft", during the 19th
Century actors would use white chalk, carpenters' blue chalk, papers
impregnated with red colouring, and India ink as stage makeup. Actors
would use ash or even the red dust from bricks in order the create their
Carl Baudin of the Leipziger Stadt Theatre came up with the
invention of greasepaint. In 1860 in Germany opera actor, Ludwig
Leichner, created stick greasepaint which is still an extremely important
part of stage makeup today. By 1890, greasepaints for theatre could be
found in many colors commercially, and this was the beginning of the
creation of other theatre makeups that are used today.
More advancement was being made with lighting. In the first third of
the nineteenth century gas lamps began to replace candles and oil
lamps. Because gas lamps were becoming so efficient gas tables were
created. Gas tables were a group of valves used by the gasman to
control the amount of light. This allowed dimming of the house lights,
which forced to audiences attention to the stage. Lime light was also
created during this time period. Limelight was the nineteenth century
spotlight, which made a radiant pool of light that followed the actors.
The opening audience to the show were many theatre traditionalists and avant-garde.
Theatre director Aurélien-Marie Lugné-Poe produced the play at his Théâtre de l'Oeuvre.
It's premiere was in 1896, and due to the opening word being a swear, it caused riots in
the theatre. Because it caused such huge backlash, it was outlawed from theatre and
Jarry moved it to puppet theatre till his death.
It wasn't picked up again till long after his death, when swears on stage were vastly more
accepted by general public.
It was also heavily influenced by royalty, and because of the way it treats royalty, this was
one of the other factors that kept the initial riots going
The piece was not able to be performed
for another decade after opening night,
and after Jarry’s Death.
‘Nonetheless, the one night and attendant
scandal left Jarry satisfied that he had
given society “the sight of its ignoble
double,” a portrait of “the eternal
imbecility of man, his eternal lubricity, his
eternal gluttony, the baseness of instinct
raised to the status of tyranny; of the
coyness, the virtue, the patriotism, and the
ideas of the people who have dined well.”
The character, Pa Ubu, a cowardly, grotesque, nasty character has many similarities to Henry VIII. You could argue that
Jarry got some of his inspirations for the character from Henry VIII himself. Pa Ubu starts to reign by crawling to the
people but soon
becomes a tyrant, debraining anyone who disagrees with him (much like Henry beheading his wives for the littlest
reasons). Pa Ubu was also
portrayed as a large man, much like Henry. They are both rude and greatly feared. But of course like Henry VII, Pa Ubu
has a downward spiral
into the abyss. But the fact stands that Jarry's biggest inspiration for the character was actually his school teacher and
the butt of schoolboy jokes at the Lycée in Rennes which Jarry attended. Lacking both authority and dignity, the
physically grotesque figure of M. Hébert became for Jarry, "the symbol of all the ugliness and mediocrity he already
saw in the world", and he in turn became the inspiration for Pa Ubu. The figure of Pa Ubu was to be a potent one for
Jarry, who became obsessed by his creation, to the point that he began to imitate him, adopting an odd way of
speaking, referring to himself as Père Ubu and behaving in a highly eccentric, Ubuesque manner.
MA UBU MA UBU
Other than her outrageous husband, Ma
Ubu is the only character in the play who
exhibits more than two or three basic
character traits. That is not to say, however,
that Ma Ubu is a fully rounded, complex
character in the play. On the contrary, she is
merely a watered down version of her
pompous husband. She does act like Lady
Macbeth early in the play by suggesting
that Pa Ubu slaughter the entire Polish royal
family and ascend to the throne. After that,
she makes no additional contribution to the
plot of the drama.
Bourdure kills King Venceslas of Poland,
paving the way for Pa Ubu to become the
king. Later, Bordure abandons Ubu, goes
over to the Russians, and plots the death of
Pa Ubu and the reclamation of the Polish
throne by Bougrelas with the czar. Pa Ubu
recognizes Bordure in the middle of the
battle, and, the stage directions indicate,
tears him to pieces.
Social class in Paris in the 19th century determined how people lived,
worked, interacted, travelled, and relaxed. Each class participated in
and responded to the rapid changes of the era differently. Urbanization
and industrialization increased the standard of living for the average
Parisian, but the wealth gap between rich and poor remained very
wide. Social classes diversified, fragmented, and expanded to
accommodate many newly created occupations.
During the 19th century, the middle class, or bourgeoisie, developed from
the groups of 18th century commercial and industrial capitalists. At the
same time, many new occupations were created which primarily used
mental skills rather than physical labour; the number of individuals and
families in these fields exploded in number, creating a substantial, and
eventually dominant, middle class. Simultaneously, the traditional rural
peasants and the new urban industrial workers merged into a lower or
The three primary social classes (upper class aristocracy, middle
class bourgeoisie, and lower or working class) existed in Paris
throughout the 19th century (and still exist in many developed
societies in the 21st century). Early in the 19th century, the old
hereditary aristocracy and the newly wealthy evolved into the
modern upper class
The 19th century lower class was composed primarily of workers in
extractive, manufacturing, and service industries, who were
dependent on wages and who primarily used physical skills. The lower
class was divided into occupational sub-groupings of highly skilled
handcrafters, semi-skilled workers, and unskilled labourers. Below the
lower class was an impoverished underclass, often called the sunken
For all social classes, living conditions in early 19th
century Paris were extremely dirty and unsanitary;
coal was the primary fuel for cooking and heating,
streets had open drains and sewers filled with
garbage and human waste. Public toilets were rare
and often overflowing. Diseases spread quickly and
more people died than were born. The lower class
and non-natives generally had higher infant and adult
mortality rates than the upper and middle classes.
The population of Paris grew, in spite of high mortality
rates, due to increased migration from rural areas and
immigration from overseas French colonies. The
overcrowded city continued to expand into all
available land; there were no parks or recreation
areas. During wars and at other times, governmental
restrictions limited mobility, marriage, settlement,
and migration. By the middle of the 19th century,
institutional and judicial controls became less
important and migration to the city escalated as the
new industrial economy demanded additional
workers. These migrants were most often lower class,
single, and childless.
In 1800 all poor people, rural and urban, lived in one room
homes. In the country that room might be divided in two by
a low wall that kept the domestic animals in. Peasants were
terrified that wolves would devour their cow and goat or
that the neighbours would steal them. Sometimes there was
a loft, if you were a bit more prosperous. People had
fireplaces, but not stoves (who could afford them?). Glass
had gotten much cheaper but I don't doubt that windows
were still sealed with oiled parchment to let in some
sunlight and keep out rain.
Some houses had wooden floors, many didn't (packed earth
instead). There was no running water.
Peasants couldn't afford a tub, and they didn't all live near
rivers, so bathing was rare. Even where there was a river or
pond, people were scared to death of water spirits that
would drown them.
The brightest lads could get educated by the local cathedral,
if the parents let him.
Although rents were low, food was very dear.
In the city, more families of 2 or more would be packed into
the same house.
Politics of the Time
In the previous 200 years to Alfred Jarry’s arrival in Parisian
theatre, France had gone through a monumental amount of
turmoil. Largely around who was running the country and how.
In the early 1700’s the monarchy had complete power and
dictatorship, which was overthrown and it continued to develop
(very bloodily) as ideas and bodies were thrown back and forth.
At the time there was a government and monarchy was almost
completely out the question. But Alfred Jarry still heavily
disagreed with social standing.
“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, Hamletand 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.” source -
The character of Ubu itself represented everything wrong
with the modern day man. Which obviously upset a very self
Politics of the Time
Entertainment of the 1800’s
Fashion, Music and Art
19th Centaury - It was unsanitary, but the gap
between the rich and the poor was closing as living
and working conditions were improved. Due to
more money and free time, entertainment became
essential and theatre broadened. In come Jarry.
Entertainment entrepreneurs responded with an
enormous increase in the number of cafes-
concerts, public ballrooms, dance halls, theatres
and other establishments. Theatre auditoriums
were designed in tiers; their stratification reflected
the division of society by class. Generally, the royal
box, or loge, faced the stage surrounded by as
many as five vertical balconies. Yearly loge rentals
cost thousands of francs and were occupied only by
the wealthy upper class. Stall seats on the ground
floor were less expensive (equivalent to several
days’ wages for a working class person) and
primarily occupied by the middle class.
The lower class could afford the highest gallery
seats far above the boxes. Even higher, at the
ceiling level, seats were provided to men recruited
from the streets and cafes who were instructed to
applaud on cue in exchange for free admission.
Cafe-concerts provided bands indoors and
outdoors for dancing. American and ethnic
dancers and their dances were imported to
France greatly increasing the cross-cultural
nature of the entertainments. Even the tempo of
the dances quickened, reflecting the changes in
the pace of life, the changes in society, and in
dress which permitted new styles in dancing.
New theatrical productions were introduced
including the can-can, musical hall revues, and
operettas. Cafe-concerts, cabarets and other
venues featured fortune tellers, shooting
galleries, belly dancers, circuses and motion
pictures, and helped disrupt traditional social
hierarchies by permitting mingling between
upper and lower classes.
Fashion in the 1890s in European and European-
influenced countries is characterized by long
elegant lines, tall collars, and the rise of
Entertainment of the 1800’s
Fashion, Music and Art
KingofAbsurdity The play tells the farcical story of
Père Ubu, an officer of the King of
Poland, a grotesque figure whom
Jarry saw as epitomising the
mediocrity and stupidity of middle-
Absurdity became the hallmark of
Jarry’s style. Hailed as the father of
the Theatre of the Absurd, he told a
friend that "talking about things that
are understandable only weighs
down the mind and falsifies the
memory, but the absurd exercises the
mind and makes the memory work".
It was through writing Ubu Roi that
Jarry became the creator of the
science of Pataphysics, a logic of the
absurd, and "science of imaginary
solutions", enshrined since 1948 in
the Collège de Pataphysique.
He took inspiration from a schoolboy
play, based around a teacher at his
school whom he saw as the epitomy
of disgust and grossness. This could
have extended as he grew up and
this one man who was his common
link to the average world became
generalised to the population as it
struggled and writhed to break free
of it's past.
The Absurd Theatre
The Absurd Theatre can be seen as an attempt to capture the importance of myth and ritual
to our age, by making people aware of the ultimate realities of his condition. The Absurd
Theatre hopes to achieve this by shocking man out of an existence. It is felt that there is
mystical experience in confronting the limits of human condition. As a result, absurd plays
were made, directly aiming to startle the viewer, shaking them out of this comfortable,
conventional life of everyday concerns. The Theatre of the Absurd openly rebelled against
conventional theatre. Indeed, it was anti-theatre. It was surreal, illogical, conflict-less and
plot-less. The dialogue seemed total gobbledygook.
Not unexpectedly, the Theatre of the Absurd first met with incomprehension and
rejection. Words failed to express the essence of human experience, the Theatre of the
Absurd constituted first and foremost an onslaught on language, showing it as a very
unreliable and insufficient tool of communication; making people aware of the possibility of
going beyond everyday speech conventions and communicating more authentically. Objects
are much more important than language in absurd Theatre and goes beyond
language. Absurd drama gets rid of logic. It relishes the unexpected and the logically
impossible and feels the freedom that we can enjoy when we abandon logic.
The Absurd Theatre
Their individual identity is defined by language-the loss of logical language brings them towards
a unity with living things. Nonsense, opens up a glimpse of the infinite. It offers freedom, brings
you into contact with the sense of life and is a source of marvellous comedy.
Absurd dramas are lyrical statements, very much like music: they communicate an
atmosphere. Unlike conventional theatre, where language is the main part of the play in the
Absurd Theatre language is only one of many components of its many poetic imagery.
Alfred Jarry is an important writer of the Absurd Theatre. His UBU ROI (1896) is a mythical
figure, set among a world of grotesque images. Ubu Roi is a caricature, a terrifying image of the
animal nature of man and his cruelty. The work is a puppet play and its childish naivety
underlines the horror. Alfred Jarry expressed man’s psychological states through using objects
on the stage.
“We believe... that the
applause of silence is the
only kind that counts.”