Theatrical character made famous by Alfred Jarry at the end of the 19th century. From his origins, Père (Father) Ubu has belonged to puppetry as much as he has to great theatre and literature.
In October 1888, when he began high school in Rennes, the young Jarry, aged fifteen, founded an entire folklore around a character then called le Père Heb, or le Père Ébé, whose model was Félix Hébert, teacher of physics, or pfuisic as written by the boys at the school. As far as they were concerned, the unfortunate M. Hébert represented “all that is grotesque in the world”, and his classes were places of homeric chaos. His legend took the form of anecdotes, sketches and plays of which several have survived. The most notable of these, Les Polonais (The Poles, by Charles and Henri Morin), were presented in 1888 by the “marionnettes du Théâtre des Phynances”, manipulated by Jarry and his friends in the attic of the Morin family. The puppets were made of papier-mâché and were played from behind a screen, which indicates glove puppets, even if some accounts speak of shadow shows and string puppets. Performances of this and other plays were given by the schoolboy actors in the Morin family’s attic in 1889, and afterwards with string puppets at Jarry’s home.
When he moved to Paris to become a writer, Jarry continued his private performances. He made changes to the text, creating the name “Ubu” and renaming other characters. From his first publications he integrated fragments of the “ubique” writing into his own works. In 1896, he published and staged Ubu roi (King Ubu), which was essentially Les Polonais under his own name, with the agreement of Henri Morin. The performances of Ubu roi on December 9 and 10, 1896, in the hall of the Théâtre Nouveau, by the Théâtre de l’Œuvre of Lugné-Poe with Firmin Gémier in the title role, was, like the classes of professor Hébert, a chaotic event cleverly orchestrated by Jarry himself: the cream of the Parisian Symbolist movement was introduced, in the mixture of howls of indignation and enthusiastic applause, the simultaneous revelation of the monster Ubu and the aesthetics of puppetry as applied to theatre (see Actor and Puppet, Aesthetics of the Puppet – European Romantics to Avant-Garde Views).
“Monsieur Ubu est un être ignoble, ce pourquoi il nous ressemble (par en bas) à tous” – “M. Ubu is a despicable creature, which is why he resembles (basically) us all” – wrote Jarry. Cowardice and cruelty are his main character traits, if we strip him of all psychological understanding. Jarry invented his “true portrait” in a woodcut that eliminates all subtlety: a pear-shaped head with one ear (“oneille” in the Ubu vocabulary), small droopy eyes, the same for his moustache, with an “imperial” beard, a body clothed in a robe under which can be seen two small legs in pantaloons. His enormous belly (the “gidouille”, “bouzine” or “boudouille”) is, as always, decorated with a large spiral. He carries his “baton-à-physique” (body baton) under his arm; otherwise he can be seen carrying a “croc à phynances” (“phynance” hook). It is obvious that Père Ubu is largely a creature of language, his own language, spoken in phrases both pompous and ridiculous, mixing archaic expressions, literary parodies and slapstick inventions, punctuated by expletives that have become emblematic: “Merdre!” (Shrit!), “Cornegidouille!” (untranslatable!), “De par ma chandelle verte!” (By my green candle!).
In Ubu roi, driven by “madame la femelle” – Mère (Mother) Ubu – Père Ubu usurps the Polish throne, entraps and kills everyone, until, beaten by the Russians, driven out by the Poles, he finally sails for “doulce (sweet) France”. In Ubu enchaîné (Ubu Enchained, 1900), a play that the adult Jarry wrote as the counterpart of Ubu roi, Ubu, in Paris, aspires to be an absolute slave, because “freedom is slavery”. In Ubu cocu (Ubu Cuckolded), published posthumously in 1944 (another version in 1972), Père Ubu settles in the home of Professor Achras, a breeder of polyhedra, and as the result of the scabrous manoeuvres of Mère Ubu, he finds himself the father of a fine archaeopteryx.
Ubu also appears in non-theatrical texts such as the Almanachs du Père Ubu (Almanacs of Father Ubu, 1899 and 1901), in Jarry’s correspondence where ultimately Jarry points out that he is himself “Ubu”, and in the work of other authors who, like Jarry, did not scruple to take advantage of a character that was originally a collective creation.
In addition to the original productions, Ubu roi was played with string puppets by Jarry himself at the Théâtre des Pantins in 1898 (with the figure of Père Ubu made by Jarry, and the others by Pierre Bonnard). A shortened version, augmented by a prologue with Guignol, and with songs, was performed with glove puppets by the showman Anatole at the cabaret of the Quat’z’Arts in Montmartre in 1901 (a version published under the title of Ubu sur la Butte (Ubu on the Mound), 1906).
Since then, Ubu roi has become a landmark in the development of theatre, for the human stage as much as for the puppet theatre, employed by companies anxious to assert their freedom of expression. The play has been the source of countless shows, sometimes far removed from Jarry’s texts. In terms of puppet productions, the most memorable achievements were those of Michael Meschke and the Marionetteatern of Stockholm in 1964 (with large rod puppets, actors, and masks, sets and costumes by Franciszka Themerson); of Joan Baixas with La Claca of Barcelona, animating masks and costumed puppets created by Joan Miró, for Mori el Merma (1977); of Ildikó Kovács in Romania (1979); of Massimo Schuster with sculptures in Meccano® by Enrico Baj (1984); of Géza Balogh in Budapest (1985); of Jean-Louis Heckel animating the vegetable-puppets of the Nada Théâtre (1991). Michel Poletti, of Teatro Antonin Artaud (TAA), was one of the rare artists to take up Ubu sur la Butte (1973). Mischievously, Jacques Ancion of Théâtre Al Botroûle presents the various Ubu pieces, in addition to Ubu pape (Pope Ubu) by Robert Florkin, with Al Botroûle’s very traditional Liège rod marionettes. Père Ubu has often been used to present political current affairs, notably in South Africa in Ubu and the Truth Commission directed by William Kentridge, with the Handspring Puppet Company (1998), a production that mixed actors, puppets and Kentridge’s animated projections.
As for screen animation, the Ubu roi of Jean-Christophe Averty made its mark on French television in 1965, with a profusion of digital compositing and because it provoked a wide public; it was followed by an Ubu enchaîné (1971) and an Ubu cocu (Ubu Cuckolded) in 1981. A surprising complement to the vegetables of the Nada company was offered by Manuel Gomez’ film, Ubu (1994), in which pieces of meat were animated.
In 2005, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris proposed an Ubu roi with the original music of Claude Terrasse, combining actors, puppets, object theatre and shadows by Gabriel Garcia-Romeu. The members of the Quebec Théâtre de la Pire Espèce toured with Ubu sur la table (Ubu on the Table) using a variety of objects.