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Raw and Cooked: An Interpretation of "Ubu roi"

Author(s): Renée Riese Hubert

Source: L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. 24, No. 4, Alfred Jarry (Winter 1984), pp. 75-83
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Accessed: 23-05-2018 08:26 UTC

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Raw and Cooked: An Interpretation
of Ubu roi

Renée R. Hubert

JARRY is one ofof"lathe
a lively evocation heroesin which
belle époque" in Roger Shattuck's Banquet
the barriers
between literature and life are drastically diminished and where
anecdotes are rapidly metamorphosed into criticism.1 Shattuck, who
considered the banquet a supreme rite in these years, informs his readers
that even the poverty-stricken Jarry contributed his share:

In these drafty dirt-floored premises he decided to repay his social obligations by throw
ing a banquet of his own . . . Jarry had caught a fish for every plate, and had laid in on
credit enough wine and absinthe for a regiment. . . The banquet ran its intemperate course
from general conversation to demonstrations of how mightily the guests could make the
river resound with shouted commands of "forward march" (p. 213).

Such eating conventions and culinary rituals, in parodied or satirized

forms, found echoes in Jarry's works in general and in Ubu roi in par

The play is "filled" with expressions which, directly or indirectly,

refer to food, to the act of eating. Jarry, in his famous drawing, repre
sented his Ubu with a huge stomach and legs sturdy enough to support
it.2 He stressed his corporality, his obesity which, as the play tells us,
results from excessive nutrition. Voracity, not spiritual or moral values,
characterizes the protagonist who never misses an opportunity to in
dulge, who never practices abstinence. The play refers to several meals,
some overtly represented, some primarily created by linguistic means.
Act I, scene 2, known as the banquet scene, parodies mainly Macbeth,
where the usurper's ritualistic banquet is disrupted by the unappetizing
presence of Banquo's shade. In Ubu roi, the banquet scene also presents
an apparent stasis, a peaceful if plethoric stage which precedes cascading

1. Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years (N.Y.: Anchor, 1961).

2. "Le véritable portrait de Monsieur Ubu," by Jarry, is often reproduced. Cf. Tout Ubu
(Paris: Livre de Poche, 1952).

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acts of violence, a transition from oral exchange to physical aggression,

the killing of the king and two of his sons. The banquet scene primarily
focusses on the act of devouring and on nutrition at the expense of social
intercourse. Ubu, an impatient character who cannot wait to become rich
and powerful again, who having lost the throne of Aragon must seize the
Polish crown as soon as his wife "stuffs" this ambition into his skull, is
incapable of waiting for his guests. He must know the menu in order to
skip the preliminaries and devour the "pièce de résistance" without fur
ther ado. He bites into a whole chicken, then consumes much of the veal
intended for an army of guests. Jarry out of admiration for Rabelais en
dowed his protagonist with a truly Gargantuan appetite. But Rabelais'
vigorous and enthusiastic giants have little else in common with Jarry's
simplistic and pot-bellied consumer. Contrary to the 16th-century hero
whose appetite incorporates all aspects of life, including the spiritual, the
modern character is strictly limited to his gut. Rabelais' famous "Trinch"
is not a statement expressing sybaritic philosophy but epitomizes the
nnnf/%V> fr»»« 1/-n/\ni1a/4na triitl-i nnrlûrefonHino rvf roo 11 fxr It OAntroctc

with Ubu's instinctual existence. The Oracle's invitation is

to endorse the hero's voyages as necessary ordeals in a pro
Conversely, Ubu's orders and insults lead to a cowardl
Ubu, as we have stated, feasts in solitary squalor before the arrival of
his guests who must feed on leftovers, first made impalatable and later
poisoned. Most of the meal consists of meat; and Ubu, the epitome of
fleshiness, fills himself with flesh. The eaters and the eaten are by various
devices equated and indeed assimilated to one another throughout the
play. Ubu is comparable to a container that needs to be crammed in order
to function and even to survive. Being overstuffed in no way discourages
him from stuffing himself even more; and when he temporarily ceases to
eat, he fears that others will turn him back into food, which is both his end
and his origin. He is, before his guests arrive, starved before he goes into
battle. Jarry parodies many a protagonist whose tragic flaw manages to
surface at the very beginning of the play.
The physical sight of the victuals —"Une table splendide est dressée" —
provides an aesthetic spectacle concerning which "le père" and "la mère"
Ubu immediately clash. Ubu by his bestial and disproportionate appetite,
by the plebeian insults he hurls at his ugly spouse, destroys the ritual and
the etiquette that should accompany festive occasions. Molière's Le Bour
geois gentilhomme enables us to establish a telling contrast. Monsieur

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Jourdain offers a sumptuous dinner for the benefit of Dorante and

Dorimène. The count verbalizes the menu so as to transform dishes into a
display of elegant, erudite and heraldic language.3 Dorante suggests that
any flaw in the festive dinner would destroy the rules of harmony required
of all the arts. Jourdain in his attempt to graduate to the nobility has taken
dance, speech and music lessons before subsidizing this aristocratic tête-à
tête. Conversely, dissonance predominates in Ubu roi without any refer
ence to norms. After the arrival of Capitaine Bordure and the other guests,
"la mère Ubu" condescends to announce the menu in two installments.
The first, abounding in meat courses, begins with "soupe polonaise" and
ends with "charlotte russe." Both of these dishes consisting of mashed up
ingredients obliquely refer to political strife between these neighboring na
tions. In the second installment, an orderly menu, proceeding from soup
to dessert, is no longer recognizable, while fancy, prestigious and allegori
cal titles disappear completely. However, the presence of minced ingredi
ents, not usually offered for consumption, mark the two bills of fare. Both
sets of enumerations allude less to tantalizing food than to violence, cruel
ty and destruction. The term "bombe" heightens the ambiguity between
food and warfare, whereas "chou-fleur à la merdre" crowns the systematic
reversal between temptation and repulsiveness. Combinations of various
dishes such as "croupion de dinde" and "Chou-fleur à la merdre" confirm
the scatological aspects relating to food.
"Merdre" repeated throughout the play defies "bienséant" theatrical
language and the dignity of the dramatic hero. The complex implications
of the term "merdre" have been commented on by Linda Klieger Stillman
in her Alfred JarryS According to her, "merdre," "Phynance" and
"physique" consolidate the mythical existence of Ubu. The presence of
"merdre" in the menu presents a defiance of the adult world but also and
primarily a glorification of anality. What is eaten and what is evacuated in
the course are no longer distinguishable, and the various stages of nutri
tion are collapsed into one. Ubu, still at the anal stage, wants to reduce if
not eliminate his non-eating moments, his non-eating activities. This ex
plains his opposition to the ritual duration of a banquet, to the interaction
of culinary and verbal occasions. The Ubus reverse the accepted ritual not
only by the strangeness of their menus and by the coldness of their wel

3. Cf. J.D. Hubert, Molière and the Comedy of Intellect (Berkeley: University of Califor
nia Press, 1962), p. 228.
4. Linda Klieger Stillman, Alfred Jarry (Boston: TWayne Publishers, 1983). Cf. also Henri
Béhar, Jarry dramaturge (Paris: Nizet, 1980), p. 61.

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come, but by their unwillingness to let their guests enjoy the food. As if the
names of the dishes would not offer enough discouragement, Ubu has to
persuade his guests that the food tastes bad and to wreck it by throwing a
poisonous broom on the entire spread. Guests are poisoned or ushered
out; Ubu, having eaten his fill and no longer anxious to grab another chop,
must needs seize a throne. He once again will be way ahead of the game,
for he turns cutlets into cutlasses capable of devastating his guests with the
exception of the happy few whom he needs in his political conspiracy.
Linda Klieger Stillman, stressing Ubu's sadism, states: "His sticks, hooks,
pistols, scissors and horns à merdre as well as à phynances and à physique
serve as instruments of torture to extract payment and thus to procure him
gastric satisfaction" (op. cit., p. 49). The dinner table does not imply in
Jarry's play an isolated gathering, circumscribable in time and place. The
dishes as well as those who partake belong to the world of belligerence.
Ubu does not hesitate to bite into anything even if it is not listed on the
menu. He considers all materials and all surfaces potentially comestible;
and any instrument can serve either to make anything whatever edible or
to sharpen his teeth for the next meal, which looms in the immediate
Among the dishes, real and fantastic, named in the play, Ubu favors
the "andouille"; his royal dream consists in having his every wish for an
douilles fulfilled on the spot. Jarry appears to hark back to 17th-century
burlesque literature where epic dimensions are drastically curtailed while
sensuality, usually erotic, and greed for vulgar or common food replace
the heroic behavior normally ascribed to protagonists. The following lines
by Charles d'Assoucy are particularly revealing in this context:

Mon Anchise, mon Adonis,

Mon petit cœur, mon petit fils,
Ma fraissure, ma petite oie,
Ma petite andouille de Troye,
Malgré mari sot et badin
Je suis à toi tripe et boudin.5

"Andouille," repeated again and again though not as frequently as

"merdre" dénotâtes another meat dish: a skin stuffed with tripe. An "an
douille" can pass for the true image and symbol of Ubu. When "la mère
Ubu" calls him by this word, it would seem to function not only as an insult

Passage from Le Jugement de Paris, quoted by J.D. Hubert, "L'Erotisme et la solution

burlesque," Papers on French XVIIth Century Literature, No. 10 (1978-79), p. 117.

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meaning a stupid person, but as a description. Moreover, the fact that the
inside of an "andouille" consists of chopped up guts repeats ad nauseam
the identity of eating, digesting and evacuating. As the "andouille"
becomes the promise and the reward for the usurpation of the crown of
Poland, we can surmise that Ubu fails to rise up in his quest for and his
ascent to the throne. He assumes a debased status not only by reason of his
foul deeds and his stupidity, but as an "andouille" he is bereft of a head and
reduced to his intestines.
Jarry, in order to establish equations between human and animal, man
and food, does not rely merely on words such as "andouille" and
"merdre." Repeatedly Ubu threatens to "décerveler" or to exercize an "ex
traction de la cervelle," to commit acts of cruelty which would officially
and openly deprive a human being of his brain and degrade him to bestiali
ty. After threatening to blow out his wife's brains, he ironically asks: "Cela
va-t-il, andouille?" Ubu in a way always provides increments for brainless
The appearance of the bear corroborates the equation between man and
beast, between consumption and consumerism. The bear upon its arrival
arouses fear by its hugeness rather than by its ferocity. Ubu, after having
stuffed all the containers of his treasury and amassed every kind of provi
sion, is afraid of a creature more voluminous than himself that threatens
to devour him as he has in a sense devoured the state. He who has so often
sharpened his teeth in order to bite and chew more effectively, he who has
given orders to empty heads of their contents and to turn his opponents
into victuals must now confront a monster with teeth bigger and sharper
than his own. His panic is so great that he has recourse to prayer. In Ubu,
religious allusions and cursing are never far removed from each other.
After all, the Bible, or so Ubu seems to think, specializes in violence,
notably the beheading of John the Baptist. Biblical martyrs can provide
models for Ubuesque behavior if we place the emphasis on physical may
hem and substitute the chopping and mincing of meat for spiritual and
ethereal values. Suffering has been ruled out with the exception of the
bear's shrieks of pain, which go unnoticed in a world where our comic hero
strives exclusively to fill up vessels, to turn his dominion into the too, too
solid and sullied flesh. It is not Ubu's prayer but Cotice's explosions that
bring an end to the bear whose death will of course coincide with the
preparation of still another feast. Just as Ubu has not been able to shift
from his ordinary culinary taste to that of a splendid banquet, so here he
fails to acknowledge that the grizzly is cut up, quartered and quite dead.

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When he had first spotted the bear he had screamed: "Me voilà mangé." As
his fear refuses to abate, he cannot readily fathom his own reinstatement
as eater. "La mère Ubu," who so often opposes her husband by word and
deed, here shares his fright of becoming the predator's dinner.
The bear turns into a haunting vision for Ubu. Confusion between the
raw and the cooked, the quick and the dead dominates the hero. Ubu
transforms the monster into a wild fantasm, at once the image of his prey
ing self and that of his other, the drive of hunger and the fear of destruc
tion: "Quel ventre, messieurs! les grecs y auraient été plus à l'aise que dans
le cheval de bois, et peu s'en est fallu, chers amis, que nous n'ayons pu aller
vérifier de nos propres yeux sa capacité intérieure" {Tout Ubu, p. 107). The
animal, seen at once as the enemy and thé self, remains alive in Ubu's con
sciousness, whether he eats it hot or cold, whether he finds its flesh
palatable or repugnant. The bear combines sadism, which is a purely
human trait, with bestiality, at least in appearance, because an actor more
or less successfully plays its part on stage. Thanks to this theatrical am
biguity the author suggests once again the practice of cannibalism.
Ubu, so other characters remark, stinks. He is unclean, negligent, un
hygenic and slovenly in his habits. Not only does he strike the other per
formers as no less repulsive than the nauseating feast to which he invites
them, but he sees in them potential cuts or joints and dreams of them as
delectable dishes. He focusses on their "cul," the juicy part of their
anatomy that would provide good ham. He fantasizes about sinking his
teeth into them: a truly cannibalistic dream. At the same time, he reduces
his own enthronement as monarch to the act of having his "cul installé."
Jarry suggests that the supreme punishment for Ubu's opponents would be
to tear out their teeth, thereby preventing them from biting while inflicting
upon them a speech impediment, the direst fate for thespians. Eating and
speaking are but one and the same performative activity: "Torsion du nez
et des dents, extraction de la langue et enfoncement du petit bout de bois
dans les oneilles" (p. 88). Ubu even threatens the Tzar with the torture of
going through life sans teeth and sans tongue, which would amount to the
ultimate upstaging of an enemy forever rendered incapable of biting into
the flesh of the tenderest "andouille" and regurgitating verbal textures.
Making good use of one's teeth not only suggests the functions of sharp in
struments such as knives or swords, but also exemplifies the predacity of
Ubu who hungrily grabs a kingdom as he would a joint of mutton to make
it by force his own.
Ubu, as we have already suggested, is simultaneously a voracious eater

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— a "goinfre"—and a warmonger. He treats even his wife and his tem

porary accomplices either as opponents, as slaves, or consumable goods.
The threats he hurls at others can be seen interchangeably as preliminary
stages in warring or feasting. As these menaces are often quite overt:
"couper en quatre," "cuire à petit feu," torturing and cooking become in
separable operations. Moreover, the orders that Ubu gives regarding rules
for taxation or for dining are formulated in precisely the same authoritari
an voice, for they satisfy an identical bulimia. Indeed, "phynance" and
"physique" scarcely differ from one another. Ultimate possession does not
consist for him in burying treasure in a cathedral crypt or, for that matter,
in a more modern bank vault, but in securing it inside himself. However,
such devices appear to have little future and can hardly result in permanent
Ubu has no sense of value and hierarchy as he himself displays in the
first word he utters, his famous neologism implying scatological reduc
tiveness. Unlike Macbeth who also usurps a throne, who is also driven by a
woman, and who moves from one encounter with his enemies to another,
he has no real sense of power.6 He merely seeks to plunder all resources of
his kingdom for himself. He does not wish to provide a model kingship
which would force his subjects to look up to his title and to his role; he does
not want to create an everlasting dynasty. As a result, he is far more poorly
cast in the part of king than the usurper Macbeth, whose head could not
fill Duncan's crown.7 Ubu, whose stomach is too big and whose brain is
too small, begins his reign with an acute case of indigestion which destroys
the image of a king eager to establish wisdom and spiritual equilibrium.
His gesture to feed everyone, to provide food for the people, whatever his
motivation, again destroys his image as king, in spite of the precedent set
by Henri IV's famous "poule au pot" for every household. This gesture
does not supply the heretofore needy with the essentials, but pushes Ubu,
with his typically infantile behavior, to terrible orgies, preposterous even if
we the spectators are spared the details of the endless menus and prepara
tions. He temporarily transforms Poland into a huge banquet. Kingship
does not provide him or his queen with even the semblance of dignity.
There is no etiquette, no protocol, no regal language to acquire. Soon after
his inauguration he addresses his wife as "Madame femelle." Far from fit

For relation of Shakespeare to Ubu roi, cf. Banquet Years, p. 29 and Jarry dramaturge,
p. 62.
For a metadramatic interpretation of Macbeth, cf. J.D. Hubert, "Text as Theatricality
in King Lear and Macbeth, " in Tragedy and the Tragic in Western Culture (Montréal:
Determinations, 1983), pp. 95-102.

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ting into a traditional monarchy and gaining status, he takes over an ani
mal farm. The fact that his spouse, in lieu of ermine trimmings, covers
herself with animal skins lends credence to this interpretation. Her cover
up cannot hide but only reveal her true nature or rather her fundamental
role. As we have intimated, the menus of the banquets combine verbal in
ventions with plausible dishes. The play throughout sustains a fantastic
mode, prompted by verbal ambiguity, neologisms, and transgressions of
various categories. Toward the end of the play, when nobody seems to
know whether the bear is dead or alive, "la mère Ubu" is paradoxically at
tacked by the animal even though it has already undergone preparation for
a feast. The spectator moves into a dreamworld where additional confu
sions compound those to which we have just alluded. Ubu speaks at length
in his sleep, intimately associating the bear with his other consumable
enemies. The reductive drive of his monomaniacal appetite informs his
dream, unrelieved either by intimations concerning the future or any kind
of repression stemming from his past: "Décervelez, tudez, coupez les
oneilles, arrachez la finance et buvez jusqu'à la mort..." (p. 112). The
dream repeats Ubu's one-track terror which had continuously merged the
consumer with the consumable, the aggressor witn tne victim, udu, 11 ne
could become a character in another dramatist's play, would undoubtedly
appear even less privileged than Ionesco's Smiths and Martins, who thrive
on verbal recollections provided by their English Assimil meals, or
Beckett's Didi who forgets whether it is a turnip or a carrot that he still car
ries in his pocket.
In 1982, Sebastian Matta provided eight colored etchings and a
number of black and white drawings to illustrate Ubu roi.8 Our interpreta
tion, which insists on the importance of food as a unifying element, is cor
roborated by Matta's plates. On the title page appears a modified version
of Jarry's familiar drawing. The shield with its spiral design covering
Ubu's belly is transformed into circumvolutions hinting at digestive
organs. Matta introduces the mock-hero's anal nature without needing to
reconstruct a banquet scene with table and dishes. For him the banquet is
not an episode which takes place at a specific moment of the play, but must
manifest its presence by the representation of oblong objects, sausages or
rather the persistent "andouilles" available to the characters or preserved
in their digestive system. Teeth play a significant role in his interpretation
by assuming many bold shapes verging on those of a crown or partially ar

8. Alfred Jarry, Ubu roi, 8 gravures originales de Matta (Paris: Dupont-Visat, 1982).

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ticulated letters. Matta, in his eagerness to update the play so that it will
belong to the age of the cartoon, stresses the strong elective affinities be
tween the consumer and his language.
The failed quest of 19th-century fiction, the inevitable dissolution of
traditional artistic forms, reach ridiculous heights in Jarry's portrayal of
the petit-bourgeois and long-toothed Ubu as trencherman, soldier, and
usurper. This ultimate consumer in a world dominated by and reducible to
products cannot indeed fill any part but his own, which involves the
capacity to eat God, dead or alive, out of house and home.

University of California, Irvine

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