Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1282
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, Jarry’s mother died. Unable to win admittance to the École Normale Supérieure, he switched his major from the sciences to the humanities. In 1894, however, he failed his examinations for the Licence-ès-lettres at the Sorbonne; thereafter he devoted himself exclusively to writing. In the meantime, he had discovered the artistic world of Paris, in particular the new school of Symbolism, which had a considerable influence on his conception of art and on his fundamental outlook on life. The Symbolists believed in the primacy of the imagination and of the self as the sole and unique reality, outside of which nothing could be shown to exist. With them, as noted above, Jarry shared a contempt for the masses as well as for realism and, especially, for Émile Zola’s doctrine of naturalism. Jarry also shared the Symbolists’ preference for an autonomous, allusive language, existing in its own right, similar to music and free from the conventional, formal rules governing style and syntax.
Jarry’s acceptance of the Symbolists’ innovations and ideas, however, was selective. He was fiercely independent and went beyond them to create his own imaginary world and his revolutionary theater of shock. He discovered a kindred spirit in Alfred Vallette, founder and editor of the Mercure de France and an unconventional writer. Vallette and his wife, Marguerite—who, under the pen name Rachilde, was widely known as the author of a number of novels centering on psychological aberrations—became a kind of second family for the young Jarry, whose health and financial position were both weak.
Through the Vallettes, Jarry became a familiar figure in the most important Parisian literary circles of the so-called belle époque . Remy de Gourmont, a staunch Symbolist; Félix Fénéon, editor of La Revue blanche; the Natanson brothers, its proprietors; Léon-Paul Fargue; and Aurélian-Marie Lugne-Poë, director of the Théâtre de l’uvre, were among the playwright’s friends and acquaintances. Above all, Jarry admired Stéphane Mallarmé’s treatment of language conceived as a musical abstraction and as a system of signs.
Because Jarry, like Molière, thought that theater should embrace all forms of art, he paid close attention to the new trends in the field of painting. Félix Vallotton, Édouard Vuillard, Paul Gauguin (himself from Brittany), Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, and Henri Rousseau, “Le Douanier,” were his favorites. What mostly attracted Jarry to these artists was their nonrealistic approach, which eventually evolved into nonfigurative art. This discovery was not to be forgotten; for the production of Ubu roi, the costumes, the scenery, the painted props, the use of masks, the characters themselves, as well as the entire stage setting were conceived in terms of abstractions—to the great dismay of the public.
In November, 1894, Jarry was conscripted into the infantry at Laval, his native town. His dislike of military life and regulations was so vehement that he attempted to poison himself by swallowing a dose of picric acid, and as a result he was discharged on medical grounds. This one-year stint in the army inspired one of his best novels, Les Jours et les nuits: Roman d’un déserteur (1897; Days and Nights: Novel of a Deserter, 1989).
The turning point of Jarry’s career came in 1896. The text of Ubu roi was published, first in April in Le Livre d’art and then in June in Mercure de France. In September, the latter published Jarry’s groundbreaking essay “De l’inutilité du théâtre au théâtre” (on the futility of the “theatrical” in the theater).
Ubu roi was performed twice in December, and each time the play unleashed the wrath of a public that was totally unprepared and took it for an obscene hoax. In spite of all the jeers and outcries, Jarry had achieved his goal of restoring pure theatricality to the stage, as he saw it, while substituting it for the so-called well-made play and for conventional literature as a whole. This artistic revolution fell into oblivion during Jarry’s lifetime, and it was only after World War II that he came to be recognized as the chief forerunner of the Theater of the Absurd.
In 1899, Jarry wrote Ubu Enchained, but the play was not performed until 1937. Always obsessed with his outrageous character Pa Ubu, he created the Théâtre des Pantins in 1898 and then the Guignol des Gueules de Bois in 1901, when he performed Ubu sur la butte (Ubu on the mound), but these ventures were short-lived.
Although Jarry was a prolific writer, when he died of tubercular meningitis, on November 1, 1907, at the age of thirty-four, he was deeply in debt and destitute. Among his friends who attended the funeral were Vallette, Rachilde, Paul Valéry, Rémy de Gourmont, and Guillaume Apollinaire.