Last modified: 2022-03-11 by ivan sache
Keywords: merdre |
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On 10 December 1896, the Theâtre de l'Œuvre in Paris, directed by the
famous actor Aurélien Lugné-Poé (1869-1940), presented the first
performance of a play that would radically transform the conception of
theater, both in France and abroad. The playwright, Alfred Jarry
(1873-1907), briefly introduced the play, Ubu Roi, as "taking place
in Poland, that is nowhere". The public, already puzzled by this weird
introduction, overreacted when the main character, Père Ubu, entered
the stage and shouted the first word of the play, his famous,
epenthetic word, Merdre !. Ubu's word might have been inspired by a
schoolkid pun on the name of the village of Merdrignac, located near
Rennes, a town where Jarry did not really enjoy the physics classes
given by a Mr. Hébert, who became "P.H.", "P. Ub", and eventually
The public was upset by Père and Mère Ubu's coarse language, by the schoolkiddish and macabre atmosphere of the play, but also by the total dislocation imposed by Jarry to the classical rules of theater: the actors were masked and dressed with ridiculous costumes, the armies were represented by a single actor riding a hobby-horse, there was no scenery but place names written on a board hold by an actor, and some parts of the "story" were totally nonsensic. The play was never performed again when the author was alive, except a shortened version for puppets in 1898. In spite of the support of several artists and critiques, Jarry had little public success; he died in poverty, mentally ruined by absinth, and taking himself for Père Ubu. He never saw the tyrans of the 20th centuries he had anticipated (therefore Ubu is not a "caricature" but an anticipation of those tyrans) and would be surprized by the overuse of the epithet ubuesque - the purists and true pataphysicians, however, do recommend ubique.
During his short life, Jarry wrote a huge number of texts; most of them were not retrieved and published until years after his death, when Jarry was eventually recognized as a precursor of surrealism and absurd theater. A rather hermetic play called César-Antéchrist, in which Père Ubu already appears, includes an "heraldic act", in which the titles of the 12 scenes are explicitely heraldic (Scene I - "Sable a king or"; Scene II - "Sable a unicorn passant argent" [and nothing else in the scene!], etc.) Some of the characters have a heraldic name: Orle, Chef, Pairle, Fasce, Trescheur, Giron, Pile and Cotice. The latter three characters appear again in Ubu Roi as Ubu's henchmen (palotins), together with another heraldic character, Capitaine Bordure. Giron indeed dies cut in four pieces, while Bordure is "torn up" by Ubu.
François Ubu, 2 January 2009
While Ubu Roi contains an incidental mention to the "Order of the Red Eagle of Poland" (Act I, 1), there is no flag content in Jarry's most famous work. This is not surprising because Jarry deliberately suppressed all naturalistic details from the play (even the bear shall be played by the same actor as Capitaine Bordure).
However, a Ubique flag is found in Gestes et opinions du docteur
Faustroll, pataphysicien, published posthumously in 1911. The "novel"
describes the long journey made by Doctor Faustroll "from Paris to
Paris on the sea" on a "metallic boat" of his invention, together with
the bailiff Panmuphle and the big monkey Bosse-de-Nage. Through the
navigation, the travellers visit several islands, each inhabited by an
artist and representing his artistic universe. Most islanders were
friends of Jarry, except Pierre Loti, who is ridiculed by Jarry.
The island described in Chapter XI (De l'île Cyril) is the "kinetic island" inhabited by the writer Marcel Schwob (1867-1905, to whom "Ubu Roi" is dedicated):
[...] l'île cinétique hissa la tête de mort et le chevreau, et Faustroll pavillon de la Grande Gidouille.
([...] the kinetic island hoisted the skull and crossbones while Faustroll hoisted the flag of the Grande Gidouille).
The whole chapter is a transposition of a chapter of the book Vies
imaginaires (Imaginary Lives) by Marcel Schwob entitled Le Capitaine
Kid, Pirate, presented there as:
Il suffit de savoir que son pavillon de soie noire était brodé d'une tête de mort et d'une tête de chevreau.
(We just need to know that his flag of black cloth was adorned of a skull and crossbones and of a kid's head).
Schwob himself transposed the historical Captain Kidd into Captain Kid and proposes in the book several fanciful explanations of the name chosen by the pirate.
The flag of the Grande Gidouille hosted by Faustroll is,
unfortunately, not described, but this is not the first appearance of
the Grande Gidouille. In 1899, Jarry released, with little success,
the Almanach du Père Ubu, which includes the five articles of the
statutes of the Ordre de la Grande Gidouille. Emblems of the order
are prescribed in the statutes but not described.
One of the numerous oddities of Jarry's works is linguistic invention (or destruction). Jarry deliberately used obsolete words and expressions, but also invented new words. Père Ubu shouts an idiolect, that is a language containing words of his own and that nobody else uses, the most famous of them being the aforementioned merdre and oneilles, instead of oreilles ("ears"); as a voracious idiot, Ubu has an oversized belly, which he calls his boudouille, bouzigne, giborgne and, most often, gidouille. Among Ubu's idiolectic swearwords, the most violent is cornegidouille, combining the horn (corne) and the belly, that is the two main aspects of Ubu, sexual and excremental.
The gidouille is a logarithmic spiral, cognate to Bernoulli's spira mirabilis, symbolizing Ubu's intestines and their ultimate content. It is shown on the "Genuine portrait of Mr Ubu" drawn by Jarry and appended to the first printed release of the play. The drawing has no colours but the gidouille is often represented in green, Ubu's prefered colour (he often swears par ma chandelle verte, "by my green candel", another sexual hint).
In 1948, a group of fans of Jarry, including the famous writers Boris Vian (1920-1959) and Raymond Quenaud (1903-1976) founded the Collège de 'Pataphysique and reestablished "in its extreme prestige" the Ordre de la Grande Gidouille (OGG). Plaques showing the spiral on a coloured background were awarded to the dignitaries of the Order.
The second almanach (Almanach illustré du Père Ubu), published in 1901 and as successful as the first one, includes a small text called Ubu colonial, with a drawing by the (later famous) painter Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) captioned as follows:
Les nègres n'ayant point de père officiel, s'évertuent à découper dans les journaux illustrés des portraits de gens en renom, mais parfois sans aveu, qu'ils affichent sur les murailles de leur case afin de se constituer en galerie d'ancêtres. Désirant mettre fin à cet abus nous offrons à nos fils les nègres l'image de notre gidouille.
(Negroes, having no official father, can't stop cutting from illustrated journals portraits of famous people, sometimes disreputable, that they pin on their hut's wall to get an ancestors' gallery. Wishing to end this abuse, we offer to our sons the negroes the image of our gidouille.)
The satire of the colonialist paternalism, very unusual at the time, is even increased by Bonnard's drawing, which shows the enormous Ubu riding a poor horse (most probably the famous cheval à phynances featured in Ubu Roi) and holding in sinister a big flag partially concealed by the gidouille.
Jarry's texts are quoted from Alfred Jarry, Œuvres complètes Vol. I, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1972, edited by Michel Arrivé. Background and comments are derived from Michel Arrivé's presentation and detailed notes.
François Ubu, 2 January 2009