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Ubu Roi (1973/77)

David Copelin


Link to 1973 Ubu Roi translation by David Copelin

Link to 1977 Ubu Roi translation by David Copelin


Ubu Roi is in the fullest sense the product of a schoolboy collaboration, an authentic product of a collective schoolboy imagination.                                                                                                            (Beaumont, 17)

David Copelin
David Copelin

Though Ubu Roi was conceived and first performed as a collective creation, it is Alfred Jarry who is acknowledged as the creator of the play.  Jarry was born in Laval, Meyenne on September 8th, 1873 to Anselmw Jarry, a well-to-do farmer and craftsman, and his wife, Caroline Quernest. While attending the Lycée des Rennes in 1888, fifteen-year old Jarry and his classmate Henri Morin became frustrated and repulsed by their obese and incompetent mathematics teacher, M. Felix Flébert, who was known by the students as Père Ébé.  Jarry and Henri adapted a 20 page story about Père Ébé, originally devised by Henri and his brother Charles, into a marionettes play entitled Les Polonais. The premier of the show took place in the Morin’s attic in 1888 and was staged using a new set of marionettes that Jarry had received for Christmas. Jarry never tired of creating stories about Père Ébé who eventually became known as Ubu Roi.  Jarry’s Ubu stories later appeared in printed variations with Guignol in 1893, and Caesar Antichrist in 1894.


In 1890, while living in France and attending Lycée Henri IV, Jarry began to further adapt Les Polonais, which was now entitled Ubu Roi.  The play was published twice in1896 shortly before Aurélien Lugné-Poe’s professional production, which was previewed on December 9th and produced on December 10 at the Théâtre de L’Oeuvre in Paris.  The play opened with the word: “merdre,”(33) which caused a riot in the theatre.  Gémier, the actor who was playing Père Ubu, began to dance an impromptu jig in order to appease the rioting crowd; he was successful, but only until the word “merdre”(34) was again uttered.  As crowds of shocked bourgeois audience members stalked out of the theatre, Jarry supporter’s yelled, “You wouldn’t have understood Shakespeare or Wagner either” (Lennon, 48). 


Though the riots gained Jarry notoriety, to Lugné-Poe the play was a dismal failure, as he only made 1,300 francs from the box office.  Though Ubu Roi was not an expensive play to stage, the profits did not even begin to cover the expenses of the production, nor the mental wear Lugné-Poe endured.  The experience was draining for Lugné-Poe if for no other reason than it was he who had to deal with Jarry.  Jarry had proven to be a stubborn playwright who demanded a non-naturalistic acting style and design, which included “the staccato manner of speaking, the misplaced accents, the puppet-like movements, the use of masks, the use of placards, the hodge-podge style of scenic painting” (Beaumont, 97-99). 

The stylistic elements that Jarry incorporated into his play were perceived as a rejection of realism, the dominant theatrical trend of the time, and as a result Jarry was hailed the father of non-naturalistic theatre, and the inspiring force behind the Dadaist movement.  As Beaumont writes, “a grimmer, less fantastic side of his work was recalled by the anarchism and nihilism of Dada, the artistic or anti-artistic movement founded by Tristan Tzara in 1916 in the midst of the disgust and disillusionment born of the First World War”(1).  The surrealists later rediscovered Jarry’s work and proclaimed him their forerunner; they were fascinated with Jarry’s use of dreams and his study of the subconscious mind. In 1937, Antonin Artaud and Roger Vitrac founded the Theatre of Alfred Jarry, which was devoted to the deconstruction of conventional theatre.  The College of Pataphysics, a school devoted to the study of the realms beyond metaphysics, was founded based on Jarry’s ideas and his essay, Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustrol.”  One of the founding academics of the school was the French absurdist playwright, Eugene Ionesco.  

Prior to the preview production of Ubu Roi, Jarry made a curtain speech, which involved him sharing pataphysical doctrines, as well as apologizing for the final state of the production, which he believed had been compromised due to lack of rehearsal timeFor the delivery of the speech he dressed in a baggy black suit, plastered his hair down, wore a huge bowtie, walked onto the stage like a robot, and talked in a staccato-like manner (a personal style he maintained for the rest of his life).  From this point on, Jarry sought to become Ubu in speech, dress, and public behavior, all in a desperate attempt to destroy his own social homogeneity.  He consumed large amounts of alcohol, absinthe, and ether as a means of coping with his nihilistic view of French society.  Jarry continued to be obsessed with Ubu and wrote two sequels to Ubu Roi that also satirized European philosophies: Ubu Enchainé and Ubu Cocu.  Ubu Roi was not produced again until 1908 - the year after Jarry’s death.  He died in Paris on November 1 of tuberculosis, which had been aggravated by alcohol and drug use.

Ubu Roi, despite its economic failure in 1889, continues to be studied not only for its non-naturalistic style, but also for its use of parody.  Jarry’s Ubu Roi begins by blatantly parodying Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Père Ubu, after being tempted by his wife Mère Ubu to murder the royal family, usurps the Polish throne and begins a “Macbeth-like” reign of terror.  Contrary to Macbeth, however, Ubu is unlike the traditional Aristotelian tragic hero who is essentially good, recognizes his hubris, and then suffers as a result of his wrongdoings.  Ubu is not essentially good, and feels absolutely no remorse for his actions: “He is prehistoric, atavistic, destructive, pure engorging will” (Copelin, 2).  Jarry intentionally distorted the traditional Macbeth-like protagonist because he wanted to break down the representation of the hero at the time; Ubu became the anti-protagonist: “He is everything that is foul in the world, in a pure sense – devoid of any redeeming characteristics or capacity.  He is not diluted with Iago’s cunning or Macbeth’s guilt.  And somehow he is not unlike us.” (           


Ubu’s relentless reign of terror is halted when Captain Bordure, who has been sentenced to imprisonment by Père Ubu, flees to Russia and convinces the Russian Tzar to overthrow Père Ubu in order to restore Buggerlas, the rightful heir, to the throne.  The play clearly parodies Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Buggerlas’ ancestors returns and incite Buggerlas to avenge his father’s death:            


Les Ames de Venceslas, de Boleslas, de Ladislas, de Rosemonde entrent dans grotte, leurs Ancêtres      

les accompagnent et remplisssent la grotte.  Le plus vieux s’approche de Bougrelas et le réveille doucement.

BOUGRELAS: Eh! Que vois-je? Toute ma famille, mes ancêtres…Par quelle prodigé?

L’OMBRE: Apprends, Bougrelas, que j’ai été pendant ma vie le seigneur Mathias de Konigsberg, le premier roi et le fondateur de la maison.  Je te remets le soin de notre vengeance. (Il lui donne une grande épée.)

Et que cette épée que je te donne n’ait pas de repos que quand elle aura frappé de mort l’usurpateur” (60).

[The spirits of Wenceslas, of Boleslas, of Ladislas, of Rosemonde enter the grotto, their ancestors follow them and fill up the grotto.  The oldest approaches Bougrelas and gently wakes him up.

BOUGRELAS:  Oh! What do I see?  All of my family, my ancestors.  By what omen?

SHADOW: Learn, Bougrelas, that during my life I was the noble Mathias de Konigsberg, the first King and the founder of our legacy. I pass the responsibility of our revenge onto you. (He hands him a large sword.)  And may this sword that I give you never rest until it has struck the usurper dead.]  


As Bougrelas and the Tzar approach the Polish castle, Père Ubu escapes and hides in a cavern in Lithuania where he encounters a bear, which he kills and eats; the animal choice is intended to reference Shakespeare’s stage direction for Antigonus in Act 3: Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale: (exit pursued by a bear).   Mère Ubu, who has escaped the Tzar and the Russian army, eventually finds Père Ubu and they flee to France.  

David Copelin, Canadian-based theatre practitioner, began translating and adapting Jarry’s Ubu Roi while he was a student at Columbia Univeristy .  He was prompted to begin the project by his dissatisfaction with English editions of the play: “I spent my junior year abroad.  I went to Europe, in 1964-65.  I read Ubu Roi in the original French, and when I returned home I read a number of different translations, all dreadful.  They were intended to be read, not produced on stage.  They were arch, insufferably cute, excessively literary, and inaccurate.  I said to myself: ‘I can do better  than that.’  And I did.  It’s the sort of play that should be re-translated every 15 years anyway” (Taylor, 1).   Copelin completed his adaptation of Ubu Roi at the Yale School of Drama and it was published in 1973.   

Ubu Roi 1973 translation by David Copelin
Ubu Roi 1973 translation by David Copelin

Copelin’s adaptation is similar to the original French text of Ubu Roi in its use of vile imagery, slapstick physical humor, and amoral words: “This translation is as literally accurate as possible, with some changes dictated by our increased tolerance for blasphemy and poetic invective; where I have taken liberties, I have done so for theatrical effect.  In fact, theatrical effect has been my touchstone throughout, because despite all the theorizing about the play, all the analyses of its dramatic progenitors and its involved symbolism, the text itself remains concrete.  Pliable, yes, but also earthy, fertile, factual.  Ubu lives” (Copelin, 2).  The first step in Copelin’s translation and adaptation process was to change the title from Ubu Roi to Ubu Rex: “I call it Ubu Rex to make the title even more hilariously pretentious” (Taylor, 1).

Copelin explains that in his adaptation process, he “identified the Shakespeare quotations and took them back to the originals” (Taylor, 1). Ubu Rex continues to parody and adapt Shakespeare’s plays by maintaining the Macbeth plot and the Hamlet avengement scene.  Copelin also recognized Jarry’s parody of Caesar in Ubu Roi and chose to make this particular Shakespearean reference more direct.  In Act Two of Copelin’s adaptation, King Wenceslas ignores his wife’s warning that he could be killed if he attends the parade, similarly to the way Caesar ignores Calpurnia’s warnings that he could be killed if he attends the Senate-house: “Do not go forth today: call it my fear” (2:2).  Queen Wencesalas explains her prophetic dream and pleads for King Wenceslas to avoid the parade that King Wenceslas plans to attend: “Must I tell you again?  Didn’t I see [Ubu] in a dream with a gang of armed men, striking you down and throwing you into the Vistula, while an eagle like the one of the herald of Poland placed the crown on his head?”(19).  King Wenceslas later responds to Queen Wenceslas saying, “And as for you, madam, to show how little I fear Mr. Ubu, I am going to parade as I am, with neither armor nor sword” (20). 

In Copelin’s 1977 edition of the play, as he is being murdered, King Wenceslas says, “Oh! Help! Holy Virgin, they got me”(19).  However, when the play was first produced at the Yale Repertoire Theatre in 1980, reviewers claimed Wenceslas spoke the Shakespearean line, “Et tu, Ubu” (Gusssov, 1) as he was murdered.

When translating the text from French to English, Copelin was challenged to find English words and phrases to replace the Parisian jargon, which were not only literal translations, but that also held the same connotative meanings in each language.  In Markland Taylor’s article, “Rioting in theatre is good – look what it did for ‘Ubu Roi,’” Copelin explains that he “simply looked up the street argot in the dictionaries”(1).  In her article “Not For the Faint-Hearted,” Leila Crane notes how the translation from French to English altered the tone of the play: “The French word “merdre” sounds a bit more acceptable than the American word “sheeeyyyyiiittt” which opens the action of Yale Repertory’s Theatre’s production of “Ubu Rex” on stage now” (1).   It is important to note that Jarry lightened the tone of the word by adding “re” to the end of the word: “merde” became “merdre.” Copelin, rather than use the literal translation of “merde,” which is “shit,” chose to elongate the syllables within the word in order to perhaps make it sound more comical and lighthearted.  Other translator’s agree that the rhythm and humor associated with the created word “merdrecould not be communicated in English.  In his “Introduction” to The Ubu Plays, the translator/adaptor Simon Watson Taylor questions: “How is one to duplicate the majestic, tongue-rolling sonority of the word merdre, given only our bleak unheroic ‘shit’ to work with?”  To deal with this issue, he distorts the basic word “shit” into “pschitt” (Connolly, 15) in The Ubu Plays.

Ubu Roi 1977 translation by David Copelin
Ubu Roi 1977 translation by David Copelin

Due to the fact that Jarry, in the absurdist trend, used not only street argot but also made-up French words, Copelin was faced with the challenge of not only creating suitable words to correspond with the literal French words, but also having to create English equivalents to the French “gibberish” that is ever-present within the play.   Copelin explains, “When it came to Jarry’s made-up words (which were left untranslated in the other editions) I made up words the way he did” (Taylor, 2).  An obvious example is the change to Captain Bordure’s name.  In French, “ordure” can be defined as “garbage” or “refuse.”  Jarry simply altered the word by adding a B before ordure.  Copelin changed the Captain’s name to “Sexrement,” and thus created a seemingly more vile and sexualized version of the Captain’s name.  Reviewer Mel Gussow found the name to be somewhat more obscene than in Jarry’s original: “Mr. Belgrader [director for the Yale Production] and his translator have played up the scatology.  For example, in this adaptation Ubu’s aide, and later enemy a captain who is known in various translations as Macnure and Bordure, is named Sexcrement” (1).

The 1990 Shaw Festival production of Copelin’s Ubu Rex, which was directed by Allen MacInnes, captured not only the scatological aspect of Copelin’s adaptation, but also the heightened sexualized atmosphere.  The Shaw production called it the “risk” production of the season, and that was not only because of the absurdist style and the offensive word use within the play, but also because of the overtly sexualized atmosphere.  For example, Captain “Sexcrement” wore a six-foot phallic symbol strapped to his groin area throughout the play.  Ray Conologue describes the effect of the costuming: “Designer Yvonne Sauriol has given Ubu’s military chief, Captain Sexcrement  (Simon Bradbury) a stuffed penis about six feet long, which he wraps around himself like a dhoti.  This is not as alarming as it might seem.  It is the brightest pink imaginable, and made of a fabric that is reminiscent of your favorite teddy bear” (1).  

For the Shaw production, Mere Ubu’s sexualized nature, which is present in the original text, was amplified in an attempt to further shock the audience.  Robert Crew explains, “Leblanc lets her hair down and gives herself a false front and false French accent, both nicely exaggerated” (1).  Though the play is often categorized as a “French” absurdist play, Mère Ubu was the only character on stage to adopt a French accent.  This production choice allowed the play to mimic Canadian stereotypes of the French woman as being more provocative and sexually free.  But the stereotypical “femme fatale” is more an entrenched archetype than a risqué slur, and thus the directorial choice may have taken away from the character’s shock factor.  It is a problem faced by the play as a whole.

The Canadian production of Ubu Rex was built in part upon “shock value,” but it is difficult to determine just what shocks a modern audience. Many Canadian audience members are accustomed to hearing sexually explicit dialogue, and to seeing acts of violence and depravity.  Indeed, Canadian society is inundated with such sights and sounds with television, news, and music on a daily basis.  In his article “Ubu Roi impudence no longer a shocker,” Terry Doran explains how the Shaw production used Canadian cultural references in an attempt to make the play somewhat more applicable to its audience - an audience who are distinctly more difficult to shock than the original Parisian bourgeois audience:


[Shiyitt] is repeated for effect throughout a series of disjointed episodes, which see Père Ubu usurp the Polish crown.  None of this in itself is of any overriding interest, for the real subject of the play is the audience, or more precisely attitudes held by the audience.  Any production of “Ubu Roi” faces this problem.  It is meant to shock to attack, to shake up.  But “Ubu Roi” can do none of these things today.  That audience, that system of beliefs, those cherished attitudes, have long disappeared under the onslought of modern culture.  One way around this is adding to the translation some contemporary illusions.  Translator Copelin, or MacInnis and company, do this.  A few political cracks, mostly Canadian, dot the performance, but really, it’s not enough (1).  


The play does allow for the audience to identify and recognize the impersonation of several Western figures: “At one point, Barry MacGregor’s Ubu assumes the rumbling vocal cadences of Winston Churchill delivering a patriotic speech; at another point, Michael Wilson and Brian Mulroney materialize out of these grotesqueries to hound the peasantry to their deaths for defying the Goods and Services Tax” (Portman, 1).   These adaptive means are not evident on Copelin’s published script, but were vocally specific to the Canadian production. 

Though Ubu Rex is intended to shock, it is primarily a comedy and a parody of empowered people.  However, a reader or audience member cannot help but be conscious of racial slurs within the play.  Though many of Jarry’s words were made up, many offensive ones were not.  These words may have appealed to a bourgeois Parisian audience, but may no longer do so for many Canadians.  The lines: “filthy Spics”(8), “Do you think I am some Oriental despot?”(10), and “Pack of Arabs, what do you want?”(10), are all used in a clearly offensive manner to insult Caucasian characters in the play.  They lack any form of absurdity, and refer very directly to the hatred and racism that existed in the XVII century Parisian society, and that continues to exist in Canadian society today.   Copelin included the racial slurs in his adaptation and maintained the “schoolboy humor” of the play.

Following the publishing and production of “the first English Canadian” (Copelin, 1) Ubu Rex, Copelin has maintained a successful career.  He has worked across North America as a theatre professor, and a professional dramaturg.  He has also worked as a financial planner and story consultant for Warner Bros. Pictures.   In 1998, his textbook Practical Playwriting was published.  He served as the artistic director of Scriptlab from 1999 to 2003.  Bella Donna, a new play by Copelin, recently won the 2005 Best New Script at the Toronto Fringe Festival.  He is currently writing the play, The Rabbi of Ragged Ass Road, set in Yellowknife Canada.

Copelin’s adaptive process and his creative freedom with the word play in Jarry’s Ubu Roi embodies the value of a collective creation.  The play originated as a collective creation; it was conceived by Charles and Henri Morin and was further adapted by Jarry.  The original 20-page script, which was held in Charles Morin’s notebook while he was a student at Les Rennes, was at heart a series of inside jokes, and thus many of the resonances in the play are lost.  As Beaumont writes, “in addition to this linguistic deformation and invention which – in Ubu Roi at least – confused and upset his first adult audience, Jarry also makes use in all these plays and fragments of a number of elements which derive from the original schoolboy folklore of Rennes whose meaning, once they are removed from this context, is puzzling, if not outright incomprehensible” (24).  Hence, it is in the style of Jarry himself that Copelin adapted the script to English - creating non-sensible words that may have associative connotations with Canadian audience members, parodying Shakespeare, imitating political personas, and adding sexualized comedic elements.  Regardless of political correctness or majoritarian “appropriateness,” Copelin’s adaptation remains true to the satiric wit of Jarry’s play, and hinges itself upon the fine line between social critique and playful fatuity.


Marissa McHugh


Works Cited:

“Alfred Jarry, 1873-1907: Alfred Jarry Shrine.”  Milk Magazine.  Vol. 6. Ed.  Lina Ramano and Larry Sawyer. 2005.

Beaumont, Keith.  Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study.  New York: St Martin’s Press, 1984.

Conlogue, Ray.  “Ubu transformed into Mad Hatter.”  Globe and Mail 14 August 1990: Np.

Copelin, David.  “The First Polish Joke.”  Ubu Rex.  Vancouver: Pulp Press, 1973.

Crane, Leila.  “Not for the Faint-Hearted: ‘Ubu Rex’ at Yale is Tough-Talking Fantasy.”  Np nd: Np. 

Crew, Robert.  “Energetic Ubu Rex lets it all hang out.”  Toronto Star 12 August 1990: Np.

Doran, Terry.  “’Ubu Roi’ impudence no longer a shocker.’  Now 9 August 1990: Np.

Gussov, Mel.  “Theatre: Yale Rep Revives ‘Ubu Rex.’”  The New York Times 16 March 1980: Np.

Jarry, Alfred.  The Ubu Plays.  Trans. Cyril Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor.  New York: Grove Press Inc, 1969.

Jarry, Alfred.  Ubu Rex. Trans.  David Copelin. Vancouver: Pulp Press, 1973.

Jarry, Alfred.  Ubu Rex. Trans. David Copelin. Vancouver: Pulp Press, 1977.

Lennon, Nigey.  Alfred, Jarry: The Man With the Axe.  Los Angeles: Panjandrum Books, 1984.

Taylor, Markland.  “Rioting in theatre is good – look what it did for ‘Ubu Roi.’”  The New Haven Register 10 February 1980: Np.


Watson Taylor, Simon.  “Introduction:” The Ubu Plays.  New York: Grove Press Inc, 1969.


Link to 1973 Ubu Roi translation by David Copelin

Link to 1977 Ubu Roi translation by David Copelin



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