Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations

From Irreverent to Revered: How Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and the "U-Effect" Changed Theatre History

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Theatre and Film

First Advisor

Jonathan Chambers

Second Advisor

Kara Joyner (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Lesa Lockford (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Scott Magelssen (Committee Member)


For decades, theatre history textbooks and other influential studies on theatre history have positioned Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s 1896 avant-garde “classic,” as the beginning or originator of the historical avant-garde and precursor to the playwrights considered as part of Martin Esslin’s “Theatre of the Absurd.” Much of this reputation is built on inaccurate accounts of the premiere production, put down by those involved or in attendance, who had particular aims in reporting the event in the ways they did. Those accounts would end up being put to use as the base on which various scholars would establish the premiere of Ubu Roi as the ignition of the historical avant-garde. This dissertation is a poststructuralist historiographical study in which I analyze the various statements made, first by participants and witnesses to the premiere production, and then by scholars and critics who take those accounts as factual, that place Ubu Roi on a path to legitimization and inclusion in the Western canon. In my research, I examine initial accounts of the premiere production, early post mortem accounts of Jarry’s life, the proliferation of the character Ubu in early twentieth century French society, French and English critical and biographical studies of Jarry and Ubu Roi, anthologies and edited collections of Ubu Roi, and reviews and other related materials of several key French revivals and over fifteen English-language revivals of the play. I mark the emergence of three specific strategies that grew out of tactics Jarry employed at the premiere. I demonstrate how the conflation of Jarry with his character Ubu, made possible by his extraordinary performance of self at the premiere, the notion of the production’s innate ability to produce scandal, and the idea of Jarry’s implementation of a “revolutionary” dramaturgy, are all used to make Ubu Roi the example par excellence of avant-garde drama. I unite these three strategies under the title “U-Effect” to describe the subject position assumed by those scholars and critics that privilege Ubu Roi as the epitome of the theatrical avant-garde. With this as my guiding mode of critique, I examine such issues as the practice of writing Jarry’s biography, how the inclusion of Ubu Roi in anthologies of drama and histories of the avant-garde has affected the construction of theatre history, and how productions of the play reinforce, maintain, or subvert the play’s power in scholarly and cultural discourse. Encouragingly, some recent studies have challenged Ubu Roi’s seat at the head of the avant-garde, and in this study I underline how scholars have posed those challenges. It is important to expose the process through which Ubu Roi has attained its chief position in the avant-garde in order to be able to see more clearly whether there are other narratives that may provide students of theatre history—if not a complete image or story of the avant-garde—at least a more nuanced, and varied one.