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Alfred Jarry (1873-1907)


French writer known mainly as the creator of Ubu Roi, first produced by Aurélien Lugné-Poë in Paris in 1896. 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. It is a concept that eludes definition. 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.

(in '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, a cloth merchant, 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. In collaboration with his classmates at the Lycée of Rennes, he had written Ubu roi to ridicule a pompous and fat mathematics teacher, Monsieur Hébert; by the students he was mocked as Père Heb, Éb, Ébouille, Ébé, P.H. an so on. Originally 'Pére Heb' was the star of plays presented with marionettes. After settling in Paris Jarry continued to polish the Ubu saga and also wrote two sequels, Ubu Enchaîné (1900), which was acted for the first time at the Paris Exposition of 1937, and Ubu Cocu (1944), in which Père Ubu flushes his conscience down the toilet. Scatalogical humor always appealed to Jarry, who dismissed the conventional use of language.

When Ubu roi was first presented on December 10, 1896 at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, the coarseness of the language and anarchistic tones were too much for the audience, which rose in outrage after the first word, which was "Merdre!" The play shocked even W.B. Yeats, who attended its opening night. One reviewer said: "Despite the late hour, I have just taken a shower. An absolutely essential preventive measure when one has been subjected to such a spectacle." 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 five months of military service in 1895, Jarry was discharged for medical reasons. He then began to frequent literary salons and devoted himself to writing. Jarry's first book was Les Minutes de Sable Mémorial  (1894), a collection of prose and verse. It was followed by César-Antéchrist (1895), widely regarded as an unperformable play. L'amour absolu (1899) was a novel, more obscure than anything he had produced. H.G. Wells's novel The Time Machine inspired Jarry to write the speculative essay 'How to Construct a Time Machine' (1900). Le Surmâle (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. However, he lived and died a virgin, and although he hated christianity, he felt compelled to seek God on his deathbed. A nihilist, he declared: "We won't have destroyed anything unless we destroy the ruins too". Though physically tiny, his presence in turn-of-the-century Paris 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. According to an anecdote, once he was asked for a light in the street and discharged a pistol shot (un feu). From Ubu he also adopted the gestures of his creation, spoke in high falsetto like Ubu, and always employed the royal "we."

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. With his healt ruined  by poverty, tuberculosis, and alcohol, Jarry died at the Hôpital de la Charité, Paris, on November 1, 1907.  He was buried in the Bagneux cemetery. A volume of Jarry's essays came out in 1911 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. With Picasso, whom he once gave a Browning automatic, he shared interest in masks. 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 – the initial apostrophe was deliberate – 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. At the first performance of Ubu Roi, Jarry referred to the "double aspect" philosophy of Gustav Theodor Fechner, who argued in his book Elemente der Psychophysik (1860) that there is a mathematically demonstrable relationship between physical and psychical events.

Paul McCartney paid homage to Jarry's branch of metaphysics in his Beatles song Maxwell's Silver Hammer from 1969. With Barry Miles, a bookseller, he had talked about the "pataphysical society and the Chair of Applied Alcoholism, and wrote in the song: "'Joan was quizzical, studied pataphysical science in home...'" In 1995 McCartney made for the American network Westwood One a radio series called Oobu Joobu, which was inspired by Jarry's character Père Ubu.

For further reading: 'Pataphysics: A Useless Guide by Andrew Hugill (2012); Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life by Alastair Brotchie (2011); Alfred Jarry: An Imagination In Revolt by Jill Fell (2005); Pataphysician's Library: An Exploration of Alfred Jarry's `Livres pairs' by Ben Fisher (2001); Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study by Keith Beaumont (1985); Alfred Jarry by Linda Klieger Stillman (1983); Alfred Jarry, Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd by M.M. LaBelle (1980); Columbia Dictionary of Modern Europen Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Alfred Jarry by N. Arnaud (1976); Les Langages de Jarry by M. Arrivé (1972); The Banquet Years by R. Shattuck (1958); D'Ubu roi au douanier Rosseau by C. Chasse (1947); Les Pas perdus by A.Breton (1924); Sous le masque d'Alfred Jarry? Les sources d'Ubu roi by C.Chasse (1921)

Selected works:

  • Les Minutes de sable mémorial, 1894
  • César Antéchrist, 1895
    - Caesar Antichrist (translated by  James H. Bierman, 1971; Antony Melville, 1992)
  • Ubu roi, 1896 (prod.)
    - King Turd (translated by Beverley Keith and G. Legman, 1953) / Ubu Rex (translated by Simon Watson Taylor, in The Ubu Plays, 1968) / Ubu Roi (translated by Ian Cuthbertson, 1966; Barbara Wright, 1968) / Ubu Rex (translated by David Copelin, 1977)  / Ubu the King (translated by Maya Slater, in Three Pre-surrealist Plays, 1997)
    - Kuningas Ubu (suom. Pentti Holappa ja Olli-Matti Ronimus, 1967)
    - films: 1963, dir.  Robert Nelson, starring Victoria Hochberg, Kai Spiegel, Arthur Holden, Jay Jeffrey Jones, Marvin Silber; 1978 (short animation), dir. by Geoff Dunbar; 1996, Kral Ubu, dir.  F.A. Brabec, starring Marián Labuda, Lucie Bílá, Karel Roden, Ivan Zacharias, 2003, Ubu król, dir. Piotr Szulkin, starring Jan Peszek as King Ubu
  • Les Jours et les Nuits, 1897
    - Days and Nights (translated by Alexis Lykiard, 1989)
  • L’Amour en visites, 1898
  • L’Amour absolu, 1899 (ed. Noël Arnaud and Henri Bordillon, 1980) [Absolute Love]
  • Ubu enchaîné, 1900 (prod. 1937)
    - Ubu Enchained (translated by Simon Watson Taylor, in The Ubu Plays, 1968; Albert Bermel, 1968)
  • Commentaire pour servir à la construction pratique de la machine à explorer le temps, 1900
  • Ubu sur la Butte, 1901
  • Messaline, 1901
    - The Garden of Priapus (translated by Louis Colman, 1932) / Messalina (translated by John Harman, 1985)
  • Almanach illustré du Père Ubu, 1901
  • Le Surmâle, 1902
    - The Supermale: A Modern Novel (translated by Barbara Wright, 1968)
  • Par la taille, 1906
  • Albert Samain, 1907
  • Le Moutardier du pape, 1907 (as La Papesse Jeanne, ed. Marc Voline, 1981)
  • La papesse Jeanne, 1907
  • Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien, 1898-1911 (ed. Noël Arnaud and Henri Bordillon, 1980)
    - Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll, Pataphysician: A Neo-Scientific Novel (translated by Simon Watson Taylor, in Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, 1965)
  • Spéculations, 1911
  • Pantagruel, 1911 (with Eugène Demolder, music by Claude Terrasse)
  • Gestes, 1921
  • Les silènes, 1926 (from a play by Christian-Dietrich Grabbe, ed. Pascal Pia)
  • La Dragonne, 1943 (completed by Charlotte Jarry)
  • Ubu Cocu, 1944
    - Ubu Cuckolded (translated by Cyril Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor, 1965; Albert Bermel, 1968)
  • Oeuvres poétiques complètes, 1945 (edited by Henri Parisot)
  • Choix de textes, 1946
  • L'autre Alceste: drame en cinqu récits, 1947
  • Œuvres complètes, 1948 (8 vols., edited by René Massat)
  • La Revanche de la nuit. Poèmes retrouvés, 1949 (edited by Maurice Saillet)
  • L'objet aimé, pastorale en un acte, 1953 (preface by Roger Shattuck)
  • Tout Ubu, 1964 (ed. Maurice Saillet; Ubu, edited Noël Arnaud and Henri Bordillon, 1980)
    - The Ubu Plays (translated by Watson Taylor and Cyril Connolly, 1968)
  • Saint-Brieuc des Choux: poésies et comédies tirées d'Ontogénie, 1964 (edited by Maurice Saillet)
  • Selected Works, 1965-69 (edited by Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor)
  • La Chandelle verte, 1969
  • Œuvres complètes, 1972-88 (3 vols., edited by Michel Arrivè and Henri Bordillon)
  • Le Manoir enchanté et quatre autres œuvres inédites, 1974 (edited by Noël Arnaud)  
  • Adventures in 'Pataphysics: Collected Works I, 2001 (edited by Alastair Brotchie, Paul Edwards)
  • Three Early Novels: Collected Works II: Absolute Love, Days and Nights, Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician, 2007 (translated and introduced by Alastair Brotchie, Paul Edwards, Alexis Lykiard & Simon Watson Taylor)

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