BORN: 1873, Laval, France
DIED: 1907, Paris, France
GENRE: Drama, fiction, nonfiction, poetry
King Ubu (1896)
Alfred Jarry. Jarry, Alfred, photograph.
Often considered a major influence on the theater of the twentieth century, Alfred Jarry’s plays are forerunners of the theater of the absurd of Samuel Beckett, Antonin Artaud, and Eugene Ionesco and influenced the Dadaists and surrealists as well. Ubu Roi (translated as either King Ubu or King Turd) is Jarry’s most famous and influential work. Regarded by some critics as combining elements from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, Ubu Roi essentially eliminates all of Shakespeare’s dramatic action and interjects scatological humor and farcical situations to comment on art, literature, politics, and current events.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Rebellious Youth. Alfred Jarry, born on September 8, 1873, was the son of a traveling salesman and a mother who was a member of a fallen aristocratic family with a long history of mental illness. When Jarry was a small child, his mother divorced his father and moved her son and daughter to the rugged, isolated coast of Brittany in northern France. Here Jarry—a precocious child—began writing poetry and developed his taste for the macabre, especially as his own mother began exhibiting eccentricities and signs of mental illness. In 1888 Jarry entered school in Rennes. A brilliant student, Jarry won prizes in foreign languages and science as a youth. Even at this early age, however, the rebelliousness and caustic wit that would mark his life and career were already apparent. With his schoolmates, Jarry staged bawdy lampoons of Felix Hebert, his physics teacher, whom he regarded as incompetent and physically repulsive. Jarry remained obsessed with the figure of Hebert for the rest of his life, using him as the model for the title character of Ubu Roi.
Becoming Ubu: Bizarre Behavior and Ill Health in Late Life. After failing a series of exams, Jarry moved to Paris and quickly became associated with the French symbolist movement spearheaded by Stephane Mallarme and Andre Gide. Jarry wrote prolifically and finally met with crowning success with the first production of Ubu Roi in 1896. Afterward, however, Jarry fell into a decline during which he exhibited many of the traits of mental illness suffered by his mother. During his later years, which were marked by bizarre behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, and ill health, Jarry began to affect the mannerisms of Ubu, speaking in a droning monotone and walking in a jerky, robot-like fashion. By the time of his death in 1907, at the age of thirty-four, he was known less as a writer than as an often-homeless, eccentric denizen of the bohemian Parisian neighborhood of Montparnasse. He died from health problems relating to his continued alcoholism and use of ether.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Jarry's famous contemporaries include:
Joseph Conrad (1866-1953): This Polish author is considered by many to be one of the most remarkable novelists to write in the English language, his most studied work being Heart of Darkness (1899).
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): Often credited with driving the Irish Literary Revival, this poet and dramatist is regarded as one of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): This Spanish artist is often credited with founding the cubist movement.
Andre Breton (1896-1966): Author and theorist, this Frenchman studied medicine and psychiatry but is most remembered as the founder of surrealism.
Works in Literary Context
Against Realism. Inspired by Mallarme’s challenge that realism was ‘‘a banal sacrilege of the true meaning of art’’ the symbolists during the turn of the century in France organized a reaction against realistic art and theater. Although he was not a symbolist in the orthodox sense, Alfred Jarry became a participant in this campaign. Jarry devoted much of his energy to a critique of realistic theater that reached a climax: a defiant gesture with the release of Ubu Roi upon the Paris stage.
Jarry’s attack against realistic theater warrants study not just for its vehemence, but for its significance in the evolution of the modern theater. Out of his reaction against realism and his search for a more viable alternative, Jarry developed the ideas and engaged in the experiments that made him a forerunner of both the theater of cruelty and the theater of the absurd.
Proposal for a New Theater. Jarry’s proposals for a new theater centered on two conditions, both of which appear to have developed out of his critique of the realistic theater: 1) the need to ‘‘create new life’’ in the theater by creating a new type of character, and 2) the need to transcend the ‘‘things that happen all the time to the common man.’’ He fulfilled these conditions by creating Pere Ubu, a creature whose actions are irrefutably logical, but whose raison d’etre is ‘‘to kill everyone.’’
The plot of Ubu Roi is driven by Ma Ubu, whose husband, Pa Ubu, is the former king of Aragon and the current aide to the king of Poland. Ma Ubu pressures her husband to kill the king, which he does with the help of Captain Macnure. As the new king of Poland, Pa Ubu eliminates the nobility, the judiciary, and the bankers. He then sets out to collect his own taxes, harshly punishing those who object to the exorbitant amounts of money he demands. In the end, the Ubus are driven out of Poland to exile in France. Claude Schumacher of International Dictionary of Theatre wrote, ‘‘In Ubu Roi all the basic dramaturgical conventions are deliberately subverted and it is the iconoclastic nature of the play that makes it such an important landmark in contemporary world drama.’’
Forerunner of the Theater of the Absurd. Jarry’s plays are forerunners of the theater of the absurd of Beckett, Artaud, and Ionesco and influenced the Dadaists and surrealists as well. Ubu Roi is clearly Jarry’s most successful and influential work, but in many ways it is little different from the rest of his oeuvre. Ubu enchaine and Ubu cocu offer further variations on the same crude protagonist. Even in such essays as ‘‘De l’inutilite de theatre au theatre’’ and ‘‘Questions de theatre,’’ Jarry attempted to explain the theoretical framework and rationale for the farcical tone and techniques of his plays. Similarly, Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien (Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician) is a work of fiction that presents the tenets of pataphysics—the science of absurd creations. Although Jarry’s plays have had the greatest impact, his prose has also been praised. Roger Shattuck commented, ‘‘Jarry writes in a highly compressed, poetic, often mock-heroic prose that requires careful reading. Yet the sentences move at headlong speed and draw the reader unexpectedly into the action.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Many of Jarry's protagonists are crude, insignificant nobodies. For example, Pa Ubu is fat, ugly, and extremely unpleasant. This focus on characters that lack control over various aspects of their being in the world raises questions about the relative insignificance of humanity as a whole and the absurdity of the human condition. Other works that explore these themes include:
The Metamorphosis (1915), a novella by Franz Kafka. In this tale, Gregor Samsa, an ordinary traveling salesman, wakes up only to find that his body has been transformed into an enormous bug.
Nausea (1938), a novel by Jean-Paul Sartre. In this existential novel, a historian is overtaken by a sense of nausea as he becomes increasingly convinced that his freedom and ability to discern his being in the world is inhibited by objects and situations.
Waiting for Godot (1953), a play by Samuel Beckett. In this absurdist tragicomedy, the characters wait for someone named Godot, who fails to arrive.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), a play by Tom Stoppard. This play follows the travels of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters from William Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Works in Critical Context
The Riots Jarry did not have to wait long for critical recognition. On the night of Ubu Roi’s first performance, riots broke out in the theater. Among those sitting in the audience for the opening night were Arthur Symons, William Butler Yeats, and Stephane Mallarme. Martin Esslin wrote, ‘‘Yeats rightly sensed that the scandalous performance marked the end of an era in art.’’ While Yeats wrote of being stunned and saddened by the play, Mallarme was much more enthusiastic: ‘‘You have put before us, with a rare and enduring glaze at your fingertips, a prodigious personage and his crew, and this is a sober and sure dramatic sculptor. He enters into a repertoire of high taste and haunts me.’’
Later Recognition and Influence Contemporary critics now recognize Jarry’s contribution to literature as a forerunner of the theater of the absurd. Jarry’s rejection of realism and general principles were later taken up and more fully developed by Antonin Artaud, who saw theater as a medium for symbolic suggestion. Through Artaud and through Albert Camus, Jarry’s ideas have continued to live and to produce a new and entirely different drama in the works of the current school of avant-garde writers.
Responses to Literature
1. Describe the character Pa Ubu. Choosing specific examples from Jarry’s play, explain your emotional reaction to both his personality and his actions.
2. Discuss the motivation for the two sequels to Ubu Roi.
3. Jarry’s plays are often considered forerunners to later existential, absurdist, Dadaist, and surrealist works. Choose three of these four movements and identify several elements of each in Jarry’s most famous play, Ubu Roi.
4. Describe Jarry’s contributions to theater of the absurd.
Beaumont, Keith. Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.
________. Jarry: Ubu Roi. London: Grant and Cutler, 1987.
Cooper, Judith. Ubu roi: An Analytical Study. New Orleans: Tulane University Press, 1974.
LaBelle, Maurice Marc. Alfred Jarry: Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd. New York: New York University Press, 1980.
Lennon, Nigey, illustrated by Bill Griffith. Alfred Jarry: The Man with the Axe. Los Angeles: Panjandrum Books, 1984.
Shattuck, Roger, and Watson, Simone, eds. Selected Works of Alfred Jarry. New York: Grove Press, 1965.
Stillman, Linda Klieger. Alfred Jarry. Boston: Twayne, 1983.