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Picture of the 1951 Gaberbocchus Press edition of 'Ubu Roi' by Alfred Jarry (dramatist / playwright). Illustration by Franciszka Themerson. French Literature and drama


 
December 10, 1896
Alfred Jarry   (1873 - 1907)
 
Jarry, Ubu Roi, Riot
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1896, Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, opened and closed in Paris. The play caused a near-riot in the audience, and a tempest in the press over the next days; it is now regarded as a landmark moment in the history of modern theater, or the absurdist branch of it. Biographically the play was conventional enough: Pa Ubu was based upon Jarry's high school mathematics teacher, the archetypal classroom tyrant. In Jarry's caricature, Ubu became a grotesquely fat megalomaniac, his symbol for all that was pushy and piggy about the bourgeoisie. The set, costumes and acting style took this further, becoming a slap not just at bourgeois values but at the well-made play. Jarry's characters talked in staccato, as if machines; they moved as marionettes through imaginary scenery, wearing masks and placards. When Ubu came on stage with a large target drawn on his belly, a toilet-brush for a scepter and the play's opening line of "Merdre!" ("Shitre," perhaps -- some translate the play's title as King Turd) there was a 15-minute yelling and shoving match between the avant-garde and the rear-guard. When things finally calmed down, and Ubu was able to say the second line -- "Merdre!" -- there was another. All this was so offensive that Ubu Roi would not be produced again for over a decade, until after Jarry's death. Nonetheless, the one night and attendant scandal left Jarry satisfied that he had given society "the sight of its ignoble double," a portrait of "the eternal imbecility of man, his eternal lubricity, his eternal gluttony, the baseness of instinct raised to the status of tyranny; of the coyness, the virtue, the patriotism, and the ideas of the people who have dined well."

Jarry's absinthe-and-anarchy lifestyle would kill him at the age of thirty-four. His last years were spent as those previous -- carrying the Ubu story on to Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu Enchained, refining his science of "pataphysics," roaming Paris on bicycle while wearing and waving his two pistols, dining on the fish he caught in the Seine, living in his midget-sized rooms, created from a regular apartment cut in half horizontally. . . . In time, Symbolists, Surrealists, Dadaists and Absurdists would claim him as their own -- though W. B. Yeats, who had attended opening/closing night, and even shouted on Ubu's side, afterwards had this warning about the end-of-era event:

After Stephane Mallarme, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.

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Related authors:  Anatole France, Samuel Beckett
 
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