Ubu Roi Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 36-page guide for “Ubu Roi” by Alfred Jarry includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 5 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Absurdism and The Desire for and Abuse of Power.
Ubu Roi, a play by Alfred Jarry, debuted in Paris in December 1896. The play’s opening night at the Théâtrede l’Oeuvre was also its closing night, as a commotion—often described as a “riot”—broke out amongst the audience, who were accustomed to naturalist theatre and were horrified by the play’s shocking and crude nature. Nonetheless, the play has gone on to be seen as a deeply-influential work of theatre, and is cited as one of the precursors to modernism and such artistic movements as the Theatre of the Absurd, Dada, and Surrealism.
Ubu Roi is a satire that takes on themes of greed, power, corruption, and absurdism, and also draws tropes from Shakespearean plays like Macbeth and Hamlet. In a speech introducing the play before its infamous first performance, Jarry told the audience not to expect a literal depiction of reality, and said, “You are free to see in M. Ubu however many allusions you care to, or else a simple puppet—a schoolboy’s caricature of one of his professors who personified for him all the ugliness in the world” (1).
The play centers on Pere Ubu and Mere Ubu (hereafter referred to as “Papa Turd” and “Mama Turd,” the names given to them in the Dover Thrift Editions translation) and takes place in Poland, which at the time was not yet a country. Mama Turd convinces Papa Turd, the Captain of Dragoons, that he should become King of Poland by killing the current King Wenceslaus and his entire family. The couple invites Captain Bordure to dinner and informs them of their plan; Bordure agrees to help Papa Turd in exchange for being named the Duke of Lithuania, saying, “If it’s a question of killing Wenceslaus, I’m in. I’m his mortal enemy and I’ll answer for my men” (16).
King Wenceslaus invites Papa Turd to his palace and rewards Papa Turd for his service by making him Count of Sandomir. Papa Turd, however, is not swayed from his plan; he gathers Bordure and a group of men, who plot to kill Wenceslaus and his family the next day at a parade by jumping on the king all at once and “split him open from head to tail” (19).
The king forbids his young son Buggerlaus from attending the parade after he was “impertinent” to Papa Turd, but the queen implores Wenceslaus to keep his entire family around him, as she had a premonition that Papa Turd would kill and overthrow Wenceslaus. The king does not believe her and attends the parade, where Papa Turd and his men successfully kill the king and his sons, Boleslaus and Ladislaus. The queen and Buggerlaus flee to the mountains; the queen soon dies after becoming sick from the family’s plight, and Buggerlaus vows revenge for his family, saying, “How sad it is to find oneself alone at the age of fourteen, with a terrible vengeance to pursue!” (25). The ghosts of his ancestors appear, and one gifts Buggerlaus a sword for him to defeat Papa Turd.
As king, Papa Turd is initially persuaded to be generous to his constituents, giving out food and money at Mama Turd and Bordure’s urging. But this generosity soon ends; Papa Turd says he won’t name Bordure Duke of Lithuania now that Papa Turd “ need him anymore” (29), though Mama Turd warns that Papa Turd should worry about him and Buggerlaus if he doesn’t curry favor with them. The newly-crowned king goes on a power trip, revealing that his plan as king is to “start by grabbing all the phynance,” or riches, and “then I’ll kill everybody and leave” (30). Papa Turd gathers all the kingdom’s nobles and condemns them all to death so he can seize all their property. He then does the same with all the magistrates and financiers after they refuse to go along with his plan to change laws and raise taxes. Further, the king vows to kill “whoever’s left of these eminent persons” (33). Papa Turd then goes to a peasants’ hovel and demands they pay twice as many taxes, destroying their house when they refuse.
Papa Turd locks Bordure up in a fortress for allegedly conspiring against him, and Bordure warns Papa Turd he should worry about the consequences of his actions. Bordure escapes and goes to Moscow to “beg for gracious mercy” (39), and is appointed as a second lieutenant to the Russian army. Upon learning the news of Bordure and the Czar’s alliance, Papa Turd, Mama Turd, and their men decide to declare war. Though Papa Turd warns Mama Turd not to rob him while he’s gone to war, Mama Turd immediately starts to steal the royal treasures, but leaves them behind after being run out of Warsaw by Buggerlaus and his supporters, after Buggerlaus rallies the people to support him as king.
Papa Turd, meanwhile, is in the Ukraine with his men, where they are “dying of thirst and tiredness” and scatter in fear when the Russian army begins their attack (49).Papa Turd kills Bordure and fights the czar, then eventually flees to a cavern with supporters Pile and Coccyx, where they’re attacked by a bear, which they kill. Pile and Coccyx turn against Papa Turd when he refuses to help them prepare the bear to be eaten—while still demanding to be fed—and abandon him so that they can find out what happened to Mama Turd. Papa Turd falls asleep and narrates a nightmare he’s having, in which he’s in battle against his enemies and has been killed by Buggerlaus.
Mama Turd arrives at the cavern after fleeing Buggerlaus and his followers. When she realizes that Papa Turd is also there, she pretends to be the Archangel Gabriel so that he’ll forgive her for robbing him, but they simply argue until he realizes who she is. He starts torturing her for her sins, but as he is lacerating her, Buggerlaus enters. Mama Turd and Papa Turd fight Buggerlaus and his men and are soon joined by Papa Turd’s supporters, including Pile and Coccyx. The group leaves the cave and runs off. Buggerlaus finally stops chasing them to go claim the crown, and Mama Turd, Papa Turd, and their men leave Poland and set sail for France.