Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ubu Roi

Alfred Jarry, a French writer known mainly as the creator of UBU ROI (1896), a kind of parody of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Jarry was a forerunner of the Theatre of Absurd (see Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello, Genet and others), writing his works in a Surrealistic style, and inventing a pseudoscience or "science of imaginary solutions" which he called pataphysique. Jarry once stated: "Laughter is born out of the discovery of the contradictory." Jarry's other works include stories, novels, and poems.

De ceux qu'ont transis les espérances charnelles
Égrenant la vertèbre en les sépulcres froids
Pour celui qui honnit le dôme de nos droits
La sarcelle grise ahurit au grand soleil
L'ivoire courbé pair au front bas des taureaux.
(from 'Pastorale')

Alfred Jarry was born in Laval, Mayenne, into a well-to-do farmer and craftsman family. He was the second child of Anselme Jarry and his wife Caroline, née Quernest. Jarry was educated in the schools of Saint-Brieuc and Rennes. At the age of 18 he moved to Paris to live on a small family inheritance, and pursue his studies at the Lycée Henri IV. At the age of 15 he had written Ubu Roi in collaboration with a classmate at the Lycée of Rennes, to ridicule a pompous mathematics teacher. The play was originally presented with marionettes. In 1896 Aurélien Lugné-Poë produced it in Paris, where the performance caused a riot. The coarseness of the language and anarchistic tones were too much for the audience. It shocked even W.B. Yeats, who attended its opening night. Jarry also wrote two sequels to Ubu, UBU ENCHAÎNE (1900), which was acted for the first time at the Paris Exposition of 1937, and UBU COCU, published posthumously in 1944.

Ubu Roi was first presented on December 10, 1896 at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre. The title character, cowardly Père Ubu is egged on by his wife to murder the royal family. He becomes the king of Poland and establishes a reign of terror. (PEASANTS. Mercy, Lord Ubu, have pity on us. We are poor, simple people. PA UBU. I couldn't care less.) Eventually he is defeated by the Tsar and forced into exile to France with Mother Ubu. The events take place in a crazy never-never land, tempo is rapid, and principal characters move through the story like some monstrous puppets on an attack on existing moral and aesthetic values. - In addition to satirizing bourgeois values, Jarry sneers at traditional drama, among others Shakespeare's Macbeth in scene in which Mère and Père Ubu plot to assassinate the King of Poland.

After military service Jarry devoted himself to literature. He frequented the literary salons and began to write. His early works include LES MINUTES DE SABLE MÉMORIAL (1894), a collection of prose and verse. Henri Rousseau, a minor inspector in the toll service and the first of the so-called naive painters, painted Jarry's portrait which was hung in the Salon des Indépendants. L'AMOUR ABSOLU (1899) was a novel, more obscure than anything he had written. H.G. Wells's novel The Time Machine inspired Jarry to write the speculative essay 'How to Construct a Time Machine' (1900). LE SURÂLE (1902, The Supermale) was Jarry's last novel. "The act of love is of no importance, since it can be performed indefinitely," states Jarry in the beginning of the book. The hero of the erotic fantasy is a superman who wins a bicycle race against a six-man team, he has sex 82 times with a women, and experiences the final climax with an amorous machine.

"Yet it is high time we perceive the remarkably clear line that connects the impish figure of Alfred Jarry in 1896, calmly saying merde (shit) to bourgeois culture, with Albert Camus, the impassioned humanist who wanted to bring all the black sheep back into the fold." (Maurice Nadeau in The History of Surrealism, 1968)
After his fortune was soon spent, and Jarry lapsed into a chaotic, Bohemian life. "We won't have destroyed anything unless we destroy the ruins too," was his program. Though a midget, his presence was huge. Jarry had taste for absinthe, he lived in a bizarre apartment where each store had been cut horizontally in half to make double the original number of floors. André Gide put Jarry into an episode of his novel The Counterfeiters. In 1926 Gide wrote: "Everything in Jarry, that strange humbug, smelled of affectation - his face whited with flour, his mechanical speech without intonation, the syllables evenly spaced, and the words made up or distorted."

Until his death at the age of thirty-four, Jarry was a familiar figure stalking the streets of Paris with his green umbrella, symbol in King Ubu of middle-class power, and wearing the cyclist's garb and carrying two pistols. From Ubu he also adopted the gestures of his creation, spoke in high falsetto like Ubu, and always employed the royal "we." Jarry healt was undermined by poverty and alcohol. He died in alcoholism and tuberculosis in Paris, on November 1, 1907. In 1911 appeared a volume of Jarry's essays but it was not until the 1920s, when the value of his work was widely recognized.

Jarry's writings had a profound influence on the surrealist and Dada movements. His absurd humor appealed to André Breton (1896-1966) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who stated that the Dada spirit was the "non-conformist spirit of every century that has existed since man is man". Jarry's influence on modern science fiction is seen is J.G. Ballard's The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Downhill Motor Race (1967), which echoes Jarry's themes from his essay Commentair pour servir à la construction pratique de la machine à explorer le temps.

Pataphysics mixed science, science fiction, technology and art. Jarry defined it as the science of imaginary solutions, "which will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one." The 'science' was later taken up and developed by other French novelists such as Boris Vian, George Perec and Raymond Queneau...

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1 comment:

Michael Filas said...

Nice post Gary. One of my favorite details about Jarry is that on his deathbed, he requested a toothpick. Comedy is all about timing, I think. Another bit of absurdist lore is that he lived in a four post stilt house he called the tripod.