Rejecting the notion of theater as a pastime or a didactic vehicle, Alfred Jarry viewed dramatic art as a creative pursuit reserved for an elite who would actively participate in it. In his essay “De l’inutilité du théâtre au théâtre,” Jarry revealed in detail his theory of what drama ought to be if it is to survive as a great art form.
Jarry insisted that characters should be walking abstractions more complicated and integrated than those to which audiences were accustomed and who are, on close examination, merely shallow imitations of real human beings. In the same manner, the act of writing could no longer be emphasized, nor a role designed for a particular actor, for the obvious reason that once the actor had retired or was dead, it would be impossible to find an identical replacement. Such a practice, in any case, was a futile exercise, since it did not involve imagination or artistic intuition. Jarry dismissed the plays of Jean Racine on the ground that they were merely a collage of parts written for specific actors and actresses. Viewed from this new perspective, the myth of the star who is an individual speaking for and about himself should be done away with once and for all. More than half a century later, Genet would adopt this idea in Les Nègres (pb. 1958; The Blacks, 1960) and Les Paravents (pr., pb. 1961; The Screens, 1962).
Actors are what they are—if not stupid, certainly mortal—therefore it is wrong, Jarry asserted, to make them the center of attraction. Against all established conventions, he asked that they wear masks so as not to distract the audience from the play itself and its message. The use of masks, or the wrapping of the entire body, as in the case of Pa Ubu, is not to be interpreted as a form of travesty or as the embodiment, as in Greek tragedy or comedy, of tears and laughter, of sorrow and joy, but as a reflection of the eternal nature of a character: the Miser, the Waverer, the Covetous Man. Hidden behind a simulacrum, the actors should speak in a monotonous voice like automatons or puppets, in an inarticulate, primitive, and scatological language. Moreover, the stage decor should be heraldic—that is, boldly abstract, not a duplication of life in all its minute detail, as was too often the case with the naturalists. Instead of conventional sets, Jarry recommended the use of painted signs, props, and even unpainted backgrounds.
In Jarry’s view, a play basically needs no story, no chronological order, no psychological characterization: What is required above all is action in the spirit of a Punch and Judy show. He argued that the unities of time and space, so important to the theorists of classicism, should be discarded entirely. It does not matter, Jarry said, in what country an action is taking place. Great theater must go beyond the particular to unmask the real nature of humankind, regardless of race, religion, or nationality. Finally, and most important, dramatic art should undergo a perpetual process of evolution, so that, through an unrelenting quest for new forms of expression, it does not become obsolete and mummified.
These revolutionary ideas are given form in Jarry’s masterpiece, Ubu roi. Although one can find in it echoes of Corneille’s Cinna: Ou, La Clémence d’Auguste (pr. 1640; Cinna, 1713) and Horace (pr. 1640, pb. 1641; English translation, 1656), along with some Racinian overtones, Jarry’s first play was largely inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth (pr. 1606). Its story is, in itself, very simple.
Influenced by his wife, Ma Ubu, who is a crafty, vociferous, cantankerous, and miserly woman, Pa Ubu, former king of Aragon, decides to overthrow his benefactor, Venceslas, king of Poland, with the help of Captain Macnure, to whom he promises the duchy of Lithuania. Wasting no time, the plotters massacre the royal family and its friends with the exception of Crown Prince Buggerlas. True to himself, that is, acting, in Jarry’s own words, as a perfectly “ignoble being, which is why he resembles (by the lower parts) everybody,” Ubu quickly refuses to give Macnure his reward and just as promptly gives the order to slaughter the nobility, the judiciary, and the financiers, in order to levy exorbitant taxes that he will collect himself in a merciless fashion.
Ubu’s victory and his tyrannical regime, however, are short-lived when the Czar of Russia, helped by Macnure, stages a war of revenge if not of liberation. As a safety measure, King Ubu sends his wife back to the palace, not so much to protect her as to salvage their possessions. Once there, she decides to steal for herself the treasures of all the former princes of Poland who are buried in the crypt of the cathedral of Warsaw. While inside the sacred grounds, she hears the voice of a ghost emerging from one of the tombs. Frightened, she runs away without forgetting, however, to take with her the royal gold. Pursued by Crown Prince Buggerlas and his loyal men, she is forced to flee into the mountains where eventually she meets her defeated husband hiding in a cavern. Oblivious of their precarious situation, the two cowardly misers proceed to quarrel fiercely over money matters. As Ubu is about to tear his wife apart, Prince Buggerlas discovers their hiding place. In the nineteenth century Romantic novel or melodrama, villains are, as a rule, caught, brought to justice, and punished. Jarry, who felt nothing but contempt for traditional theater, chose a different, quite unconventional ending. Although outnumbered and scared to death, the tyrant and his wife manage to escape without a scratch. In the final scene, the Ubus and their gang are on a boat sailing for France, where they hope the French government will appoint Pa Ubu master of finances in Paris.
Most great playwrights, including Shakespeare, Racine, and Corneille, have borrowed their major characters such as Cleopatra, Caesar, Augustus, Nero, and Attila from either modern or ancient Greco-Roman history. Jarry, however, strongly opposed historical drama and this traditional practice. According to him, a playwright either has to create an original being or else should not be...
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