Jarry & Ubu

December 10: Onthis day in 1896, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roiopened and closed in Paris, the play having caused a near-riot in the audienceand then a tempest in the press. A slap at not just bourgeois values but thewell-made play, the Ubu premiere isnow regarded as a landmark moment in the history of modern theater, or theabsurdist branch of it.

Jarry’s characters talked in staccato, as if machines; theymoved as marionettes through imaginary scenery, wearing masks and placards.When Ubu came on stage with a large target drawn on his belly, a toilet-brushfor a scepter, and the play’s opening line of “Shit!” there was aprolonged yelling and shoving match between the avant-garde and the rear-guard. When things finally calmed down,and Ubu was able to say his second line—”Shit!”—there was a secondround of scuffles. For the twenty-three-year-old playwright, this was the idealreception for a play written to reflect “the eternal imbecility of man,his eternal lubricity, his eternal gluttony, the baseness of instinct raised tothe status of tyranny; of the coyness, the virtue, the patriotism, and theideas of the people who have dined well.”

Jarry’s absinthe-and-anarchy lifestyle would kill him tenyears later. He spent the time carrying the Ubu story on to Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu Enchained, refining his science of “pataphysics,”roaming Paris on bicycle and in whiteface makeup, dining on the fish he caughtin the Seine, living in his midget-sized rooms, created from a regularapartment cut in half horizontally. In time, Symbolists, Surrealists, Dadaists,and Absurdists would claim him as their own, but in fin de siècle Paris, says Elizabeth Wilson in Bohemians, Jarry was in a class by himself: “His extraordinarylife-as-work-of-art went beyond any popular bohemian stereotype, taking theimplications of life as art as far as they could possibly go.”

W. B. Yeats said something similar. After attendingopening/closing night, and even shouting on Ubu’s side, he commented that theend-of-era event was an ominous one:

After Stephane Mallarmé, after Paul Verlaine, after GustaveMoreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtlecolour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more ispossible? After us the Savage God.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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