Study Guide

Alfred Jarry

Alfred Jarry Biography

Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Born immediately after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (1870) and the massacres that ended the Paris Commune (1871), Alfred Jarry belonged to a generation that was deeply affected by France’s humiliating defeat and by the political turmoils of the newly created Third Republic. He was of Breton ancestry on his mother’s side and developed a strong interest in the legends of Brittany, daring to speak its Celtic language at a time when the government in Paris forbade the use of anything but French. His father, after a rather successful start in business, went bankrupt and eventually became a frequently absent and alcoholic traveling salesman. Jarry’s mother, who has been compared to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary because of her eccentric manners, left her husband while Alfred and his sister were still quite young and went to live with her father, a well-to-do magistrate who had settled in Saint-Brieuc. She was an ambitious person who was determined to preserve family traditions; she closely supervised her children’s formal education, which was to her, as to most bourgeois, a status symbol.

In 1888, Jarry’s mother decided to move from Saint-Brieuc to Rennes, the former capital of Brittany, so that her son could attend the lycée to prepare himself for the competitive entrance examinations for the École Normale Supérieure and the Polytechnique. Early in school, Jarry was perceived as an unusually gifted and intelligent child, although unruly, mischievous, and sarcastic, with a strong sense of sardonic humor. Because he was short and stocky, his classmates called him Quasimodo, a nickname that, curiously enough, seemed to foreshadow the gross image of Jarry’s own infamous character Pa Ubu, with whom he came to identify himself until his death.

At Saint-Brieuc, Jarry’s outstanding scholastic achievements had earned for him prizes in Greek, Latin, English, French, German, physics, geography, and mathematics. In Rennes, his intellectual curiosity extended far beyond the prescribed curriculum. He not only studied the great writers of Europe, from William Shakespeare to Pierre Corneille, Voltaire, Hugo, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but he also managed to follow with keen interest the new artistic, philosophical, and scientific developments taking place in his own time. When only eighteen, he was acquainted with Friedrich Nietzsche’s work, which had not yet been translated into French. His first poems, sketches, and satires already betrayed his obsession with violence, death, and buffoonery, coupled with strong leanings toward misanthropy and pessimism, at times bordering on nihilism. It was during this period that Jarry, in collaboration with some of his school friends, wrote the first versions of Ubu roi and Ubu Enchained.

After earning his two baccalaureates, and prompted by his mother, Jarry went to Paris to attend the celebrated Lycée Henry IV. Among his professors was the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose major work, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889), had a significant impact on the Symbolist school of literature. In 1893,...

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Alfred Jarry Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although his works are not widely read in English, Alfred-Henri Jarry (zhah-ree) is a significant figure in absurdist literature. His father, Anselme Jarry, a traveling merchant, married Caroline Quernest, a judge’s daughter with noble lineage. Jarry was born in Laval, France, in 1873, during the Feast of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin. Soon after his son’s birth, Anselme Jarry became an alcoholic. Caroline Jarry, an eccentric woman, often affected pretentious airs and draped herself in outlandish apparel. She was separated from her husband and moved to Saint-Brieuc while her son was still young.

Jarry was indifferent to his bourgeois father but devoted to his mother, whose eccentricities he would later imitate. His novel L’Amour absolu (absolute love) is a treatment of motherly love that wavers between incest and adulation. A brilliant student, Jarry won prizes in foreign languages and science at Saint-Brieuc and later at Rennes. Short, stocky, and bowlegged, Jarry compensated for his appearance with his caustic wit and rebellious behavior. Aside from the classics, Jarry was influenced by François Rabelais, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, and William Shakespeare. With his schoolmates, Jarry staged bawdy lampoons of his incompetent and physically repulsive physics teacher, Félix Hébert. An early puppet show, “Les Polonais” (the Poles), depicted Père Hébé as a parody of Macbeth. This character would obsess Jarry for the rest of his life and would lead directly to his most famous work, Ubu Roi. While attending the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, Jarry became familiar with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and attended Henri Bergson’s lectures on comedy. After his mother’s death in 1893, he abandoned his education for a literary career.

With his bizarre attire and affected mannerisms, he soon attracted attention at the literary gatherings of Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé and formed a lifelong friendship with Alfred Vallette, editor of the famous literary journal Mercure de France. “Guignol” (puppet show), his first work published in...

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Alfred Jarry Biography (Drama for Students)

A portrait of Alfred Jarry done in 1897^M by F. A. Cazalz Published by Gale Cengage

Alfred Jarry, considered by some to be the father of the theater of the absurd, was born in Laval France on September 8, 1873. His father, Anselme, represented a wool factory as a traveling salesman, and his mother (nee Caroline Quernest) was the daughter of a judge. As a youth, Jarry won scholastic prizes in foreign languages and science. But the rebellious spirit and biting wit that marked his adult life were already making themselves known. With his school friends, Jarry mounted productions that made fun of his physics teacher, Felix Herbert. These parodies of Herbert were rewritten as Ubu Roi (1896; translated as King Turd in 1953).

The Ubu saga continued with Ubu enchaine (1900; translated as King Enslaved in 1953) and Ubu cocu (1944; translated as King Cuckolded). Jarry also wrote two novels. Le Surmale: Roman moderne (1902; translated as The Supermale: A Modern Novel [1968]) tells the story of a man who has a love-making contest with a machine. The other novel, Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien (1911; translated as The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician [1965]) defined ‘‘pataphysics’’ as the science of imaginary solutions.

In his later years, Jarry demonstrated outrageous behavior; he mimicked the monotonous speech and the jerky walk of Pere Ubu; his abuse of ether and alcohol distorted his ability to distinguish himself from the characters he had created. Jarry died in a charity hospital in Paris on November 1, 1907. He was just thirty-four years of age.