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Alfred Jarry 1873-1907

French playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Jarry's works from 1984 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1984, see TCLC, Volumes 2 and 14.

A contemporary of the Symbolists and post-Impressionists, Jarry wrote plays, novels, and essays that anticipated the Theater of...

(The entire section contains 103563 words.)

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Alfred Jarry 1873-1907

French playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Jarry's works from 1984 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1984, see TCLC, Volumes 2 and 14.

A contemporary of the Symbolists and post-Impressionists, Jarry wrote plays, novels, and essays that anticipated the Theater of the Absurd, Dadaism, Surrealism and Futurism. His 1896 play, Ubu Roi (King Ubu), is credited with subverting the basic dramaturgical conventions of mimesis and with creating a new literary type, a buffoonish yet sinister anti-protagonist who possesses no redeeming qualities. Jarry also developed the aesthetic philosophy of 'pataphysics, a logic of the absurd that holds that reality consists of a series of accidents and exceptions, and that therefore we can draw no firm conclusions, which is the basis of absurdist aesthetics espoused by the Theater of the Absurd. Generally recognized as a driving force in Surrealism, Jarry's work, particularly King Ubu and Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll, Pataphysicien (1911; Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician), helped shape the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Alfred Henri Jarry was born in Laval, France, on September 8, 1873. His mother, Caroline, left his father, Anselme, in 1878, taking her children to her father's house in Saint-Brieuc on the coast of Brittany. In 1888, the family moved to Rennes, where Jarry attended the lycée, or high school. Here Jarry's eccentricity, rebelliousness, and wit blossomed. Drawing on an existing body of schoolboy parodies, Jarry and two schoolmates collaborated on a play about the exploits of Père Héb, a monstrous figure based on Félix Hébert, their obese, ineffectual physics teacher. This play became King Ubu. In 1891, Jarry left for Paris to study at the Lycée Henri IV, where he read Nietzsche and Henri Bergson. He took—and failed—the entrance exam for L'Ecole Normale Supérieur three times. In 1893, Jarry began to publish and came to the attention of avant-garde artists. Alfred Vallette, the editor of Mercure de France, and his wife, the novelist Rachilde, who became a regular presence at literary salons hosted by the Vallettes and the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Jarry had a reputation for eccentricity, dressing in a black stovepipe hat, gauchos, and black cape that fell to his shoes. He would carry a green umbrella and two pistols at all times. In 1894, Jarry became briefly involved with the poet Léon-Paul Fargue and founded a literary review, L'Ymagier. On December 10, 1896, Jarry's savagely absurd masterpiece, King Ubu, was performed at the Théâtre de L'Oeuvre, where it incited a riot. Jarry's long-standing abuse of alcohol, absinthe, and ether took a toll on both his health and his literary output. Always eccentric, Jarry grew even more so, adopting the mannerisms of his grotesque anti-protagonist, Ubu. Although Jarry wrote several important works after 1896, notably Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician and Le Sûrmale (1902; The Supermale), his last years were spent struggling with ill health, poverty, and substance abuse. He died from tubercular meningitis on November 1, 1907, at the age of 34.

Major Works

Like his Symbolist contemporaries, Jarry rebelled against Romanticism and Naturalism. Jarry's most important work, King Ubu, subverts the dramatic conventions of naturalism and mimesis by avoiding sympathetic characters, identifiable locations, and a logical, coherent narrative structure. Urged by his wife, Père Ubu uses his “debraining” device to assassinate the King of Poland and then his allies. He wanders around the countryside demanding double and triple taxes before cowardly retreating from the Tzar's army and surviving a bear's attack. The play, which increasingly loses any semblance of unified action or linear narrative, ends with Ubu and his wife sailing to France. At the premiere of King Ubu on December 10, 1896, at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre in Paris, the audience booed when the actor who portrayed Ubu mimed unlocking a jail cell door that was represented by another actor. Additionally, King Ubu provoked the bourgeois audience with the first theatrical uttering of the neologism “merdre,” inciting riots each time “le mot d'Ubu” was uttered on stage. In the character of Père Ubu, Jarry had invented a new literary type—a simplified, archetypal anti-protagonist. In Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician, Messaline (1901), and The Supermale, Jarry adopts a mock-solemn vision informed by the contingency of the real world, asserting the equivalence of opposites, cultivating paradox and other deliberate challenges to common sense which underlie his notion of 'pataphysics. The antithesis of positivist or rational science, Jarry's 'pataphysics considered the universe as an accumulation of exceptions and accidents. In Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician, 'pataphysics enables Dr. Faustroll to build a time machine, sail in a sieve, and to calculate the surface of God. The farcical, fantastic novel, The Supermale, features a mechanical man who becomes a sex-machine, is fed by a food-machine, and bicycles faster than trains. Although Jarry occasionally wrote about relationships—his early play, Haldernablou (1894) is based partly on his relationship with Léon-Paul Fargue—human relationships are largely absent in Jarry's work, and the macabre, nihilistic undercurrent found in King Ubu's humor pervades all his writing.

Critical Reception

Alfred Jarry's contemporaries were not sure what to make of him. “Everything in Jarry, that strange humbug, smelled of affectation,” sniffed André Gide. At the premiere of his 1896 play, King Ubu, the audience broke into riots on several occasions. One audience member, W. B. Yeats, mourned, “What more is possible? After us the Savage God.” But Stéphane Mallarmé called Jarry a “sure dramatic sculptor” who “enters into a repertoire of high taste and haunts me.” And audience member Laurent Tailhade called the play “a milestone in the history of symbolism.” Theater critic Claude Schumacher contends that “the birth of contemporary theatre … begins with the performance of King Ubu on 9/10 December 1896.” Michael Zelenak writes: “Few dramatic works have attained the iconographic status of Alfred Jarry's King Ubu.

Many of Jarry's works were published posthumously, and Jarry's significance was not widely recognized until after his death. In 1926, Surrealists Antonin Artaud and Roger Vitrac founded the Théâtre Alfred Jarry, claiming Jarry as a major influence. Roger Shattuck credits Jarry with originating the avant-garde, and Harald Szeeman calls Jarry's 'pataphysics “the essential core of the last decade of the nineteenth century.” According to Bettina Knapp, Jarry's novel, The Supermale, with its fascination with technology and mechanization, “is far ahead of its time, a forerunner in many ways of the ideas proclaimed by the Futurists and the Cubists.” Art critic Jill Fell concludes that Jarry conceptualized Cubism. Maryrice Nadeau states that 'pataphysics, Jarry's aesthetics of the absurd, anticipates existentialism in a “remarkably clear line that connects the impish figure of Alfred Jarry in 1896, calmly saying merde (shit) to bourgeois culture, with Albert Camus.” John Richardson, Picasso's biographer, notes: “[Jarry] crashed the barrier between fantasy and reality, and established the parodic sense of 'pataphysics, which would detonate all traditional canons of beauty, good taste and propriety.” As Gene Van Dyke observes, “From Breton to Tzara to Beckett—the roads, more often than not, seem to lead back to the head of that madman from Laval.”

Principal Works

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*Les minutes de sable memorial (play, prose, and poetry) 1894

César-Antechrist [Caesar Antichrist] (play) 1895

Ubu Roi [King Ubu] (play) 1896

Les jours et les nuits: roman d'un déserteur [Days and Nights: Novel of a Deserter] (novel) 1897

L'Amour en visites [Love Goes Visiting] (short stories) 1898

Almanach du Père Ubu (prose) 1899

L'amour absolu (novel) 1899

Ubu Enchaîné, précédé de Ubu Roi (play) 1900

Almanach Illustré du Père Ubu (XXe Siècle) (prose) 1901

Messaline, roman de l'ancienne Rome [The Garden of Priapus] (novel) 1901

Le Sûrmale, roman moderne [The Supermale] (novel) 1902

Par la taille: Un Acte comique et moral en prose et en vers, pour esjour grands et petits (play) 1906

Ubu sur la Butte (play) 1906

Albert Samain: Souvenirs (biographical sketch) 1907

La Moutardier du Pape (libretto) 1907

L'Object aimé (novel) 1907

La Papesse Jeanne (libretto) 1908

Pantagruel: Opéra bouffe en cinq actes et six tableaux (libretto) 1910

Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, Pataphysicien [Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician] (novel) 1911

Gestes, suivis des Paraliponmènes d'Ubu (prose) 1921

La Dragonne: Roman (novel) 1943

Ubu cocu [Ubu Cuckholded] (play) 1944

Oeuvres Poétiques Complète (poetry) 1945

L'Autre Alceste: Drame en cinq recits (plays) 1947

Œuvres complètes. 8 vols. (plays, novels, short stories, essays, criticism, and poetry) 1948

La Revanche de la Nuit, poemes retrouves (poetry) 1949

Commentaire pour server à la construction practique de la machine à explorer le temps (essay) 1950

Visions actuelles et futures (essay) 1950

Le Futur malgré lui (juvenilia) 1954

Tatane (poem) 1954

Etre et Vivre (essay) 1958

Léda: Fragments de brouillons d'un opérettebouffe introuvable (libretto) 1958

Le Temps dans l'art: Conférence prononcée par Alfred Jarry au Salan des Indépendants en 1901 (essay) 1958

Album de l'Antlium (ou pompe à merdre): Textes et dessins de Jarry enfant (juvenilia) 1964

Les Antliaclastes (juvenilia) 1964

Saint-Brieuc des Choux: Poésies et comédies tirée d'Ontogénie (juvenilia) 1964

Selected Works of Alfred Jarry (plays, essays, poetry, and novels) 1965

The Ubu Plays (plays) 1968

La Chandelle verte, lumières sur les choses de ce temps (essays) 1969

Réponses à des enquêtes (essay) 1970

Le Manoir enchanté et quatre autres £uvres inédites (short stories) 1974

Siloques, superloques, soliloques et interloques de pataphysique (prose) 1992

*Includes the work Haldernablou (1894).

Brunella Eruli (essay date winter 1984)

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SOURCE: Eruli, Brunella. “Jarry's Messaline: The Text and the Phoenix.” L'Esprit Créateur 24, no. 4 (winter 1984): 57-66.

[In the following essay, Eruli argues that although Jarry's novel, Messaline, may be set in ancient Rome, it resembles the symbolist Art Noveau of Mossa and Klimt in that it is concerned with representing a place outside of space and time; also the phoenix in Messaline serves as a symbol for the work itself, repeatedly dies and is reborn, one meaning killed off as another arises, always provisional.]

One might easily think that, in writing Messaline, Jarry was simply indulging in one of the commonest of male fantasies: the female at once insatiable and impenetrable, virgin and sinner, whore and mother.1 It was one which, sublimated as an artistic myth, ravaged all before it last century, from Mallarmé's Hérodiade to Moreau's Messaline, from the Salomé of Oscar Wilde or Strauss to Berg's Lulu. Had Jarry really been so directly influenced by a fashion which, with a few notable exceptions, mostly produced the second-rate? From Champsaur to Lorrain, from Anatole France to Nonce Casanova and Louis Dumont,2 Jarry's empress has for company a veritable procession of scantily-clad and heartless beauties straight out of a musical comedy of Ancient Rome. It is certainly hard to decide how much he was influenced by this current, which went hand in hand with a return to classical sources (the “Renaissance Latine,” as opposed to the Wagneristes and the alleged obscurities of Germanic Symbolism).

Jarry cared little about the intrinsic worth of his raw materials, using them simply to spark his imagination. Languishing empresses and other antiquities served the same purpose as Poles in the invention of Ubu Roi. While Messaline may at times recall symbolistic trappings à la Alma Tadema, it belongs in spirit to Art Nouveau and is reminiscent rather of Mossa and Klimt. Its structures bear a similar relation to classical antiquity: the fidelity of detail simply makes its distance from the original all the more evident.

Messaline may, as the title implies, be “a novel of Ancient Rome” but it is neither a compilation of Roman antiquities nor a kind of pastiche on the lines of La Belle Hélène. Jarry does not slip anachronisms into his situation in order to bring ancient history up to date, but to show the conventional nature of such general categories as space and time. To render a work eternal, said Jarry, in his talk on “Le temps dans l'art” (1901), simply place it outside time.

Jarry's follow-up of Messaline with Le Surmâle—a “modern novel” this time—indicates that he was not, even unconsciously, following a passing mode, but was thinking on lines that took him well beyond the scope of most of the contemporary fancy-dress novels. Compare Jarry's Messalina with other Messalinas, based on her actions and behaviour, and this is at once evident. There are striking similarities, even troubling coincidences—and these did really worry Jarry himself3—but both again underline the differences evident at the very heart of this propinquity.

Messaline—and, incidentally, Le Surmâle also—is known to have derived from a line of Juvenal, “Lassata viris necdum satiata recessit.” The line served Lorrain in L'Inconnue (1891) and several times subsequently, and he reverted almost “obsessionally”4 to this image, which for him summed up the climate of debauch and sybaritic luxuriousness of Ancient Rome: “La Messaline éhontée, brisée non rassasiée, lassa (sic) sed non satiata, affamée de noces crapuleuses et d'amours hasardées, la patricienne féroce et délicate.”5

The quotation Jarry adopted had thus been already used and was well-known, but he characteristically deviated from the sense or rather invented it anew. As he said in Spéculations (Héliogabale à travers les ages), he translates “dans le texte” because words have not fixed, immutable meanings, so that the best “translation” is one that is made in this spirit. He thus makes of a banal story of nymphomania, a paradox: Messalina's unassuaged desire is the physiological result of her very excesses. Made virgin by her debauchery, the problem of this Messalina is less one of “translation” (as the characters in Surmâle seem to think) than of metaphysics: every truth is plural, words are senseless traps with which one can juggle until reality—if there is such a thing—becomes transformed.

If Jarry was certainly well-versed in Greek and Latin literature, his reading of the texts was so fresh and penetrating that he could frankly imagine what others mentally repressed. Messaline is not the schoolboy's revenge. It is a view of antiquity that recalls Freud reading his own problems into the tragedy of Oedipus. Gourmont and Schwob were probably Jarry's guides in his researches and he had no hesitation either about delving into dictionaries or encyclopaedias. The first Messaline manuscript, with its references and cross-references, has an apparatus of notes whose function is not mere erudition.6 Jarry does not hesitate to mix false marble with real stone, the sham with the authentic, as if to underline the absence of any criteria for establishing a truth: the Asian dies as Tacitus indicates, but his name relates him back to the long-pigtailed Chinese of the 17th century.

As Jarry paints a portrait of the empress and the others involved in her love quest that is in strict conformity with what the classics indicate (Tacitus, Dion, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger7), he is suggesting a metaphor, at once subtle and profound, of all artistic creation—one which is staggeringly up to date. Pushing the ideas contained in Linteau (1894) to their extreme, Jarry implies that a work exists only by and through its re-creation by the reader, whose imaginings and aberations form as much a part of it as the “mauvais textes” that Jarry would himself reject.8

Like the phoenix, emblematic bird of Messaline, a work lives by incessantly dying and being born anew: its meaning killed off, new meanings arise, always provisional. The text becomes a place where the possibilities of potential creation accumulate without ever exhausting their possible combinatories. Author and reader stand equal in the face of this enigmatic multiplicity: each faces the same risk of not using his ears sensitively enough to measure the “scruples” of words, too intent upon regarding the major idea that runs through the text.

(DILEMME.) De par ceci qu'on écrit l'œuvre, active supériorité sur l'audition passive. Tout les sens qu'y trouvera le lecteur sont prévus, et jamais il ne les trouvera tous; et l'auteur lui en peut indiquer, colin-maillard cérébral, d'inattendus, postérieurs et contradictoires. […]

Il est stupide de commenter soi-même l'œuvre écrite, bonne ou mauvaise, car au moment de l'écriture on a tâché de son mieux non de dire TOUT, ce qui serait absurde, mais le plus du nécessaire (que jamais d'ailleurs le lecteur ne percevra total), et l'on ne sera pas plus clair. Qu'on pèse donc les mots, polyèdres d'idées, avec des scrupules comme des diamants à la balance de ses oreilles, sans demander pourquoi telle ou telle chose, car il n'y a qu'à regarder, et c'est écrit dessus.9

Like the phoenix, the reader too, in turn, dies and relives in the metamorphoses taking place under his eyes; the mixing of disparate materials causes him to lose the thread and, if he finds it again, it is only so that he may the better lose it again.

The phoenix has an important role in the novel, for this fabulous bird—the mirror of the universe according to Borges in his “Manual of Fantastic Zoology”—is the father of the Asian, the god Priapus so sought after by Messalina.

Like the desire of which Priapus is the god, the mythic bird exists only through its own death and re-birth; it feeds on itself and can exist only by disappearing.

Issue of a process of alchemistic rot and sublimation (is not the “great work” called the “work of phoenix”?), the fabulous bird arises from the funeral pile of the Asian where, as in an athanor, diverse materials—trees and dried fig-trees painted red because dedicated to Priapus—become equal through the purifying action of the flames. The birth of the phoenix results from the

souffle de tous les arbres, de tous les livres, de toutes les statues et des gemmes et des étoffes et [il] se leva comme tout l'Orient capté sous le crâne jaune et le ventre gonflé de l'Asiatique dans son envol vers le soleil oriental.

(Messaline, op. cit., p. 83)

The fascination exercised by the phoenix is not unlike that exercised by any monster, the unaccustomed concords between disparate elements which Jarry poses at the center of his aesthetic universe.10

The asbestos sack containing the Asian's body “gonflé de vide, de poussière, d'os et d'âme,” becomes a “golden egg.” The philosophers' egg, which contains the orphic principles of its rebirth, surrounds a totality which is only emptiness and dust. Indeed, it is in its own transforming movement, delivered of mortal cares in the final product, that the “work” finds its real essence. Thereby can phoenix and text become the metaphor of a single creative process. The void within the cosmic shell, far from signifying a negative reality, represents a totality of forms which, preceding all distinctions, are merely potentialities, the void being like the lack of colour that results from a mixture of all colours. Faustroll indeed asked, “sait-on si Tout est un cristal régulier, ou pas plus vraisemblablement un monstre … ?”11

As against the idea of a literary work conceived as an object, with an objective existence in accordance with defined or definable laws which can be described, Jarry offers the idea, very close to our own conceptions, of art as a network of signifiers, successive and superposable, involved in the creative process which gives rise to the work itself.

Perspectives overlap, the better to reveal unexpected propinquities. Condensed images and alterations of meaning act like illusions with mirrors, as when Messalina discovers the forbidden palindrome ROMAAMOR, “Roma” being the word which must not be pronounced lest the city be destroyed.

Messalina, virgin of her own debauchery, becomes the metaphor of a text whose virginity affirms itself with every attempt to decode it. A desire machine, and by that same never assuaged; it is only in death, in the void where opposites coincide and where “elle s'abîme dans le néant des fleurs” (Messaline, op. cit., p. 162) that she will ever assuage her desire while continuing to experience its ardour.

That death, of meaning also, brings the words closer to another linguistic reality—that of the unconscious. Between silence and words, these two ultimate realities, the text becomes a kind of mediating space in which they can simultaneously co-exist. Their simultaneity petrifies time.

Under the impulse of a creative flux—such as the cycle of the phoenix—which cannot assume permanence in a form, the marbles, the mouldings of its architecture disintegrate. The text constantly becomes other, submitted as it is to a kind of transformational fury: the better to display the throbbing creative activity which underlines it. The boundaries of logic are upended, as the circus chariots in a race break every bound that might attempt to contain their ardour.

Novel of mutations, reversals, metamorphoses and anamorphoses; objects accumulate in it, cross their perspectives. Traversed by anguished presentiments of the circumambient void, words, sounds, meanings can exist only in continuous change. The dolphins are the circus bounds before, imbued with Christian symbolism, becoming the protagonists of the fishing in Lack Latera (Messaline, pp. 144-45). The murrhines, the transparent eggshaped cups, link with myrrh and thus with death and tie into the paradigm of the egg of the phoenix, where life and death are simultaneously present; Messalina incarnates the suckling she-wolf, totem of the City, and likewise the woman, a creature half human and half animal, who (like Max Ernst's Grand Séducteur) mounts the Suburra, enveloped in the colours of the phoenix, purple and gold.

This text, so dense, is a text about the void. Indeed, Jarry himself declared that superabundance is always a lack. The absence apparently in question in the novel is that of the god Priapus, of desire in its state of perpetual turgescence. But, as Lacan says,

… le phallus est un signifiant, un signifiant dont la fonction, dans l'économie intrasubjective de l'analyse, soulève peut-être le voile de celle qu'il tenait dans les mystères. Car c'est le signifiant destiné à désigner dans leur ensemble les effets du signifié, en tant que le signifiant les conditionne par sa présence de signifiant.12

Messalina's search becomes not so much the search for hidden objects whose reality is suggested by the superabundance of its representations in her toilet and other objects, but a moral search, an adventure which opens up on the consciousness of the death of God and the apocalyptic revelation of the void. “God is dead,” thus spake Zarathustra. “Le grand Pan est mort,” says Messalina. “Nothing is true, all is permitted,” again said Zarathustra, and Messalina repeats in echo, “absolu-ment.”

The absence of Priapus (as likewise the death of Marcueil, the Surmâle) has a Nietzschean accent. The death of God deprives the world of a center; the world's umbilicus—as Artaud might say—is no more longer than “une mosaïque d'éclats”.13

The “Divina Voluptas” of which Lucretius spoke is lost: in her desolating embraces the empress finds coldness only. The natural abundance of gardens becomes “topia,” trompe-l'œil. Nature is only anamorphosis, writing itself becomes “grass,” “écriture d'herbe,” as in Chinese calligraphy. Absinth juice, one of the abortifiants which Messalina affects, produces an ink which, keeping away the rats—says the doctor, Vectius Valens—renders the work immortal. Words are aborted of the potentialities of their silence; perpetuating their arrested chrysalids, they have lost their vital lymph.

The exchange of materials—typical, incidentally, of Art Nouveau—underlines the ontological impossibility of equating reality with its potentialities. Affirming that “absolu-ment” (the absolute lies), Messalina announces that all writing is lies.

Several elements suggest a relationship between certain ideas of Jarry and passages of Nietzsche known and translated in France since 1891.14 The Surmâle and Messaline could be two aspects of the Superman with a sexual connotation indicating that his humanity is something different. They announce—like Zarathustra—a humanity which will encompass their destruction. Messalina, piercing the secret of creation through the mirror, eliminated God, and became the machine of desire who would be destroyed by her own mechanism. The Superman, like God, will be killed by man and, like the crucified Dionysus of Nietzsche, he will at the same time know happiness—“je l'adore”—and the most awful pain. The quest of Marcueil and of Messalina arises from the desire to go beyond all human limits and demolish all certainty. Faced with a failed reality—Nietzsche said in the preface to Gai Savoir—the only protest one can advance is “the great suspicion,” that “which makes of every U an X, a really authentic X. That is to say, the second-last letter before the last.”

In other passages in his writings, Jarry uses the sign x and accords it sometimes a sexual connotation (x, the owl and the phallus being interchangeable15), sometimes that of the unknown quantity in mathematics. In the Surmâle, x is death, the unexpected: “ce qui est terrible c'est que RIEN n'a jamais signifié autre chose, en matière de science, que l'“on ne sait quoi”, la force inattendue, l'X, peut-être la mort.”16

The phoenix, with its cycles of rebirth, could evoke the very Nietzschean idea of the eternal return. But there where Nietzsche saw the most desolating repetition, Jarry seems intent on breaking the closed-in movement of the wheel. Thanks to pataphysics, the creation of imaginary and parallel worlds, where contraries meet, the wheel “works loose,” “prend du jeu,” and so escapes from the constraints of repetition.

Ixion, as we are told by the myth, was sentenced to be tied to a wheel for having tried to seduce Hera while he was already paying his debt for violating the marriage and social laws. The Ixion myth is closely connected with the jynx used for magic spell-binding, a wheel whose circular motion charmed lovers. Jynx was first the name of a witch who tried to seduce Zeus with this instrument and was punished by Hera who changed her into a bird. This bird, the wryneck, can turn about at will and was one of the instruments of fascination used by Aphrodite. To expiate his transgressions, Ixion is himself transformed “en une espèce de iunx, fixé aux quatre membres sur une roue tourbillonnant sans fin entre ciel et terre”17.

For Jarry this wheel is not limited to turning in infinity, but creates other worlds:

Ixion ne tourne plus dans le même plan: il revit, à chaque circuit, son expérience acquise, puis pousse une pointe, par son centre, dans un nouveau monde liseré d'une courbe fermée; mais après il y a encore d'autres mondes! Il remonte la chute des bolges de Dante; le progrès, tel qu'un clown crevant ses cerceaux, débouche de nouveaux mystères comme une spirale de bon acier des bouteilles.18

Jarry's writing takes on a spiral movement, which the “gidouille” on the great belly of Père Ubu, symbol of pataphysic powers, in some way recalls.

At the crossroad of meanings, at the whim of author or reader (all the more absolute by having no purpose but its own operation), words, objects change functions; their meanings mingle, lose definition; images mutually engender images endlessly from each other. Never the same, the text, like an impenetrable enigma, provokes responses which only bring forth other enigmas. The wheel of the martyrdom of St. Catherine (in the Dürer engraving to which Jarry devotes an article inspired by the most perfect, Dali-like “paranoia critique”) turns eternally. The forms hidden beneath the visible image block it from crystallising. The wheel's revolution prevents the executioner's sword from reaching the Saint's neck and the reader must not settle his eyes only on what he is given to see.

The myth of Ixion showed the connections that exist between seduction and the circular movement of the wheel, links confirmed by the sexual dance of the emperor's mime Mnester in the circus arena. At the foot of Caligula's obelisk, Mnester sometimes assumes phallic form, sometimes a feminine form, making a lunar ball, “glomeramen,” of his body. The “arène sphingitique” is connected up with the sphincter and lewdness and the—Lautréamont—bonds of Mnester around his own axis are not without recalling the gyrations of Ubu's bâton à physique (a lavatory brush—le balai innommable—emblem of his pataphysic powers), and the circular movement which Plato attributes to hermaphrodites. The hermaphrodite, living symbol of the coexistence of contraries, is the “moteur d'une universelle illimitation.”19 Monstrous creature, supremely beautiful.

The nature of Messalina and of Surmâle are analogous to that of the hermaphrodite since, affirming the coexistence of contraries, they demand the return to chaos. They are the crowned anarchists, the precursors of Artaud's Heliogabolus. To ordered reality, knowable in accordance with laws, they oppose a monstrous existence, shot through by desire, bereft of purpose and ungraspable. Opposites are identical. Sexual excess become their opposites. Messalina is virgin, Surmâle knows not love, Mnester, potential Surmâle, becomes impotent Surmâle. Priapus is a cold man, says Messalina.

The identity of opposites makes life and death coexist. The importance Jarry attributes to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and the person of Life-in-Death will be remembered.

The wheel, vital movement of renewal, emerges on mystery, the only veritable mystery, death. Surmâle says love is an act without importance since it can be repeated, the only human event which is really unique and, hence, vital, being death. It is not by chance that the quest of all of Jarry's characters emerges on death, or, more correctly, life-in-death.

The apparatus which is supposed to inspire love in Surmâle is constructed on the basis of an instrument of enchantment mentioned by St. Jerome in his Life of St. Hilary. This instrument, the tabula defixionis, is the jynx. Jerome recounts how the holy man set a girl free of the charm which had plunged her madly in love by pronouncing this phrase: “Certes ta force, Démon, doit être bien grande, puisque tu est ainsi enchaîné et arrêté par une lame de cuivre et par une tresse de fil” (Jarry, Le Surmâle, p. 144).

This description of the instrument which Jarry cites in Le Surmâle is “translated in the text” by the engineer Elson who immediately identifies an electro-magnetic apparatus from these few indications, and this gives him the idea of a machine for inspiring love:

Il s'inspira de l'expérience de Faraday: entre deux pôles d'un puissant électroaimant, si l'on jette une pièce de cuivre, la pièce de metal non magnétique, ne peut être influencée, et pourtant elle ne tombe pas: elle descend avec lenteur comme si quelque fluide visqueux occupait l'espace entre les pôles de l'aimant. Or, si on a le courage d'exposer sa tête à la place de la pièce—et Faraday, comme on sait, affrontait cette expérience—on n'éprouve absolument rien; et ce qui est terrible, c'est que RIEN n'a jamais signifié autre chose, en matière de science, que l'“on ne sait quoi”, la force inattendue, l'x, peut-être la mort.

(Le Surmâle, p. 144)

Athwart so many metamorphoses, dissolutions and rebirths, every act of creation gets around the impossibility of saying what cannot be said, which is nevertheless the only source of life. Of the void that underlies every work, nothing can be said, as the magic palindrome (ROMAAMOR), which contains the secret of its own construction, may not be pronounced. By its power of meaning, language avows itself incapable of expressing a “monstrous” reality at once luxuriating and contradictory. The never-closed spirals of the text oblige the reader to realise that l'absolu-ment (the absolute lies) and “la Vérité humaine, c'est ce que l'homme veut: un désir” (L'Amour absolu, O.C. [Œuvres complètes], p. 950). Although founded upon an ontological lie,20 the text in its incessant movement wells forth and maintains the reader's desire to glimpse a different kind of reality, to raise the veil on a universe from which gaps and contradictions are excluded.

Through the eyes of desire, the reader discovers, beyond the words, as in a palimpsest, the inexplicable, yet evident, language of the unconscious. To express it, we can only repeat, “Ah! Ah!,” with Bosse-de-Nage, Faustroll's travelling companion, the dog-headed monkey. Considering the unity of opposites, these sounds open up on to the worlds of Pataphysics.


  1. This article is based on a contribution by the author to the Colloquium on Jarry, held in Cerisy-la-Salle (1981).

  2. Louis Dumont published La Louve in 1907, but it had already appeared in 1902, published by La Plume with the title La Chimère.

  3. For the Jarry-Casanova quarrel see the preface by Thieri Foulc to A. Jarry, Messaline (Paris: Losfeld, 1977).

  4. J. De Palacio, “Messaline décadente, ou la figure du sang,” Romantisme n. 31 (1981), pp. 209-28.

  5. J. Lorrain, Sonyeuse, in L'Inconnue (Paris, 1891).

  6. B. Eruli, “D'une Messaline à l'autre,” Europe, March 1981, pp. 112-120.

  7. See B. Eruli, “Sur les sources classiques de Messaline: collages et montages,L'Etoile Absinthe, May 1979, pp. 67-83.

  8. “Et il y a divers vers et proses que nous trouvons très mauvais et que nous avons laissés pourtant, retranchant beaucoup, parce que pour un motif qui nous échappe aujourd'hui, ils nous ont donc intéressé un instant puisque nous les avons écrits; l'œuvre est plus complète quand on n'en retranche point tout le faible et le mauvais, échantillons laissés qui expliquent par similitude ou différence leurs pareils ou leurs contraires—et d'ailleurs certains ne trouveront que cela de bien.” A. Jarry, “Linteau,” in Les Minutes de sable mémorial, in A. Jarry, Œuvres complètes [O.C.], (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), p. 173.

  9. A. Jarry, “Linteau,” O.C., pp. 172-73.

  10. See B. Eruli, Jarry: I mostri dell'immagine (Pisa: Pacini, 1982).

  11. A. Jarry, Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien, O.C., p. 722.

  12. J. Lacan, “La signification du phallus,” Ecrits II (Paris: Seuil, 1971), pp. 108-09.

  13. A. Artaud, L'Ombilic des limbes, in Œuvres complètes, vol. II (Paris: Gallimard 1970), p. 62.

  14. See G. Bianquis, Nietzsche en France (Paris, 1929). Nietzsche was first translated and published in French in several revues (Revue Bleue, Le Banquet, La Revue Blanche, Le Mercure de France since 1891). H. Albert began his translations in 1898. Albert was a friend of Schwob whose Le Livre de Monelle was influenced by Nietzsche. See B. Eruli, “Schwob, Jarry e altri ribelli,” in Saggi e ricerche di Letteratura francese, XV (Roma, 1976), pp. 413-48.

  15. See M. Arrivé, “De quelques aspects de la lettre dans le texte de Jarry,” in Lire Jarry (Paris, 1976).

  16. A. Jarry, Le Surmâle (Paris: Losfeld, 1977), p. 144.

  17. M. Detienne, Les Jardins d'Adonis (Paris, 1972), p. 166.

  18. A. Jarry, La Mécanique d'Ixion, in La Chandelle verte (Paris, 1968), pp. 285-6.

  19. T. Foulc, “Mnester ou l'art du sphéricubiste,” Europe, op. cit., p. 124.

  20. “Il faut que l'homme s'amuse à l'image de son Créateur. Dieu s'amuse férocement depuis qu'il est Dieu, seulement il ne s'amusera pas longtemps, car je suis là … Toujours quelque bon Dieu détrône un autre Dieu … de sorte que personne n'a jamais su ni jamais ne saura où le vrai mensonge prend son point d'appui. Avec un vrai mensonge—qu'on m'en donne un!—je soulèverai le monde.” A. Jarry, “Chez la muse,” in L'Amour en visites, O.C., p. 891.

Renée R. Hubert (essay date winter 1984)

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SOURCE: Hubert, Renée R. “Raw and Cooked: An Interpretation of Ubu Roi.L'Esprit Créateur 24, no. 4 (winter 1984): 75-83.

[In the following essay, Hubert examines the significance of food and the act of eating in Ubu Roi, arguing that Ubu—and by extension, the petit-bougeoisie he represents—is the ultimate consumer in a world dominated by and reducible to food and human refuse.]

Alfred Jarry is one of the heroes in Roger Shattuck's Banquet Years, a lively evocation of “la belle époque” in which the barriers between literature and life are drastically diminished and where anecdotes are rapidly metamorphosed into criticism.1 Shattuck, who considered the banquet a supreme rite in these years, informs his readers that even the poverty-stricken Jarry contributed his share:

In these drafty dirt-floored premises he decided to repay his social obligations by throwing a banquet of his own … Jarry had caught a fish for every plate, and had laid in on credit enough wine and absinthe for a regiment … The banquet ran its intemperate course from general conversation to demonstrations of how mightily the guests could make the river resound with shouted commands of “forward march.”

(p. 213)

Such eating conventions and culinary rituals, in parodied or satirized forms, found echoes in Jarry's works in general and in Ubu roi in particular.

The play is “filled” with expressions which, directly or indirectly, refer to food, to the act of eating. Jarry, in his famous drawing, represented his Ubu with a huge stomach and legs sturdy enough to support it.2 He stressed his corporality, his obesity which, as the play tells us, results from excessive nutrition. Voracity, not spiritual or moral values, characterizes the protagonist who never misses an opportunity to indulge, who never practices abstinence. The play refers to several meals, some overtly represented, some primarily created by linguistic means. Act I, scene 2, known as the banquet scene, parodies mainly Macbeth, where the usurper's ritualistic banquet is disrupted by the unappetizing presence of Banquo's shade. In Ubu roi, the banquet scene also presents an apparent stasis, a peaceful if plethoric stage which precedes cascading acts of violence, a transition from oral exchange to physical aggression, the killing of the king and two of his sons. The banquet scene primarily focuses on the act of devouring and on nutrition at the expense of social intercourse. Ubu, an impatient character who cannot wait to become rich and powerful again, who having lost the throne of Aragon must seize the Polish crown as soon as his wife “stuffs” this ambition into his skull, is incapable of waiting for his guests. He must know the menu in order to skip the preliminaries and devour the “pièce de résistance” without further ado. He bites into a whole chicken, then consumes much of the veal intended for an army of guests. Jarry out of admiration for Rabelais endowed his protagonist with a truly Gargantuan appetite. But Rabelais' vigorous and enthusiastic giants have little else in common with Jarry's simplistic and pot-bellied consumer. Contrary to the 16th-century hero whose appetite incorporates all aspects of life, including the spiritual, the modern character is strictly limited to his gut. Rabelais' famous “Trinch” is not a statement expressing sybaritic philosophy but epitomizes the search for knowledge, truth and understanding of reality. It contrasts with Ubu's instinctual existence. The Oracle's invitation is an injunction to endorse the hero's voyages as necessary ordeals in a protracted quest. Conversely, Ubu's orders and insults lead to a cowardly retreat to France.

Ubu, as we have stated, feasts in solitary squalor before the arrival of his guests who must feed on leftovers, first made impalatable and later poisoned. Most of the meal consists of meat; and Ubu, the epitome of fleshiness, fills himself with flesh. The eaters and the eaten are by various devices equated and indeed assimilated to one another throughout the play. Ubu is comparable to a container that needs to be crammed in order to function and even to survive. Being overstuffed in no way discourages him from stuffing himself even more; and when he temporarily ceases to eat, he fears that others will turn him back into food, which is both his end and his origin. He is, before his guests arrive, starved before he goes into battle. Jarry parodies many a protagonist whose tragic flaw manages to surface at the very beginning of the play.

The physical sight of the victuals—“Une table splendide est dressée”—provides an aesthetic spectacle concerning which “le père” and “la mère” Ubu immediately clash. Ubu by his bestial and disproportionate appetite, by the plebeian insults he hurls at his ugly spouse, destroys the ritual and the etiquette that should accompany festive occasions. Molière's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme enables us to establish a telling contrast. Monsieur Jourdain offers a sumptuous dinner for the benefit of Dorante and Dorimène. The count verbalizes the menu so as to transform dishes into a display of elegant, erudite and heraldic language.3 Dorante suggests that any flaw in the festive dinner would destroy the rules of harmony required of all the arts. Jourdain in his attempt to graduate to the nobility has taken dance, speech and music lessons before subsidizing this aristocratic tête-à-tête. Conversely, dissonance predominates in Ubu roi without any reference to norms. After the arrival of Capitaine Bordure and the other guests, “la mère Ubu” condescends to announce the menu in two installments. The first, abounding in meat courses, begins with “soupe polonaise” and ends with “charlotte russe.” Both of these dishes consisting of mashed up ingredients obliquely refer to political strife between these neighboring nations. In the second installment, an orderly menu, proceeding from soup to dessert, is no longer recognizable, while fancy, prestigious and allegorical titles disappear completely. However, the presence of minced ingredients, not usually offered for consumption, mark the two bills of fare. Both sets of enumerations allude less to tantalizing food than to violence, cruelty and destruction. The term “bombe” heightens the ambiguity between food and warfare, whereas “chou-fleur à la merdre” crowns the systematic reversal between temptation and repulsiveness. Combinations of various dishes such as “croupion de dinde” and “Chou-fleur à la merdre” confirm the scatological aspects relating to food.

“Merdre” repeated throughout the play defies “bienséant” theatrical language and the dignity of the dramatic hero. The complex implications of the term “merdre” have been commented on by Linda Klieger Stillman in her Alfred Jarry.4 According to her, “merdre,” “Phynance” and “physique” consolidate the mythical existence of Ubu. The presence of “merdre” in the menu presents a defiance of the adult world but also and primarily a glorification of anality. What is eaten and what is evacuated in the course are no longer distinguishable, and the various stages of nutrition are collapsed into one. Ubu, still at the anal stage, wants to reduce if not eliminate his non-eating moments, his non-eating activities. This explains his opposition to the ritual duration of a banquet, to the interaction of culinary and verbal occasions. The Ubus reverse the accepted ritual not only by the strangeness of their menus and by the coldness of their welcome, but by their unwillingness to let their guests enjoy the food. As if the names of the dishes would not offer enough discouragement, Ubu has to persuade his guests that the food tastes bad and to wreck it by throwing a poisonous broom on the entire spread. Guests are poisoned or ushered out; Ubu, having eaten his fill and no longer anxious to grab another chop, must needs seize a throne. He once again will be way ahead of the game, for he turns cutlets into cutlasses capable of devastating his guests with the exception of the happy few whom he needs in his political conspiracy. Linda Klieger Stillman, stressing Ubu's sadism, states: “His sticks, hooks, pistols, scissors and horns à merdre as well as à phynances and à physique serve as instruments of torture to extract payment and thus to procure him gastric satisfaction” (op. cit., p. 49). The dinner table does not imply in Jarry's play an isolated gathering, circumscribable in time and place. The dishes as well as those who partake belong to the world of belligerence. Ubu does not hesitate to bite into anything even if it is not listed on the menu. He considers all materials and all surfaces potentially comestible; and any instrument can serve either to make anything whatever edible or to sharpen his teeth for the next meal, which looms in the immediate future.

Among the dishes, real and fantastic, named in the play, Ubu favors the “andouille”; his royal dream consists in having his every wish for andouilles fulfilled on the spot. Jarry appears to hark back to 17th-century burlesque literature where epic dimensions are drastically curtailed while sensuality, usually erotic, and greed for vulgar or common food replace the heroic behavior normally ascribed to protagonists. The following lines by Charles d'Assoucy are particularly revealing in this context:

Mon Anchise, mon Adonis,
Mon petit cœur, mon petit fils,
Ma fraissure, ma petite oie,
Ma petite andouille de Troye,
Malgré mari sot et badin
Je suis à toi tripe et boudin.(5)

“Andouille,” repeated again and again though not as frequently as “merdre” denotates another meat dish: a skin stuffed with tripe. An “andouille” can pass for the true image and symbol of Ubu. When “la mère Ubu” calls him by this word, it would seem to function not only as an insult meaning a stupid person, but as a description. Moreover, the fact that the inside of an “andouille” consists of chopped up guts repeats ad nauseam the identity of eating, digesting and evacuating. As the “andouille” becomes the promise and the reward for the usurpation of the crown of Poland, we can surmise that Ubu fails to rise up in his quest for and his ascent to the throne. He assumes a debased status not only by reason of his foul deeds and his stupidity, but as an “andouille” he is bereft of a head and reduced to his intestines.

Jarry, in order to establish equations between human and animal, man and food, does not rely merely on words such as “andouille” and “merdre.” Repeatedly Ubu threatens to “décerveler” or to exercize an “extraction de la cervelle,” to commit acts of cruelty which would officially and openly deprive a human being of his brain and degrade him to bestiality. After threatening to blow out his wife's brains, he ironically asks: “Cela va-t-il, andouille?” Ubu in a way always provides increments for brainless flesh.

The appearance of the bear corroborates the equation between man and beast, between consumption and consumerism. The bear upon its arrival arouses fear by its hugeness rather than by its ferocity. Ubu, after having stuffed all the containers of his treasury and amassed every kind of provision, is afraid of a creature more voluminous than himself that threatens to devour him as he has in a sense devoured the state. He who has so often sharpened his teeth in order to bite and chew more effectively, he who has given orders to empty heads of their contents and to turn his opponents into victuals must now confront a monster with teeth bigger and sharper than his own. His panic is so great that he has recourse to prayer. In Ubu, religious allusions and cursing are never far removed from each other. After all, the Bible, or so Ubu seems to think, specializes in violence, notably the beheading of John the Baptist. Biblical martyrs can provide models for Ubuesque behavior if we place the emphasis on physical mayhem and substitute the chopping and mincing of meat for spiritual and ethereal values. Suffering has been ruled out with the exception of the bear's shrieks of pain, which go unnoticed in a world where our comic hero strives exclusively to fill up vessels, to turn his dominion into the too, too solid and sullied flesh. It is not Ubu's prayer but Cotice's explosions that bring an end to the bear whose death will of course coincide with the preparation of still another feast. Just as Ubu has not been able to shift from his ordinary culinary taste to that of a splendid banquet, so here he fails to acknowledge that the grizzly is cut up, quartered and quite dead. When he had first spotted the bear he had screamed: “Me voilà mangé.” As his fear refuses to abate, he cannot readily fathom his own reinstatement as eater. “La mère Ubu,” who so often opposes her husband by word and deed, here shares his fright of becoming the predator's dinner.

The bear turns into a haunting vision for Ubu. Confusion between the raw and the cooked, the quick and the dead dominates the hero. Ubu transforms the monster into a wild fantasm, at once the image of his preying self and that of his other, the drive of hunger and the fear of destruction: “Quel ventre, messieurs! les grecs y auraient été plus à l'aise que dans le cheval de bois, et peu s'en est fallu, chers amis, que nous n'ayons pu aller vérifier de nos propres yeux sa capacité intérieure” (Tout Ubu, p. 107). The animal, seen at once as the enemy and the self, remains alive in Ubu's consciousness, whether he eats it hot or cold, whether he finds its flesh palatable or repugnant. The bear combines sadism, which is a purely human trait, with bestiality, at least in appearance, because an actor more or less successfully plays its part on stage. Thanks to this theatrical ambiguity the author suggests once again the practice of cannibalism.

Ubu, so other characters remark, stinks. He is unclean, negligent, unhygenic and slovenly in his habits. Not only does he strike the other performers as no less repulsive than the nauseating feast to which he invites them, but he sees in them potential cuts or joints and dreams of them as delectable dishes. He focuses on their “cul,” the juicy part of their anatomy that would provide good ham. He fantasizes about sinking his teeth into them: a truly cannibalistic dream. At the same time, he reduces his own enthronement as monarch to the act of having his “cul installé.” Jarry suggests that the supreme punishment for Ubu's opponents would be to tear out their teeth, thereby preventing them from biting while inflicting upon them a speech impediment, the direst fate for thespians. Eating and speaking are but one and the same performative activity: “Torsion du nez et des dents, extraction de la langue et enfoncement du petit bout de bois dans les oneilles” (p. 88). Ubu even threatens the Tzar with the torture of going through life sans teeth and sans tongue, which would amount to the ultimate upstaging of an enemy forever rendered incapable of biting into the flesh of the tenderest “andouille” and regurgitating verbal textures. Making good use of one's teeth not only suggests the functions of sharp instruments such as knives or swords, but also exemplifies the predacity of Ubu who hungrily grabs a kingdom as he would a joint of mutton to make it by force his own.

Ubu, as we have already suggested, is simultaneously a voracious eater—a “goinfre”—and a warmonger. He treats even his wife and his temporary accomplices either as opponents, as slaves, or consumable goods. The threats he hurls at others can be seen interchangeably as preliminary stages in warring or feasting. As these menaces are often quite overt: “couper en quatre,” “cuire à petit feu,” torturing and cooking become inseparable operations. Moreover, the orders that Ubu gives regarding rules for taxation or for dining are formulated in precisely the same authoritarian voice, for they satisfy an identical bulimia. Indeed, “phynance” and “physique” scarcely differ from one another. Ultimate possession does not consist for him in burying treasure in a cathedral crypt or, for that matter, in a more modern bank vault, but in securing it inside himself. However, such devices appear to have little future and can hardly result in permanent savings.

Ubu has no sense of value and hierarchy as he himself displays in the first word he utters, his famous neologism implying scatological reductiveness. Unlike Macbeth who also usurps a throne, who is also driven by a woman, and who moves from one encounter with his enemies to another, he has no real sense of power.6 He merely seeks to plunder all resources of his kingdom for himself. He does not wish to provide a model kingship which would force his subjects to look up to his title and to his role; he does not want to create an everlasting dynasty. As a result, he is far more poorly cast in the part of king than the usurper Macbeth, whose head could not fill Duncan's crown.7 Ubu, whose stomach is too big and whose brain is too small, begins his reign with an acute case of indigestion which destroys the image of a king eager to establish wisdom and spiritual equilibrium. His gesture to feed everyone, to provide food for the people, whatever his motivation, again destroys his image as king, in spite of the precedent set by Henri IV's famous “poule au pot” for every household. This gesture does not supply the heretofore needy with the essentials, but pushes Ubu, with his typically infantile behavior, to terrible orgies, preposterous even if we the spectators are spared the details of the endless menus and preparations. He temporarily transforms Poland into a huge banquet. Kingship does not provide him or his queen with even the semblance of dignity. There is no etiquette, no protocol, no regal language to acquire. Soon after his inauguration he addresses his wife as “Madame femelle.” Far from fitting into a traditional monarchy and gaining status, he takes over an animal farm. The fact that his spouse, in lieu of ermine trimmings, covers herself with animal skins lends credence to this interpretation. Her coverup cannot hide but only reveal her true nature or rather her fundamental role. As we have intimated, the menus of the banquets combine verbal inventions with plausible dishes. The play throughout sustains a fantastic mode, prompted by verbal ambiguity, neologisms, and transgressions of various categories. Toward the end of the play, when nobody seems to know whether the bear is dead or alive, “la mère Ubu” is paradoxically attacked by the animal even though it has already undergone preparation for a feast. The spectator moves into a dreamworld where additional confusions compound those to which we have just alluded. Ubu speaks at length in his sleep, intimately associating the bear with his other consumable enemies. The reductive drive of his monomaniacal appetite informs his dream, unrelieved either by intimations concerning the future or any kind of repression stemming from his past: “Décervelez, tudez, coupez les oneilles, arrachez la finance et buvez jusqu'à la mort …” (p. 112). The dream repeats Ubu's one-track terror which had continuously merged the consumer with the consumable, the aggressor with the victim. Ubu, if he could become a character in another dramatist's play, would undoubtedly appear even less privileged than Ionesco's Smiths and Martins, who thrive on verbal recollections provided by their English Assimil meals, or Beckett's Didi who forgets whether it is a turnip or a carrot that he still carries in his pocket.

In 1982, Sebastian Matta provided eight colored etchings and a number of black and white drawings to illustrate Ubu roi.8 Our interpretation, which insists on the importance of food as a unifying element, is corroborated by Matta's plates. On the title page appears a modified version of Jarry's familiar drawing. The shield with its spiral design covering Ubu's belly is transformed into circumvolutions hinting at digestive organs. Matta introduces the mock-hero's anal nature without needing to reconstruct a banquet scene with table and dishes. For him the banquet is not an episode which takes place at a specific moment of the play, but must manifest its presence by the representation of oblong objects, sausages or rather the persistent “andouilles” available to the characters or preserved in their digestive system. Teeth play a significant role in his interpretation by assuming many bold shapes verging on those of a crown or partially articulated letters. Matta, in his eagerness to update the play so that it will belong to the age of the cartoon, stresses the strong elective affinities between the consumer and his language.

The failed quest of 19th-century fiction, the inevitable dissolution of traditional artistic forms, reach ridiculous heights in Jarry's portrayal of the petit-bourgeois and long-toothed Ubu as trencherman, soldier, and usurper. This ultimate consumer in a world dominated by and reducible to products cannot indeed fill any part but his own, which involves the capacity to eat God, dead or alive, out of house and home.


  1. Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years (N.Y.: Anchor, 1961).

  2. “Le véritable portrait de Monsieur Ubu,” by Jarry, is often reproduced. Cf. Tout Ubu (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1952).

  3. Cf. J. D. Hubert, Molière and the Comedy of Intellect (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), p. 228.

  4. Linda Klieger Stillman, Alfred Jarry (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983). Cf. also Henri Béhar, Jarry dramaturge (Paris: Nizet, 1980), p. 61.

  5. Passage from Le Jugement de Paris, quoted by J. D. Hubert, “L'Erotisme et la solution burlesque,” Papers on French XVIIth Century Literature, No. 10 (1978-79), p. 117.

  6. For relation of Shakespeare to Ubu roi, cf. Banquet Years, p. 29 and Jarry dramaturge, p. 62.

  7. For a metadramatic interpretation of Macbeth, cf. J. D. Hubert, “Text as Theatricality in King Lear and Macbeth,” in Tragedy and the Tragic in Western Culture (Montréal: Determinations, 1983), pp. 95-102.

  8. Alfred Jarry, Ubu roi, 8 gravures originales de Matta (Paris: Dupont-Visat, 1982).

Michael Issacharoff (essay date winter 1984)

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SOURCE: Issacharoff, Michael. “Intertextual Interlude: Jarry's Léda.L'Esprit Créateur 24, no. 4 (winter 1984): 67-74.

[In the following essay, Issacharoff examines the sources for one of Jarry's lesser-known plays, Léda.]

Intertextual signals in drama are necessarily distinct from those used in other literary texts. The oral mode of transmission inherent to the medium requires a far more explicit method of cueing than that used in instances where a reader is not obliged to decode instantaneously and can, if need be, turn back and reread. I have suggested elsewhere1 that oral (and specifically theatrical) intertextuality is, in consequence, more likely to entail simplified textual mechanisms and processing.

Two forms of intertextuality2 are commonly used by dramatists: quotation and transformation. Quotation is the placing in a new textual environment of a normally recognizable passage and thus, sometimes, the subversion (or reinterpretation) of famous lines—Hamlet's soliloquy and the récit de Théramène would be examples of likely candidates. Tom Stoppard, for instance, has taken such textual games to a provocative extreme by importing into Travesties, and placing cheek by jowl, a Shakespeare sonnet and excerpts from speeches and letters by Lenin! Transformation is the lexical or phonetic tampering with a necessarily well known line or passage, usually for comic effect. The appropriate decoding of such verbal play is contingent on recognizing the hidden hypotext (to use Genette's term) and the discrepancy between text and intertext. Christine Brooke-Rose's amusing article title, “The Squirm of the True,” exemplifies this. The device is not, of course, restricted to literary discourse. It is frequently used in journalism (especially in titles of articles), in advertising, as well as in political slogans. Advertising captions frequently transform literary phrases or titles—“Ma chemise contre un Perrier!”; “Tendre est la nuit à bord du France …”; “Bonjour souplesse” (an allusion to Françoise Sagan's novel in a panty hose ad), and so forth.3

Theatrical intertextuality may be limited to specific discursive units, or may be extensive, in which case it usually takes the form of parody. The latter was extremely popular in the nineteenth century—Seymour Travers has traced over a thousand examples of the genre for the period 1789-1914.4 An analysis of his corpus shows that intertextual cues often occur in titles or subtitles of plays (e.g., parodie, parodie bouffe, imitation burlesque, etc.), thus constituting a reader's “contract” or implicit “instructions for use” for a particular playscript.5

A further distinction may be made between mandatory intertextuality (in which a specific passage or a whole playscript parodies an intertext of variable length and significance, ranging from a brief, often playful allusion, using the title or short excerpt to a complete text) and broader, unfocussed intertextuality in which there is no specific hypotext but rather a theatrical convention or device that is parodied or ridiculed. Thus, for example, in parodying Lamartine's Toussaint Louverture, Labiche, in addition to offering pastiches of particular lines, also pokes fun at Romantic conventions such as the long soliloquy (“Est-ce qu'on ne va pas se taire un peu, par ici? (…) Sortez! J'ai le plus grand besoin de faire un monologue!”).6 Similarly, in the same play, Labiche parodies other conventions, including the use of the Alexandrine, elevated style, and so forth. Intertextuality is not restricted to the mandatory linking of a text to a given intertext. The visual channel is also open to the resourceful and imaginative dramatist. Thus, well known props associated with a particular dramatist or play—Beckett's trash cans, the dagger in Macbeth, the banana in La Dernière Bande, and so on—may be used as intertextual signals. Gesture, movement (and even sound effects) can be put to similar use.

The preceding remarks will serve to illustrate, albeit in summary fashion, some of the intertextual devices commonly found in drama. Let us now consider Jarry's Léda from that broader perspective. The manuscript of the play, long thought lost, was recently rediscovered by Carlton Lake, Curator of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.7 In 1981 a first edition appeared as a joint publication of the Humanities Research Center and Christian Bourgois in Paris.8 The play was first performed on May 15, 1900,9 though little is known about the performance. I have found no record of further performances or revivals.

The title10 of the play is the first implicitly intertextual signal, though not perhaps, narrowly so, in being focussed on and forming a dynamic relationship with specific earlier text(s), but in the wider sense of providing an allusion to the famous Zeus-Léda legend. The latter is derived from a variety of sources, including Homer, who alludes briefly to the story in the Odyssey (Book XI, l. 298), specifically to Léda as mother of Castor and Pollux; Euripides, who mentions Léda briefly in Helen; and Herodotus whose allusion is equally short. Other references to the legend are to be found in Ovid—a passing reference in the Metamorphoses and slightly longer allusions in his Heroides and Amores.11 None of these references qualifies as an intertext in any strict sense, since none of them in any way governs the deciphering of Jarry's operetta. A far more interesting version of the legend is provided by Yeats' fine poem, “Leda and the Swan,” but unfortunately for our purposes here, it was published well after the performance of Jarry's text …12

No less important than the roots in ancient literature is the long and distinguished tradition in sculpture and painting, the Italian Renaissance being one of the richest periods for versions of the legend. Brancusi, Falconet, and Maillol have represented the story in sculpture, while Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Veronese, Pontormo, Nicolo Dell'Abate, Largillière, Boucher, Titian, are among those who have immortalized Léda in paint. Again, however, we are not dealing with “intertexts” in a strict sense. Though Jarry may have known several of these visual versions, they cannot be considered intertexts, since none of them is explicitly (or even obliquely) alluded to in the script (either in the dialogue or in the didascalia). It is likely, though, that the visual tradition is more significant as a “source” than the mere passing references in Homer, Euripides, Herodotus and Ovid.

But there are at least two other written sources which were in all likelihood known to Jarry and which may function as quasi intertexts. The first is possibly signaled by the subtitle of the play, “opérette bouffe.” Jarry was familiar with Meilhac and Halévy's operettas and may have intended to parody La Belle Hélène, in particular, which was first produced in 1864, with music by Jacques Offenbach. In the Introduction to the Bourgois edition, Henri Bordillon is right to suggest Meilhac and Halévy as a source; Patrick Besnier, author of the “Postface,” goes much further in claiming that: “Léda est un ‘à la manière de’ Meilhac et Halévy dont nombre des ingrédients se trouvent dans La Belle Hélène.13 The evidence hardly supports the claim. The allusions to the Zeus-Léda legend amount to four in number—two in each of Acts I and II (only three of which are cited in support of the claim):

(a) (Acte I, sc. v, p. 8):
Ce cygne traqué par un aigle,
Que Léda sauva dans ses bras …
Ce cygne-là … c'était mon père (…)
(b) (Acte I, sc. v, p. 9):
(…) Mais est-ce ma faute? … moi, la fille d'un oiseau, est-ce que je puis être autre chose qu'une cocotte?
(c) (Acte II, sc. i, p. 35):
Une salle dans les appartements particuliers de la reine (…) Au fond à droite, un tableau représentant Léda et le cygne: Léda est seule dans un bois, et, au fond d'une allée, le cygne s'approche d'elle, la tête haute et l'œil animé.
(d) (Acte II, sc. iii, p. 37):
regardant longuement le tableau qui représente Léda et le cygne. J'aime à me recueillir devant ce tableau de famille … Mon père … ma mère … les voici tous les deux … O mon père, tourne vers ton enfant un bec favorable! Et toi, Vénus … ne pouvais-tu trouver pour ce berger une récompense moins falâtre? … Pourquoi, mais pourquoi, ô déesse, as-tu toujours choisi notre famille pour faire tes expériences?
Nous naissons toutes soucieuses
De garder l'honneur de l'époux,
Mais des circonstances fâcheuses
Nous font mal tourner malgré nous …
Témoin l'exemple de ma mère!
Quand elle vit le cygne altier
Qui, chacun le sait, fut mon père,
Pouvait-elle se méfier?
Dis-moi, Vénus, quel plaisir trouves-tu
A faire ainsi cascader la vertu?(14)

These brief allusions are not much longer than those occurring in Ovid. The only other “proof” provided is the comment about a comparable use of anachronism in Léda and in La Belle Hélène. Given the scant evidence, the case is hardly convincing, even if one may feel that Besnier is not wrong in drawing the reader's attention to La Belle Hélène.

It is just possible, of course, as Besnier suggests, that Jarry's Léda, in performance, made specific musical reference to Meilhac and Halévy, using parodies of Offenbach, and so forth, but this amounts to no more than speculation, since no account of the performance appears to be extant, and the score is lost. At any rate, the didascalia of Léda cast no light on the matter whatsoever, and it seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that explicit reference to Meilhac, Halévy and Offenbach was not intended.

But there is another written source (also mentioned by Bordillon) which may well have had a significant influence on Jarry—Pierre Louÿs's Lêda ou la louange des bienheureuses ténèbres. Bordillon offers no proof, though, other than to mention that Louÿs's text was published just before the performance of Léda.15 Yet there is some internal evidence to support the contention that Louÿs's text is indeed a source if not an intertext of Jarry's operetta—the odd spelling of Zeus. Louÿs, like Jarry, uses the rare form Dzeus, no doubt a personal coinage. Louÿs no doubt wished thereby to enhance the Greekness of the name, especially since he also respects Greek phonetics in his spelling of Lêda (Ληδα) by using an open rather than a closed e. In all likelihood, Jarry knew and was influenced by Louÿs's short story—at least to the extent of adopting the spelling of Jupiter's name. On the other hand, given what is no more than a minimal difference between the two forms, the phonetic variation is only slight. We are thus up against what is to some extent at least a visual phenomenon, intended (paradoxically) for the reader rather than for the audience that would barely hear the difference. Though it is comparable to Jarry's playful spelling in Ubu, in cases such as phynance, meant for the eye rather than for the ear, Dzeus does not fall neatly into the same category, given that it is heard on stage on several occasions.16 Clearly, then, the unusual orthography is intended as a signal to the director as well as to the cast and thus cannot be ignored. In other respects, however, Jarry's script is quite unlike Louÿs's; we are therefore dealing with only a minimal mode of intertextuality.

Jarry's originality in Léda consists chiefly in the rather strange Dzeus-Léda love scene with its surprisingly chaste substitution of pastilles for sex (instead of sleeping with Léda, Dzeus gives her a bonbonnière). The result of this is a desexualizing of the legend and a sort of immaculate conception: “LEDA: J'aurai un fils! deux fils! pour avoir croqué une pastille! Une seule pastille!” (p. 88). This is without doubt the single most significant way in which the author of Léda interacts with his intertexts, throwing mythological caution to the winds, thereby subverting his sources. In technical terms, what we are dealing with is a device that combines some features of two intertextual categories discussed earlier—mandatory and unfocussed. Although the love scene is not mandatorily intertextual in the narrow sense of being focussed on a specific hypotext, it is nevertheless mandatory insofar as deciphering the boldness of Jarry's innovation is contingent on the spectator's (or reader's) knowing the narrative elements of the (unfocussed) hypotexts. In other words, the full impact of Jarry's version of the legend would be lost on the uninitiated spectator/reader unaware of the Léda legend and its tradition.

As we have seen, then, the quotation device is not used in Léda (except in playful orthography), whereas the principal intertextual practice is concerned with the transformation of narrative rather than of textual units. Although the Dzeus-Léda love scene (Scene XI, pp. 86-89) is extremely short, it stands out in an otherwise flat text. Dzeus and Léda only have two brief duos—Scene VII (pp. 83-84) and Scene IX (pp. 86-89). Dzeus hardly has a chance to be seductive; he is certainly never armed with the eloquence accorded him by, say, Giraudoux, in Amphitryon 38. Nor is Léda represented as a femme fatale … Their dialogue, consequently, is less than lyrical, while the purpose of the love scene with its surprising twist is no doubt to undermine the eroticism of the legendary encounter. Jarry's aim in Léda was thus in all likelihood to maximize his surprise effect, whose success would ultimately depend on the skill of the director. The result is no less than a new reading of the legend.


  1. See “Labiche et l'intertextualité comique,” Cahiers de l'Association Internationale des Etudes Françaises No. 35 (1983), 169-182.

  2. I am using “intertextuality” in the strict sense of those instances where the intertext governs the way a text is decoded; cf. Riffaterre's concept of intertextualité obligatoire: “[là où] l'intertexte laisse dans le texte une trace indélébile, une constante formelle qui joue le rôle d'un impératif de lecture et gouverne le déchiffrement du message dans ce qu'il a de littéraire …” “La Trace de l'intertexte,” La Pensée No. 215 (octobre 1980), p. 5.

  3. These examples are cited by Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni, La Connotation (Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1977), pp. 126-7.

  4. See Seymour Travers, A Catalogue of Nineteenth Century French Theatrical Parodies [A Compilation of the Parodies between 1789 and 1914 of which Any Record was Found] (New York: King's Crown Press, 1941).

  5. For further discussion of the theatrical title as intertextual signal, see my Le spectacle du discours (Paris: J. Corti), in press.

  6. Eugène Labiche, Traversin et Couverture (1850), Œuvres complètes (Paris: Club de l'Honnête Homme, 1966-1968), II, 220.

  7. The manuscript was first shown to the general public in an important exhibit of French mss. held under the auspices of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin in 1976. In the Catalogue, From Baudelaire to Beckett. A Century of French Art and Literature. A Catalogue of Books, Manuscripts and Related Material Drawn From the Collections of the Humanities Research Center (Austin: The Humanities Research Center—The University of Texas at Austin, 1976), Carlton Lake describes the ms. of Léda in the following terms:

    No. 268 Léda Opérette bouffe en un acte, par Alfred Jarry et Karl

    Rosenval [Berthe Danville]

    Holograph manuscript, 46 pp. Small quarto.

    Jarry met Berthe Danville in the winter of 1897. In collaboration with her he wrote Léda in 1899 and 1900. Léda was performed on 15 May 1900, but has not been published.

    The manuscript is entirely in Jarry's hand. On the first sheet he has written the title, the cast of characters, and drawn a small sketch of the stage set.

    (p. 98)

  8. In the interest of historical and textual accuracy, it might be useful to point out here that the Bourgois edition contains two inaccurately copied passages as follows:

    • (a) Bourgois ed., p. 45 (Léda): “A qui le dis-tu, ma brave Aglaia?” should read: “A qui le dis-tu, ma bonne Aglaia?”
    • [ms. p. 6]

    • (b) Bourgois ed., p. 46 (Anne): “afin qu'ils puissent jouir d'un repos …” should read: “afin qu'ils puissent jouir ensuite d'un repos …”
    • [ms. p. 7]

    The ms. of Léda consists of 46 handwritten (mostly easily legible) numbered pages. I wish to acknowledge here the courtesy extended to me as well as the permission to consult the ms. at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

  9. 15 mai [1900]: Première représentation de Léda en collaboration avec Karl Rosenval (alias Berthe Danville, alias Berthe Blocq) [d'après une lettre de Berthe Danville du 29 avril 1900]—Michel Arrivé's note in the Pléiade edition of Jarry's Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), I, xxxix. The text of the letter is included in the Bourgois edition of Léda on p. 12.

  10. The title of my article is not, of course, intended to suggest that Jarry did not use intertextual devices elsewhere in his work. The most obvious examples are the plays in the Ubu cycle, which can either be read autonomously, or, as Michel Arrivé convincingly demonstrates, as an intertextual construct, the individual plays being interdependent. See his Les Langages de Jarry (Paris: Klincksieck, 1972).

  11. Metamorphoses VI, 109. The allusion in the Heroides is quite laconic:

    Iuppiter ut soceri proavus taceatur et omne
    Tantalidae Pelopis Tyndareique decus,
    dat mihi Leda Iovem cygnus decepta parentem,
    quae falsam gremio credula fovit avem.

    (Heroides XVII, ll. 54 sq.)

    There are two brief references in the Amores:

    (a) Qualis ab Eurota Phrygiis avecta carinis
                        coniugibus belli causa duobus erat,
                        qualis erat Lede, quam plumis abditus albis
                        callidus in falsa lusit adulter ave …

    (I, x, l. 3 sq.)

    (b) Quod si concussas Triton exasperet undas,
                        quam tibi sit toto nullus in ore color!
                        tum generosa voces fecundae sidera Ledae
                        et “felix, dicas quem sua terra tenet!”

    (II, xi, l. 29 sq.)


    A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
    Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
    By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
    He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
    How can those terrified vague fingers push
    The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
    And how can body, laid in that white rush,
    But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
    A shudder in the loins engenders there
    The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
    And Agamemnon dead.
                                                                                              Being so caught up.
    So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
    Did she put on his knowledge with his power
    Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?


    The legend has also been reworked by Gabriele d'Annunzio (Leda senza cigno), but this version also appeared several years after the performance of Jarry's operetta. Finally, to complete the picture, Léda makes a fleeting appearance in yet another post-Jarry text—in Giraudox' Amphitryon 38 (1929). In Act II, Sc. vi, Alcmène tries to persuade Léda to make love with Jupiter in her place.

  13. Léda, Préface de Noël Arnaud. Introduction et notes par Henri Bordillon. Postface de Patrick Besnier (Paris: Humanities Research Center & Christian Bourgois, 1981), p. 101.

  14. Page numbers refer to La Belle Hélène in Meilhac et Halévy, Théâtre (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1955).

  15. The date of publication given is erroneous, however, and the bibliographical information incomplete. Louÿs's Lêda was in fact published in a small first edition in 1893 (Paris: Librairie de l'Art Indépendant), and not in 1898 as stated. Talvart et Place provide the following information (which I have verified): “Paris, Librairie de l'Art Indépendant, 1893. Edition originale tirée à 125 exemplaires numérotés (…), Bibliographie des auteurs modernes de langue française (Paris: Editions de la Chronique des Lettres françaises, 1954), XII, 318. In addition to the first edition, there were two others prior to 1900: (a) Mercure de France, 1898 (“Nouvelle édition, tirée à 600 exemplaires numérotés …,” according to Talvart et Place) and (b) [the edition mentioned by Bordillon]: Librairie Borel, 1898. Needless to say, the availability of an edition as early as 1893 in addition to the two others that appeared prior to 1900 makes Louÿs's text a more likely intertext.

  16. 16 times in the dialogue (and twice in the didascalia). Léda speaks his name 6 times, while Dzeus says his own name three times.

Linda Klieger Stillman (essay date winter 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6289

SOURCE: Stillman, Linda Klieger. “Machinations of Celibacy and Desire.” L'Esprit Créateur 24, no. 4 (winter 1984): 20-35.

[In the following historically-grounded essay, Stillman examines Jarry's work, especially Le Sûrmale, in the context of the rapidly developing technology at the turn of the century and discusses the ways in which Marcueil, the automaton-like bicycling hero of Le Sûrmale, is machine-like in both love-making and athletics, she notes that Jarry “invented” a “time machine” and a “machine to inspire love,” which caused a stir in the art world of the late nineteenth century.]

Machines, and technology in general, have been systematically associated with human progress and with predictions of life in the future. From the late eighteenth century, when the notion of progress as continual, rapid technological (and social) change captured the popular imagination, literature has concerned itself with coherent and comprehensive prophecies of over-achieving gadgets and utopian robotics. During the nineteenth century, writers such as Jules Verne (De la terre à la lune, Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, Le Château des Carpathes, etc.) and H. G. Wells (The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The Time-Machine) invented a genre that wed forevermore science to fiction. A myriad of discoveries and theories, from Huyghen's pendulum and Papin's steam machine to La Mettrie's 1747 manmachine (developed in L'Homme-machine), fostered the genesis and wide-spread application of mechanical concepts coextensive with the Industrial Revolution. The 25 years spanning the turn of the century saw, for instance, inaugural cycle and automobile races as well as the first telegraph and intercontinental radio communication. It was the era of the Curies, of Einstein, of Eiffel, of Nils Bohr. While Planck contributed the quantum theory, Minkowsky the four-dimension space-time continuum, and Tsiolkowsky research on rockets, Pawlowski was writing Journey to the Land of the Fourth Dimension and Maurice Renard Le Péril bleu. Janet, Freud, and Pavlov investigated psychological automatisms and conditioned reflexes. Freud wrote about a mechanical psychiser Apparat during the years between Jarry's Les Jours et les nuits (1897) and Le Surmâle (1902). Clockwork and machinery became models that seemed to account for the functioning of man's mind and body alike: the nervous system was explained by analogy to wires and telegraphy keys; a living organism, according to Helmholtz, could be described as a transforming power machine, a producer of work energy. Between 1900 and 1920, Futurism institutionalized a cult of machines in art and literature: witness Mayakovsky's poems about electrification, de Chirico's “metaphysical” canvasses of bizarre mannekins, and the machinery in Méliès's cinema. By the mid-twentieth century, conferences announced sessions such as “Newtonian Mechanics and the Romantic Rebellion,” “The Inventor as Literary Hero,” and “Writing as a Self-Reflexive Technology”; college syllabi featured courses in “futurology,” and their adherents, in the tradition of prophets, tended to forecast wondrous and terrifying timescapes.

Machines did not, in fact, tarry in their concretisation of terror. By the time large factories were an essential aspect of English and French industrial development, that is, by the second half of the nineteenth century, the machine had become not only a superior and unfair competitor responsible for massive unemployment, but a veritable vampire and, as the term “vamp” suggests, often a female trouble-maker, an insinuation which is clear in names such as the “spinning Jenny.” The machine's ambiguous relationship to man is, however, everywhere apparent. In Zola's 1890 La Bête humaine, and in Renoir's 1938 film version, the locomotive figures as a mistress. The steam engine has served as a locus of identification for male fantasies of thrusting pistons; of roaring, sweating devouring of fuel; and of penetration into tunnels: in Huysmans's Là-bas, pistons inside cylinders constitute “steel Romeos inside cast-iron Juliets.” Whereas before the Industrial Revolution, machines—music boxes and animated statues in kings' gardens, pulleys and sailing ships—depended on the strength of man and brute, water or wind, the motor takes precedence with the advent of industry, and suddenly man becomes (as Marx wrote in the 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party) the machine's accessory. This fear took form as early as 1816 when Mary Shelley's Frankenstein foresaw that the machine could and would become its creator's adversary and potential destroyer. By 1872, Samuel Butler's Erewhon (an anagram of “here” and “now”) depicted such a negative utopia—the empire of machines—and called for the destruction of all machines. Writer and illustrator Albert Robida envisaged this terrifying realm with his 1882 Le Vingtième siècle and his 1883 La Guerre au vingtième siècle in which machines control each and every facet of life. While George Orwell's Big Brother has not acceded to power in England and we do not ride in vehicles with “beam control” (as industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes predicted in a 1940 issue of Popular Mechanics), man's ambivalent attitude toward his inventions endures: Jack Dempsey's 1930 article “I Can Whip Any Mechanical Robot” and that era's plan for an expressway on the Great Wall of China counterbalance fears of aircraft safety—the 1950s nervously envisioned highways in the air—and of atomic reactors in every basement.

Machines continue to attract significant critical attention and have, of late, generated numerous articles, special issues of reviews (among them Romantisme, No. 41 [1983] on the fin de siècle machine, and Revue des sciences humaines, Nos. 186-187, on la machine dans l'imaginaire), and several recent books, for example, Noiray's Le Romancier et la machine (1982-83). Of particular and peculiar import to these studies is the major systematisation of a modern myth of the machine achieved by Michel Carrouges in his 1954 critical tour de force Les Machines célibataires.1 The revelation, in a dream, of numerous, disturbing analogies between the harrow in Kafka's In the Penal Colony (1919) and Duchamp's La Mariée mise à nu par ces célibataires, même (1915-23), led Carrouges to the discovery of a galaxy of what he termed machines célibataires scattered throughout the texts of Western literature since the 1850s. In its most basic form, a machine célibataire represents the mechanical solitude of a sole human, regardless of gender. Raised to the second power, a double solitude comes into play, including masculine and feminine elements but not necessarily man and woman. Based on the model of Duchamp's Grand Verre, where the Bride resides alone in the upper portion while the “bachelor apparatus” remains confined to the lower portion, a machine célibataire consists of the intersection of a sexual unit with a mechanical unit. It recasts the cloven role machines play in the minds of men by functioning as a transformer of love into a death-device. Lautréamont expressed perfectly the form and formula of the prototypic machine célibataire: “Il [Mervyn] est beau … comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d'une machine à coudre [female] et d'un parapluie [male]!” (Les Chants de Maldoror, Chant VI).

In Carrouges's scheme, preceding Lautréamont's 1869 bachelor machine by a quarter-century, the mobile-plated cell of the condemned man in Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum holds historical pride of place as the first modern machine célibataire. Tracing the fetichized/sexualized machine's avatars through Jules Verne, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, and Jarry to Roussel and Kafka, among others, Carrouges's work provides a theoretical model fraught with significance for psychoanalysis and marxism as well as for interpretation of literary texts. Two decades later, in their controversial Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia,2 Deleuze and Guattari recuperated the focal and fertile designation machine célibataire, using it with the analog machine désirante (a term also used by Duchamp in his Notes and Projects for the Large Glass3) to formulate theories of anti-psychiatry, of the uncertain role of the subject, and of the increasingly mechanical function of desire. Defined as “formative machines, whose very misfirings are functional,” desiring-machines are “engaged in their own assembly (…) bringing into play processes of temporalization, fragmented formations, and detached parts” (Anti-Oedipus, pp. 286-87). Here, the machine célibataire forms “a new alliance between the desiring-machines and the body-without-organs [‘eyes closed tight, nostrils pinched shut, ears stopped up,’ p. 37] so as to give birth to a new humanity or a glorious organism” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 18). This reconciliation takes place “on the level of a new machine, functioning as ‘the return of the repressed’” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 17). This produces raw intensities that never express any ultimate equilibrium. Therefore, an identity can only be a “series of individualities” with an “unlocatable center” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 21). Desire thus lacks a fixed subject (and not its object), while its object is yet another machine connected to it, desire being itself a machine. The pleasure achieved by the new machine, that is, the machine célibataire “can rightly be called autoerotic, or rather automatic: the nuptial celebration of a new alliance, a new birth, a radiant ecstasy, as though the eroticism of the machine liberated other unlimited forces” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 18). Within the energy circuit, desire generates the flow, flows, and also interrupts the flow, so that the machines work only by continually breaking down. “The breaks in the process are productive, and are reassemblies in and of themselves” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 42). Fundamentally, the machine célibataire attains its functional zenith precisely when it overloads, misfires, or otherwise breaks down. Such a model of flows, ruptures, and production pertains to the functioning of the text-machine which neither unifies nor totalizes its elements, but rather preserves difference and fragmentation, having no recourse to original or eventual totality, yet allowing communication among detached parts via aberrant paths.

A 1976 Paris exhibition, “Les Machines Célibataires,” helped bring these daring and enigmatic machines out of the marginal space to which history had relegated them and into the public domain. The surprisingly large crowds that attended beheld, for example, life-size sculptures of Kafka's harrow, Duchamp's Grand Verre, and Jarry's Machine-à-inspirer-l'amour (constructed by Jacques Carelman). Harald Szeemann, organiser of the exhibition and editor of the magnificent and theoretically powerful catalogue, describes in the following terms Jarry's contribution to the golden age of the machine célibataire in literature: “the essential core of the last decade of the nineteenth century [is] none other than the writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) and his all-embracing definitive system of pataphysics, which is to metaphysics as metaphysics is to physics, i.e. pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions.”4 Indeed, Michel Carrouges comments in an essay, “Directions for Use,” that “every bachelor machine is first of all a pataphysical machine, or a patamachine” (The Bachelor Machines, p. 44).

From brains to merdre to love, the machines in Alfred Jarry's works serve up a tantalizing menu.5 Ubu's disembraining machine rivals his merdre pump in efficacy. The pataphysician's Time-Machine dismantles chronological perception as it hurtles its pilot through an Imaginary present. In Le Surmâle, roman moderne, a sumptuous account of mechanical man pitted against locomotive and robot epitomizes Jarry's unflagging enthusiasm for machines.6 Jarry himself, an avid practitioner of the Parisian vehicle dernier cri, referred to his knee, after a minor accident, as his left pedal. Preoccupied from the outset with the relation between man and machine, Jarry pursued his literary investigation of their rapport with ever-increasing vigor. An inventory of the machines his works showcase includes a strength-testing device, the arc-lamp, all sorts of dynamos and batteries, cycles, trains, and the phonograph. A deathbed letter spoke of his motor giving out.

Machines and mechanical men take on mythological proportions under the diminutive Jarry's pen. Man and machine wrestle or merge forces in scenarios at once hypnotic and psychopathological, ecstatic and tragic, with the goal of refusing the gods in favor of a deployment of superhuman powers that originate in the human. In Haldernablou (part of Les Minutes de sable mémorial), for instance, La Machine (capital “M”) is reverentially addressed as “Dieu métallique, essence et idole” (Œuvres complètes, p. 217). The surmâle would be told, “la Science vous observe, la Science avec un grand S, ou plutôt, … la SCIENCE avec une grande SCIE …” (Le Surmâle, p. 111), emphasizing the dangers inherent in the machine age. In Jarry's fiction, death itself displays properties of machinery and vice versa: the literary machine, above all, and an infinitely creative death are reciprocal metaphors. At the same time, these mythological and often erotic passages are traversed by the musings of a decidedly keen-witted potache. In Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien, roman néo-scientifique, a lobster is imagined to be a “petite boîte automobile de conserves vivantes” and is likened to a mobile can of corned-beef (Œuvres complètes, pp. 669-700). The lobster's shell would sport the inscription “Boneless and Economical” and its tail would hide a key necessary to open it. This observation is, of course, highly pataphysical, and points to the interpenetration of realms essential to the dimension that Jarry dubbed “ethernity,” a neologism combining eternity and his beloved ether.

The “auto-mobile” vehicle extraordinary, however, is a Time-Exploring-Machine, inspired by H. G. Wells's novel, that appears in an essay appended to Faustroll. The pataphysician investigates time by means of “space-exploring-machines.” To begin with, in his Commentaire pour servir à la construction pratique de la machine à explorer le temps, Jarry states that the present is three-dimensional (Œuvres complètes, p. 735), and time therefore becomes a sequence of solids. The ideal exploration of this timescape requires that the machine isolate us from time, that is, to “rester immobiles dans l'Espace absolu, le long du Cours du Temps” (Œuvres complètes, p. 736). Seen from the machine, the past is beyond the future. It follows that if we are able to close ourselves instantly in the machine (thus isolated from time and immobilized), the voyage into the past “consiste en la perception de la reversibilité des phénomènes. On verra la pomme rebondir de la terre sur l'arbre, ou ressusciter le mort, puis le boulet rentrer dans le canon” (Œuvres complètes, p. 742). (These hypotheses uncannily anticipate, with almost verbatim accuracy, modern descriptions of black holes.7) For the pataphysician's machine, two pasts coexist: the real one and that “construit par la Machine quand elle revient à notre Présent, et qui n'est que la reversibilité du Futur” (Œuvres complètes, p. 742). In order to regain the real past after its gyroscopic journey through the future, the machine must traverse a point suspended between the future and the past, symmetrical to the real present “qu'on appellerait justement le Présent imaginaire” (p. 742). Ultimately, Jarry deduces, “La Durée est la transformation d'une succession en une réversion. C'est-à-dire: LE DEVENIR D'UNE MEMOIRE” (p. 743).

The machine and its itinerary not only prefigure an ideal proustian journey—Deleuze and Guattari offer Proust's “literary machine” A la recherche du temps perdu as a model of the inclusive disjunctions proper to desiring-machines—but they also prefigure the modernist narrative technique of spatialisation, which is itself coextensive with discoveries of modern physics. Time becomes a function of space conceived as dynamic. Therefore, space exists relative to a mobile viewpoint, rather than being perceived in a flat or linear way. In pataphysics, the machine denies the authenticity of an absolute vantage point, and is described by the same irony, plural and uncertain points of view, and other indications of a fragmented and often solitary (“bachelor”) subject that sabotages the modern narrator's authority.8 The Time-Machine, inasmuch as it constitutes a “borrowing” from Wells, also illustrates Jarry's strategic use of intertextuality: the relay between texts, in other words, the permeability or openness between one text and another, becomes self-conscious and constitutive of the production of the narrative itself. Jarry's mimesis never aims at reproduction, but at displacement. The textual “transplant” ironically emphasizes its own presence. Pseudoscientific lucubrations of the Time-Machine variety are especially present in Faustroll: the work whose hero combines Goethe's Faust with Ibsen's troll is subtitled roman, néo-scientifique. At the same time as it glorifies the mechanical, the work pays delirious hommage to several contemporary British scientists, among them C. V. Boys, Lord Kelvin, Faraday, and William Crookes, whose essays inform Jarry's own text.9Faustroll incorporates their experiments with extraordinary craft and zany results, while Faustroll turns up his nose at positivism.

Whether they figure in drama or narrative, whether in burlesque or tragic works, machines never fool around. By challenging men to perform superhuman feats, but by gaining the upper hand and ruthlessly destroying their human counterparts, machines, in Jarry's opus, “immetalize” (to borrow a neologism from The Bachelor Machines catalogue) man's own alienated desire. As Jean-François Lyotard writes, “the machine … does not operate without receiving and exploiting natural forces; … it plays a trick on these forces, inasmuch as it is less strong than they yet manages to achieve this monstrosity: that the least strong becomes stronger than the stronger” (The Bachelor Machines, p. 98). This “monstrosity” corresponds, on the one hand, to Jarry's theoretical ideas on theatrical and fictional characterization and, on the other hand, to the rhetorical and psychological implications of his machines. Their malevolence and unstable ontological status indicate the problematical role of the machine in Jarry's writing. Discussing intertextuality in Jarry's œuvre in terms of texts devouring other texts, Michel Arrivé writes astutely, “les textes, à proprement parler, jouent et souffrent dans cette étrange machine textuelle. …”10

In this framework, art does not equal life, but rather substitutes for it. In a chapter of Faustroll entitled “Clinamen,” a celibate machine par excellence assumes the end of human life (“après qu'il n'y eut plus personne au monde”) and the “survival” of only the Painting Machine, which, “animée à l'intérieur d'un système de ressorts sans masse, tournait en azimut dans le hall de fer du Palais des Machines, seul la polissure morte, moderne déluge de la Seine universelle, la bête imprévue Clinamen éjacula aux parois de son univers” (Œuvres complètes, p. 714).11 Likened to an “unexpected beast,” the autonomous Painting Machine needs no human to plug it in or program it. It “ejaculates,” i.e., paints, multiple and complex pictures whose description by Jarry becomes consubstantial with the text. This resembles the “textual machine” at work elsewhere in Faustroll, where—in the context of a platonic dialogue on the identity of opposites—Ibicrate the Geometer credits Ubu with writing César-Antechrist, Jarry's now esoteric now burlesque heraldic play. Furthermore, to demonstrate the identity of opposites, Ibicrate points out that the plus sign and the minus sign are both constituted by the bâton-à-physique (which rotates on its axis), and he calls the pataphysical stick “l'engin mécanique” (p. 730). Such mechanisms which produce art as not simply a displacement but a replacement for life underscore the simultaneous transcendence and horror inherent in man's rapport to machines. It is precisely the ambiguous presence of fascination and repulsion, freedom and terror, humanity and inhumanity that Père Ubu himself represents: “son activité n'a pas de mobile affectif. Elle est extérieure au plaisir et à la douleur, comme elle est au-delà du bien et du mal. Elle échappe par là à l'humain. Ubu est un robot essentiellement moderne.”12

Jarry's deliberate campaign of provocation did not begin, as it is generally believed, with Ubu Roi's vociferous opening word. It surfaced first in the cast of characters. The inclusion of the machine à décerveler on the list, a subtle tactic though it may seem, caused indignant reactions in the 1890s. Inserting the machine on equal footing with father, mother, king, queen, emperor, nobles, magistrates, and financiers, elicited outrage. Critics were appalled by the idea that Jarry would try to make people believe the machine was really a character, and they felt obliged to make statements to the contrary. By personifying the disembraining machine, Jarry meant to subvert dramaturgic conventions and, by implicit contrast, to emphasize a reification of the human. Ubu and his henchmen use the machine to extract payment from objectively innocent subjects. It is also the double of the merdre pump13: they are instruments and weapons, used alternately to collect the coveted substance and to pump it on others as punishment. These machines both extract and expel, consecrate and desecrate, imitating, moreover, the paradoxical language proper to their sovereign. (Indeed, Ubu's pet expletive cornegidouille solders corne, used for penetration and impalement—representing the male element of a bachelor machine—to gidouille, the cosmic receptacle for gastric satisfaction and survival—representing the female element of the bachelor machine.) The machine's status in Ubu's kingdom—a paradigm for the pataphysical realm—leaves no room for speculation: Ubu Roi's rallying cry “Merdre” is replaced, in Ubu cocu, by an equally menacing call to arms, “A la machine!” (p. 508). Furthermore, when King Ubu orders the nobles, magistrates, and financiers down the trap door, their fate is not simply to disappear. What awaits them in the palace basement is the jaw of the horrible disembraining machine. Typical of Jarry's metaphors, the machine also signifies its opposite, that is, the act of instituting change in and of itself, or the absolute counteraction of the former regime. In the Acte Terrestre of César-Antechrist, the symbolism of the machine is made clear: “La mâchoire du crâne sans cervelle digère la cervelle étrangère” (Œuvres complètes, p. 304).

Jarry underscores his insult to the doxa by designating Sunday as disembraining day. Like the seven dwarfs, Ubu's palotins have a tune to work by. Its refrain is inspiring:

Voyez, voyez la machin' tourner,
Voyez, voyez, la cervell' sauter,
Voyez, voyez les Rentiers trembler …
Hurrah! Cornes-au-cul, vive le Père Ubu!

(p. 471)

Ubu guaranteed himself a hearty Sunday dinner. A veritable hymn to the ritual, La Chanson de décervelage suggests the Machine's role as the turning trope of fiction and furnishes insights into other connotations of the Machine. Weekly, people assemble to watch its lethal engines operate on the rue de l'Echaudé, the address—by no small coincidence—of the Mercure de France. In the Acte Terrestre (a prototype of the Ubu plays), décervelage and publishing overlap explicitly: here, the décerveleur is the equivalent of the printer, and the turning printing press is likened to an empty skull's jaw digesting foreign gray matter. In the ensuing dialogue, Ubu sends those condemned to death down the trap, where, the text specifies, the printer will disembrain them.

The polysemy of the royal machine does not stop with this satiric assault on publishers. Although the gravity of Jarry's financial situation cannot be exaggerated—his books brought fame but not fortune—there is another, more essential, transfer effected by the symbol of the kingdom's new religion. The machine, like Ubu himself, is both a divine and monstrous modern robot. Likewise, the ceaseless mechanical process of brain transfer and digestion is both infinitely creative and destructive. Décervelage is not simply the business of Ubu's cruelly imposed regime. A passage in Chez la Muse (a vignette in L'Amour en visites) hints that disembraining is a metaphor for one of Jarry's most serious concerns, that is, the mechanism of imagination and writing. In Chez la Muse, a despairing poet banishes the Muse because she offers him only pleasures of the flesh. His dying words accuse death of being plagiarism. The “death” or “plagiarism” that is the outcome of the poet's hallucinatory, isolated adventure, like the deaths of Jarry's other characters, is a literary conceit for the feeding of words and images from the outside into one's newly emptied skull. For Jarry, then, the disembraining enterprise paradoxically replaces brain cells. The notion of “plagiarism” that concerned him was thus neither the unquestioning assimilation or copying of ideas nor the monitoring of thoughts. His literalized conception of a ritualistic, noble, valuable, and honorable (cf. the victims of the trapdoor) transfer of “brains” via a simple mechanical device allows for the acquisition and nourishing of new ideas only by displacement. “Death,” then, is ultimately creative. To claim, as does the poet in Chez la Muse, that “la mort n'est pas éternelle” (Œuvres complètes, p. 893), is to affirm its dynamic and regenerative nature. In this context, Jarry's personification of the Machine à décerveler and its privileged role in his texts correspond to his philosophy of cyclic reciprocity and to his unfailing faith in brain power. He confided to his friend Rachilde that the decomposing brain's posthumous dreams constitute Paradise,14 concurring presciently with Deleuze and Guattari's formulations of “radiant ecstasy” and “pure naked intensity” with reference to the alliance of the desiring-machines and the body-without-organs, and to their theory of consummate mechanical failure.

In 1902, five years before his death, Jarry published Le Surmâle, roman moderne, the culmination of his cult of machinery. After a dinner party at his château and a stop at a bar, during which his comments foreshadow his quest for superhuman virility, André Marcueil breaks into the Bois de Boulogne zoo where “de grandes formes noires bondirent” (Le Surmâle, p. 47). Marcueil goes on, however, to “kill” the zoo's iron beast (la bête de fer), the strength-testing device. This mechanical measure of human strength “est une femelle,” Marcueil gravely pronounces, “mais c'est très fort” (Le Surmâle, p. 49). His remark about the anthropomorphic dynamomètre foretokens the arrival at his home of his superfemale counterpart Ellen Elson, her arrival signaled by “un bourdonnement d'une acuité croissante (…). On eût dit une sirène de steamer” (Le Surmâle, p. 51). The polysemy of “siren” reflects the ambivalent ontological positions held by man and machine. Ellen, the femme fatale, arrives “piloting” an automobile responsible for the hypnotic sound and likened to “un dieu lubrique et fabuleux” as well as a “bête métallique, comme un gros scarabée” (Le Surmâle, p. 57), comparisons clearly establishing the machine's sacred but suspect function.

Before departing, Ellen mentions an upcoming race between a five-man cycle and a locomotive, La Course des Dix Mille Milles, from Paris to Siberia and back. A driverless, torpedo-shaped pacesetting car precedes the cycle while a small trailer follows, manned by a dwarf. The five pedallers' legs are joined on each side by aluminium rods. Invented and manufactured by Ellen's father, the team's sole nourishment, i.e., Perpetual-Motion-Food (combining strychnine and alcohol), provides periodically dispensed pataphysical endurance. When a suddenly appearing flying funnel zooms past the train and the cycle (although both are moving at 250 kmph), the cyclists exert even more energy: one of the team dies but continues to pedal automatically, allowing the quintuplette to pass the express train. Those aboard (engineer and mechanician Arthur Gough, Ellen, and her scientist father) regroup at the foot-plate after destroying the coaches from whose windows they had observed the race. The express reaches such a fabulous speed that the speedometer breaks down. Unexpectedly, the parallel machines are overtaken by the supermale—in the identity of Le Pédard—who appears calmly from nowhere and handily wins the race. This extraordinary cyclist exemplifies Jarry's obsession with physical strength and endurance as well as his view that the machine created by man's imagination and ingenuity becomes a model against which man must then measure himself. Curiously though, while Marcueil functions like a well-oiled machine, the cold metallic force of the locomotive is mitigated by its animalistic attributes: it is compared to a big beast, boasts a slightly trembling flank, and it grunts.

During Marcueil's second major transformation, that is, the Indian, his desire to break records becomes alarmingly literal. At the center of the novel's central scene—a contest of Olympian love-making—a phonograph threatens the Indian and his partner. A short text, published in 1893 and entitled Phonographe, makes explicit the link between this machine—one that spews forth man's words recorded on turning cylinders—and the machine à décerveler, whose rotation recycles men's brains. In Phonographe, “l'inanimé froid se réchauffe et redevient mobile au contact de la chaude cervelle, à travers les oreilles percées de clous” (Œuvres complètes, p. 186). A similar image of the beloved head held prisoner by the machine closes the text: “la sirène minérale [a description that also evokes Ellen's arrival at Marcueil's] tient son bien-aimé par la tête comme un page d'acier serre une robe” (p. 187). This phonograph, like its avatar in Le Surmâle, portends the lethal Machine-à-inspirer-l'amour that causes the novel's tragic denouement. Like the locomotive that raced against mechanised men, the phonograph seems alive, resembling “la gueule luisante d'un serpent, menaçante et qui ne se cachait plus sous les fleurs” (Le Surmâle, p. 133). Akin to Ubu's machine, it is a character, and a powerful one at that. Its “crystal throat” appears to be “un grand monocle pour cyclope méchant” (Le Surmâle, p. 130), but soon it becomes “le vieux monsieur au monocle de cristal,” who is an intruder more indiscrete than Bathybius, the “real” character who monitors Marcueil's sexual efforts from an observation window.

At first, the phonograph startles by its clairvoyance, and Marcueil shudders at the strange coincidence of his gesture and the recounting of it by the record. The machine quickly takes command of events, directing the actions of Marcueil and Ellen who are mesmerized by its words. The supermale wants to smash the machine to bits but he cannot, for the Machine, once invented, cannot always be dominated by man. He has no choice but to obey: “le monstre ordonna à voix limpide et éclatante” (Le Surmâle, p. 133), and it ordered Ellen to die. Her death unleashes in Marcueil the love he feels for this superfemale. The purpose of their rendez-vous is to beat the love-making record set by Theophrastes's Indian, but as Marcueil suddenly realizes, “faire l'amour assidûment ôte le temps d'éprouver l'amour” (Le Surmâle, p. 138). Central to the myth of the machine célibataire, the refusal of any “conséquences créatrices de l'érotisme” (Les Machines célibataires, p. 84) pertains to the distance between the machine and human solitude: Ellen and Marcueil “se repoussèrent au moment précis ou d'autres s'enlacent plus étroitement, car tous les deux ils se souciaient d'eux seuls et ne voulaient point préparer d'autres vies” (Le Surmâle, p. 113). Unexpectedly, Ellen awakens from what was only a hypnotic trance and confesses her love for Marcueil to her father, William Elson, a famous American chemist. It has been rightly suggested that Elson is modeled on Edison, the American who invented the phonograph in 1877 and on Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Edison in L'Eve future. Villiers calls his character the mécanicien, a designation Jarry transfers to Arthur Gough, engineer, electrician, and builder of cars and planes. Determined that his daughter get her man, Elson will engage the engineer/mécanicien to help him. When his medical colleague, Bathybius, observes, referring to the Supermale, “ce n'est pas un homme, c'est une machine” (Le Surmâle, p. 146), the plan is hatched: they need a magnetoelectrical device.

Arthur Gough is commissioned to build “la machine la plus insolite des temps modernes, la machine qui n'était pas destinée à produire des effets physiques, mais à influencer des forces considérées jusqu'à ce jour comme insaisissables” (Le Surmâle, p. 148). The Supermale would be conquered by a supermachine. “Si André Marcueil était une machine ou un organisme de fer se jouant des machines, eh bien, la coalition de l'ingénieur, du chimiste et du docteur opposerait machine à machine (…). Si cet homme devenait une mécanique, il fallait bien, par un retour nécessaire à l'équilibre du monde, qu'une autre mécanique fabriquât … de l'âme” (Le Surmâle, p. 148). In other words, a machine is needed to humanize the monster that man becomes when he acts like a machine. Man's salvation, in a world where religion has been replaced by science, takes the form of a Love-Inspiring-Machine. Basing his invention on Faraday's experiments on electromagnetics and on the model of the electric chair (put into use on January 1, 1899 in New York State and touted in France as a more humane and scientific method of execution than “barbaric” hanging), Gough hooks up his wired chair to a magneto. Marcueil's head is fitted with a platinum-toothed crown cum electrodes and ear-flaps. As the 11,000-volt current generated by the machine electrifies the sleeping Supermale strapped into the chair, the desiring machine breaks down.

Just as pataphysics' machine à décerveler instituted Ubu's reign of terror in the place of a corrupt regime, so too modern science misfires and backfires when it imposes a machine-à-inspirer-l'amour. The scene on the front steps of Marcueil's mansion reproduces those in Phonographe where head-phones are likened to nails piercing the ears in order to make contact with hot brains, and where the “mineral siren” holds its beloved by the head like a steel grip. To its inventors' dismay, when Elson, “d'un geste machinal,” throws the switch, Marcueil's energy charges the machine, since, “lorsque deux machines électro-dynamiques sont en contact, c'est celle dont le potentiel est le plus élevé qui charge l'autre” (Le Surmâle, p. 151). Alas, the machine falls in love with the man.

As Jarry hinted with the bestial locomotive and the snake-like phonograph horn, machines take on the historical role of wild animals. To survive, man must become stronger than machines. Marcueil, then, is the “premier [homme] de l'avenir” (Le Surmâle, p. 152), playing Adam to Villiers's android Hadaly.15 The miracle, however, would be postponed for the battery overcharged by Marcueil's electricity reverses the current. No one knows whether the circuit's boomerang is caused by a momentary lessening of Marcueil's energy or its reaching too fabulous a peak. Love is only a machine that produces more machines. Like other machines célibataires, the Machine-à-inspirer-l'amour transforms love into what Carrouges terms a “technique of death” (The Bachelor Machines, p. 21). The metal crown becomes an incandescent jaw and, reaching its maximum functional potential, fatally sinks its white-hot teeth into the Supermale's head. We can only imagine the sight of his cervelle sautée. He is literally devoured by his own narcissistic image,16 mimicking the operation of the other machines in Jarry's texts: the brain-eating printing press, the gueule luisante of the phonograph that replays man's song, the Time-Machine that encloses man like the ubuesque gidouille in order that he may relive his memories, and finally, like the very machinery of Jarry's intertextual tactics. In the end, the machine-man and the desiring-machine are tragically reassembled: “Le Surmâle était mort là, tordu avec le fer” (Le Surmâle, p. 154).


  1. Michel Carrouges, Les Machines célibataires (Paris: Arcanes, 1954).

  2. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen Lane, Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983). Originally published as L'Anti-Œdipe (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1972). This political analysis of desire finds the root of society's sickness especially in the figure of Oedipus as it is used by psychoanalysts.

  3. Marcel Duchamp, ed. Arturo Schwartz, Notes and Projects for the Large Glass (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969).

  4. Le Macchine Celibi/The Bachelor Machines, ed. Harald Szeemann (New York: Rizzoli; Venice: Alfieri Edizione d'Arte, 1975), p. 10.

  5. All references to Jarry's works in this essay, excluding those to Le Surmâle, are to Alfred Jarry, ed. Michel Arrivé, Œuvres complètes, I (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).

  6. Alfred Jarry, Le Surmâle, roman moderne (Paris: Fasquelle Editeurs, 1945).

  7. Walter Sullivan, “A Hole in the Sky,” New York Times Magazine, 14 July 1974, pp. 11, 34-35.

  8. For a discussion of Jarry as a precursor of modern novelists see Linda K. Stillman, “Modern Narrative Techniques: Jarry, the Pre-text,” Sub-Stance, XI, 3 (1982), 72-81.

  9. The intertexts of Faustroll and the scientific tracts are examined in Linda K. Stillman, “Physics and Pataphysics: the Sources of Faustroll,” Kentucky Romance Quarterly, XXVI, 1 (Oct. 1979), 81-92.

  10. Michel Arrivé, Lire Jarry (Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1976), p. 64.

  11. “Clinamen,” an ancient theory of matter, accounts for the creation of life by a fortuitous chance collision of atoms, deviating from the line of their vertical fall, at an undetermined place and moment. Jarry interpreted the Epicurean atomic theory (named “clinamen” by Lucretius) to mean that given this original chance occurrence, anything—and, especially, any deviation—was possible. “Clinamen” is an absolute absurdity: logically, geometrically, mechanically, and physically absurd. It cannot be obtained through experiments; it joins the virtual to the actual.

  12. Micheline Tison-Braun, La Crise de l'humanisme (Paris: Nizet, 1958-67), p. 90.

  13. For a discussion of merdre in Jarry's sign system, see Linda K. Stillman, La Théâtralité dans l'œuvre d'Alfred Jarry (York, S.C.: French Literature Publications Company, 1980), pp. 22-26; John Humphries, “The Machine as Metaphor: Jarry's Pompe à merdre,” Romanic Review, LXXIII, 3 (May 1982), 346-54; and Michel Arrivé, Lire Jarry, pp. 59-61, 120.

  14. “Il [Ubu-Jarry] croit que le cerveau, dans la décomposition, fonctionne au-delà de la mort et que ce sont ses rêves qui sont le Paradis.” Rachilde, Alfred Jarry ou le Surmâle des lettres (Paris: Grasset, 1928), p. 223.

  15. Hadaly, quite beautiful but made of mechanical parts and electrical currents, looks exactly like Alicia Clary, Lord Ewald's mistress, whose body he cherishes but whose base soul he finds intolerable. Edison, Hadaly's inventor, manages to give her an admirable soul thanks to telepathic communication with a certain Mrs. Anderson, herself abandoned for a beautiful soul-mate of Alicia's. Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, L'Eve future (Paris: J. J. Pauvert, 1960).

  16. Textual instances of narcissistic pathology appear frequently in Jarry's writing. Symptoms include, among others, acting without feeling (i.e., like a machine), exploitiveness and arrogance of the ego, sexuality in terms of erective potency, acting out and denying reality by means of props such as alcohol, a need for power often accomplished by the possession and control of a machine, fulfillment of talionic impulses, sex as a mechanical act where feelings are aroused by and focused on fantasy partners, heads not connected to bodies in an energetic sense, and so forth. For an in-depth study of pathological and borderline narcissism see Alexander Lowen, M.D., Narcissism; Denial of the True Self (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.; London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1983) and Otto Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (New York: Jason Aronson, 1975). For a discussion of narcissism in Jarry, see Linda K. Stillman, Alfred Jarry (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983), especially chapter seven.

Claude Schumacher (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Schumacher, Claude. “Jarry's Theatrical Ideas.” In Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire, pp. 98-109. London, England: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1984.

[In the following essay, Schumacher builds upon Jarry's own writings to articulate Jarry's ideas about the theater as represented by his plays.]

Jarry is a subjective writer, who belongs in that stream of literary tradition which began in earnest with the Romantics. His personal obsession with a schoolmaster coincided with a whole attitude to life and became embodied in the Ubu fantasy. Jarry was essentially concerned with the expression of his personal ‘world within’. He was not solely, or even primarily, a man of the theatre, though he undoubtedly had a theatrical instinct of a highly individual kind. Nor was he, a priori, a theatrical reformer. He broke with naturalist theatrical conventions because such conventions could not possibly serve his personal vision. However, his ideas on the theatre have an independent validity which, as the twentieth century wore on, exerted an ever-increasing influence on dramatic writing and theatrical practice. ‘De l'inutilité du théâtre au théâtre’ was published in the Mercure de France in September 1896 and paved the way for the forthcoming production of Ubu roi, but the text also puts forward a number of far-reaching proposals which call for nothing less than a fundamental transformation of the theatre as a whole. This article, together with the letter Jarry wrote to Lugné-Poe expounding the style of production required by Ubu, amounts to a theatrical manifesto, deliberately symbolist and anti-naturalist.

In ‘De l'inutilité’ Jarry declares that he writes for the ‘five hundred people, who, compared with the infinite mediocrity, have a touch of Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci in them’. He goes on to declare that many features of the traditional stage are both disgusting and meaningless, particularly the set and the actors: for him, ‘the set is a hybrid, neither natural nor artificial’, and thus to be discarded as artistically impure. Even a poetically conceived setting creates problems, inasmuch as it limits the intelligent spectator's imaginative freedom to construct in his mind his own, pure and perfect set in response to the poet's words:

It would be very dangerous to impose on a public of artists a set such as the author himself would paint it. A reader who can read will find, in any text, the hidden meaning placed there especially for him … A painted backdrop only seldom conjures up more than one image in the spectator's mind. And it is right that each spectator see the play in the set which corresponds to his own personal conception.

(Ubu, p. 308)

Art of necessity means invention and creation. If the naturalistic artist were true to his professed aim—namely, to record the world exactly as it is—he would have to construct an exact replica of the corner of nature he had chosen to reproduce. If such a reproduction were possible and it were absolutely indistinguishable from the original, it would be superfluous—whereas Jarry sees the act of creation as the essential human activity. Art is the re-creation of the outside world inside the mind of the artist; the communication of art is not to impose the re-created picture on the spectator, but to act as a catalyst for the spectator, who is prompted, in his turn, to re-create worlds in himself. Diagrammatically the process of artistic creation and dissemination, according to Jarry, could be represented as shown in Figure 1.

The ideal response to a genuine artistic creation must be free from imposed limitations, and, as far as the theatrical set is concerned, this aim is best achieved by the absence of any constructed decor.

A backdrop without colour can be obtained easily and in a way which is symbolically accurate with an unpainted canvas or the reverse side of a set, each [spectator] creating the space suggested by his own imagination, or, better still if the playwright has done his job properly, the real set exosmosed on the stage.

(Ubu, p. 310)

Jarry's fuzzy neologism ‘to exosmose’ conveys the clear meaning that it is the text of the playwright/poet which creates the set in the mind of the spectator. Although Jarry opted for a highly colourful and richly painted backdrop for his production of Ubu roi, many later productions have proved the effectiveness and fascination of an empty stage.

Jarry goes on to say that items of scenery needed for special effects (a window or a door, for example) can be brought on stage in the same way as more conventional objects, such as a table or a lamp. This convention has the added advantage that such properties can be removed as soon as necessary. To help the dull-witted spectator (Jarry calls him a ‘non-esprit’) placards identifying the location can be nailed to the proscenium arch at appropriate moments.

The same tendency towards the abstract informs his attitude toward the actor: the physical presence of the human actor, with his idiosyncrasies, embarrasses Jarry as it prevents him from seeing the ideal character conceived by the author. Guilty of being an individual, the actor is also guilty of being less than thorough in the performance of his duties:

The actor ‘makes up’ his face when he should create the whole body of the character. By contracting and distending his facial muscles he makes his face express emotion, mimicry and so forth. No one has realised that the muscles remain the same under the make-up and that Mounet [1841-1916; Mounet-Sully was a star of the Comédie-Française] and Hamlet do not have the same facial muscles, even though one thinks that, in anatomical terms, there is only one man. Or one pretends that the difference is negligible. The actor should replace his head with the effigy of the Character, by the use of a mask. …

(Ubu, p. 310)

What Jarry is advocating here is the advent of the super-marionette, a concept later made famous by Craig, but which rightfully belongs to the Frenchman. The super-marionette is to be the perfect, abstract, ideal character made manifest to the spectator without the ponderous, accidental, material intrusion of the actor. The super-marionette is the opposite of both the star and the naturalistic actor. The stars, epitomised in the 1890s by Sarah Bernhardt and Mounet-Sully, are not interested in portraying some ideal Phèdre or Hamlet: their aim is to dazzle the audience with their own charm, beauty and melodiousness. In contrast to such exhibitionism, the naturalistic actor strives towards total identification with the character, to the point where the two become indistinguishable. Such abnegation on the actor's part is dismissed by Jarry as a ‘futile’ endeavour, as no puny human being can ever capture and fully realise a complex character conceived by a playwright of genius.

The theatre, bringing impersonal masks to life, can only be apprehended by those who are manly enough to create life: a clash of passion more subtle than any already known or a character who is a new being. Everyone agrees that Hamlet, say, is more alive than the man in the street, being more complex and more fully integrated, and perhaps the only one alive, for he is a walking abstraction. Therefore it is harder for the mind to create a character than for the flesh to beget a man; and, if one is absolutely unable to create, i.e. to give birth to a new being, it is better to keep quiet.

(Ubu, pp. 318-19)

A character born in the mind of a playwright possesses that quality of abstraction without which there can be no art. This character thinks thoughts more subtle, is in the grip of passions more profound, reacts with a violence more devastating than any ordinary human being's. That is why a realist/naturalist interpretation is bound to fail, as the ‘human’ actor is unable to approach these quintessential qualities.

The use of mask is the first step towards a depersonalisation of the performer. Of course, the mask belongs to the most ancient theatrical traditions, but Jarry advocates the use of encasing the whole body—not just covering the face. Inside this constructed shell the actor should be able to attain absolute impassivity, which for Jarry is essential to the creation of beauty. The super-marionette would model his acting-technique on the diminutive doll of the puppet booth, which ‘requires only six basic positions to express all emotions’. Jarry declares that he deliberately does not give any examples of ‘basic positions’, because all masks are different and react differently according to the precise theatrical circumstances provided by scenic architecture, lighting, and so forth. But he states that a slow nodding of the head or slow lateral movements will displace the shadows over the entire surface of the mask and gradually alter its expression. Such a conception of theatrical communication relies upon a constant alertness on the part of the spectator, who must extract meanings and emotions from the rather intimate acting of the marionette. More abrupt and explicit are ‘the universal gestures’ used by the traditional puppets of the French Punch and Judy shows (the Guignol from Lyon). Jarry gives a single example: ‘the puppet displays bewilderment by starting back violently and knocking its head against the proscenium arch’. Basic or universal gestures such as this should be evolved to express all important human emotions.

Guignol, the French Punch, traditionally speaks in a high-pitched nasal drone and uses only a minimum of inflexions. The puppeteer produces the sound with the help of a tiny whistle, and the result is both instantly recognisable and peculiar to Guignol. Similarly, says Jarry, it behoves the actor to identify the specific voice of each individual part:

It goes without saying that the actor should have a special voice, which is the voice of the part, as if the cavity of the mouth of the mask could only utter what the mask intends to say, if the muscles of the lips could move. And it is better that they do not move and that the delivery throughout the play be monotone.

(Ubu, p. 313)

In other words, to achieve absolute unity in a given character, Jarry denies the actor any freedom of interpretation. After having straight-jacketed him in a body mask and limited him to half-a-dozen simple physical expressions, he commands him to speak his whole part mechanically.

Jarry's ideas were not evolved solely with the performance of Ubu in mind, but form part of a general and essentially symbolist rejection of traditional theatre. At the end of the nineteenth century, both naturalists and symbolists rejected both bourgeois society and the theatre that it favoured. The naturalist reaction favoured a more ‘honest’ and ‘life-like’ stagecraft, while the symbolists, contemptuous of the liberties that star actors took with the author's text, turned against the personality of the actor, who came to seem an unnecessary intruder rather than an indispensable link between author and audience. Gordon Craig, in On the Art of the Theatre (1905), was to repeat many of the same ideas.

If we turn now to the letter Jarry wrote to Lugné-Poe in January 1896, eleven months before the production of Ubu, we find yet another statement of Jarry's theory of stagecraft. The demands set forth in it again come as no surprise, and we know that not all these demands were met by the production. What is important, however, is to see the letter as an enunciation of principle.

It would be interesting, I think, to stage this thing (at no cost by the way) in the following manner:

  1. Mask for the main character, Ubu, which I could get you if need be. I am right in thinking, am I not, that you have yourself studied the mask problem?
  2. A cardboard horse's head, which he would hang around his neck, as on the old English stage, for the only two equestrian scenes—all these suggestions being in the spirit of the play, since I intended to write a guignol [a puppet play].
  3. A single set or, better still, a plain backdrop, eliminating the raising and lowering of the curtain during the single act. A formally dressed character would enter, as in puppet shows, to put up signs indicating the location of the scene. (Note that I am convinced that such signs have a far greater ‘suggestive’ power than any set. No set or extras could convey the sense of ‘the Polish army on the march in the Ukraine’.)
  4. Abolition of crowd scenes, which are all too often badly staged and are an insult to intelligence. Thus, a single soldier on parade, a single soldier in the scuffle when Ubu says, ‘what a crowd’, ‘what a retreat’, etc.
  5. Choice of an ‘accent’ or, better still, a special ‘voice’ for the main character.
  6. Costumes with as little local colour or chronology as possible (the better to suggest something eternal); modern preferably, since the satire is modern; and sordid, for the tragedy will appear still more wretched and horrifying that way.

(Ubu, pp. 412-13)

This letter could legitimately be given the title of ‘the necessity of the theatrical in the theatre’. Not only does the author of Ubu not want to recreate an illusion of reality on the stage, but the grotesque nature of the action presented casts doubt on the sanity and on the reality of all human activity, outside as well as inside the theatre. The letter might also be regarded as a pamphlet directed against naturalist reformers such as Zola, Antoine and Strindberg, who were campaigning for the very theatrical features Jarry wanted to destroy. In brief, the counter-demand of naturalism might be set out as follows:

  1. The actor should be made up as meticulously as possible.
  2. Props should, as far as possible, be the genuine article (in Zola's La Terre, produced by Antoine, live hens animated the courtyard).
  3. The set should be accurately researched, with a view to reproducing a genuine milieu, in minute detail.
  4. Crowds should create an overwhelming illusion of reality. The life of the characters and of the community to which they belong continues beyond the boundaries of the stage.
  5. Stilted delivery should give way to ordinary, everyday speech-patterns. Characters should be heard to be ‘chatting’ to one another—as if oblivious of the spectator's presence.
  6. In every aspect of the production local colour and historical accuracy should be respected. (The present-day equivalent is the television historical series, such as Henry VIII or Disraeli.)

During the summer of 1896 Jarry was making notes, in answer to a questionnaire, perhaps with a view to writing a fully considered theory of the stage. These notes remained unpublished until 1958. In them he pays homage to a number of contemporary playwrights and singles out Maeterlinck for special praise:

Among us is a tragic author, possessing new terrors and pities, so private that it is pointless for him to express them in any other way but silence: Maurice Maeterlinck. We are convinced that we are witnessing a rebirth of theatre, for in France for the first time there is an Abstract theatre, and at last we can read, without the trouble of a translation, plays as eternally tragic as those by Ben Jonson, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Cyril Tourneur, Goethe.

(Ubu, p. 316)

Jarry ranks Maeterlinck so highly because he writes not for the ‘crowd’ but for an elite who are capable of active participation in the creation of a masterpiece:

The minority theatre is neither a holiday for its audience, nor a lesson, nor a pastime, but real action … an active pleasure which is God's own pleasure and which the common crowd achieves in caricature in the sexual act.

(Ubu, pp. 317-18)

Aware of the sanctity of his mission and having identified his ideal audience, the playwright must write for the stage only if ‘he thinks primarily in dramatic terms’. Jarry warns that one can always make novels out of plays, as it is always possible to narrate an action, but that the translation of a novel into a play practically never succeeds.

For this reborn theatre a more civilised audience is required. Latecomers and inconsiderate spectators are taken to task and managements are urged to close the doors before the performance begins. Jarry insists that the auditorium should be plunged into darkness—not so much to achieve perfect illusion as to reduce distraction and the temptation to ‘peer round to see what everyone else in the theatre is wearing’. On these practical matters, Jarry is in total agreement with the naturalists, who had been calling for these small reforms for years. He also agrees with them in his criticism of actors' training. He rejects the teaching of the Conservatoire (the school of the Comédie-Française), which prided itself on carrying on a tradition harking back to Molière and Racine, and insists that ‘the means of expression be brought up to date’. Against the inhibiting tradition of the school, he argues for a kind of creative anachronistic approach to the classics, which he himself puts into practice in Ubu roi:

Classical plays were acted in the costumes of the day (the Greek and Roman heroes of Racine's tragedies wore the lavish clothes of Louis XIV's courtiers); let us do as these old masters who painted antiquity in contemporary settings and costumes. ‘History’ is so boring, therefore useless.

(Ubu, p. 322)

These views echo Antoine's, who had had first-hand experiences of the Comédie-Française, as a long-serving extra. Jarry also concurs with the naturalist director when he calls for a tight-knit company of actors and declares his hostility to the star system. But his opposition stems from different reasons: Jarry fears that actors of genius, who possess a deep individuality, will betray the poet's intentions—and, the greater the actor, the greater the betrayal. Once again he insists on the need for a passive ‘marionette’ that can be freely manipulated by its creator, because a theatrical character ‘is not bounded by common humanity’.

‘A masterpiece is a symbol and a symbol never brooks the active presence of man. In fact, the absence of man appears to be the indispensible prerequisite’, declared Maeterlinck regarding ‘the theatre of the abstract’. Like the dramatist he most sincerely admired, Jarry considered a living presence as an intolerable intrusion on his poetic creation, and it was with the utmost reluctance that he put up with the business of staging his plays—yet ('pataphysically) he took an active and direct interest in Lugné's mise en scène.

Like most original creators, Jarry was immersed in the whole current of ideas of his own epoch. Although at first glance we appear to be dealing with a startlingly abrupt break with the past, Jarry's work is continuous with the symbolist stream in literature and theatre, which had grown out of romanticism and which became part of the antibourgeois movement which dominated nineteenth-century art and is still influential today. And, as we have just seen so far as theatre is concerned, it would be a mistake systematically to oppose symbolism and naturalism. Perhaps the great difference between Jarry and his contemporaries is the violence and aggressiveness which characterises his work. When we think of ‘symbolism’ the word conjures up the dreamy worlds of Maeterlinck, the majestic settings of Craig or the religiosity of Paul Claudel, rather than the virulently gross Ubu, spitting out obscenities and waving a lavatory brush, with a deliberate desire to offend. In that respect Jarry prefigures, in France, Apollinaire, Dada and the surrealists, who represent the next stage along the path.


Works in French

Œuvres complètes d'Alfred Jarry (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).

Tout Ubu, ed. Maurice Saillet (Paris: Livres de Poche, 1962). Strongly recommended.

Ubu, ed. Noël Arnaud (Paris: Gallimard, 1978). The best and most comprehensive edition of the Ubu plays and related texts.

Works in English

Caesar Antichrist, trs. James H. Bierman (Tucson: Omen Press, 1971). Not strictly speaking a play, this text none the less belongs to the Ubu cycle.

King Ubu, trs. Michael Benedikt and George E. Wellwarth, in Modern French Theatre, ed. Benedikt and Wellwarth (New York: Dutton, 1966).

Selected Works, ed. Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor (London: Methuen, 1965). Most valuable for the student of drama.

The Supermale, A Modern Novel, trs. Barbara Wright (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968).

The Ubu Plays, ed. Simon Watson Taylor (London: Methuen, 1968).

Ubu roi, trs. Barbara Wright (London: Gaberbocchur Press, 1961).

Criticism in French

Arnaud, Noël, Alfred Jarry, d'Ubu roi au docteur Faustroll (Paris: La Table Ronde, 1974). Excellent and indispensable.

Béhar, Henri, Jarry dramaturge (Paris: Nizet, 1980).

———, Jarry, le monstre et la marionnette (Paris: Larousse, 1973).

Cahiers du Collège de 'Pataphysique (Paris, published at irregular intervals since 1949, also under the title of Dossiers and Subsidia du Collège de 'Pataphysique).

Europe, revue littéraire mensuelle, nos 623-4 (March-April 1981).

Criticism in English

Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961).

LaBelle, Maurice Marc, Alfred Jarry, Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd (New York: New York University Press, 1980).

Melzer, Annabelle, Latest Rage the Big Drum (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1980).

Shattuck, Roger, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France from 1885 to World War I (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969; first published 1955). Essential reading; as authoritative as it is readable.

———, ‘What is ‘Pataphysics?’, Evergreen Review, no. 13 (New York: Grove Press, 1960).

Patrick Lobert (essay date spring 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3496

SOURCE: Lobert, Patrick. “Ubu Roi, Jarry's Satire of Naturalism.” French Literature Series 14 (spring 1987): 124-32.

[In the following essay, Lobert argues that Jarry's Ubu Roi is a satirical reaction against the naturalism of nineteenth-century writers such as Emil Zola.]

The comic character is defined by a lack. He is chronically incapable of making meaning of his situation. This is certainly what Bergson implied in his celebrated definition of the comic:

Un homme, qui courait dans la rue, trébuche et tombe: les passants rient. (…) On rit de ce qu'il s'est assis involontairement. (…) Une pierre était peut-être sur le chemin. Il aurait fallu changer d'allure ou tourner l'obstacle. Mais par manque de souplesse, par distraction ou obstination du corps, par un effet de raideur ou de vitesse acquise, les muscles ont continué d'accomplir le même mouvement quand les circonstances demandaient autre chose. C'est pourquoi l'homme est tombé, et c'est de quoi les passants rient.1

The term “distraction” best explains the comic character's lack, since his deficiency is first and foremost a failure of reading. Simply stated the comic character holds an idea of action which conflicts with the material “circumstances” of his situation. Or to use a term favored by many modern critics, the comic character is incapable of reading the meaning of his situation self-referentially.

Bergson's runner proves illustrative for the case I am making here regarding the nature of the comic. The runner's “obstination” is symptomatic of just such an inability to read self-referentially. In order to maintain continuous movement the runner depends after all upon his idea, upon his representation or mental map of the terrain before him. Such a map affords him possession of that terrain by giving him prior knowledge of all its twists and turns. Yet just as surely as the runner's idea gains him mastery over the path beneath his feet, so the unforeseen obstacle in his way dispossess him suddenly of that course. His stumbling reveals the insufficiency of his representation, and if he is to regain his stride, he must find, through his fall, a way to withdraw his attention from the terrain and to focus it self-reflexively on a reading of his representation.

The comic character, however, is incapable of a self-referential reading of his situation. He learns nothing from his collision with the obstacle. If he picks himself up after his fall, it is only to stumble and fall stupidly once again.

The protagonist of farce is no doubt the most extravagant representative of the comic character's reading failure; he portrays an extreme degree of inelasticity and ideational fixity in the face of an obstacle whose meaning is supremely obvious.

This idea of farce certainly applies to Jarry's Père Ubu. As I intend to show presently, Ubu's status as farcical protagonist derives from his inability to read his situation self-referentially, since in his pursuit of power he holds an idea of power which is blind to the material circumstances which surround the possession of power.

In addition, and most importantly, I will demonstrate that Ubu's search for power satirizes the situation of French theater at the fin de siècle. Ubu roi, composed and staged against the backdrop of the esthetic conflicts pitting bourgeois realism and naturalism against symbolist theatricalism, comments pointedly upon a self-referential lack in naturalist doctrines, doctrines which stumble ineptly as they try to create dramatic meanings all the while ignoring their theatrical milieu.

I will first consider Ubu's quest for power and the reading failure which it portrays before examining how that quest satirizes the esthetic conflicts of French theater at the turn of the century.

Ubu is identified primarily with his enormous “gidouille”, that is to say with his voracious gut. He is a devourer. Power for him means appropriating for himself exclusively the kingdom of Wenceslas. In his voracious hunger for power, everything that is other must fall into his “gidouille” and there be made over into his own substance.

Even having usurped the position of King Wenceslas, Ubu's thirst for power remains unabated. He turns his tyranny against the nobles of the realm announcing that he intends to claim their property and possessions for himself alone. The famous “trappe” into which Ubu forces all resisting noblemen, magistrates and financiers is a fitting counterpoint to his “gidouille”. Having stripped the Polish nobility of its wealth, the hatch in the stage, known as the “trappe”, becomes the repository of any residue of otherness which the devourer cannot distill and transform through his “gidouille” into his own substance.

Ubu's quest for power reaches a point of impasse however. He stumbles in his search for absolute power. At the beginning of act three he complains to Mère Ubu: “De par ma chandelle verte, me voici roi de ce pays. Je me suis flanqué une indigestion et on va m'apporter ma grande capeline”.2

Ubu's appropriative project is here once again metaphorized in the figure of hunger and digestion. But here also his devouring is rebuffed by an obstacle. His indigestion suggests the erosion of his power, or that his “gidouille” has finally run afoul of the “trappe.”

Ubu is beset by a rapid succession of obstacles as his coconspirator Captain Bordure, seeking to avenge a betrayal, enlists the forces of the Czar of Russia to overturn and dethrone him. Prince Bougrelas, son of the assassinated Wenceslas, rallies the Polish people and forces Mère Ubu to flee the palace at Warsaw. Ubu's army is routed and decimated by the combined might of Bordure, the Czar and Bougrelas. In final humiliation Père Ubu is obliged to take refuge in a mountain cave, in the very bowels of the kingdom, where he is assailed by nothing less than a hungry bear. In the figure of the bear, the “trappe” arises in full revolt against the “gidouille”, as it becomes increasingly apparent that Ubu the devourer is in fact the object to be devoured. Ubu sums up his own transition from devourer to devoured in a mocking reminiscence of Corneille's Horace: “Combat des voraces et des coriaces, mais les voraces ont complètement mangé et dévoré les coriaces …” (TU [Tout Ubu], p. 115).

Ubu's quest for absolute power has failed decisively. Caught in the grips of a rebellion, in the jaws of the “trappe”, his devouring “gidouille” remains powerless and paralyzed.

Ubu is quite simply blind to the reality of power. It is through that incurable blindness and confusion as to the reason for his inability to maintain power that we see his failure as a self-referential reader of signs as well as an affirmation of his status as comic character, as the brunt of satirical farce.

Ubu's blindness becomes especially apparent when one considers the action of the play in its totality, since that total action suggests an idea of power which contrasts sharply with Ubu's reductive idea of power.

Just as Ubu's search for power is cast in the metaphor of digestion, so the complete action of Ubu roi from start to finish traces a cycle of digestion from absorption to evacuation. Thus the total action of the play suggests the image of a natural cycle, of a biological exchange of self and other wherein absorption and evacuation, even as they are two separate and distinct actions, remain unified as two poles of a single movement.

It is no doubt the just and fair, though naively trusting, King Wenceslas who guarantees the integrity of the natural cycle which rules Poland. The natural cycle which the royal family oversees involves a solidarity of needs and self-interests which might be described in the biologist's discourse as symbiosis. Symbiosis in the biologist's frame of reference evokes those mutually advantageous partnerships formed by organisms of the natural world wherein the self, even as it absorbs the other for its own welfare, simultaneously surrenders itself to the other for the welfare of the other. In a natural cycle commanded by the symbiotic idea of power, power is not exclusively the absorption of the other, but it is equally the gift of self to the other as the self discovers continuity and movement by letting itself be bound in a kind of transcendental self.

Ubu, of course, does not hold the symbiotic idea of power. His idea of power is best described as predatorial, since he seeks to absorb the other without surrendering any of himself. Upon being awarded the rank of count of Sandomir as recompense for his faithful service to the realm of Wenceslas, Ubu seeks to absolutize his gain by overthrowing the king and appropriating the kingdom for himself alone. That is to say that Ubu the predator seeks to absolutize the absorptive phase of the natural cycle. Yet his vain project stumbles and falters at every turn. He is incapable of reading, self-referentially, the folly of such an idea of power. Absorption implies evacuation. Possession implies loss. The power of the “trappe” must inevitably assert itself against the inelastic force of the “gidouille”, and so also must Ubu be purged from Poland.

Ultimately it is the relationship between Père and Mère Ubu moreso than the relationship between Père Ubu and the Polish nobility, that sums up the devourer's predatorial idea of power. It is Mère Ubu after all who initiates her husband's appropriative project by painting for him in the most seductive terms the meaning of power: “A ta place, ce cul, je voudrais l'installer sur un trone. Tu pourrais augmenter indéfiniment tes richesses, manger fort souvent de l'andouille et rouler carosse par les rues” (TU, p. 35).

After Père Ubu seizes power, Mère Ubu, it is true, does make something of an effort to moderate her husband's appropriative furor urging him to pacify Bougrelas and Bordure, advice which Ubu, of course, rejects out of hand. But Mère Ubu really has ambitions of her own to fulfill. In those scenes showing Mère Ubu robbing her unsuspecting husband of gold, and riches, we recognize that she pushed him to win “des richesses”, “de l'andouille”, and “une carosse” less for himself than for herself.

In a final scene of the play, Mère Ubu lays something of a “trappe” for her “gros polichinelle” who is pondering the reasons for his sudden state of penury. Costumed as a divine apparition, she stages an action whose purpose is to force her husband to forgive her all she has stolen from him. That is to say that the purpose of her little “play within a play” whose uncomprehending spectator is her obtuse mate, is precisely that of entrapment. The divine apparition presenting herself to Père Ubu clothed as a symbiotic other promising fulfillment and forgiveness through self-surrender and contrition, is in reality the predatorial other disguised as a divine object the better to lure and entrap her prey.

While I intend to return to Mère Ubu's mise en scène a little later when I take up the issue of how Ubu roi satirizes the esthetic doctrines of French theater at the fin de siècle, it is sufficient to note at this point that Ubu's identity as a protagonist of farce is most evident in these final scenes. It is clear that his predatorial idea of power can never deliver material power but only the Punch and Judy farce which is the destiny of Mère and Père Ubu. In the play's last scene representing Père Ubu fully evacuated from Poland, traveling aboard a ship headed for France, we see clearly the failure of Ubu's inelastic approach to signs. Ubu declares his intention once in France to get himself appointed “Master of Phynances” of that land. Having learned nothing from his untimely exit from Poland, he will begin his predatorial strategy in France all over again only to stumble blindly, farcically, against the symbiotic reality of power.

I will now turn to the question put forth at the beginning of this essay concerning the manner in which Ubu roi satirizes some of the issues of dramatic theory debated at the end of the nineteenth century.

Artaud articulated one of the major themes of modern theater when he affirmed the need to establish “direct communication … between spectator and spectacle”:

Nous supprimons la scène et la salle qui sont remplacées par une sorte de lieu scénique, sans cloisonnement. (…) Une communication directe sera rétablie entre le spectateur et le spectacle, entre l'acteur et le spectateur, du fait que le spectateur placé au milieu de l'action est enveloppé et sillonné par elle.3

Artaud demonstrates here a self-referential reading of the meaning of theatrical space. The traditional spectator to whom Artaud offers his ideal, might be understood as one whose continuity of communication and action is broken by the obstacle of the proscenium. Or to extend Bergson's metaphor linking the runner and the comic character, the situation of the spectator in the theater might be described as that of the actor of a material theatrum mundi, dispossessed suddenly of his stage and forced to read self-reflexively his map of time and space. Theatrical representation is an attempt to reestablish movement and communication, and the meaning of the play lies in the power it wields to make the spectator conscious of the way in which his idea of action can both impede and advance possession of the communication he seeks. Thus Ubu's search for power and his inability to become fully conscious of the function of his idea of power, suggest an essentially theatrical metaphor. Ubu can be seen to figure the theatrical spectator, in this case the naturalist spectator who, like the protagonist of farce, is incapable of making meaning of his situation due to his inability to read the meaning of that situation self-referentially.

Ubu roi must be read in the context of the esthetic battles of the fin de siècle which pitted naturalistic stage representation against the theatricalized and conventional stagings of the symbolists. Ubu roi brings the naturalist-symbolist opposition into sharp focus. For the symbolist Jarry, naturalism is essentially farce, since it remains willfully blind to the manifestly theatrical environment in which its search for dramatic meaning takes place.

This deficiency of naturalism can be seen in the writings of Zola, the main proponent in France of theories of naturalism in the theater. Zola stressed that actors should carry themselves on stage as they would do in real life, and that they do so in response to a naturalistic, that is to say, non-theatrical, milieu. Any hint of a theatrical milieu should be evicted from the theater by the use of realistic stage settings whose sole aim is to oblige the actor to use realistic movement, diction and gesture. It is clear that this naturalist's program, so out of place in the theatrical environment, has much in common with Père Ubu who in his realist's “chapeau melon”, is so clumsy and ill at ease in the world of Shakespeare.

The spectator is, after all, in his essence the representative of real “slice of life” action in the theater. The naturalist's program would reduce the autonomy and the essential otherness of stage action to the spectator's idea of “real life” action. Thus the naturalist spectator, much like Ubu, would absorb and transform autonomous stage action into his own “real life” idea, into his own essence as spectator. For the naturalist spectator the auditorium must be something akin to Ubu's “gidouille”, for this spectator would reestablish communication by devouring the stage spectacle all the while consigning any irreducible residue of theatrical otherness to a kind of backstage “trappe”.

Yet even Zola eventually conceded, however begrudgingly, the irreducible otherness of stage spectacle, the autonomy of the theatrical against which the naturalist's project was ultimately powerless:

Il serait absurde de croire qu'on pourra transporter la nature telle quelle sur les planches, planter de vrais arbres, avoir de vraies maisons, éclairées par de vrais soleils. Dès lors les conventions s'imposent, il faut accepter les illusions plus ou moins parfaites à la place des réalités. Mais cela est tellement hors de discussion, qu'il est inutile d'en parler.4

Zola's statement here betrays something of the essence of Bergson's comic character. Zola would extricate himself from the theatrical “trappe” by simply refusing to acknowledge its obvious hold over him. His rather inelastic naturalism refuses to read the meaning of theatrical space self-referentially, since its esthetic logic depends on a willful blindness to the theatrical milieu. If theatrical conventions are “hors de discussion”, they remain nevertheless the most urgent question. Here the naturalist's “gidouille” seems to have stumbled headlong into the symbolist's “trappe”.

Against this naturalist's blindness, Jarry's notes for the staging of Ubu roi are a clear affirmation of theatrical action and décor. Jarry wrote:

(…) vous verrez des portes s'ouvrir sur des plaines de neige sous un ciel bleu, des cheminées garnies de pendules se fendre afin de servir de portes, et des palmiers verdir au pied des lits, pour que broutent de petits éléphants perchés sur des étagères.5

To suppress any suggestion of everyday reality in Ubu roi, Jarry insisted that his actors should wear masks, use marionnette-style gestures and speak in a monotone. Thus the actors in this theatrical milieu were urged to use theatrical, that is to say non-realistic, gestures and to employ theatrical diction, “the sort of voice”, wrote Jarry, “the mouth of the mask would make if the muscles of its lips could move.”6

The surreal milieu which Jarry imagined for Ubu roi asserts the integrity and autonomy of imaginative and theatrical action unrestrained by the need to imitate an idea of reality. Such surreality functions much like the “trappe” which engulfs Père Ubu. It aims to “de-realize” the naturalist actor thus counteracting the “de-theatricalizing” of acting which the naturalist milieu sought to enforce. And perhaps most importantly, just as the symbolist's theatrical milieu “de-realizes” the actor, it also challenges the reductive idea of reality which the naturalist spectator would use to apprehend and appropriate for himself the autonomous action of stage spectacle.

I stated earlier that the relationship between Mère and Père Ubu was a central image conveying Ubu's predatorial idea of power. In the final scene depicting Mère Ubu the actress staging a little farce whose uncomprehending spectator is her slow-witted husband, that relationship takes on an added theatrical dimension. The relationship reveals the satire of naturalist drama implicit in Ubu roi.

That satire comes into sharp focus upon considering that Mère Ubu can be seen to be something of a parody of Zola's quintessential actress, Nana. Nana is the dazzling theatrical illusion, the “mouche d'or” who mesmerizes and blinds her spectator the better to entrap and exploit him. Nana, the “blond Vénus”, hides her predatorial essence behind an enchanting, seductive surface.

In her little “divine apparition” farce Mère Ubu also attempts to convince her husband that she is every bit the equal of the “Vénus de Capoue”, the purpose of her mise en scène being to catch Père Ubu in a “trappe”, to ensnare him in a net of illusion which might force him to forgive her all she has stolen from him. Here Nana and her symbolist parody Mère Ubu incarnate the action of the “trappe”, of autonomous stage spectacle as conceived by the theatrical doctrines of the naturalists. These doctrines characterize the action of stage illusion as a seductive lure whose hidden objective is to rob and exploit the spectator.

Yet just as the predatory actor-spectator exchange implied in the relationship between Mère and Père Ubu exists within the larger symbiotic action of the total play, so the actor-spectator exchange of theater itself exists within a wider context, a wider context which frames the totality of the theatrum mundi.

For the symbolist Jarry, the seduction of stage illusion is only apparent theft. For him the force of the stage “trappe” must resist the tyranny of the spectator's “gidouille”. Insofar as the illusion of spectacle is a seductive lure and bait, its entrapment nonetheless implies a kind of paradoxical freedom. “Vous verrez des portes s'ouvrir sur des plaines de neige sous un ciel bleu”, wrote Jarry. Even as it ensnares the “trappe” aims to open a doorway beyond the farce of a reductive naturalism, beyond his predatorial idea of meaning, to possession of the “direct communication” which he seeks in and through the theater.


  1. Henri Bergson, Le Rire, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967), p. 7.

  2. Alfred Jarry, Tout Ubu, (Paris: Livre de poche, 1962), p. 66. Further references to this edition are given parenthetically under the abbreviation TU.

  3. Antonin Artaud, Le Théâtre et son double. (Paris: Gallimard, 1965), p. 146.

  4. Emile Zola, “Le Naturalisme au théâtre”, dans Oeuvres complètes, (Paris: Cercle du livre précieux, 1968), p. 288.

  5. Alfred Jarry, “Discours d'Alfred Jarry”, dans Tout Ubu, (Paris: Livre de poche, 1962), p. 21.

  6. Marvin Carlson, Theories of the Theater, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 292.

Michael Zelenak (essay date summer-fall 1987)

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SOURCE: Zelenak, Michael. “Ubu Rides Again: The Irondale Project and the Politics of Clowning.” Theatre 18, no. 3 (summer-fall 1987): 43-5.

[In the following essay, Zelenak discusses a performance of an updated Ubu Roi to observe that clowning can create extremely pointed and compelling social commentary.]

Few dramatic works have attained the iconographic status of Alfred Jarry's Ubu roi. Its original two-performance production by Lugne-Poe in 1896 caused the greatest sensation in the French theater since Hugo's Hernani sixty years earlier. Jarry's play took only one word—the infamous merdre—to cause a near riot. Amidst the hysterical audience demonstrations, fist-fights and shower of missiles, the actors found themselves spectators to a theatrical event that dwarfed the one on stage. Although Ubu remains central to the avant-garde tradition, one might wonder: “Why revive Ubu?” And if one answers that question, a larger one looms: How to do Ubu ninety years later?

The Irondale Ensemble's New York production of Ubu roi (1984-87) put itself in an active relationship to the text, using it simply as a starting point, a “pre-text” for a performance. They approached Ubu as a comedy-parody of the bourgeois world spirit, an ironic celebration of its endless adaptability and will to survive. Furthermore, they had fun with Ubu. The Irondale's Ubu roi in some ways resembles a series of cabaret or burlesque skits. Just as much of Ubu is cartoon Shakespeare, the Irondale's is a cartoon Ubu. Very little of the actual Jarry text is used, but it follows the plot and incidents of the play fairly closely. The production is irreverent from its opening moment, which finds Ubu enthroned on the toilet, grumbling “Shit!”. Taking the cue from Jarry, the scatological metaphor is sustained throughout. When Ubu has to think hard or soliloquize, he retreats to his toilet seat; the cue for the beginning of Ubu's coup d'etat is the password “shit.” Pa Ubu (Josh Broder) is not a fully realized “character,” but a grabbag of comic techniques, most often the comic straight man or the deadpan stand-up comic. Pa Ubu is dim-witted and gross. He picks his nose, substitutes turds for meat at a state dinner to save money. He is an Aristophanic creation, operating from the basest, bottom-line human instincts, viz. food, sex and money. Ma Ubu (Molly Hickcock) is heavily camped, sometimes a la Mae West. The production is filled with low comedy, one liners, gags and intricate “bits” perhaps similar to the commedia dell'arte's lazzi. Its success is not due to any particularly brilliant comic moments but rather to the cumulative effect of the rapid succession of gags and routines and the almost endless invention of the company.

The level of humor ranges widely from slapstick and crude farce to literate satire. Irondale borrows from Shakespeare almost as much as Jarry did. Wenceslas is possibly even costumed to look like Duncan, and Ma Ubu's exhortations to her husband more than a little resemble Lady Macbeth. Wenceslas' wife has prophetic dreams very similar to those of Caesar's wife. A bear right out of The Winter's Tale eats most of Ubu's army near the end. In a parody of the parade of ghostly apparitions in Act V of Richard III, Pa Ubu has a similar vision. “Why have you come?” he questions the shades of his victims. “Because the show is going badly” they respond. It is surprising that the production holds together, since the audience is addressed directly so often. One scene is stopped halfway through because Ubu remembers that two scenes have been skipped. The humor is free-wheeling, at times reminding me of the old Firesign Theater. When the old Nobility beg King Ubu to spare their lives, he gives them a chance by presenting a mock “game show” where the category is “Reagan Fuck-ups.” The nobility are executed for the wrong answer. Likewise, the “Financial advisors,” an identically costumed chorus of moustached, cigar-chomping Groucho Marxes who move in unison, get a similar opportunity to play charades for their lives. They get the right answer, but are executed for not getting a laugh. There are references to everything from My Favorite Martian and “Eggo Waffles” to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, evoked by Ma and Pa Ubu in the last scene as they sneak out of Poland and sail into the sunset.

The Jarry plot is the basic scene-by-scene scenario for Irondale's Ubu. The hen-pecked Pa Ubu is pushed by his wife into leading a coup to topple King Wenceslas of Poland and seize the crown for himself. He is aided, in the Irondale production, by Manure, Duke of Lithuania. Ubu redistributes the wealth (“Ninety per cent of the wealth for me!”), doublecrosses everyone and is transformed from “a skinny little runt” to a bloated hedonist with pillows padding his belly. But Ubu remains the Master of Ceremonies, the clown controlling the action, also doubling as narrator and interpreter. He is constantly improvising one-liners and slipping quick jokes to the audience. Each sequence or scene is like a Saturday Night Live version of the Jarry original. The play becomes a pretext for the company to hang its jokes on. When the conspirators plan the murder of Wenceslas, Manure (Paul Lazar), Duke of Lithuania, gets a little carried away in his enthusiasm:

My plan … is to take my stiff, hard, gleaming sword out of its sheath and shove it into his parted flesh and start to thrust, thrust, thrust (getting excitied).
Cut through the hormones, Manure!

Later, when Manure gets similarly excited by the prospect of total war against the anti-Ubu armies, Pa Ubu cuts him off with: “That's fine for you, you're into that quasi-homosexual ritualistic behavior.” Ubu continuously switches from character to actor to clown. He taunts the chained and manacled Manure with:

This is it. You're not getting out of here. You're gonna die. You ain't ever gonna be in Shakespeare in the Park, you're never gonna do that Dr. Pepper commercial, never be on David Letterman.

The most interesting incorporation of the audience into the performance is a series of abrupt interruptions of the play's action, modelled on the Aristophanic parabasis. Sometimes Ubu steps out of the play to explain some aspect of improvisational theater or the company's work. At one point Ubu paces through the audience and muses:

Those of you who've seen our plays before know that we're a political company. You may be wondering why is this political company doing a play about shit? Not only about shit, but shit for shit's sake.

Ubu promises that the play will get more political. Later, General Lasky, Commander of the pro-Ubu armies, marches out and tells the audience that the company has been heavily criticized by “textual purists” for mutilating Jarry's text. In an effort to be more faithful to the original script, a simultaneous French reading of the text will now be given so that the critics can check for accuracy. He then introduces Sven, a Swedish-born graduate of the Sorbonne, who proceeds to translate everything being said into French (with a noticeable Swedish lilt). The situation becomes hilarious as Sven tries to “take over the play,” getting in the way of the actors and turning even commonplace exchanges into wildly funny sequences. In effect, we are following several different levels of action or “texts within a text:” the text of Jarry's Ubu, the Irondale's commentary on that text, and another “text” created by the improvisation and dialogue with the audience.

Despite the numerous contemporary references, the production is not overtly or obviously political. The specific political references, jokes and parallels all seem part of the overall comedic momentum, not its point. But Ma and Pa Ubu perhaps represent a more insidious attack on middle class values, habits and ethics. Pa Ubu is so likeable (“the Santa Claus of the Atomic Age” as one critic has put it) not because he is a negation of bourgeois values, but their apotheosis. Ubu knows no moderation—he is bourgeois values writ large, taken to extremes. He is the ultimate glutton, miser, sadist and egomaniac. Ubu is cold, raw bourgeois instinct with bad manners and without tact. He has no pretenses and the Ubu Administration has no P.R. director. Ubu is the bourgeoisie seen from the belly down. Appropriately, the distinguishing mark of the pro-Ubu armies is their stomachs: the Ubu Loyalists all have padded paunches like their leader.

The production attempts to move to a political level through the use of non-specific and non-verbal techniques. The play begins with the company singing “I'm so happy to be an American” and ends with a flag-waving rendition of “It's a Grand Old Flag.” Beginning with the anti-Ubu Revolution, led by Buggerless, son (played by a woman) of the executed King, the purely physical, mimed aspect of the production increases. When Ubu exhorts his troops into war frenzy, a loud electronic metronome starts. The actors begin a sequence which I can only describe as a “biomechanical gestus of war ritual.” This is repeated during battle sequences. In the middle of the rousing flag-waving finale, the electronic cue comes again; the actors almost robot-like respond frantically to the cue. The metronome beats faster and faster as the lights fade while the gestus of war continues.

The Irondale's eclectic techniques, their ability to bring a contemporary feel to the imagination of the performance and, above all, the intense and dynamic audience-actor bond created by the improvisational nature of the performance, puts the audience in a very active relationship to the text and the theatrical event. The Irondale's work is always “in progress”; a play is rehearsed and performed over a period of years. The rehearsal process never stops, and the company stresses that performances are actually “shared rehearsals.” The Irondale's commitment to improvisational performance encourages the actors to experiment and make changes during performance, so that no two performances are the same. The performance text continues to evolve with parts being added or dropped. What we have is a very close parallel to the textual/performance process of the classical age of commedia dell'arte. Actors can discover a specific burla or “running gag” that works for this specific audience, or try to see how far the audience will go in a specific vein. They are also free to comment broadly on anything from current events to the performance and the audience. Rather than attempting to create any type of consistent or conventional characterization, the Ubu company is a company of clowns that seems to be making-up the characters as they go along, employing anything from song-and-dance, stand-up comedy, acrobatics, to low farce and mime.

Most theater seeks to render the audience passive; the result is the deadening feel to so many contemporary productions. It seeks to bludgeon us into a lethargic loss of individuality, to surrender up our consciousness so that our experience can be shaped and manipulated by the production. This technique is not without its social ramifications. Brecht was quick to realize that although this model can be made to work for Shakespeare and Ibsen, it also worked for Goebbels and Hitler—something about this “fascist” theater experience can effect our reactions to situations and events outside the theater. Interestingly, the theories of Wagner, Appia and Craig reached their zenith not at Bayreuth but at Nuremburg.

The Irondale's Ubu roi employs another model of consciousness. Its production lives, moment-to-moment, only by the direct, active involvement of its audience. There is no pre-determined terminal point when the production is “finished” or ready. It is a commonplace that comedy is subversive. The “low comedy” technique that marks clowning is perhaps anti-authoritarian by its very nature, and this type of satire is itself an act of rebellion. Clearly, Jarry's play is a rebellion against bourgeois values, ethics and “good taste.” The Irondale Ensemble attempts to extend this revolt further not simply by rebelling against Jarry's text but by the company's revolt against the notion of the fixed text and their refusal to accept the authoritarian restraints imposed upon conventional theater performance.

Anne Greenfield (essay date spring 1988)

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SOURCE: Greenfield, Anne. “Jarry, Ubu and Humour Noir.Romance Notes 28, no. 3 (spring 1988): 227-34.

[In the following essay, Greenfield uses Jarry's Ubu Roi to develop André Breton's theory of black humor and to argue that Jarry made a significant contribution to black humor.]

Although it is clear from André Breton's own frequent references to him that Alfred Jarry left an important legacy to humour noir, this legacy has received almost no critical notice. Any mention of Jarry's importance to black humor concerns either his inclusion in Breton's Anthologie de l'humour noir or the interpretation of his humor by Breton's friend, Jacques Vaché.1 However, neither the Anthologie nor Vaché's letters completely reveal Jarry's contribution to black humor. First of all, Breton's commentary in the Anthologie is not logically useful in determining Jarry's original legacy to humour noir, as Breton already had his own theory of black humor before compiling this collection. Anything Breton says in the Anthologie about Jarry's work involves a demonstration of his own theory, rather than an analysis of Jarry's contribution to this theory. Secondly, while Breton's understanding of Jarry's humor was facilitated by Vaché's interpretation, it was Breton who had first introduced the works of Jarry to Vaché, as Noël Arnaud pointed out in his talk at Cerisy-la-Salle (359).

What is humour noir? André Breton himself does not clearly define this expression, choosing instead to provide numerous examples in his Anthologie; the reader must come to his/her own conclusions inductively. Breton's refusal to commit himself on a clear definition is just one of the problems one faces in determining Jarry's legacy to black humor. In addition, Breton changes his terminology from humour objectif to humour noir without explanation, and refers to Jarry's importance to both, without elaboration.

Breton discussed only humour objectif in “Situation surréaliste de l'objet” in 1935, introducing humour noir for the first time in his Anthologie in 1940. Michel Carrouges suggests that Breton changed his terminology both to prevent any confusion with his theory of hasard objectif, and to distinguish his own new concept of humor from that of Hegel (124). Hegel's writings on objective humor had formed the basis for Breton's own definition; indeed, Breton had quoted Hegel directly in “Situation,” although he didn't acknowledge his debt to him until the Anthologie.2

Breton understood Hegel's objective humor to be the resolution of the dialectic between the subjective point of view of the individual and the arbitrary, “accidental” phenomena he contemplates in the outside world (“Situation” 142; Anthologie 16-17). In “Situation” Breton asserts that objective humor triumphs in the work of Jarry (142); although he himself doesn't elaborate, three of Jarry's own discursive texts support this assertion. In a theater review Jarry wrote that laughter is a response to the discovery of the contradictory (“Franc-Nohain” 630); in his articles “Ceux pour qui il n'y eut point de Babel” (301) and “La vérité bouffe” (304) he affirmed that laughter is also a response to the impression of revealed Truth. Thus, for Jarry, the Truth of existence is contradiction, and an awareness of this Truth causes laughter.

It was this aspect of Jarry's humor, the aspect Breton was later to call the triumph of humour objectif, which Jacques Vaché had perceived and transmitted to Breton. Breton met Vaché in 1916 in Nantes, where the former was serving as an intern at the centre de neurologie and where the latter, a soldier, was being treated at a hospital for a flesh wound (Breton, “Confession” 16). After Vaché returned to the front, he and Breton kept up an erratic correspondence. Breton saved Vaché's letters, later publishing them with others his friend had written under the title Lettres de guerre. It was in one of these letters that, in response to Breton's request, Vaché explained his own use of the word “umour.” This explanation not only prefigures Breton's writings on objective humor, but consists of terms whose source is unmistakably Jarry.

Toward the beginning of his letter of April 29, 1917, Vaché proclaims the importance of Jarry and Ubu, and then follows with a discussion of umour:

Etes-vous sûr qu'Apollinaire vit encore, et que Rimbaud ait existé? Pour moi je ne crois pas—Je ne vois guère que Jarry (Tout de même, que voulez-vous, tout de même—…—Ubu) … Et puis vous me demandez une définition de l'umour—comme cela!—

Il est dans l'essence des symboles d'être symboliques m'a longtemps semblée [sic] digne d'être cela comme étant susceptible de contenir une foule de choses vivantes: Exemple: vous savez l'horrible vie du réveille-matin—c'est un monstre qui m'a toujours épouvanté à cause que le nombre de choses que ses yeux projettent, et la manière dont cet honnête homme me fixe lorsque je pénètre une chambre—pourquoi donc a-t-il tant d'umour, pourquoi donc?—Mais voilà: c'est ainsi et non autrement—Il y a beaucoup de formidable Ubique aussi dans l'umour—


The alarm-clock exemplifies umour because it forces a state of lucidity before the opposition of waking and sleeping; for Vaché, umour involves a comprehensive awareness of all contradiction. This interpretation is supported by Vaché's later reference to the alarm-clock in his letter of August 18, 1917, where umour has become the adjective “umore”:

O Dieu absurde!—car tout est contradiction—n'est-ce pas?—et sera umore celui qui toujours ne se laissera pas prendre à la vie cachée et sournoise de tout.—O Mon réveille-matin … et sera umore celui qui sentira le trompe-l'œil lamentable des similisymboles universels.


The umore person is not fooled by illusions, but has a clear awareness of the absurd contradictions of reality.

In his earlier letter Vaché described umour as “ubique,” an invented adjective which incorporates the expressions “ubiquité” and “Ubu-like.” The ubiquitousness of umour refers back to the alarm-clock: to have umour is to be present in all contradictory aspects of existence simultaneously, such as sleeping and waking. The presence of Ubu in the word “ubique” relates to Vaché's assertion of the importance of Jarry and Ubu earlier in this letter, as well as to his final definition of umour in which he uses a paraphrase of the title of Jarry's essay “De l'inutilité du théâtre au théâtre”:

… l'umour dérive trop d'une sensation pour ne pas être très difficilement exprimable—Je crois que c'est une sensation—J'allais presque dire un Sens—aussi—de l'inutilité théâtrale (et sans joie) de tout.


The word “sensation” has only one meaning to which the word “sens” could correspond closely: the former can mean “the perception of something,” while the latter can mean “the faculty for perceiving something.”4 The expression “l'inutilité théâtrale … de tout” implies that life is without value, without any deeper meaning beneath the material surface of theater; the expression “sans joie” indicates a lack of exaltation or depth of feeling: a kind of indifference. For Vaché, umour is the perception, or the ability to perceive, that everything is futile, valueless, absurd, and that the laughter from this perception brings no transcendence.

While Vaché's reading of Jarry clearly had an impact on Breton's early conception of humor, by the time Breton had compiled his Anthologie he had gone beyond umour and had replaced humour objectif with humour noir. This change in terminology brought with it the Freudian notion that humor protects the self from the pain of a hostile world and turns potential pain into pleasure (Anthologie 19-20). Humour noir also involves rebellion: in the Preface to the Anthologie Breton supports Léon Pierre-Quint's view that humor is “une révolte supérieure de l'esprit” (16).5Humour noir thus surpasses objective humor by incorporating the notion of the invulnerability and pleasure of the individual in a revolt against an absurd existence.

In Entretiens Breton referred twice to humour noir as having been “inherited” from Jarry (162, 193); although he did not elaborate, he was surely thinking of the legacy of Ubu. In his 1918 essay entitled “Alfred Jarry” Breton had quoted not only from the Ubu plays, but also from lesser-known works which concern Ubu, such as Minutes de sable mémorial and “Les Paralipomènes d'Ubu.” These texts all show Ubu to be the incarnation of what Breton would later call black humor: an invulnerable Self who finds pleasure in his revolt against the contradictions of the outside world.

Ubu's humor involves the destruction of contradiction through his acts and language. In Ubu roi he condemns to death via the trappe every Noble, magistrate and financier, the caretakers of value oppositions (370-72). The Nobles represent social inequality based on land ownership; the magistrates represent law and social morality; the financiers represent the bourgeois values created by money. In Ubu cocu ou l'Archéoptéryx Ubu tries to destroy his conscience, reflection of the value oppositions imposed by society (498). The conscience is a kind of interiorized exterior world; Ubu has ejected his own conscience back outside, and keeps it in a suitcase. Later, when it throws away the suitcase, Ubu throws his conscience down a lavatory drain (505).

Ubu's humor is also manifested in his destructive rebellion against the oppositions between different levels of language. In a recent study on Jarry, Keith Beaumont notes that the humor of Ubu roi derives largely from incongruity pushed to logical contradiction, to be found, for example, in “the frequent alternation … of different registers, from coarse slang and obscenities to deliberate archaisms, then to a pseudo-‘noble’ style, and back to slang again” (117). In Les Langages de Jarry Michel Arrivé considers the function of this alternation to be the neutralization of the opposing connotations (288-89). The following passage from Act IV Scene v of Ubu roi illustrates this function:

PèRE Ubu:
Ainsi que le coquelicot et le pissenlit à la fleur de leur âge sont fauchés par l'impitoyable faux de l'impitoyable faucheur qui fauche impitoyablement leur pitoyable binette,—ainsi le petit Rensky a fait le coquelicot, il s'est fort bien battu cependant, mais aussi il y avait trop de Russes.


While the entire passage is constructed as a period of the classical form (“ainsi,” “ainsi que”; the metaphoric value of “faux” and “faucheur”), it also contains ridiculous repetitions (“pitoyable,” “impitoyable”), a play on words (between the figurative and literal meanings of “fleur”), and a vulgar expression for the head (“binette”).6 Such a juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous results in the neutralization of both.

Ubu's humor involves not only the destruction, but also the resolution of contradictions: it is an implementation of Jarry's theory of l'identité des contraires. Breton himself noted Ubu's rôle as a conciliator of opposites in his 1918 essay on Jarry, quoting the following passage from Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien:

Et de la dispute du signe Plus et du signe Moins, le R. P. Ubu, de la Cie de Jésus, ancien roi de Pologne, a fait un grand livre qui a pour titre César-Antechrist, où se trouve la seule démonstration pratique, par l'engin mécanique dit bâton à physique, de l'identité des contraires.


Ubu resolves oppositions by containing them in his own totality. He engulfs his conscience in his gidouille, which is a sort of phallus and digestive system combined: his Id swallows his Superego.8 In Ubu roi he absorbs the rôles of the Nobles, magistrates and financiers he's had killed; in Ubu enchaîné he resolves the contradiction between freedom and slavery by becoming a slave to himself:

PèRE Ubu:
Je commence à constater que Ma Gidouille est plus grosse que toute la terre, et plus digne que je m'occupe d'elle. C'est elle que je servirai désormais.


Ubu resolves the contradictions inherent in language by his use of puns. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the pun as a “play on words, sometimes on different senses of the same word and sometimes on the similar sense or sound of different words.” Puns are examples not only of Jarry's identité des contraires, but also of the linguistic crossroads he mentioned in Minutes de sable mémorial: “dans la route des phrases un carrefour de tous les mots” (171). Breton quoted this passage in his essay on Jarry in 1918 (45); he knew that Jarry considered language to be a network of interlocking phrases and words whose meetings are all significant.

Puns were an integral part of Jarry's conception of language: in his article “Ceux pour qui il n'y eut point de Babel” he posited the profound and schematic significance of puns, adding that “[q]uand les mots jouent entre eux, c'est qu'ils reconnaissent leur cousinage” (299). In Michel Arrivé's analysis of Ubu's jeux de mots he disagrees with Jarry's own assessment of the importance of puns. Although Arrivé admits that Ubu's puns are carrefours, he, nonetheless, maintains that they are not clever and that they lead one into disappointing cul-de-sacs (297). But Ubu's puns are not supposed to be clever, as Jarry himself indicated in “Questions de théâtre” (416); their importance lies elsewhere. Ubu's puns are significant because they induce an awareness of the multiple, often contradictory meanings inherent in words simultaneously, comprising their Truth, their total reality.

Jarry's legacy to Breton's humour noir was his own conception of humor: the lucidity, invulnerability and revolt of the individual before the contradictions of existence. This revolt involves both the destruction and the resolution of opposites, as Ubu demonstrates in his implementation of l'identité des contraires: his gidouille encompasses the universe, while his language is a network of all-inclusive meaning. Jarry's concept of l'identité des contraires also throws light on the relationship, unexplained by Breton, between humour noir and surrealism. If la surréalité is the resolution of all contradictions into unity, as Breton wrote in his first and second Manifestoes (23-24; 76-78), then humour noir is an arm of the surrealist revolution.


  1. Indeed, Vaché's interpretation of Jarry's humor is quoted in critical works on both Jarry and Breton. See Béhar 251 and Alquié 87.

  2. Breton used exactly the same words in “Situation” that he would use in the Anthologie when quoting Hegel's definition of objective humor.

  3. This statement also reveals Vaché's antipathy toward the symbolists.

  4. These definitions were taken from the Petit Robert; the paraphrased translations are my own.

  5. Breton is referring to Pierre-Quint's Le Comte de Lautréamont et Dieu.

  6. See Arrivé 175.

  7. Breton actually misquotes Jarry's text slightly: he replaces “a fait” with “fera bientôt,” and “qui a pour titre” with “intitulé” (“Alfred Jarry” 47).

  8. See Arrivé 210. Ubu's gidouille is in fact the most developed part of his character: in “Les Paralipomènes d'Ubu,” Jarry wrote that “[d]es trois âmes que distingue Platon: de la tête, du cœur et de la gidouille, cette dernière seule, en lui [Ubu], n'est pas embryonnaire” (467).

Works Cited

Alquié, Ferdinand. Philosophie du surréalisme. Paris: Flammarion, 1977.

Arnaud, Noël. “Dada et surréalisme.” Entretiens sur le surréalisme. Ed. Ferdinand Alquié. Paris: Mouton, 1968, 350-69.

Arrivé, Michel. Les Langages de Jarry. Paris: Klinckseick, 1972.

Beaumont, Keith. Alfred Jarry, a Critical and Biographical Study. Leicester: Leicester UP, 1984.

Béhar, Henri. Jarry: le monstre et la marionnette. Paris: Larousse, 1973.

Breton, André. “Alfred Jarry.” 1918. Les Pas perdus. 1924. Paris: Gallimard, 1970, 42-58.

———. Anthologie de l'humour noir. 1940. Paris: J.-J. Pauvert, 1966.

———. “La confession dédaigneuse.” Les Pas. 7-22.

———. Entretiens. 1952. Paris: Gallimard, 1969.

———. Manifestes du surréalisme. 1924; 1930. Paris: Gallimard, 1972.

———. “Situation surréaliste de l'objet.” Position politique du surréalisme. 1935. Paris: Denoël/Gonthier, 1972, 121-68.

Carrouges, Michel. André Breton et les données fondamentales du surréalisme. Paris: Gallimard, 1950.

Jarry, Alfred. “Ceux pour qui il n'y eut point de Babel.” La Chandelle verte. Ed. Maurice Saillet. Paris: Livre de Poche, 1969, 298-302.

———. “Franc-Nohain et Claude Terrasse: La Fiancée du Scaphandre.La Chandelle, 629-30.

———. Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien. Œuvres complètes. Ed. Michel Arrivé. Vol. I. Paris: Pléiade, 1972, 657-734.

———. Minutes de sable mémorial. O.C., 171-245.

———. “Les Paralipomènes d'Ubu.” O.C., 467-74.

———. “Questions de théâtre.” O.C., 415-18.

———. Ubu cocu ou l'Archéoptéryx. O.C., 491-518.

———. Ubu enchaîné. O.C., 429-62.

———. Ubu roi. O.C., 351-98.

———. “La vérité bouffe.” La Chandelle, 303-06.

“Pun.” The American Heritage Dictionary, 1979 ed.

“Sensation”; “Sens.” Petit Robert, 1974 ed.

Vaché, Jacques. Lettres de guerre. 1918. Pref. André Breton. 1949. Paris: Losfeld, 1970.

J. A. Cutshall (essay date October 1988)

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SOURCE: Cutshall, J. A. “‘Excuses Madame Rachilde’: The Failure of Alfred Jarry's Novels.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 24, no. 4 (October 1988): 359-74.

[In the following essay, Cutshall examines the critical and commercial failure of Alfred Jarry's novels, providing an overview of the works themselves and their historical context, and suggests that a radical reappraisal of Jarry's work as a novelist is long overdue.]

How, and why, did Alfred Jarry come to write his seven novels? To some, this question, which I will endeavour in this article to go some way towards answering, will no doubt appear banal. To others, in the light of these works' scant success and the fact that, as a corpus, they are little read even by scholars, it will probably just seem a matter of no great importance. It would be easy to claim that attitudes such as these which might reasonably, eighty years after Jarry's death, be described as the judgement of history, are based on ignorance. In many cases they undoubtedly are. Be this as it may, the failure of Jarry's novels is a phenomenon with fascinating implications.

Jarry began publishing novels in 1897 and had six completed by the end of 1901. A seventh, La Dragonne, remained unfinished at his death in 1907. Although Jarry was never solely a novelist, this genre was certainly his major form of expression during the second half of his career. Right from the start, however, his novels failed to sell, and as time went on, publishers became increasingly difficult to come by. Yet Jarry persevered. What is instructive in this fact is the light it sheds upon what were always the two overriding and contradictory imperatives of Jarry's career in literature: on one hand, the need to live by his writing, which is to say, the need to sell his works, and on the other, the need to preserve his view of himself, the writer, as the man who “s'amuse à l'image de son Créateur” (891).

Below, I will set out what is known of how Jarry went about the pursuit which (with one very brief interlude) constituted the whole of his working life insofar as it pertains to his novels and the author's willingness to make compromises in them. Needless to say, I would personally defend Jarry's novel-writing on the grounds of literary quality, while perhaps a majority of others would not. Such questions are, however, beside the point in a study whose subject is history rather than art. For the literary historian, as indeed for the literary critic, Jarry presents unique problems. Working manuscripts of Jarry novels are virtually unheard of. In most cases, it is impossible to be sure of even what year a particular Jarry novel was written in. What is known nonetheless provides invaluable background material for the critic's work and explodes several of the more popular critical misconceptions concerning Jarry's status as an author.

On December 10th 1896, the “générale” of Ubu Roi was held at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre. Jarry, apparently petrified, prefaced his play with a speech of which the audience, according to Firmin Gémier, who took the role of Père Ubu, heard not a single word. The near-riot that took place shortly afterwards among a public composed in roughly equal proportion of Symbolism's admirers and detractors, has passed into theatrical history, and since its events are recounted in virtually every book ever written on Jarry, there is no need to restate them here. What is sometimes overlooked, however, is that this momentous evening had both long- and short-term consequences for Jarry himself. Certainly Ubu Roi assured his notoriety, as indeed it continues to today. Although the play ran for only two performances and was not revived until the year after Jarry's death, such was its celebrity that, on hearing that he was to perform Jarry's post-mortem, Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet immediately went out and bought a copy. He was indeed able to. Ubu Roi went through three editions in Jarry's lifetime, which is to say, two more than any of his other works. Famous, or tolerably so, Jarry may have been, but Ubu Roi did not make his fortune. In fact, on a personal level, it proved to be something of a catastrophe.

For several months in 1896, Jarry had worked as Aurélien Lugné-Poe's “secrétaire-régisseur” at the Œuvre, in the process taking the role of the Old Man of Dovrë in, and helping to produce, the first French version of Ibsen's Peer Gynt. This association ended abruptly when Ubu Roi was performed. In Le Symbolisme au Théâtre, Jacques Robichez was later to claim that Jarry had been profligate with the Œuvre's money in preparing the production, although it is only fair to add that he had also exhausted his own meagre inheritance to the same end. Worse than this, Ubu Roi had caused the biggest scandal in the press that even an avant-garde theatre like the Œuvre had ever seen. Whatever the case, Lugné-Poe was driven to break not only with Jarry but also with the Symbolists as a group. Up until this point, the Œuvre had been the main outlet for Symbolist drama in France, and reaction was predictably heated. In 1897, a group of Symbolist journalists including Jarry published a statement denouncing Lugné-Poe's defection. Eventually Lugné, tired of having his artistic integrity challenged in this way, went so far as to fight a duel with Catulle Mendès, whose performance with a pistol was described by Laurent Tailhade as “brave et maladroit comme pas un”.1

Although Ubu Roi had these repercussions, as well as gaining for Jarry membership of the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques and causing him to write his “manifesto”, Questions de Théâtre, there was one further and even more significant consequence. In Ubu Enchaîné (1899), Père Ubu refuses to utter “le mot” (i.e. “Merdre!”) because “il m'a valu trop de désagréments” (429). At least one of these was the fact that, having succeeded in publishing and staging Ubu Roi after several years of trying, at the beginning of 1897 Jarry was rather at a loose end. He was, moreover, in debt to a certain M. Trochon for his famous Clément Luxe '96 bicycle, collected the previous year and not paid for. Indeed, after Ubu Roi Jarry had little means of paying for anything. True, he was regularly printed in magazines like the Mecure de France, La Plume and the Revue Blanche, but his adventure as a dramatist-cum-actor-co-director had been abortive. Apart from puppet productions of Ubu Roi by some of his friends in 1898 and of Ubu sur la Butte by the Guignol des 4'z-Arts in 1900, Jarry's involvement with the practical theatre would henceforth be limited to his occasional work as Claude Terrasse's librettist. By and large, Jarry was less than pleased with such collaborations as he had to undertake towards the end of his life with Terrasse, “Karl Rosenval”, Demolder and perhaps even Jean Saltas. On June 8th 1906, having just been so ill that his life was despaired of, he wrote in a letter: “J'ai été épuisé depuis un an. Les collaborations ne me reússissent pas.”2

These comments may provide us with an explanation of why Jarry suddenly—it would appear—adopted the novel-form with such enthusiasm that he produced four finished novels within the next two years. Jarry had certainly begun to make a reputation for himself in the theatre, but he had at the same time made it extremely unlikely that any of his plays, like Ubu Cocu, which he had already been reworking for some time, would be produced in the foreseeable future. Of course Jarry contributed regularly throughout his career to some of the most prestigious reviews of his day. Léon-Paul Fargue remembers:

J'étais alors frais émoulu du Lycée Henri-IV, comme mon camarade Alfred Jarry. Nous venions de prendre part au concours littéraire de l'Écho de Paris qui était le seul quotidien littéraire de l'époque, et nous cherchions, naturellement, à écrire dans les revues, ce qui constituait de ce temps une aubaine et un honneur, car on n'y ouvrait pas tout grands les bras aux illettrés, faux inventeurs, mercenaires, drogmen ou larbins qui sortent avec l'habit de leur maître.3

By 1897, some four years on from such beginnings, however, Jarry, though still only twenty-three, was seeking to establish himself as a major literary figure, like his close friend Rachilde or his former mentor Remy de Gourmont, both of whom were essentially novelists. With the theatre temporarily closed to him, his poetry, probably his first love, having had indifferent success on those occasions when it had been published and, as we shall see, the year 1897 proving financially torturous, the novel was the next obvious medium for Jarry to try. He might conceivably extend his reputation and make enough money to pay off his creditors at the same time.

It is important to remark upon the conflicting exigencies of these two factors. Jarry did not suddenly think: “I must dash off a novel to make some money.” On the contrary, we will see that his first four novels were all conceived before Ubu Roi was produced, and that he seems to have merely dusted off projects that had been temporarily overridden by his work at the Œuvre. He was, however, well aware that his novels had to succeed. With the second of them, L'Amour en Visites, in particular, he made great compromises although, as it became obvious that publishers were not attracted by his work, he was to become more intransigent. In any case, from the end of 1897 to the end of 1903, his financial situation, though not exactly easy, was by no means as perilous as it had been in the months following Ubu Roi's premiere.

Jarry's first novel was Les Jours et les Nuits, finished by April 1897 although certainly started much earlier. Here we run into our first real problem. We do not know when or in what circumstances Les Jours et les Nuits was written. Because the novel is loosely based on Jarry's own experiences of life in the army, it may be assumed that the project stemmed from his brief and inglorious spell of military service in 1895. This view is supported by one of his officers, Gaston Roig, who states that Jarry was forever writing while in uniform:

Il écrivait beaucoup. Assez mystérieusement du reste car il fut toujours impossible de lui faire définir avec précision la nature de ces travaux: —Nous-con-si-gnons-des-no-tes, disait-il, sur-un-mé-tier-ce-lui-de-soldat-que-nous-com-men-çons-a-bien-con-naître.4

It is therefore probable that Jarry at least took notes while he was still a soldier and perhaps wrote them up in the form we know during the first months of 1897. Beyond this, it is impossible to be specific. Whatever the case, Les Jours et les Nuits was duly submitted to Jarry's old friends Alfred Valette and Rachilde at the Mercure de France and published there in May 1897.

Although it is in a sense the Jarry novel most in tune with its time and the tastes of a publisher like the Mercure, which had previously issued Gourmont's Le Joujou Patriotisme, Les Jours et les Nuits met with little success. At Jarry's death in 1907, Alfred Vallette, chosen as executor of the author's will, wrote to Jarry's sister Caroline (“Charlotte”) in order to establish the extent of Jarry's debts. He informed her that “Jarry n'a ici qu'un livre établi au compte à demi: Les Jours et les Nuits, et qui ne se vend pas du tout”.5

Still, as a first novel, Les Jours et les Nuits must have been the source of some encouragement insofar as it was published at all. This is likely since, in spite of personal difficulties (beside his difficulties with M. Trochon, Jarry had been evicted for non-payment of rent and was staying temporarily with Henri [“le Douanier”] Rousseau) a second novel followed immediately afterwards.

L'Amour en Visites is one of the best-documented of all Jarry's novels. Like Les Jours et les Nuits, it seems to have been in Jarry's mind for quite a long period prior to publication. An undated but obviously early plan of the work was discovered by Maurice Saillet and runs as follows:

  • I. Chez Manette
  • II. Chez Manon
  • III. Chez Margot
  • IV. Chez la [Voisine biffé] Cousine
  • V. Chez la Vieille Dame
  • VI. Chez la Grande Dame
  • VII. Chez la Fiancée
  • VIII. Chez le Médecin
  • IX. Chez le Vieux de la Montagne
  • X. Chez la Mort ou L'Autre Alceste
  • XI. Chez la Muse
  • XII. Chez [Ma biffé] Dame Jocaste ou l'Amour Absolu6

The history of L'Amour en Visites is marked by pronounced elements of tragicomedy. Like Jarry's previous novel, it was presented for publication to the Mercure de France in the late Summer of 1897. By this stage, it had already been considerably altered from what it would have looked like according to Saillet's plan. Crucially, two original chapters (III and XII) had disappeared and had been replaced by two already familiar texts: part of Ubu Cocu (“Chez Madame Ubu”) and “La Peur Chez L'Amour”, which had been published separately the previous year and which, in any case, Rachilde later claimed to have written in response to Jarry's wager that she could not pastiche his style7. L'Amour en Visites might have been Jarry's greatest novel, but ended up being his worst. The logical progression implicit in Saillet's plan, from the mundane description of earthly love in the opening chapters through the more poetic homo- (or auto-) sexual imagery of chapters VIII, IX and X to the impenetrable prose-poetry depiction of the love of God (a figure indistinguishable from the writer) for his creation in chapters XI and XII, is completely absent from the published text. This has all the appearances of a novel begun, abandoned half-way through and padded out with irrelevant, unconnected and already published material. The journey through, simultaneously, Jarry's experience of love and literary creation which would have made the inclusion of familiar texts like “L'Autre Alceste” and “Le Vieux de la Montagne” legitimate is to all appearances replaced by an unseemly rush to complete a volume and collect an advance on its publication.

If such was Jarry's design, and he was indeed in dire financial difficulty, it got off to an inauspicious start. In spite of the ties of friendship between Jarry, Rachilde and Vallette, the Mercure rejected L'Amour en Visites. In fact, the Mercure would never issue another Jarry novel, probably because of the lack of success of Les Jours et les Nuits, although the rejection of L'Amour en Visites may also be in part attributed to the fact that it was so obviously bad, and to the highly unflattering description it contains of Berthe de Courrière, nymphomaniac mistress of Remy de Gourmont, one of the Mercure's most favoured authors.

At this point, with Jarry's situation becoming ever more desperate, the ubiquitous Pierre Fort, purveyor of pornography to the Belle Époque, made his appearance. It seems that Rachilde, in an act of charity, undertook to find a publisher for Jarry's unwanted novel and somehow came up with Fort. The tenor of Fort's previous editions may be judged from one of which a copy is fortunately preserved in the British Library: the self-styled “roman historique et anti-clérical” of 1882 written by Jacques Souffrance (!) and entitled Le Couvent de Gomorrhe. Fort's grasp of literary style, on the other hand, may in part be ascertained from his reply to Rachilde's request:

Je viens de lire votre aimable lettre dans laquelle vous me dites qu'un de vos camarades désirerait traiter avec un editeur pour la production d'un ouvrage L'(Amour en visite). […] je prendrai connaissance du manuscrit si vous voulez bien me le faire parvenir par le poste et me le conflier quelques jours et vous donner ensuite une résponse ferme.

En attendant voeillez agrer, Madame Rachilde, mes plus respectueuses salutations.8

Such a choice of publisher was unlikely, to say the least. Jarry's previous works, as Rachilde was well aware, had been those of a serious adept of highcamp Mallarmean Symbolism, one of the “noisy, brainsick young people” whom Arthur Symons, who had met Jarry, describes sitting at the great poet's feet.9 All these the Mercure had shown no hesitation in printing. Indeed, much of the second half of L'Amour en Visites had already appeared in that review. So why should Rachilde have attempted to palm the novel off on Fort instead of a publisher more specialised in the Decadent authors?

There are a number of possible motives behind Fort's selection. Firstly, he may have been chosen purely by chance, as if Rachilde had, as Noël Arnaud puts it, “pointé son index au hasard sur la liste des éditeurs dans le Bottin”.10 Secondly, it may have been seen as a way of defusing Jarry's comments on the subject of Berthe de Courrière. Finally, Rachilde must have noted the similarities between the “Grande Dame” with whom the hero of the novel has an affair and herself, and considered publication by Fort as a way of preventing them being taken too seriously. It is indeed more than possible that Jarry did have an affair with Rachilde. In this respect the inscription in the copy of L'Amour en Visites he presented to her is somewhat provocative:

A Rachilde et à Jean de Chilra [Rachilde's nom de plume]
ces XI moments hétéro … doxes
de l'heure autosexuelle de
M. Ubu
Alfred Jarry [signature](11)

What is rather less comprehensible is why Fort should have risen to the bait and agreed to publish a work that was obviously doomed from the outset to be a commercial failure, if only on Jarry's past record. That he had misgivings is clear from the fact that he insisted on the deletion of one chapter (hence “XI moments”) in order to lower production costs. On April 25th 1898 he wrote to Jarry in even more inimitable prose than that with which Rachilde was graced:

Je viens de téléphoner à M. Lépice [a printer] qu'il m'a répondu qu'il avait tirer 4 feuilles et que les autres 2 qu'il vous les avait envoyer pour être corriger et il ma fait entendre qu'il y auraient peut être un peu trop de copie je voudrais que sa ne fasse plus de six feuilles je désirerais que vous me le portiez demain matin nous pourrions arranger cela ensemble.12

It is perhaps significant that the chapter which had to go was “L'Autre Alceste”, one of Jarry's densest and most difficult pieces of prose. All in all it may simply be that Fort was initially impressed by Jarry's reputation for scandal after Ubu Roi and Rachilde's own not inconsiderable record as an author of erotica, and thereafter unable to withdraw. Partly thanks to this, by the Winter of 1897-98 Jarry's circumstances had become slightly easier. He had found an apartment in the Rue Cassette and, confident of his journalistic prospects and of an advance from Fort, was able to write to Maître Breux, Trochon's lawyer, on November 6th 1897: “Mes affaires se rarrangent un peu et je vais avoir de l'argent régulièrement tous les premiers mardis de chaque mois” (1062). And on December 8th: “Je dois toucher au jour de l'an chez un éditeur” (1063).

1898 was one of the busiest years of Jarry's life. Mishaps notwithstanding, L'Amour en Visites was duly issued by Fort in May, complete with illustrations. By this time Jarry had probably come to regard this work as the same sort of “besogne bâclée” as his later moneymaking enterprise, the volume of reminiscences Souvenirs sur Albert Samain (Paris: Victor Lemasle, 1907). In any case, before L'Amour en Visites was published, Jarry had completed a third novel, Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll, Pataphysicien, three chapters of which appeared in the Mercure de France in May 1898. Again, just how Faustroll came to be written is a mystery, although Henri Bordillon suggests that it was “Commencé sans doute dès la fin de 97, poursuivi à Corbeil et à Paris en 98”.13

The second half of Bordillon's statement is undoubtedly true, since a letter from Jarry to Vallette (undated, but certainly, given the address it quotes, written in early 1898) speaks of “notre Faustroll que nous venons de recopier” (1064). When the original version was written is anyone's guess, but the end of 1897 is perhaps the least likely date.

When the College de ‘Pataphysique published the catalogue of its “Expojarrysition” in 1953, two manuscripts of Faustroll were included: the so-called “Fasquelle” manuscript, which is to say the copy to which Jarry refers and from the first edition was prepared in 1911, and the possibly earlier “Lormel” manuscript. Both of these were, however, virtually perfect copies of the sort which Jarry made of many of his works. The papers on which Jarry's compositional work was done have either been destroyed or have as yet failed to come to light. The former explanation is the more plausible.14 We may, however, say this much with certainty. When Les Minutes de Sable Mémorial was published in 1894, the edition carried this announcement:

On prépare:
Eléments de Pataphysique


“Eléments de Pataphysique” is the title of Book II of Faustroll in its published form, which therefore makes it quite possible that Jarry had been working on his novel for up to four years prior to its completion.

Jarry once more ran into trouble with his publishers over this, his third novel. The Mercure, as I have said, printed excerpts from Faustroll but declined to issue the work as a volume. Another part was to appear in La Plume two years later. Before this recourse, Jarry had sent the manuscript to his other favoured outlet, the Revue Blanche. Its director, Thadée Natanson, wrote to Jarry in January 1899 inquiring: “S'agit-il de fragments à publier dans la revue? S'agit-il d'un volume à éditer?”15 However Jarry replied, the Revue Blanche never printed any of Faustroll. Even four years after his death, Jean Saltas and Gaston Danville had to exert considerable powers of persuasion in order to prevail upon Eugène Fasquelle to finally print it.

Faustroll apart, two other events of early 1898 are significant for our purposes. Firstly, Jarry acquired, in partnership with Rachilde, Vallette, Hérold, Quillard and Collière, a villa at Corbeil which became known as the “Phalanstère”. It was here that he virtually lived full-time until the partnership was dissolved in January 1899. The villa afforded him the opportunity to write and fish as much as he pleased, and this period was surely one of the most pleasant of his life. Hérold writes:

Dans la maison de Corbeil, nous avons passé des heures charmantes. Il avait été convenu que les uns ne gêneraient en rien les autres. Chacun avait sa clef, arrivait ou partait à son seul gré. Quillard, depuis longtemps, s'adonnait à la pêche, il y était fort habile. Jarry, que, entre nous, le plus souvent, nous appelions le Père Ubu, se fit son disciple ardent. Et Vallette, à l'exemple de Quillard et de Jarry, se mit à pêcher. Mais à la pêche il préféra bientôt un autre sport auquel Quillard aussi avait initié le Père Ubu: Vallette connut les joies du canotage.16

Rather less happily, Jarry now began to collaborate with Claude Terrasse on an “opéra-bouffe” based on Rabelais' Pantagruel. The libretto, seemingly impossible to complete satisfactorily, hung about his neck like a millstone until 1905, when Terrasse finally forced him to finish it.

The winter of 1898 saw further projects under weigh. The first Almanach du Pére Ubu was published in December. Par la Taille, a verse play forming part of Jarry's Théâtre Mirlitonesque was completed in a first version and a fourth novel, L'Amour Absolu, was worked upon. The final draft of L'Amour Absolu was finished on February 20th 1899. Although this manuscript carries some trivial corrections, it is once more suggestive of at least one earlier version, since lost. The novel must at least have been planned (in some detail, given the dominant Oedipus/Jocasta theme of the finished product) long in advance since it figures as chapter XII in Saillet's plan of L'Amour en Visites. The bulk of the composition may have been done at any time during the preceding few years, although Saillet himself opines:

[…] il y a place ici pour des hypothèses et bien des rêveries. Celles-ci ne sauraient toutefois effacer la date (“20 février 1899”) qui clôt le livre, et prouve que c'est largement six mois après la publication de l'Amour en Visites que Jarry acheva d'écrire l'Amour Absolu.17

There is strong evidence to suggest that this view is mistaken. That evidence comes in the form of the “Service de Presse” of L'Amour Absolu, which is to say, those people to whom Jarry wished copies to be sent. To have compiled this, Jarry must have had the novel at least in a state of near-completion. The fourteenth name on the list is that of Stéphane Mallarmé, to whom Jarry sent most of his published work. Now, Mallarmé died in September 1898, which means that the “Service de Presse” was compiled earlier than this and strongly suggests that the vast bulk of the work of the novel was done by the time Jarry embarked on his final copying-out in the Winter of 1898-99.

With the completion of L'Amour Absolu, we reach one of the crucial points—indeed, arguably the breaking-point—of Jarry's whole career.

In November 1898 Jarry and Vallette had quarrelled over a trivial matter concerning the Phalanstère. Jarry had employed a local locksmith, Gabaret, to break into the building for him, and some damage was done by the workman. For Vallette, this was obviously the last straw. On November 21st Jarry wrote to him, beginning “On m'apprend que vous fûtes furieux au sujet de mes exercices de serrurerie” and concluding “je démissionne du Phalanstère” (1071-72). This matter caused considerable bad feeling between the two men, especially as, having once resigned, Jarry then refused to leave for several weeks.

It was not therefore, in the most propitious of circumstances that Jarry presented his novel for publication, probably in March 1899, given that the Mercure announced in that month that L'Amour Absolu was to appear “chez divers éditeurs”. There exists a letter from Jarry to Vallette which might conceivably refer to L'Amour en Visites, but is perhaps more likely to concern the rejection of L'Amour Absolu:

J'ai oublié de vous dire hier au sujet de mon in-18 et ce matin je me suis levé beaucoup trop tard pour venir vous en informer, qu'il est bien entendu que même s'il paraît invendable au Mercure, je n'y change rien du tout dans l'ordre des chapitres ni en rien.

Si donc il était à prévoir qu'en cas d'acceptation du comité, le Mercure ne dût néanmoins point être disposé à une publication honorable et précipitée (j'entends en mai, par exemple), la formalité serait tout à fait superflue de confier ledit in-18 au comité, et je vous en demanderais le restitution quand j'irai au Mercure dimanche.


It must have been galling in the extreme for Jarry to see a third novel in a row rejected by his friends at the Mercure, and the tone of his letter contrasts sharply with Hérold's description of his relations with Vallette a few months earlier. As I have said, Jarry must have been perfectly aware of the weaknesses of L'Amour en Visites, and this perhaps accounts for his uncharacteristic malleability where Fort was concerned. L'Amour Absolu was a different matter. Jarry therefore decided to have the work printed at his own expense in a facsimile edition of fifty copies. As what may be seen as a gesture of reconciliation on Vallette's part, these were sold through the Mercure's offices, and probably printed on its presses as well.

Again, however, Jarry had indulged in useless expense—a habit for which Vallette was to reproach him in his obituary. This may be judged from a letter Jarry wrote in October 1905, when once more short of cash, to a bookseller in the hope of disposing of the remaining copies of L'Amour Absolu. After cataloguing his previous publications (though, significantly, not L'Amour en Visites), and describing them as “livres qui eurent une vente assez considérable”, which was a barefaced lie, Jarry continued:

Or j'ai eu la fantaisie—en 1899 et par les soins du Mercure—de faire tirer un de mes livres à tres petit nombre et en fac-similé autographique. Ce livre s'appelle l'Amour Absolu. […] C'etait une fantaisie pour pouvoir donner le manuscrit autographié à quelques amis. Sur les 50 exemplaires il en reste, déposés au “Mercure” 32 ou 33. Voulez-vous acquérir cette totalité de l'édition à dix fr. l'exemplaire?18

The bookseller was not interested, and of the seventeen or eighteen copies disposed of in the six years since publication, we may assume that most were presented by Jarry to his friends.

Although relations with Vallette were patched up shortly after the débâcle over the Phalanstère and L'Amour Absolu, this affair had indeed proved a turning-point for Jarry. As has been shown, Jarry's first four novels had all been projects of long standing, with their roots firmly in the pre-Ubu Roi era. All, in different ways, exhibit the influence of Jarry's Symbolist mentors. By contrast, the novels of 1900 and 1901, Messaline and Le Surmâle, were apparently conceived and written virtually in one go. Further-more, those two works represent a new departure for Jarry inasmuch as they are, at least superficially, “genre” novels. Messaline is Jarry's variation on the historical novel, with one of the favourite fin-de-siècle chronotopes merged seamlessly with what is recognisably his own slant on literature. Le Surmâle is again a variation, but this time on the science-fiction novel in the style of H. G. Wells.

Around 1900 Jarry was once more in need of money. With the collapse of the Phalanstère venture he felt in need of somewhere to retreat from city life and bought himself a plot of land by the Seine at Coudray. Here he had built a curious shack known as the “Tripode”. The plot itself cost 525 francs—a large sum by Jarry's standards—and further expenditure was incurred with the building of the “Tripode”, the fencing of the property and the renting of an adjoining piece of land from a certain M. Troulet. Be this as it may, Jarry probably had high hopes, at last, of real literary success, reinforced by the choice for his next two novels of two popular genres liberally laced with sex. Messaline was probably begun in the summer of 1899, although beyond this little is known about the process of its composition. It is, however, the only one of Jarry's novels of which two substantially different versions survive, one the published text, and the other a manuscript presented by Jarry to the eventual publisher, Thadée Natanson. The leading present-day expert on Messaline, Brunella Eruli, opines that the Natanson manuscript is the earlier of the two, and has described the differences between them. Chapters are ordered differently and, more importantly:

Dans la deuxième version connue de son roman, Jarry a conçu les différents chapitres comme s'il s'agissait de tableaux inspirés par le texte qu'ils sont censés illustrer. […] Passant de la première rédaction à la rédaction définitive, Jarry apporte des changements de style (il s' inspire beaucoup plus du latin) mais il rajoute surtout des digressions historiques et érudites qui ont une valeur d'explication mais aussi de mystification.19

More interestingly for our purposes, the publication of Messaline displays a good deal of acumen of Jarry's part. Instead of asking for the work to be issued as a volume straight away, he reverted to a strategy which had worked with Ubu Roi in 1896. As he had done with Faustroll, he approached Thadée Natanson, but this time arranged for Messaline to be published in instalments in the Revue Blanche from July to September 1900. Once this much was accomplished, it must have been relatively easy to convince Natanson to issue the work in-volume the following year. It was as a mark of gratitude that Jarry gave Natanson the dedicated manuscript of his novel in July 1901.

Jarry clearly hoped that Messaline would sell. Indeed, he wrote his own advertisements for it which appeared in the Revue Blanche and Le Temps, and had the pleasure of seeing it favourably reviewed by figures as well-respected as Gustave Kahn and Francis Jammes. This was again all very reminiscent of Ubu Roi, of which Jarry had originally planned to send 130 complimentary copies to friends, reviewers (including Arthur Symons and Edmund Gosse) and magazine editors across Europe. By his own standards, Jarry's efforts met with success, three thousand copies of Messaline being sold.

One more thing about Messaline deserves mention, and we might call it the Czech connection. Perhaps the oddest thing about Jarry's whole unusual career is the fact that, while ignored the world over and even to a certain extent in France, he was regularly published in what is now Czechoslovakia. A magazine called Moderni Revue somehow discovered Jarry as early as 1895, publishing translations into Czech of some of his poems. There were periodic contacts between Jarry and Prague until 1904, when Moderni Revue began to publish a translation of Messaline in instalments, as it had first appeared in France. Like the Revue Blanche, Moderni Revue later saw to the issue of the work as a separate volume. The translator was an individual called Kamil Fiala.

In the Museum of National Literature in Prague, a letter survives written by Jarry to Arnost Prochazka, editor of the review. It is of interest firstly because Messaline was the only Jarry novel translated in the author's lifetime (it would also become the first of Jarry's works to be translated into English),20 and secondly because Jarry obviously saw yet another opportunity to revive L'Amour Absolu. Parts of this letter were re-used almost verbatim in the letter on the same subject quoted above:

Étant en voyage dans le Dauphiné, je n'ai pas encore eu le plaisir de voir dans Moderni Revue le commencement de votre traduction de Messaline. Le numero a dû rester à mon domicile de Paris. J'espère avoir le plaisir de vous en écrire bientôt pour vous féliciter.

L'Amour Absolu est un tirage à petit nombre d'exemplaires autographiques (en fac-similé) au Mercure de France mais hors commerce. J'écris par ce courrier à Alfred Vallette pour qu'il vous en fasse parvenir au plus tôt un exemplaire quoique l'ouvrage doive être presque épuisé. Je vous signale mon “Surmâle” édité chez Fasquelle (anciennes éditions de la Revue blanche). Je rentre à Paris dans un mois et tâcherai de vous en avoir un.21

From this we of course note that Jarry is rather bending the truth, perhaps in the hope of further translations appearing. The edition of L'Amour Absolu was, as he himself later admitted, anything but exhausted, and the reference to the Mercure de France is misleading to say the least. His “domicile de Paris” was little more than a slum apartment, while Le Surmâle, though nominally under the auspices of Fasquelle, had been out of print for some time.

The final novel Jarry was to complete was Le Surmâle. Again we cannot be sure when it was written, although the surviving manuscript is dated December 8th 1901. Messaline had obviously proved enough of a success for Natanson to accept Le Surmâle without an initial “feuilleton” stage: the novel was published by the Éditions de la Revue Blanche in May 1902, and Natanson received another dedicated manuscript.

Le Surmâle had been described, notably by Thiéri Foulc,22 in terms which make it appear a sort of betrayal on Jarry's part, notwithstanding the fact that it is by common consent his best novel. True, Rachilde claimed in her Alfred Jarry ou le Surmâle des Lettres (1928) that it had been written in response to her plea for Jarry to “écrire comme tout le monde”. It is also true that Le Surmâle is the only one of Jarry's novels which might conceivably be read for distraction, and that, in terms of language alone, it is of far lesser difficulty than any of his previous works. Whatever the case, Le Surmâle was the apogee of Jarry's career as a novelist. It certainly attracted the best reviews he had ever had. Pierre Quillard enthused in the Revue Blanche, while in the Mercure Rachilde did her best to entice readers with promises of soft pornography: “… je ne sais pas du tout comment m'y prendre pour m'expliquer en présence de tant de lectrices.”23 She concluded, however, in a tone which Jarry must have appreciated:

Les poètes, M. Jarry en est un, sont les grands explorateurs de l'impossible et ce qui étonnerait encore le plus de leur part ce serait probablement le possible. On n'y croirait jamais, le vrai n'étant que très rarement vraisemblable. Le Surmâle est donc un joli bibelot, un joujou de poète.24

It seemed that Jarry, still aged only twenty-nine, might conceivably be on the verge of becoming a successful writer, especially with the publication of Le Surmâle which, although it probably aimed at cashing in on the vogue for science-fiction much in evidence at the turn of the century, gave the genre a social perspective that would not be approached again until the works of Zamyatin and, most of all, Olesha in the 1920s. As so often in his life, however, just when things seemed to be going well for Jarry, disaster struck.

From 1900 until 1903, much of Jarry's writing was done for the Revue Blanche, where, as we have seen, both his novels were published. At the end of 1903, the Revue Blanche folded, robbing the author of his main source of income—derived from his journalism—and the opportunity of seeing either of his most successful novels reprinted in the immediate future. Future journalistic collaborations were by and large less happy, while Eugène Fasquelle, who had absorbed the Éditions de la Revue Blanche, appears to have been rather more hard-headed when it came to Jarry's writings than was Thadée Natanson. Nonetheless, in the penultimate number of the Revue Blanche, in April 1903, Jarry did have the satisfaction of seeing a fragment of his seventh and final novel published, the chapter of La Dragonne entitled “La Bataille de Morsang”.

From this point onwards, Jarry's life took on increasingly tragic overtones which were largely due to his extreme poverty and frequent illness. He was furthermore embroiled in two seemingly endless projects. Pantagruel has already been mentioned, as has the fact that Jarry was unable to finish a satisfactory draft of this very minor work until 1905. The second was La Dragonne itself.

In the earlier period, whatever his individual novels' length of gestation, Jarry still managed to complete drafts of six novels in four years. The difference between this period and the last years of his life is exemplified by the fact that “La Bataille de Morsang” was the only part of La Dragonne that Jarry was ever to review and correct. The plan of the novel was heavily revised as time went on, which resulted in the failure of Jarry to write most of it. Some parts had to be dictated to his sister when he was too ill to write himself, others that he did write are so heavily corrected as to be practically unreadable. There have been attempts to publish La Dragonne, beginning with Dr. Jean Saltas's edition of 1943, but the exercise inevitably appears something of a forlorn hope, even in the wake of the discovery of new manuscript material in the files of the Mercure de France after the last war.

In the preface to his edition of La Dragonne, Saltas, a friend of Jarry's for the last ten years of his life, writes:

Alfred Jarry n'est pas un écrivain pour le grand public. Il faut une grande curiosité d'esprit, un grand sens de la fantaisie la plus poussée pour se plaire à ses écrits, et savoir en découvrir les beautés cachées sous leur obscurité, qui font de lui un des écrivains les plus singulièrement originaux de notre temps.25

Jarry's career as a novelist would seem to prove Saltas's point, since he failed to find favour either with the “grand public” or even with publishers who happened also to be his friends.

It appears, however, that Jarry never quite gave up hope, even in the very last stages of the meningeal tuberculosis that eventually killed him. In spite of the disasters of later years—Pantagruel and the Souvenirs sur Albert Samain which, although immediately accepted for publication by Victor Lemasle, Jarry refused even to advise Rachilde to read, perhaps because he disliked Samain and had only written it for the money—he still apparently hoped that La Dragonne would turn his fortunes around. On October 26th 1907, one week before he died, Jarry wrote to Thadée Natanson about the manuscript which he intended to submit to Fasquelle:

Cher ami, me voici encore cloué à la chambre pour quelque temps, quoique ce soit beaucoup plus bénin que l'année dernière. Ce n'est d'ailleurs pas très pénible au milieu des livres et des paperasses. Pour les manuscrits Fasquelle […] je vous disais une semaine au plus.26

As a piece of optimism this is impressive, as is Jarry's return to Paris from Laval a day or two later. He died on November 1st 1907, leaving debts of seven thousand francs and no means, especially not through the proceeds of his literature, or paying for them.

What, then, does all this tell us about the author, apart from how comparatively little is known about how he wrote his novels and how little success these works enjoyed in his lifetime? For one thing, it suggests that a radical reappraisal of Jarry's work as a novelist is long overdue. Since his death, Jarry's novels have continued to be handicapped both by the author's (in some respects) ill-deserved reputation for eccentricity verging on the insane, and by the very fame of the Ubu plays. The Collège de 'Pataphysique's elevation of Faustroll to a status approaching holy writ in the 1950s did little to overcome either of these problems, especially since Faustroll is one of Jarry's less readable novels.

As has been said already, there is no accounting for, or arguing with, taste in matters of literature. What such documentary evidence as has come to light in the eighty years since Jarry's death does allow us to do is dispel some of the many misconceptions surrounding his books. We may now see that Jarry, contrary to what is still widely believed, regarded literature with deadly earnest, often rewriting works many times before he was satisfied with then and, before misfortune overtook him, being one of the most productive authors of his age. The work Jarry put into his writings is apparent from our brief look at the history of his novels and particularly that of the first four—precisely those often accused of being mere exercises in “mystification”. Jarry was indeed aware what damage his reputation had done to his career. He wrote in a letter of June 8th 1906: “Le bruit a été répandu que le 'Père Ubu' buvait comme un templier. A vous je puis avouer […] que j'avais un peu perdu l'habitude de manger.27

The seriousness with which Jarry took his literature—to the point of quarrelling self-destructively with Vallette—was mitigated by one factor. Jarry's only source of income after 1896 was his writing, which basically meant his journalism combined with his published fiction. At times, the need for money overcame other considerations—such was the case with L'Amour en Visites and the Souvenirs sur Albert Samain. After 1899 Jarry seems to have radically reappraised his approach to novel-writing, possibly as a function of deteriorating personal circumstances, but no doubt also because the Symbolist influences that had marked his early career and his first four novels were, after the death of Mallarmé, fast becoming a spent force. From this point on he seems to have taken a much more pragmatic approach. On one hand, this had application to the process of publication and sale itself. On the other it may have had an effect on his very style of writing, insofar as from Messaline onwards Jarry's language becomes much more accessible.

Jarry was indeed not a novelist for the “grand public”, and there is no evidence that he strove to become one: certainly not on the basis of the gamut of esoteric references in Messaline and Le Surmâle. A study of his career, however, shows that one of the prime motivations behind his writing, especially as soon as he reached his mid-twenties, was the desire for commercial success of the sort enjoyed by the novelists with whom he associated. Although Jarry's name is now widely known whereas most of these are forgotten, as a novelist it is a success that he has yet to attain, although to his last breath he never quite gave up hope of doing so.


  1. Quelques Fantômes de Jadis (Paris: L'Édition Française Illustrée, 1920), p. 213.

  2. Facsimile reproduced in Jacques-Henry Levesque: Alfred Jarry (Paris: Seghers, 1951), n.p.

  3. “Un Sage”, in Mercure de France 264, (1/12/35), 247.

  4. Gaston Roig (“Géroy”): “Mon Ami Alfred Jarry (Souvenirs)”, in Mercure de France 300 (1/7/47), 497-98.

  5. Quoted in Henri Bordillon: Gestes et Opinions d'Alfred Jarry, Écrivain (Laval: Editions Siloé, 1986), p. 201. This biography contains many newly-discovered and important documents, particularly those relating to the settlement of Jarry's estate.

  6. Originally printed in Saillet's article “Relativement à l'Amour Absolu”, in Cahiers du Collège de 'Pataphysique, 8-9, p. 71. Reproduced in the Pléiade Œuvres Complètes d'Alfred Jarry, I, 1248-49.

  7. There is no apparent reason why she should have lied about this since she was at this time still a far better-known author than Jarry.

  8. Quoted in Noël Arnaud: Alfred Jarry: D'Ubu Roi au Docteur Faustroll (Paris: La Table Ronde, 1974), pp. 378-79.

  9. “The Decadent Movement in Literature”, in Dramatis Personae (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1925), p. 96.

  10. Arnaud: op. cit., p. 378.

  11. Facsimile reproduced in Cahiers du Collège de 'Pataphysique, 10, p. 137.

  12. Quoted in Arnaud: op. cit., p. 400.

  13. Bordillon: op. cit., p. 68.

  14. At Jarry's death, his papers were handed over to his sister, who preserved them until her death in 1925, when they disappeared without trace.

  15. Reproduced in Cahiers du Collège de 'Pataphysique, 22-23, p. 50.

  16. “Souvenirs”, in Mercure de France, 264, (1/12/35), p. 273.

  17. Saillet: op. cit., p. 72.

  18. Cahiers du Collège de 'Pataphysique, 11, p. 13.

  19. “D'une Messaline à l'Autre”, in Europe (Jarry special number, March-April 1981), p. 114.

  20. By Louis Colman under the title The Garden of Priapus (New York: Black Hawk Press, 1936).

  21. Quoted in Albert Marencin: “Jarry et la Tchécoslovaquie”, in Europe (Jarry issue), p. 213.

  22. Especially in the introduction to his excellent edition of the novel (Paris: Eric Losfeld [“Collection Merdre”], 1977).

  23. “Revue du Mois (Romans)”, in Mercure de France 42, (1/6/02), 753.

  24. Ibid. p. 755.

  25. La Dragonne (Paris: Gallimard/N.R.F. 1943), p. 10.

  26. Quoted in Bordillon: op. cit., p. 191.

  27. See note 2.

Page-numbers in the text refer to Œuvres Complètes d'Alfred Jarry, I, ed. Michel Arrivé (Paris: Pléiade, 1972).

Ben Fisher (essay date November 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4160

SOURCE: Fisher, Ben. “Jarry and Florian: Ubu's Debt to Harlequin.” Nottingham French Studies 27, no. 2 (November 1988): 32-9.

[In the following essay, Fisher explores the significance of the eighteenth-century writer, Florian, whose harlequinades are “listed” in Dr. Faustroll's library, to the works of Jarry, especially Ubu Roi.]

In his little read and even less understood novel Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien (written in 1898 but not published until 1911, four years after its author's death), Alfred Jarry presents a list of twenty-seven livres pairs supposedly in the doctor's possession. They include a broad sweep of literature ranging from the Gospel of St. Luke to the latest novel by Rachilde, from Rabelais to Léon Bloy. The list includes five dramatic works: Ubu Roi is there, without any author's name attached to it, along with Grabbe's extraordinary Scherz, Satire, Ironie und tiefere Bedeutung, a play that Jarry made efforts to promote, translating it as Les Silènes. Two plays reflect contemporary tastes that are to a greater or lesser degree lost to us today: Maeterlinck's Aglavaine et Sélysette (Pelléas et Mélisande in the primary state of the manuscript) and the Sâr Péladan's wagnérie Babylone, staged for the Salon de la Rose-Croix in 1893 and 1894, and the subject of a minor and self-generated querelle. If there are relatively easy explanations for the inclusion of the above plays, the remaining dramatic work in the ‘livres pairs’ has attracted virtually no critical attention, which is unfortunate as its inclusion has much to tell us about the formative stages of Ubu Roi, which have in the past attracted as much controversy as the play itself. This choice appears as the ninth ‘livre pair’, the list being arranged alphabetically:

Un volume dépareillé du Théâtre de FLORIAN.1

Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755-1794) is remembered in our age for his translation of Don Quixote, and as a writer of novellas and fables; indeed these fables would probably still attract a wide readership if the shadow of La Fontaine were not quite so large. His theatre is of lesser value, and has not been performed or indeed read in any depth for some decades. The last performance of one of his plays that I have been able to trace was for the ‘abonnés du mardi’ of the Comédie-Française in 1910, who apparently found La Bonne Mère perfectly acceptable.2 The texts, however, are relatively freely available despite the length of time that has elapsed since Florian's complete works were last in print; the author's popularity in his own time led to substantial print runs, and many academic libraries hold one edition or more of Florian from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.3 Also, the plays sometimes appeared in the manner of an appendix in later editions of Florian's fables, for instance in that published by Garnier in 1867. In early editions the theatre usually formed one or more independent volumes within the complete works, and it is certain that Jarry had also read Florian's fables, as he quotes briefly from La Guenon, le singe et la noix in L'Amour Absolu, written very soon after the completion of the second manuscript version of Faustroll,4 and in Le Surmâle (1901).5 Exactly which edition of Florian Jarry used we do not know, but it is likely that it was an early, pre-Revolutionary one; this can be demonstrated through the credentials given to Florian on the title-pages of his works printed in this period. The following example comes from the three-volume Théâtre published by an un-named Geneva printer in 1787,6 and places the reader of Ubu Roi on familiar ground:

                                                  Théâtre de M. de Florian
Capitaine de dragons, et Gentilhomme de S.A.S. Mgr. LE DUC DE
                    PENTHIÈVRE; de l'académie de MADRID, etc.

This cannot fail to remind us of Act I, Scene 1 of Ubu Roi:

Comment, Père Ubu, vous estes content de votre sort?
De par ma chandelle verte, merdre, madame, certes oui, je suis content. On le serait à moins: capitaine de dragons, officier de confiance du roi Venceslas, décoré de l'ordre de l'Aigle Rouge de Pologne et ancien roi d'Aragon, que voulez-vous de mieux?

The similarity in tone and content is too considerable to be a coincidence. Much is already known about the genesis of the Ubu plays among the pupils of the Lycée de Rennes in the 1880s, largely through the partisan research of Charles Chassé in the 1920s,7 but the origins of Ubu's improbable military rank—vital to the plot of Ubu Roi—have not previously been identified. Florian campaigned little, though with more success than Père Ubu, and preferred life in the Duc de Penthièvre's household.

Florian wrote a variety of plays, including quasi-mythological pieces and some truly insipid pastorales, but he was best known for his harlequinades. It is in this last group that Jarry is demonstrably interested (though Henri Béhar does propose Florian's pastorales as a possible inspiration for the form of Jarry's L'Objet aimé, while conceding that it has acknowledged sources elsewhere);8 this may be seen in chapter VII of Faustroll, in which Jarry/Faustroll brings forth a three-dimensional object or objects from each of his twenty-seven books. These extrapolations, a mixture of animal, vegetable and mineral, are intended to join Faustroll and his companions in their boat for the subsequent périple by dry land around Paris. The ninth extrapolation, matching the ninth book, is:

De Florian, le billet de loterie de Scapin.9

This is drawn from Les Deux Billets, the first of Florian's harlequinades. It is a one-act play of extreme simplicity, involving only three characters: Arlequin, Argentine (his beloved), and Scapin (his rival for her hand), and the plot revolves around two billets; one is Arlequin's billet de loterie, which is known to be the winning ticket, and the other is a billet doux from Argentine to Arlequin. After a few surreptitious and comic exchanges of billets between Arlequin and Scapin, who aims to usurp Arlequin's general good fortune, Argentine states that she will marry whoever has her letter (Scene V), thus creating the only substantial plot device. There is so much coming and going of billets and characters that it hardly seems worth commenting that Jarry's chosen extrapolation is ‘le billet de loterie de Scapin’ whereas it rightfully belongs to Arlequin, and ultimately all ends well for Arlequin and Argentine, and even Scapin seems relatively unconcerned. Scapin, incidentally, seems to be a character for whom Jarry has a definite reverence; in responding to a questionnaire on drama he cited Molière's Les Fourberies de Scapin as one of the rare high points in French theatrical history that he was prepared to recognise.10Les Deux Billets, like the other harlequinades, carries a simple moralité, and the overwhelming impression of the level of moral discourse, incidental comedy and construction of plot is very much the same as in any episode of a typical modern domestic situation comedy—in other words perfectly agreeable, but unprofound. This is of course quite deliberate, and C. Lenient recognises it as a function of the audience for whom the plays were destined, with Florian placing deliberate restrictions on the character of his comedy.11Les Deux Billets was first performed in February 1779, and was an undoubted success among the élite audience for whom it was intended.12 Jarry also produced pieces governed by the same kind of cultured superficiality, when working on libretti for Claude Terrasse; one might imagine that Florian, working in Jarry's age and within its changed social and moral constraints, would not have disowned a piece such as Jarry's L'Amour maladroit.13

Jarry's particular interest in Les Deux Billets may have further inspirations, hinted at in the choice of the lottery ticket. The puppet theatre set up by him and his friends in Rennes was known, so it seems, as the ‘Théâtre des Phynances’—and Les Deux Billets, with all its arbitrary comings and goings involving the lottery ticket and the way it can determine people's fortunes, could be taken as an example of ‘théâtre à phynances’, to coin a phrase. My belief is that this play, along with the proto-Ubu compositions glorifying ‘le P.H.’, would have been in the repertory of the Rennes puppets; indeed Florian's Harlequin plays have certain definite affinities with mainstream puppet theatre traditions in the French language. Notable among these is the way Florian frequently emphasises that his Arlequin is a native of Bergamo, an aspect of the tradition that has frequently been neglected both before and since, but one which is reflected in puppet tradition, more strongly in French-speaking countries than elsewhere. For instance we think of Guignol as a citizen of Lyon (as does Jarry, in the Prologue to Ubu sur la Butte) far more than we do of Mr. Punch as a citizen of London, and other manifestations of the same character cling more tenaciously to their home towns than in other languages; examples are Tchantchès of Liège and the violent bon viveur of Amiens, Lafleur.14 Given this affinity, along with the conveniently short playing times of the harlequinades and their uncomplicated level of discourse, my belief is that the several known harlequinades by Florian,15 and certainly Les Deux Billets, would have served the Théâtre des Phynances as an excellent ready-made source of plots and characters that could be used and adapted at will.

As it is so hard to be sure which plays Jarry had read, there is little point in pursuing specific echoes between his work and Florian's plays at any length, but there are one or two that are worth quoting in passing. One is a possible source for one of Bougrelas's outbursts in Ubu Roi, and which Jarry and/or the other progenitors of Ubu may have had in mind if, as may be suspected, the volume or volumes in their possession did indeed contain a reasonable number of the harlequinades. This extract comes from Scene XVII of Le Bon Père (again, this is a one-act play), and is spoken by Cléante, the lover of Arlequin's daughter Nisida:

… je me suis trouvé dans le monde, à l'âge où l'on a tant besoin de ses parents, sans fortune, sans guide, sans appui, seul, isolé dans la nature, n'ayant pour tout bien que la connoissance de mes malheurs …

And from the sub-Hamlet of Ubu Roi, Bougrelas:

Encore une victime du Père Ubu! … O mon Dieu! qu'il est triste de se voir seul à quatorze ans avec une vengeance terrible à poursuivre!

(Ubu Roi Act II, Scene 5)

This similarity may be ephemeral, but there is a sufficient resemblance for it to be worth noting in passing. Another possible connection is with Le Bon Ménage, ou la Suite des Deux Billets, in which Arlequin and Argentine are married, with two children. Florian ignores the convention that small children are a bad idea on the stage, and gives them a substantial part in the play, presenting them with a charm which overcomes the potential for the insipid in their inclusion. One cannot help wondering if these two sons might not have inspired the creation of “nos fils Ubu et nos filles Ubu … des gens fort sobres et fort bien élevés”,16 who never actually appear and must be considered lost in the Rennes versions of what was to become Ubu Cocu.

Such direct affinities between Florian and Jarry's plays are of limited extent. Indeed, we can see the direct influence of Florian diminishing even within Jarry's juvenilia. In the first of his known compositions, Les Brigands de la Calabre and La Clochette, ou Shadow's Home et Death-Castle, Jarry follows Florian's lead in mixing stock Commedia dell'Arte characters with those drawn from other sources, though he never writes a Harlequin of his own; yet after these pieces, Jarry soon moves away from the literal Commedia dell'Arte tradition, though obviously much of its spirit persists. Given this early distancing, it seems odd to find Florian included in Faustroll, a work of great range and considerable depth, written ten years after the first adolescent pieces. Were Jarry's knowledge of Florian confined to the plays, one would be tempted to follow Philippe Vauberlin in assessing Florian's presence as a mere joke, a red herring to divert our attention.17 To a certain extent it undoubtedly is a joke, but it remains such a curious entry as to demand investigation. And having established that links with the plays themselves are tenuous, we are obliged to turn to the remaining Florian text with which Jarry was familiar. This is Florian's Avant-Propos to his theatre. Two distinct forms of this text exist, though without real divergence of meaning. The more common and probably first version is used here. The variant exists in a 1791 four-volume Théâtre de M. de Florian, and features a digression on Harlequin's origins. In all editions I have consulted, the Avant-Propos is printed immediately before Les Deux Billets, so it seems safe to assume that Jarry would have read it. Furthermore, he would have encountered this text at an impressionable age, when the ideas it expounds would more easily be absorbed into his own practice. The Avant-Propos shows dramatic theory that is in harmony with that which we associate with Jarry, at least as far as central characters are concerned, though naturally the two authors' purposes are very different. In his designation of Florian in Faustroll, Jarry can be seen to admit to his own inspirations—the same is true of other livres pairs—and it is in Florian's self-critical exposition of his plays that his acknowledged influence on Jarry is most evident of all.

Florian's presentation of his work in the Avant-Propos shows great and not particularly affected humility, as well as a realisation that he is working in something of a vacuum in comedy, in the absence of a second Molière. He admits that the intention of his plays is modest, that he merely wishes to create a divertissement for his peers. However, he is not immune to quite profound considerations on the purpose of the theatre, and he makes an intelligent discussion of concepts of catharsis, which ultimately leads him to set down a constructive reflection that is worth quoting at some length—constantly bearing in mind that it is drawn from a text subsequently read, at an impressionable age, by an author who created a character capable of such a wide range of emotions and reactions as undertaking war against Russia (Ubu Roi Act III, Scene 7) and being scared of his own alarm clock:18

J'ai pensé que le sentiment et la plaisanterie pouvoient tellement être unis, qu'ils fussent quelquefois confondus, que le spectateur s'égayait et s'attendrait dans le même instant, en un mot que le même personnage fit rire et pleurer à la fois. Pour cela j'avois besoin d'Arlequin.

Ce caractère est le seul peut-être qui rassemble l'esprit et la naïveté, la finesse et la balourdise. Arlequin, toujours bon, toujours facile à tromper, croit tout ce qu'on lui dit, donne dans tous les pièges qu'on lui tend: rien ne l'étonne, tout l'embarrasse; il n'a point de raison, il n'a que de la sensibilité; il se fâche, s'appaise, s'afflige, se console dans le même instant: sa joie et sa douleur sont également plaisantes. Ce n'est pourtant point un bouffon; ce n'est pas non plus un personnage sérieux: c'est un grand enfant; il en a les graces, la douceur, l'ingénuité: et les enfants sont si aimables, que j'ai cru mon succès certain si je pouvois donner à cet enfant toute la raison, tout l'esprit, toute la délicatesse d'un homme. […]

J'étois presque sûr que mon héros étoit intéressant; son masque et son habit le rendoient comique: il ne fallait plus que trouver des situations attachantes, et je devois faire rire et pleurer.

This important reflection by Florian has a number of directly identifiable echoes in the character and emotions of Père Ubu, as will now be demonstrated.

We could not exactly say that Ubu makes us laugh and cry; certainly he makes us laugh, but like Florian's Arlequin he is intended to create highly polarised responses—hence the partisan reactions that were created at the notorious générale of Ubu Roi in 1896. Ubu certainly has esprit—for examples of it see the whole of the Almanachs du Père Ubu—bounded only by his overwhelming naïvety, a trait that makes him exceptionally easy to deceive, for instance when he is sent off to war, allowing Mère Ubu to appropriate his phynances and enjoy the company of the unfortunate palotin Giron in his absence. Ubu implacably believes all that he is told, unless it is particularly bad news, for instance that of Bougrelas's triumph in Warsaw (Ubu Roi Act IV, Scene 3), and once convinced he invariably acts with a largesse befitting his royal status:

Mais, Père Ubu, si tu ne fais pas de distributions le peuple ne voudra pas payer les impôts.
Est-ce bien vrai?
Oui, oui!
Oh, alors je consens à tout. Réunissez trois millions, cuisez cent cinquante boeufs et moutons, d'autant plus que j'en aurai aussi!

(Ubu Roi Act II, Scene 6)

In the light of such munificent behaviour, Ubu, who has no sense of permanent guilt, believes himself ‘toujours bon’:

Je veux être bon pour les passants, être utile aux passants, travailler pour les passants, Mère Ubu.

(Ubu Enchaîné, Act I, Scene I)

‘Rien ne l'étonne, tout l'embarrasse’:
arrivant: Sire Ubu, les Russes attaquent.
Eh bien, après, que veux-tu que j'y fasse? ce n'est pas moi qui le leur ai dit.

(Ubu Roi Act IV, Scene 4)

‘Il n'à point de raison, il n'à que de la sensibilité; il se fâche, s'appaise, s'afflige, se console dans le même instant: sa joie et sa douleur sont également plaisantes’:
Ah! Oh! Je suis blessé, je suis troué, je suis perforé, je suis administré, je suis enterré. Oh, mais tout de même! Ah, je le tiens … Tiens! recommenceras-tu, maintenant!

(Ubu Roi Act IV, Scene 4)

Other points relating to the Avant-Propos, such as those concerning Harlequin/Ubu as an overgrown child rather than as any other category of character, will be self-evident from the plays; Florian's Arlequin as he appears in Les Deux Billets is meant to be an agreeable child, ‘tres-jeune et amoureux’, while Ubu is an ill-tempered and spoiled brat, but they are both overgrown children nonetheless. While Ubu's costume is not comic in itself (‘Complet veston gris d'acier …’),19 Jarry was keen to have him played, like Harlequin, with a mask (letter to Lugné-Poe of December 7th 1896).20

It will be seen that Florian's intentions for his Harlequin, taken completely literally and translated into a different world, that of a tradition of epic schoolboy skits inspired by an unfortunate teacher and bolstered with features drawn from Rabelais and Le Sage, among other authors, find a very definite parallel in Ubu, who exploits Florian's concept of a character synthesised out of contrasting responses and emotions to the full—and beyond. Furthermore, it is possible that the Avant-Propos provides inspiration for the contrasting plots of Ubu Roi and Ubu Enchaîné, which illustrate, in a burlesque version, the theme of duality that is constant in Jarry's work; Florian admits that in 1779 he wrote and burned an unsuccessful play entitled Arlequin roi, dame et valet. Ubu never becomes a lady, except in the form of his ‘Madame ma femelle’, Mère Ubu, but Ubu Roi and Ubu Enchaîné illustrate the other two elements of the title. According to G. Saillard, Arlequin Roi survived as a fragment and was published posthumously,21 though it does not appear among the posthumous publications reproduced in any of the editions unearthed in the preparation of this article; and as it appears more than likely that Jarry was using an early edition of Florian, probably one published in the author's lifetime, it is not safe to assume that he knew more of Arlequin Roi than the erstwhile existence of the complete play of which it formed a part.

It is hard, from our perspective in the late twentieth century and with our aesthetic values so profoundly changed from those of two hundred years ago, to say how successful Florian was in creating a new type with his synthesised Harlequin; the deliberate and extreme simplicity of the plays makes it hard to give profound observations on them, there being a risk of ill-using what are, in their own terms, perfectly competent examples of a type of drama to which modern critical apparatus is not very well suited. What can be said with some certainty, however, is that these reductively simple plays, and more particularly the conception behind them, exert a definite influence on the creation of a character who now casts as large a shadow on the world of the theatre as Harlequin did in his own age.


  1. Alfred Jarry, Oeuvres Complètes, two out of three volumes published in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972 and 1987, vol. I, p. 661. References to Ubu Roi and Ubu Enchaîné will be given by Act and Scene numbers.

  2. Florian, La Bonne Mère, comédie en un acte, publiée, conforme à la représentation, avec une notice par M. Jules Truffier, Paris: Stock, 1910 (reprinted 1926), p. 5. This rare volume appears to be the most recent printing of this play.

  3. Many early editions of Florian are very similar, and only really differ in physical size and the number of volumes. Typical of these are Paris editions by Dufart (1803 and 1805, in eight volumes, the theatre forming vol. 3) and Briand (1810 and 1820, in twenty-four volumes with theatre featuring in vols. 15, 16, 17 and 23). Rather different is an eight-volume Oeuvres complètes de M. de Florian published by Fleischer of Leipzig in 1796 and held by Keele University Library, and different again (though similar in some ways to Briand) is a three-volume Théâtre de M. de Florian published by an un-named Geneva printer in 1787. The title page of this edition, a copy of which is held by the University College of North Wales Library, will shortly feature in my discussion.

  4. Oeuvres Complètes I, p. 953.

  5. Oeuvres Complètes II, p. 249.

  6. Near-identical credentials can be found in a plate between pages xvi and xvii of Florian, Nouvelles, Paris: Société des Textes Français Modernes, 1974, showing the title page of a 1784 Les Six Nouvelles de M. de Florian.

  7. Charles Chassé, Dans les coulisses de la gloire: d'Ubu-Roi au Douanier Rousseau, Paris: Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue Critique, 1947. Some of the vital material from this credulous and misguided work is reproduced in Henri Béhar's excellent Ubu Roi in the Classiques Larousse series.

  8. Henri Béhar, Jarry Dramaturge, Paris: Nizet, 1980, p. 146.

  9. Oeuvres Complètes I, p. 666.

  10. Oeuvres Complètes I, p. 410.

  11. C. Lenient, La Comédie en France au XVIIIe siècle, 2 vols., Paris: Hachette, 1888, vol. 2, p. 311.

  12. Concerning the play's success, see a letter of February 18th 1779 from Florian to his uncle, in Florian, Lettres au marquis A. de Florian, 1779-1793, Paris: Gallimard, 1957, p. 20.

  13. This text is due to be included in the third and final volume of the Pléiade Oeuvres Complètes, but in the meantime it can be found in Alfred Jarry, Le Manoir enchanté et quatre autres Oeuvres inédites, présentées par Noël Arnaud, Paris: La Table Ronde, 1974, pp. 109-142.

  14. Lafleur, whose fertile tradition is kept alive today by a number of troupes, notably Chès Cabotans d'Amiens, presents an interesting point of comparison with Ubu. They both represent, according to tradition, a progression from a real person to a puppet figure; in the case of Ubu the move is part of a lampoon on a hapless schoolmaster, and Lafleur is thought to have his roots in the popular glorification of an executed eighteenth-century servant, glorified to the point of resurrection.

  15. Other published harlequinades include Le Bon Ménage, Le Bon Père, La Bonne Mère, Les Jumeaux de Bergame, L'Enfant d'Arlequin perdu et retrouvé (which re-introduces Scapin) and Arlequin maître de maison. At least two other harlequinades existed: Arlequin Roi, Dame et Valet, of which more anon; and Arlequin Picard, which also went under the title Arlequin Normand.

  16. Oeuvres Complètes I, p. 182 and p. 497, in different manifestations of the Ubu Cocu material.

  17. Philippe Vauberlin, “Les Livres pairs et la parité”, Cahiers du Collège de 'Pataphysique no. 22/23 (22 Palotin 83 E.P., i.e. 1957), 16-22, pp. 20-2. The Collège's peculiar pataphysical calendar by which their publications were dated is explained in Ruy Launoir's Clefs pour la pataphysique, Paris: Seghers, 1969, pp. 119-127.

  18. Oeuvres Complètes I, p. 581.

  19. Oeuvres Complètes I, p. 403.

  20. Oeuvres Complètes I, p. 1059.

  21. G. Saillard, Florian: sa vie, son oeuvre, Toulouse: Édouard Privat, 1912, p. 16.

J. A. Cutshall (essay date spring 1989)

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SOURCE: Cutshall, J. A. “‘Celui Qui Dreyfuse’: Alfred Jarry and the Dreyfus Case.” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures 43, no. 1 (spring 1989): 20-36.

[In the following essay, Cutshall examines the ways in which Jarry's journalism, plays, and novels commented upon the Dreyfus Affair and the ensuing scandal.]

Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) reached his maturity as a writer during the 1890s, a time of considerable political polarization in France when authors, whether of fiction, journalism, or both, as was the case with Jarry, were accustomed to being embroiled in questions of society and politics. If this was most obviously true of Emile Zola and his imitators, the socially and often socialist-orientated naturalist authors on one hand, and on the other of ultra-rightwingers like Edouard Drumont and Maurice Barrès, then it was in certain respects no less true of the Belle Epoque's more avant-garde writers, although this fact often tends to be rather overlooked.

Perhaps the major problem in assessing the impact on contemporary affairs of the symbolist or decadent1 authors is that the “school” to which they belonged was so diffuse as to be very difficult to characterize. It was indeed a mixture of many, often contradictory ideas and influences. An author like Rémy de Gourmont could, for instance, be at the same time an enthusiast for Nietzschean philosophy and an active participant in the fin-de-siècle vogue for kabbalism.2 Jarry himself apparently saw no paradox in combining Gourmont's “Idealism”3 with an unfeigned passion for technological progress. Ilse Pollack has perhaps come close to identifying the only common feature of the various sorts of symbolisant author when she writes: “The alienation of the writer from society is not just the experience of an individual, but becomes with Symbolism the experience of a whole group.”4

If much Decadent literature concerned the alienation of hypersensitive individuals like Huysmans's Des Esseintes and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Axël, then the alienation of the group was expressed, predictably, in a range of forms of political sympathy from extreme left to extreme right. Authors much derided for their love of “lassitude” were in this respect surprisingly active. To some, particularly Zo d'Axa, Fagus, Mirbeau and Tailhade, a positive response to the anarchist movement seemed logical enough, at least in the context of the early 1890s. To others, a more messianic avenue was appropriate, whether embodied in the Catholic church or in rabid nationalist associations like Action Française and the Ligue des Patriotes.

If anarchism was the burning question of the circles in which Jarry moved5 in the early 1890s, particularly in 1892-94, then from 1894 until its conclusion in 1906 this was replaced by the question of Alfred Dreyfus's guilt or innocence. Jarry was not a notable commentator on the anarchists, although there are a few references to them in some of his earlier works. As a writer, he seizes upon the disparity of spontaneous thought and spontaneous action in a way very similar to that in which Gide later would in Les Caves du Vatican.6 This leads to some very equivocal comments concerning individual anarchists such as this one concerning Auguste Vaillant, guillotined in 1894 for throwing a bomb into the Chambre des Députés and about whom Jarry is clearly uneasy:

L'Anarchie Est; mais l'idée déchoit qui se résout en acte; il faudrait l'Acte imminent, asymptote presque—Vaillant de par son nom prédestiné voulut vivre sa théorie. Au lieu du Monstre inconçevable, fut palpable et audible la chute non fendue d'un des grelots de son joyeux bonnet. Et pourtant il fut grand.7

In this article, I would like to consider how Jarry reacted to the Dreyfus affair and how he became involved in it. Although he was but one of a plethora of writers to comment on “L'Affaire,” and although he became nowhere near as closely involved as Zola or Anatole France, Jarry is a particularly interesting author to assess from this point of view. If interest there is in this subject, then much of it stems from Jarry's very lack of political commitment. For example, in 1897 he was asked to reply to a questionnaire on the Alsace-Lorraine issue for the Mercure de France. About this he could obviously not care less:

III. Etant né en 1873, la guerre de 1870 est dans mon souvenir trois ans au-dessous de l'oubli absolu. Il me paraît vraisemblable que cet événement n'a jamais eu lieu, simple invention pédagogique en vue de favoriser les bataillons scolaires. … Je demande la guerre, la guerre immédiate (je ne suis point soldat).8

It so happens that the two passages I have quoted give a fair impression of the two sides of Jarry's writing. On one hand he is serious to the point of pomposity about questions of literature, and of course the anarchist cause was widely held in Decadent circles to have major affinities with the school's conception of literary creation.9 On the other hand, and this comes out most strongly in Jarry's vast corpus of journalism, events in the real world like the continuing repercussions of France's defeat in 1870 are generally held to have importance only as occasions for sardonic lateral thinking, or “speculation,”10 as Jarry called it. A good example of this is an article from September 1901 that appeared in La Revue Blanche, Jarry's favorite outlet, and was entitled “Psychologie Expérimentale du Gendarme.”11 Here Jarry uses his familiar logic-gone-mad to deduce that, far from being “gardiens de la paix,” the self-interest (“desiderata12) of policemen must entail the promotion of crime if they are not to leave themselves unemployed.

As far as we know13 and as might be expected from this much, in private life Jarry was never associated with social or political causes, certainly not to anything approaching the degree of most of his contemporaries. The only possible exception to this was the fact that he became friendly with Lord Alfred Douglas in 189614 when the latter was contributing articles on the Wilde case to the Revue Blanche, but again, this hardly amounts to political commitment. From what evidence we do have, it appears likely that Jarry spent the larger part of his time writing, drinking, and fishing,15 and in the years after 1898 he tended to pursue these pleasures in the countryside around Paris and in the provinces rather than in the city itself.16

Nor yet did Jarry have any obvious religious (or atheistic) axe to grind. He appears to have been a man essentially without firm beliefs of any kind, though much has been made on occasion of the fact that he agreed to receive the last rites when gravely ill in 1906.17 For him, the business of being an author of avant-garde leanings in the 1890s led not to a religious conversion of the sort undergone by Huysmans, Jammes, or some of his own friends among the Nabis painters, nor to involvement in the anti-clerical debates that were a constant feature of France in the Third Republic and to which Boris Vian, one of Jarry's most fervent admirers, would still be warming over in the 1950s.18 Still less did it lead to Peladan's abstract Rosecrucian mysticism, although there are indeed kabbalistic elements in many of Jarry's earlier works,19 and he undoubtedly shared with the adepts of Rose + Croix an enthusiasm for sacred iconography. This was reflected in the two short-lived art magazines that Jarry founded: L'Ymagier (with Rémy de Gourmont, 1894)20 and Perhindérion (1896).21

All this points to the sort of splendid isolation for which Jarry is renowned even today. He was by no means a social animal, being rarely seen even by his friends (at least when sober).22 When he did appear, it was often to play the clown, and indeed Misia Natanson, daughter of the director of the Revue Blanche23 and then only a child, remembered him in later years as “ce petit clown charmant.”24 Yet by his own standards, the Dreyfus affair retained Jarry's attention more than might be expected, given these comments. Jarry often gives the impression, as in the Alsace-Lorraine questionnaire that current affairs bore him, and we may assume that the Dreyfus case struck him in the same way for the first four years of its progress. When Dreyfus first appears in Jarry's writings, however, some months after the publication of “J'Accuse!,” a train of thought is initiated that will continue to run until Jarry's death. Dreyfus surfaces in both Almanachs du Père Ubu (1899 and 1901), is obliquely referred to in the play Ubu Enchaîné (1899), occupies a good deal of Jarry's journalism between 1900 and 1904, and plays a very important part in his last, unfinished novel, La Dragonne, upon which he was still working at the time of his death in 1907.

Whatever caused Jarry first to enter the fray, it is highly unlikely that it could have been Zola's article. In common with most of his symbolist friends, Jarry nurtured extreme hostility to the naturalists in general and Zola in particular. When asked to comment on Zola's career after the latter's death in 1902, Jarry wrote simply: “il s'est employé à lessiver l'âme populaire et à décorer l'honneur de l'armée.”25 In fact, two things may have fostered Jarry's concern with Dreyfus, though neither quite explains why so much of the first Almanach is devoted to him. The first is obvious, given the circumstances of the case, and easily enough stated. The review of the verdict of Dreyfus's court martial of 1894 took place in August and September 1899 in the hall of the Lycée de Rennes, the verdict being upheld on September 9 and Dreyfus pardoned 10 days later. At this time Jarry was staying with Alfred Vallette, owner of the Mercure de France, and his novelist-wife Rachilde at La Frette, and was busily engaged in writing Ubu Enchaîné. It seems certain, nonetheless, that he followed the events of the retrial, and not just because he had already discussed the Dreyfus case in the Almanach published at the New Year of 1899. Dreyfus was deeply bound up with Rennes (where the court martial had also taken place), of which Jarry had been an inhabitant for several years. More than this, the Lycée de Rennes had been Jarry's school from 1888 until 1890 and was in turn bound up with his literature, because its staff and students had provided the models for many of his characters, including Père Ubu.26 The connection between Rennes, Dreyfus, and Jarry himself is one that obviously struck the author, for it resurfaces in La Dragonne in a way that is, as we shall see, both puzzling and controversial.

The second element that may have attracted Jarry to the Dreyfus case is rather less easily explained. In spite of his almost legendary penchant for firearms27 and other forms of weaponry (the last photograph of Jarry ever taken shows him in a salle d'armes, sabre in hand),28 Jarry was no admirer of the army and things military. This at times violent hostility was nurtured by Jarry until the end of his life, and probably sprang from two sources, neither of them particularly redolent of pacifism. In the first place, Jarry patently detested his own brief and inglorious spell of military service in 1894-95. In 1894 Jarry was starting to become established as both a writer, his first book, Les Minutes de sable mémorial being published in September of that year, and as an habitué of literary salons.29 When news of his impending call-up came he attempted, via the Breton deputy Le Troadec, to ensure that he could at least serve in a Parisian regiment and thus continue with his career relatively unhindered. The Minister of War who turned down the request was a certain General Auguste Mercier, whose name Jarry was not to forget. In November 1894, Jarry was enrolled in the 101st infantry regiment, stationed in his home town30 of Laval, a few miles from Rennes, where Dreyfus was cashiered in December. The 101st infantry regiment formed part of the 4th army corps, whose commanding officer was the future31 Minister of War General Emile Zurlinden. Jarry would not forget him, either.

As might be expected, Jarry was not the model soldier. For one thing, he had to be excused from drill because his legs were too short for him to keep in step with the other troops. One of the officers who befriended him, Gaston Roig, has left this description:

“Habillé et armé”, le crane dûment tondu, large képi rouge, veste trop longue, pantalon désolé, Jarry avait cet air martial et ce “chic” si particulier au soldat français, prince incontesté des élégances.32

Roig's description of Jarry's regime, by contrast, gives us some impression of the highly unmilitary nature of the new recruit's concerns:

il lisait, il buvait, il écrivait. Il écrivait beaucoup. Assez mystérieusement du reste car il fut toujours impossible de lui faire définir avec précision la nature de ces travaux: —Nous-con-si-gnons-des-no-tes, disait-il, sur-un-mé-tier-ce-lui—desol-dat-que-nous-commen-çons-à-bien-con-naître.33

The book in question is without doubt Les Jours et les nuits: roman d'un déserteur (1897), Jarry's first novel. This work, a thinly veiled account of Jarry's own experiences in the army, reflects both the fact that he resented the events of his military service and another, more ethereal reason for his hostility toward the army. The concepts of regimentation and regularity that the military implies obviously inspired horror in an author who was bohemian even by the standards of his time. Again, we return to the dichotomy of one of the most individualistic exponents of the literature of the individual being confronted, with a situation in which the only requirement is conformity. To this Jarry would return again and again in his novels.34

Les Jours et les nuits is therefore half way between autobiography and a more generalized accusation in the mold of Gourmont's Le Joujou patriotisme. Jarry declines to spare the stupidity of the recruits themselves, their foul-mouthed sergeants, their incompetent, usually sadistic officers, or indeed the military doctors, for whom he reserves a special dislike, given that their ministrations seem to prove fatal more often than not.35 Pitted against these is Sengle, a figure who largely, though not unreservedly, stands for Jarry himself. It is no accident that when Sengle looks in a mirror, he “y relut l'histoire de Sisyphe.”36 Sisyphus here is a lone man pitted against the overwhelming “Eternel des Armées,” who nevertheless overcomes such unlikely odds by succeeding eventually in pushing his boulder to the top of the mountain thanks to the muscular development induced by the exercise.37

Jarry is known to have claimed after his discharge in December 1895 that he had been spared the remainder of his service because of his “imbécilité précoce.”38 In fact, like Sengle, he found the army so unbearable that he almost killed himself with a dose of poison in order to obtain a discharge, finally accorded on the grounds of “lithiase bilaire chronique.”39 Maurice Marc LaBelle has suggested40 that the Dreyfus affair provided, along with the Oscar Wilde case,41 the inspiration for Les Jours et les nuits. In fact, Jarry had at this time no need of such inspiration, having a quite sufficient motive of his own to ridicule the army.

Two years after the publication of Les Jours et les nuits, Jarry would return once more to the topic of conformity in his play Ubu enchaîné, and this time he may well have Dreyfus at the back of his mind when Père Ubu meets Corporal Pissedoux and his squad of “Hommes Libres” exercising on the Champ-de-Mars:

Portez … arme! (Le Père Ubu obéit avec son balai)
Vive l'armerdre!
Arrêtez, arrêtez! ou plutôt, non! Désobéissants, ne vous arrêtez pas! (Les Hommes Libres s'arrêtent, le Père Ubu se détache) Quelle est cette nouvelle recrue, plus libre que vous tous, qui a inventé un maniement d'arme que je n'ai jamais vu, depuis sept ans que je commande: Portez … arme!
Nous avons obéi, Monsieur, pour remplir nos devoirs d'esclave.(42)

Ubu addresses Pissedoux as “Monsieur,” which is exactly how Jarry himself is supposed to have addressed his superiors while in the army.43

The joke here is obviously at the expense of the military and the conformity it demands, but no less is it a critique of the society of which the army is nothing more than an emanation, a point which would be taken up in 1901 in his sixth novel, Le Surmâle.44 The squad of “Hommes Libres” see themselves as the incarnation of antimilitaristic refusal to conform, since they will not obey any order. Pissedoux, however, can easily make them do what he wishes by ordering the opposite of what is required. In the comic-book France of Ubu enchaîné, peopled by individuals trying to disguise their obscene-sounding names by adopting grandiose titles (Pissedoux calls himself “Marquis de Granpré”) and by parodic Englishmen (Lord Catoblépas and his servant Jack, distant cousins of Daninos's Major Thompson), the only truly free man is Père Ubu, who chooses whether to obey or disobey as it suits him. Paradoxically, he expresses his freedom by becoming a slave in a country where everyone wishes to be a master. Unlike Ubu roi (1896), which is set “en Pologne, c'est-à-dire Nulle Part,”45Ubu enchaîné is specifically set in France and indeed the whole play sets out to undermine “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” as concepts. As words, Ubu deals with them in a single speech:

Puisque nous sommes dans le pays où la liberté est égale à la fraternité, laquelle n'est comparable qu'à l'égalité de la légalité, et que je ne suis pas capable de faire comme tout le monde et que cela m'est égal d'être égal à tout le monde puisque c'est encore moi qui finirai par tuer tout le monde, je vais me mettre esclave, Mère Ubu!46

Whatever the more general implications of Ubu enchaîné, it is yet another mark of Jarry's dislike of the military, here expressed in a form as comic as Les Jours et les nuits is tragic. A humorous perspective on the army also permeates Jarry's whole career as a journalist. His articles on the subject include “Protégeons l'armée” (1901), “Le rire dans l'armée” (1901), and “Lyrisme militaire” (1905).

Jarry's interest in Dreyfus, in the light of this much, probably stems from a certain geographical interest combined with a personal grudge against the military rather than from any discernible political views; and Jarry's first reference to him, as I have said, comes in the Almanach du Père Ubu of 1899. Why Jarry should have composed this work is not immediately clear, but it probably arose partly as a much-needed, moneymaking exercise, and partly as a nod in the direction of Rabelais, Jarry's greatest literary influence and author of the Prognostication pantagrueline of 1533. In part, Jarry's work is an almanach like Rabelais's, full of absurd predictions, lists of saints' days, and so forth. In part, it is made up of stock jokes at the expense of institutions, as when Père Ubu speaks, in a French equivalent of describing the House of Commons as a political asylum, of “Cette borne … une de nos oeuvres politiques charitables, l'asile de vieillards que nous avons fondé et que notre peuple appelle le Sénat.”47

A much more important and original part of the Almanach is, however, devoted to the Dreyfus case, and it appears from the outset that Jarry is, as might be expected given his antipathy towards the army, firmly on the side of the dreyfusards. Under the heading, “Ephémerides actuelles,” is a playlet entitled L'Ile du Diable: Pièce Secrète en 3 ans et plusieurs Tableaux. This is a loose adaptation of the part of Ubu Roi concerning the arrest and imprisonment of Captain Bordure by Père Ubu. In the original play, Ubu's motive is sheer greed. Here, however, Bordure, obviously now representing Dreyfus, is punished by Ubu for spying, when the real culprit, as Ubu well knows, is his own son Malsain Athalie-Afrique(!). When Ubu's conscience upbraids him for the injustice, the “picquartements (i.e. Colonel Picquart) de vos reproches acérés”48 earn only one of Ubu's favourite threats (“je vais vous marcher sur les pieds”).49 Instead, Ubu prefers to put his trust in “notre tout jeune fils Freycinet,”50 and in his wife, “Madame France” (a twofold joke, since Mère Ubu was played in the original production of Ubu Roi by the actress Louise France). So Bordure is forced to suffer “la grande décollation par sur le Billot, renouvelée de Saint Jean-Baptiste.”51 General Billot's name was of course Jean-Baptiste.

The play ends with an enumeration of the members of Ubu's retinue and their enemies:

Soldats, sabre au clair! Chefs des choeurs, Humbert, Meyer, Bec, Méline, Zurlinden, Mercier, Drumont, Pellieux, Gonse, Judet, Xau, Barrès, Gyp, et vous, guerrier chef de notre musique, battez tous la mesure avec vos sabres dans le peuple et spécialement sur les têtes de MM. Clemenceau, Gohier, Quillard, Pressensé, Rochevoort, Anatole France, que l'on entonne bien la chanson du Dércervelage.52

The first list of course is composed of celebrated anti-dreyfusards, including, as promised, Mercier and Zurlinden, not to mention once more the unfortunate Billot. To these three soldiers are added General Gabriel de Pellieux, who botched the investigation of the German spy Count Esterhazy, and General Gonse of the Service des Renseignements, Pellieux's superior and one of Dreyfus's main persecutors. Predictably, since Jarry was a writer, the other “soldats” are all journalists, except for the politician Jules Méline.53 Arthur Meyer, in spite of being Jewish himself, wrote for the monarchist paper Le Gaulois. Edouard Drumont, author of La France juive, had founded with Gyp (pseudonym of Comtesse Martel de Janville) the violently antisemitic paper La Libre parole (motto: “La France aux Français”)54 in 1892, and had been the first to announce the news of Dreyfus's arrest. Maurice Barrès was a member of the Ligue des Patriotes and was to be involved in an attempted coup d'état a few weeks after the Almanach was published. Fernand Xau, one-time impressario for Buffalo Bill,55 and now very far to the right, had in fact been a journalist on L'Echo de Paris, leaving only shortly before the paper contained Jarry's first published work. Ernest Judet was an equally right-wing journalist on Le Petit Journal.

Among the dreyfusards are a pair of people Jarry knew, and one of his closest friends. Clemenceau, the miserable Gohier,56 and Francis de Hault de Pressensé were at this time writing for L'Aurore, and it is doubtful whether Jarry had met any of them. Anatole France, however, was certainly one of Jarry's acquaintances, while Pierre Quillard was a co-contributor to the Revue Blanche, and at the time the Almanach was written, Quillard was one of Jarry's partners in a villa at Corbeil known as the “Phalanstère.”57 Quillard, moreover, had already been mentioned in the Almanach in terms of an anecdote concerning the “Phalanstère” and beginning “M. Pierre Quillard est l'un de nos plus grands poètes.”58 It is even possible, perhaps even likely, that one of the factors that contributed to Jarry's adoption of the Dreyfus case before the events at the Lycée de Rennes was Quillard's frequent—and his own virtually constant59—presence at the “Phalanstère” during the summer of 1898.

Nor yet has Jarry finished with Dreyfus in his Almanach, for in La Fête automobile, in which Père Ubu tours Paris, we find once more “Déroulède (another member of the Ligue des Patriotes), Pellieux, Gonse, Billot, Drumont, Marioni, Xau et autres soldats militaires.”60 Gohier, however, since his first name is Urbain, “un nom de pape ou de templier, cet homme, de par ses ancêtres, mérite le bûcher,”61 and Anatole France, the son, we discover, of Madame France, “fait des choses merveilleuses et dreyfuse dans un journal anti-dreyfusard.”62 Finally, among a crowd of people looking at Rodin's statue of Balzac (the main feature of which, it will be remembered, is a huge, erect phallus) are “Meyer, celui qui capitaine … Gyp, celle qui mira Bob … Drumont, celui qui ne parle pas librement (i.e. “Mirabeau” and “La Libre Parole”).”63

Literature like this is, of course, all good clean fun, as indeed is the second Almanach which, although it contains another reference to Mercier,64 concentrates for the most part on mocking French colonial ambitions in the wake of the Fashoda incident.65 Most of Jarry's remaining comments on Dreyfus come from his journalism, and these include perhaps the only entirely straight-faced remark that he ever made on the affair. This occurs in a review that Jarry wrote for the Revue Blanche in September 1901. The book under discussion is Georges Duruy's Pour la Justice et pour l'Armée:

Avec combien de faussaires l'armée reste-t-elle intègre? Quant à Dreyfus, on sait bien qu'il est innocent, c'est même notre opinion personnelle: nous allons jusqu'à penser qu'il est le type du soldat et du bon officier subalterne, tout discipline et loyauté. La trahison implique un esprit délié, c'est travail de bureau et de grade supérieur.66

When Jarry returned to the affair again in 1903, his tone, though once more comic, was just as unequivocal in its support of Dreyfus as it had been two years previously. In “L'Affaire est l'Affaire” he writes, “Les balances de la Justice trébuchent; et pourtant l'on dit: Raide comme la Justice. La Justice serait-elle ivre?”.67 I will return to this article in due course, for it contains two enlightening comments on the work later done on La Dragonne, but it is worth mentioning now that Jarry had not quite yet done with General de Pellieux:

M. de Pellieux, un seul mot l'innocente: Paris, 11 fevrier 1899.

“Ma chère mère” …

Il l'aimait tant!68

It seems that after this Jarry thought that the Dreyfus case was all over bar the shouting, for his final journalistic comment on it begins: “Il y a eu l'affaire Dreyfus.”69 This article, “L'Affaire” (August 1903), is not solely devoted to Dreyfus but seeks instead to take a wider view of public scandals, including the Humbert-Crawford affair, on which Jarry had already written. For a man who made his meager living from journalism,70 Jarry is here scathing about his trade. He opines that scandals are created, as is indeed often said nowadays, in order to sell newspapers and make money for lawyers, and cynically looks at how they progress:

L'affaire “jugée” bonne, on la “lance”. Laissez courir, prononcent les spécialistes du bateau. Cela signifie qu'il va sans dire que les malfaiteurs ne seront pas arrêtés. Les juges “chats-fourrés”71 jouent avec eux comme le chat avec la souris. Mais le chat joue-t-il avec la souris? Pas du tout. Il gagne son dîner.72

Not surprisingly, after this, and after his problems in being published caused by the closure of the Revue Blanche at the end of 1903, Jarry, it definitively appears, lets the affair drop. Indeed, until 1906 he was to be almost solely involved with the attempt to complete a libretto for an opéra-bouffe based on Pantagruel by his friend, the composer Claude Terrasse.

I have already said, however, that Jarry did have one more intervention to make on Dreyfus's account, and this one is much more difficult to interpret than are those he had made earlier. Michel Arrivé has written:

Pendant une bonne partie de l'époque 1900 … Jarry fixa, avec un incontestable brio, l'un des aspects de l'extrême-gauche littéraire. … Mais dès 1903 on le voit amorçer, avec toute l'équipe du Mercure de France (à la réserve, toutefois, de Léautaud) un singulier virage vers l'extrême-droite nationaliste; antisémite et antidreyfusarde … Quant aux opinions politiques dont il lui arrive de s'amuser, de l'anarchisme—si anarchisant qu'il se détruit lui-même—d'Ubu Enchaîné à l'antisémitisme de La Dragonne, ce sont précisément celles du milieu petit-bourgeois d'où il est issu.73

In fact, this view is in most respects shared by the majority of Jarry's critics,74 although it is based on several pieces of rather flimsy evidence. The first, and perhaps the most damaging, is paradoxically the easiest upon which to cast doubt.

Toward the end of his life, Jarry is supposed to have remarked that he intended to spend the rest of his days producing reactionary pamphlets.75 The fact that he never did produce a political pamphlet of any description has tended to be overshadowed by the dramatic nature of the comment. We might first ask ourselves, in order to judge how much weight to give to this piece of information, whether Jarry was speaking in earnest or in jest, and indeed whether he made the remark at all. Of these, the first possibility is the least likely, given that Jarry never actually wrote a reactionary pamphlet and is only reported to have manifested the intention of doing so to one person. This was Henri de Bruchard, a journalist whom Jarry had known for some time but who had only comparatively recently become involved with the more reactionary activities of Action Française.76 The most probable—with Jarry it is always more advisable to speak of probability than certainty—explanation of the reported conversation between de Bruchard and Jarry is that the latter was playing some sort of joke on the former. It would not be the first time that Jarry had done something similar.77 It is equally possible, though again unwise to state categorically, that the conversation never took place at all, since a large proportion of especially the more polemical anecdotes concerning Jarry that have been bequeathed to posterity are demonstrable inventions, and de Bruchard was certainly capable of joining the already distinguished list of their inventors.78 Whatever the case, it is impossible to accept de Bruchard's claim uncritically.

The question of whether Jarry followed his friends at the Mercure de France in a drift toward the extreme right after 1903 is again difficult to answer unreservedly. The Mercure had always been, and would remain until its disappearance in the mid-1960s, essentially a literary magazine, whereas the Revue Blanche tended to take a more active line, especially in its support of Dreyfus. The Mercure's direction, furthermore, had always been relatively conservative, at least by comparison with the latitude that the Natanson brothers allowed their authors in general and Jarry in particular. This Jarry had discovered to his cost, first in 1897, when Vallette refused to publish another of his novels,79 and second in 1898-99 when Vallette virtually forced him to resign from the “Phalanstère.”80 Although the Mercure did organize a subscription to pay for Jarry's funeral, in his last years Jarry's contacts with it seem to have been more social than professional. Even assuming that the Mercure's contributors gravitated to the right en masse in the way Arrivé suggests—which is in itself highly dubious—it is extremely doubtful whether Jarry followed them as a matter of course. By the end of his life Jarry had indeed moved far from the Mercure, turning instead, in most instances, to Eugene Fasquelle81 for the publication of his longer works, and for his shorter ones to Le Canard Sauvage, Apollinaire's Festin d'Esope, Marinetti's Poesia and even the Czech Moderni Revue.82

If Jarry did undergo a change of heart over Dreyfus then it must have happened during the last couple of years of his life, when in fact he was extremely ill for virtually the whole time. Although it is true that “Au terme d'un processus différent [than the development of Barres's thought], un antidreyfusisme de gauche se constitua vers 1906 chez des hommes qui avaient pris parti pour Dreyfus en 1898-1900,”83 it is doubtful whether, given his rather bored reaction in 1903 and the fact that he was, as I say, desperately ill, the anachronism of Dreyfus being awarded the Légion d'Honneur in 1906 would have particularly excited his interest. There is only one piece of documentary evidence that might suggest that it did, and it is this which, finally, we will examine.

La Dragonne, Jarry's seventh and final novel, is in all possible respects a difficult work. Not only is it unfinished, but parts of the manuscript (in Jarry's own hand) are illegible,84 whereas others in the hand of his sister, Charlotte, to whom he dictated when too ill to write, are of uncertain accuracy. Because of this, the work has appeared in a variety of different forms, beginning with a version prepared by Jarry's friend Dr. Jean Saltas in 1943.85

It is important to stress that, until La Dragonne, there is no evidence to suggest not only that Jarry was anti-Dreyfus, but that he was in any way antisemitic. On the contrary, his most famous work, Ubu Roi, is dedicated to a Jew (Marcel Schwob), and after 1903 he associated socially and professionally with Mécislas Golberg as well as the other members of the Festin d'Esope group. Of course, Urbain Gohier used much the same argument to justify his own antisemitism at this time,86 but it does mean that we can consider La Dragonne on its own merits rather than on suppositions about Jarry's previous views.

Keith Beaumont has called La Dragonne “a return to the past,”87 for Jarry takes as his setting his native Brittany. He moreover creates another semi-autobiographical hero in Erbrand Saqueville, who bears the name of one of his own ancestors.88 Saqueville, like all the heroes of Jarry's novels, is disappointed in love, the object of his affections being seduced by a Jewish army officer named, with Jarry's usual sense of irony, Durand de Saint-Crucifix. This character's brother, an army chaplain of all things, bears the unlikely name “de Rayphusce.” These are of course Alfred Dreyfus and his brother Mathieu, for in “L'Affaire est l'Affaire” we find in the latter case “Il y a Mathieu de Reyfus comme il y a Mathieu de Noailles,”89 and in the former:

Et Dreyfus, d'actualité en ces temps de Passion? L' “autre” supplicié, homme modeste, on le força de porter sa croix. La mode a changé: celui-ci on l'a dégradé, ce qui est une façon de l'empêcher de porter la sienne. Un clou—de crucifix—chasse l'autre. Mais on n'a point fait Dreyfus député, estimant que cela gênerait les autres députés pour parler de l'Affaire. Et il est bon que les absents aient toujours tort.90

Why Jarry should have drawn a parallel between Mathieu Dreyfus and Princess Mathieu de Noailles, a contemporary neoclassical poetess, is puzzling to say the least. The name “Saint-Crucifix,” however, is at least explained by the analogy he makes between Dreyfus and Christ (“Croix” is one of Jarry's favorite words around which to construct puns).91

The appearance of the Dreyfus case in a book devoted to Jarry's own past in Rennes should cause no particular raised eyebrows. The controversial section of La Dragonne is, however, that which deals with a “Porc-grome.” As might easily be gathered, this takes the form of an extended pun upon the word “Pogrom,” very current in the early part of this century due to the repression of Jews in Eastern Europe. The “Porc-grome” in question consists of Durand de Saint-Crucifix and his family being eaten alive by a marauding herd of wild pigs while on a stroll. If to some this might appear to be rabidly antisemitic, then to others it will have instead the appearances of a rather bad (this time, kosher) joke, in much the same mold as Père Ubu suggesting that the ubiquitous Urbain Gohier should be burned at the stake. This is all the more so if we remember that one of Jarry's original alternatives for Saint-Crucifix's name was “Schweinfuss.”92 Most observers have seized upon the pejorative implications of “Schwein” and missed the comic overtones of “Schweinfuss” meaning “pig's trotter.”

By the time all this was written, at least in Jarry's eyes, the Dreyfus affair was long since over and done with, and thus fair game for use in a comic context not as overtly dreyfusard as that of the Almanachs. Neither is the mere fact of a character representing Dreyfus being pitted against one representing Jarry particularly significant. In Le Surmâle, a figure even more closely drawn from Thomas Edison (via Villiers de l'Isle-Adam)93 causes the death of another semi-autobiographical hero, André Marcueil. Against Edison, Jarry can have borne no conceivable grudge.

What, then, can we make of Jarry's periodic interventions in the most celebrated public scandal of his day? Well, on the basis of the weight of evidence, it is perhaps likely that Jarry was indeed sympathetic to Dreyfus without wishing to become too closely involved, at least no more closely involved than was necessary to facilitate the occasional jibe at the army. This is clearly shown by the predominantly humorous or sardonic tone he adopts when speaking of the affair. Up until La Dragonne at least, Noël Arnaud's estimation of Jarry's role in the Dreyfus proceedings is difficult to argue with:

Jarry finira par regarder les chevaux de bois, et se laissera tenter par quelques tours de manège. Mais il s'y livrera en des postures si inconvenantes que les deux camps préféreront tenir à l'écart cet “incorrigible gamin”94

Jarry's last journalism on Dreyfus seems to testify to the joke having worn a little thin. When he does eventually take Dreyfus up again in La Dragonne, there is really no affair left to become involved in. Reasons of locale, Breton color apart, the inclusion of the “Porc-grome” may have been a shrewd move on Jarry's part. It will be remembered that at the end of his life he was sick and, more to the point, seven thousand francs in debt, having even been forced to pawn his beloved revolver.95 The “Porc-grome” is not unequivocally antisemitic, and so would not have alienated either his younger friends or his older ones from the Revue Blanche days. Dreyfus being eaten by wild pigs may, however, have been judged by Jarry sufficiently in tune with the prevailing current of opinion as to make the book sell at a time when the success of La Dragonne seemed his only hope of material salvation.

Jarry's comments on Dreyfus, while not being of the magnitude of Zola's on one side or of Barrès's on the other, make instructive reading for the historian for the simple reason that they are not wholeheartedly committed to anything except hostility to the army. Jarry is a sort of intelligent barometer of the opinion of those on the sidelines. He enters the affair with quite a bang in 1899 and gradually his interest wanes as it drags on and on. In spite of this, both in reaction and absence of reaction, Jarry's idiosyncratic slant on Dreyfus gives some idea of just what an underrated witness of contemporary events this “incorrigible gamin” of French literature was.


  1. E.g. by Arthur Symons, “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” Dramatis Personae (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1925), 96.

  2. See Michel Décaudin, La Crise des valeurs symbolistes: 20 Ans de poésie française (Paris: Privat, 1960) 46-48 (‘Un Paganisme nietzschéen?’).

  3. Hence Jarry's enthusiasm for science-fiction as a genre.

  4. Pataphysik, Symbolismus und Anarchismus bei Jarry (Vienna: Böhlau, 1984). (“Junge Wiener Romanistik No. 6”) 72 (my translation).

  5. Generally speaking, those connected with the more Symbolist-orientated reviews, such as the Revue Blanche and the Mercure de France.

  6. E.g. in Lafcadio's questioning of whether the murder he committed was really an “acte gratuit.”

  7. “Etre et Vivre,” OCBP, 343. References to Oeuvres Complètes d'Alfred Jarry, I. (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972), ed. Michel Arrivé are abbreviated as OCBP.

  8. “Réponse à l'enquête: L'Alsace-Lorraine et l'etat actuel des esprits,” OCBP, 1030.

  9. See Julia Kristeva, La Révolution du langage poétique (Paris: Seuil, 1974) 433-35.

  10. The “Spéculations” are a series of 54 articles written by Jarry for the Revue Blanche during 1901.

  11. One of the “Spéculations.” 1st September 1901.

  12. CV, 113. The abbreviation CV refers to La Chandelle Verte (Paris: Livre de Poche, ed. Maurice Saillet, 1969).

  13. There is surprisingly little surviving documentary evidence concerning Jarry's everyday life, particularly in the form of correspondence (e.g. no letters to or from his family have yet come to light).

  14. In Acrobaties (Paris: Gallimard, 1931) the director of the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, Aurélien Lugné-Poe, claimed that Douglas had accompanied Jarry to some of the rehearsals of Ubu Roi in 1896.

  15. At least according to Rachilde, whose Alfred Jarry ou le surmâle des lettres (Paris: Grasset, 1928) is largely devoted to anecdotes concerning these three pursuits.

  16. See Henri Bordillon, Gestes et opinions d'Alfred Jarry, ecrivain (Laval: Editions Siloé, 1986) for a more precise breakdown of Jarry's movement between these dates.

  17. This was in fact probably done in order to placate his sister Caroline (“Charlotte”) with whom he was staying at the time in Laval.

  18. E.g., in his play Le Dernier des métiers.

  19. Especially Les Minutes de sable mémorial (1894) and César-antéchrist (1895).

  20. The association was short lived as the two men fell out over the attempts made by Gourmont's mistress, Berthe de Courrière, to seduce Jarry. See Henri Bordillon, “Gourmont et Jarry,” La Quinzaine Litteraire 374 (1982): 12-13.

  21. Perhindérion (meaning “pilgrimage” in Breton) ran for only two issues owing to a shortage of money on Jarry's part.

  22. Immortalized by Jarry's famous appearance in Gide's Les Faux-Monnayeurs. See also “Le Tir dans Paris,” C.V., 164-67.

  23. Thadée Natanson.

  24. Jarry seems to have struck most children in this way. See both Misia Sert's (née Natanson) autobiography Misia (Paris: Gallimard, 1953) and a letter from Gabrielle Vallette to Jarry quoted in 16, 125.

  25. “Réponse à l'enquête sur Emile Zola,” C.V., 631.

  26. Originally a caricature of Jarry's physics teacher, Félix Hébert.

  27. See note 22.

  28. Jarry had this photograph taken in order to convince his friends in Paris that he was not as ill as was actually the case.

  29. Especially that of Stéphane Mallarmé. Jarry was also a permanent fixture at Rachilde's ‘Mardis’ at the Mercure de France.

  30. See OCBP, xxxiii.

  31. I.e. in 1898.

  32. “Mon Ami Alfred Jarry (Souvenirs),” Mercure de France (300.1/7(1947):496.

  33. Ibid. 497-498.

  34. Especially in Messaline (1900) and Le Surmâle.

  35. The death through negligence of Philippe in this work (OCBP, 812) mirrors that of Max Lebaudy during Jarry's own military service.

  36. OCBP, 816.

  37. I.e. “la force de mes muscles croissait par l'entraînement et la boule n'était pas plus lourde” (OCBP, 819).

  38. Rachilde, for one, seems to have actually believed this.

  39. OCBP, xxxiv.

  40. Alfred Jarry: Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd (New York: New York University Press, 1980) 116.

  41. The concept of “Adelphisme” outlined by Jarry in Les Jours et les nuits is certainly inspired by Wilde's defence (i.e. that his relationship with Douglas was Platonic).

  42. OCBP, 432.

  43. See “Géroy,” op. cit.

  44. Marcueil is destroyed by the “Machine-à-inspirer-l'amour” because he is not able to fall in love like anyone else.

  45. OCBP, 401.

  46. Ibid. 430.

  47. Ibid. 554.

  48. Ibid. 548-49.

  49. Which he also uses to threaten Mère Ubu in Ubu Roi.

  50. OCBP, 550.

  51. Ibid. 548.

  52. Ibid. 551.

  53. President of the Conseil des Ministres in 1896.

  54. See Raymond Manévy, La Presse de la IIIe République (Paris: J. Foret, 1955) 93.

  55. Xau's remarkable career has been outlined succinctly in C. Bellanger, J. Godechot, P. Guiral and F. Terrou, Histoire générale de la presse française, 3 (Paris: P.U.F., 1972).

  56. In less than a decade, Gohier defected from right to left and back again. At this time he was with Clemenceau at L'Aurore.

  57. Other partners included Vallette and Rachilde.

  58. OCBP, 540.

  59. Jarry's use of the “Phalanstère” in this way probably contributed largely to the quarrel with Vallette that led to the liquidation of the partnership in early 1899.

  60. OCBP, 555.

  61. Ibid.

  62. Ibid. 557.

  63. Ibid. 560-62.

  64. A “sculpteur sur consciences,” OCBP, 597.

  65. In the sketch “Ubu Colonial” and in his relation of the exploits of the “Boergres” in South Africa. This, like the Dreyfus case, was carried over into Jarry's journalism.

  66. CV, 603.

  67. Ibid. 363.

  68. Ibid. 367.

  69. Ibid. 437.

  70. His fictional output invariably failing to sell during his lifetime, and occasionally having to be printed at his own expense.

  71. Yet another of Jarry's borrowings from Rabelais (here the Cinquième livre), the reference being to Grippeminaud's retinue of “chatsfourrés.”

  72. CV, 438-39.

  73. Lire Jarry (Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1976) 16-17.

  74. This is no doubt partly due to the fact that evidence, especially in the form of Jarry's literary output, becomes quite sparse toward the end of his life.

  75. See Keith Beaumont, Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1985) 340 (note 50).

  76. It is fair to say that Action Française, though founded in 1899, only gravitated to the outer fringes of right-wing politics after Jarry's death, though before de Bruchard made his claim in 1912. Before its disappearance in 1944, the organization had even managed to be excommunicated.

  77. See Rachilde (op. cit.). On Jarry's mockery of Berthe de Courrière see Paul Valéry, “Souvenir d'Alfred Vallette,” Le Mercure de France 264.1/12(1935):343. For his treatment of Christian Beck see (among others) Georges Rémond, “Souvenirs sur Jarry et autres” (part II), Le Mercure de France, 323.1/3(1955):659-60.

  78. A list that includes André Breton, and probably Apollinaire as well.

  79. The novel in question, L'Amour en visites, both made damaging allegations about Berthe de Courrière and looked like being at least as big a commercial failure as Les Jours et les nuits already had been.

  80. The ostensible motive for this was the fact that Jarry had been forced to break into the building. See the letter from Jarry to Vallette, “je démissionne du Phalanstère,” OCBP, 1071-72.

  81. Fasquelle had taken over the Editions de la Revue Blanche and therefore the rights to several of Jarry's earlier works as well.

  82. See Albert Marencin, “Jarry et la Tchécoslovaquie,” Europe (Jarry issue, March-April 1981): esp. 213.

  83. “Résumé” (no author), Les Ecrivains et L'Affaire Dreyfus ed. Géraldi Leroy (Paris: P.U.F., 1983) 297.

  84. See, for example, the plates of “Le Mousse de la Pirrouït” reproduced in François Caradec, A la Recherche d'Alfred Jarry (Paris: Seghers, 1974), n.p.

  85. Paris: Gallimard/N.R.F.

  86. That is, that he could hardly be accused of antisemitism after having written a work like L'Armée contre la nation, published by the Revue Blanche in 1898.

  87. Beaumont, op. cit., 262.

  88. Who invaded England with William the Conqueror.

  89. CV, 364.

  90. Ibid.

  91. See in particular his article “La Passion considérée comme Course de Côte.”

  92. See Beaumont, op. cit., 273.

  93. Villiers' L'Eve Future is one of the main sources for Le Surmâle.

  94. Alfred Jarry: D'Ubu Roi au Docteur Faustroll (Paris: La Table Ronde, 1974) 205.

  95. For a precise idea of the extent of Jarry's penury at his death, see the letter from Vallette to Charlotte Jarry quoted in Bordillon op. cit. (16.) 200-4.

Laurie Vickroy (essay date spring 1990)

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SOURCE: Vickroy, Laurie. “Ubu-en-procès: Jarry, Kristeva, and Semiotic Motility.” Modern Language Studies 20, no. 2 (spring 1990): 10-18.

[In the following essay, Vickroy demonstrates that Julia Kristeva's theory of “semiotic motility”—which does not presuppose that meaning preceding language—provides a useful methodology for reading Jarry's Ubu Roi, which creates neologisms with the effect of undercutting preconceptions about meaning and symbol.]

Père Ubu is, without a doubt, semiotic motility personified. Like Alfred Jarry, whose strange behavior has by now been well-documented, Ubu exemplifies Julia Kristeva's vision of the “semiotized body as place of permanent scission.”1 Her theory of the subject, with its emphasis on the sujet-en-procès (in process/on trial) and the continuing interplay between what she calls the semiotic and the symbolic, has already been applied to certain texts of avant-garde writers (i.e. Mallarmé, Joyce, Lautréamont), but nowhere have the conflicting forces manifested themselves more dramatically and more playfully than in Jarry's theater. Ubu emerges as a teeming mass of drives whose very language reveals his obsessions with eating, eliminating, and accumulating, and yet his instinctual energies constantly meet with the resistance of various forms and constraints—meaning, syntax, the demands of order, and even the structure of tragedy that Jarry parodies.


In her Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva uses psychoanalytic theories of dream interpretation and psychosexual and linguistic development to posit a “theory of signification based on the subject, his/her formation, and his/her corporeal, linguistic and social dialectic” (15). Since the writing subject is a complex heterogeneous force, Kristeva proposes studying a text (or subject) the way Freud studied dream narratives. Psychoanalysis focuses on the “symptomatic places in the dream-text”—distortions, ambiguities, absences and elisions which can give access to the “latent content” or unconscious drives; similarly, literary criticism can observe evasions, ambivalences and points of intensity in a text.2

In the first chapter of Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva introduces two inseparable modalities which pertain to externality (signifiance) or “meaning” in language: the semiotic and the symbolic. The first designates primary processes and drives in the unconscious which motivate the relation between signifier and signified (a relation expressed in displacement and condensation) and account for empty signifiers (such as obscenities—see merdre, below) which, according to Kristeva, are connected to psychosomatic functioning. The second modality designates social or structural constraints such as semantics and logic.

Kristeva's discussion of the chora is particularly useful for understanding of how these two modalities contribute to the processes of signification. She calls the chora a process of negativity, where the subject is generated and negated through the dialectics of change and stasis. Analogous to vocal and kinetic rhythm, the chora precedes and underlies “figuration and specularization” and can be understood as a totality of drives and stases simultaneously full of movement but also regulated by the semiotic (unconscious) as well as the symbolic (social effects). Natural and socio-historical constraints are imprinted on the chora through the mediation of an ordering or a preverbal functional state. According to Kristeva, this mediation is distinguished from “symbolic operations that depend on language as a sign system” but is associated with semiotic functioning that “precedes the establishment of the sign … it's not cognitive in the sense of being assumed by a knowing, already constituted subject” (27). Only by revealing the pre-symbolic functions within the subject can these semiotic functions be elucidated.

The drives which involve “pre-Oedipal (pre-sexual) identity, semiotic functions and energy discharges that connect and orient the (subject's) body to the mother” precede and work against symbolic operations (27). Because drives are assimilating and destructive at the same time, the semiotized body lives in a permanent state of scission. The negativity process of the chora (drive charges working against stases, social constraints, and the symbolic) is itself marked by discontinuities which are “material supports” such as the voice, gesture, or colors susceptible to semiotization. Kristeva believes that criticism should make the connections between these discontinuities which are “based on drives and articulated according to their resemblance or opposition, either by slippage or condensation” (28). Therefore, as in dream interpretation, displacement and condensation appear vital to the organization of the semiotic, similarly metaphor and metonymy cannot be separated from the drive economy informing them in the process of signification.

The Kristevan semiotic does not presuppose a meaning preceding language, nor does it presume (like Descartes) that thought is preconditioned by factual data, but is pre-cognitive. Kristeva views the subject as a dialectical process of structured language and heterogeneous drives which already exist before articulation, so that articulations have the dialectic working in them, too. Unlike the traditional study of language which has presupposed the conscious deliberation of the judging subject and has examined the syntheses of signification while neglecting how signification comes about or how meaning is corrupted, Kristeva insists that the subject is always “in process” or “always becoming.”

The signifying process, as Kristeva suggests, involves a balanced intertwining of the semiotic and symbolic functions (indeed, without such balance the artistic text, like any signification, risks becoming neurotic “nonsense”). Kristeva proposes that by investigating the field of the semiotic we can discover the process of the signifier: “The semiotic is articulated by flows and marks: … energy transfers, the cutting up of the corporeal and social continuum, as well as that of signifying material, the establishment of a distinctiveness and its ordering in a pulsating chora, in a rhythmic but nonexpressive [nonintentional] totality” (40). The relationship of the semiotic, the symbolic, and signification is that of a “differentiated unity (of separate but inseparable elements) which is ultimately that of the process of the subject (41; emphasis mine).”

Kristeva borrows Lacanian theory in Revolution in Poetic Language to explain the connection between the subject-in-process and the signifying process. As a psychoanalyst, Lacan relies on Freud's theories of psychosexual development, but also posits a theory of signification within this development. Kristeva inserts her idea of the thetic phase of the signifying process (a break in that process which produces the positing of signification) at two points within the Freudian/Lacanian model: at the mirror stage and in the discovery of sexual difference (castration). As Lacan describes it, in the mirror stage the child remains separated from the unified mirror image of itself because s/he is agitated by the drives which fragment rather than unify the child. According to Lacan, human physiological immaturity (we are still helpless and unformed at birth) is what permits the permanent positing of a separate and heterogeneous image. For Lacan, the mirror image functions as a prototype for the world of objects: “… positing the imaged ego leads to the positing of the object, which is, likewise, separate and signifiable” (46). Discovery of castration (sexual difference) detaches the subject from the mother and leads the subject to find his/her identity in the symbolic order. Although pleasure had been connected with the mother, after separation the subject must “transfer semiotic motility onto the symbolic order,” which includes language (47). Separation from the mother creates a lack, and this lack (or want-to-be, as Lacan describes it) confers on something else the role no longer held by the mother, that of containing the possibility of signification. This other presents itself as the place of the signifier.

Signifiance (or meaning) is an unlimited, heterogeneous generating process, an “unceasing operation of the drives toward, in, and through language; toward, in and through the exchange system and its protagonists—the subject and his/her institutions” (17). Thus, signification takes place on the threshold between the semiotic and symbolic realms: “[T]he (symbolic) includes part of the (semiotic) and their scission is thereafter marked by the break between signifier and signified” (48). The symbolic is “an always split unification that is produced by rupture and is impossible without it” (49). This, we shall see, is an apt description of Jarry's theater.

The chapter “The Signifying Process” in the first part of Revolution in Poetic Language sums up the semiotic as a negativity introduced into the symbolic order, a “transgression” of that order, although the semiotic and symbolic remain contradictory and interdependent. The subject takes great risks in producing a text because of the difficulty of “maintaining the symbolic function under the assault of negativity” (69), as Kristeva puts it. While maintaining that through reproduction of signifiers (vocal, gestural, verbal) “the subject crosses the border of the symbolic and reaches the semiotic chora, which is the other side of the social frontier,” Kristeva proposes art as the only means by which jouissance (pleasure) can infiltrate the symbolic order: “Art—this semiotization of the symbolic—thus represents the flow of jouissance into language” (79).


Interconnections and conflicts between semiotic motility (or the movement of unconscious drives) and symbolic or socially-oriented structures inform several aspects of Jarry's works: his characterization (especially the enumeration of appetites), his use of language, his use and abuse of the theatrical/tragic tradition, and his ideas about theatrical production. Ubu himself is a teeming mass of drives, obsessed by the activities of eating and eliminating, and “reduced to the ego-centered structure of the infant;”3 even the persistent use of the word “merdre” (used 33 times)4 recalls the basic instincts. Particularly graphic examples of Ubu's gluttony occur at the banquet, where he eats almost all his guests' food, and during the battle with the Russians, where he stops to eat when he's about to be attacked, only to chase after the Czar for the latter's wine bottle. As the play progresses (especially after he becomes king), Ubu's greedy appetites extend to money as he appropriates the nobles' goods and the state coffers.

Ubu is motivated purely by his instincts. He lacks emotion (except concerning himself when in danger), intellect, and the sense of right and wrong which might temper these instincts (drives). Such characterization runs counter to western theatrical tradition where great characters have complex “psychological” motivations even when they are evil. Written partially as a reaction against the psychological realism of plays of that time, Ubu Roi is structured so that characters other than Ubu express conscience or sense of moderation (Mère Ubu, for instance, often warns him to be less bloodthirsty).5 Ubu simply wants those in his way, those who are blocking his id (desires, instincts), to be eliminated.

The conflict or movement (pulsions) within Ubu manifests itself in his alternating bravado and cowardice as, for example, in his vacillation about killing the king. Although willing to act, he fears being caught, and he will readily sacrifice other conspirators (including his wife) to save himself. He will have bouts of cowardice for no apparent reason; they originate within himself rather than as a response to action or characters around him. After the battle, for instance, when he is no longer being pursued yet exclaims, “je n'ai pas peur, mais j'ai encore la fuite” (I'm not scared, but I'm still running6—IV, v), it is clear that Ubu retains his essential cowardice. Although this absurd contradiction expresses a conflict between rational thought and instinct, the drives nevertheless triumph in their conflict with the symbolic order (rational thought).

Ubu's drives propel the plot or narrative thrust. Mère Ubu (in a parody of Lady MacBeth) has motivated him to kill the king by appealing to his greed (more food and money), and thereafter, his insatiable instincts take over. After the regicide, he will placate the people with gold only in hope of collecting taxes later. His murdering of the nobles, magistrates, and tax collectors is ultimately motivated by greed rather than power: he wants their possessions for his personal use, and to change the laws to make himself richer. With his tax collectors dead, he must go to the people and collect the taxes himself (several times). This insatiability precipitates a revolt and Ubu's eventual dethronement; his unwillingness to share the spoils with Bordure contributes to the latter's defection to the Russians.

In addition to manifesting itself in Ubu's characterization, Kristeva's concept of unconscious and social structures working through “gestures of confrontation and appropriation” (16) is clearly seen in the way the Ubu plays undermine and ridicule the tragic tradition (particularly Shakespeare) while simultaneously appropriating this tradition. Jarry worked within tragedy, he said, to do something which would be familiar to the audience. Kristeva hypothesizes that much as the drives transgress the social order, poetic language (or the avant-garde) challenges the literary tradition (in this case, tragedy). As the semiotic and symbolic work together and against one another, Jarry subverts dramatic tradition while working within it. It is only in this manner, Kristeva contends, that language can be revolutionary (or cause change): to overturn from within the system of oppression is most effective because it critiques the very foundations of that system (190).

Ubu Roi uses the tragic tradition in order to make a mockery of it. It presents the universal dramatic types of good king, bereaved queen and avenging prince, but these are only minor characters. One sees many elements from Shakespeare here: Bougrelas' situation recalls Hamlet's (the ancestral ghosts, his avenging his father, etc.), and the queen's dream resembles that of Calpurnia in Julius Caesar. The primary Shakespearean counterpart to Ubu Roi is, however, MacBeth. One has only to compare the first-scene exchange between the Ubus regarding ambition (I, i) with the same scene in MacBeth to see how the horrible becomes ludicrous with threats of violence, bickering and obscenities, or else the two banquet scenes, where Jarry derides the notions of kingship, nobility, generosity and hospitality so respected in Shakespeare's drama.7

Jarry lampoons two very important tragic concepts: catharsis and “heightened awareness.” Instead of providing relief, Jarry sought to make the audience uncomfortable by confronting them with their own base appetites in the form of Ubu. Instead of having his hero come to a profound realization about himself and the world (as is the case, for instance, with Lear or Oedipus) Jarry presents the Ubus as carefree in the final scene of Ubu Roi, unaffected by what has passed during the previous five acts. In fact, Ubu appears almost endearing in his stupidity in the last scene, as though his violence and cruelty never existed. In the second to last scene of Ubu Enchainé (V, vii) Ubu makes his great realization:

Je commence à constater que Ma Gidouille est plus grosse que toute la terre, et plus digne que je m'occupe d'elle. C'est elle que je servirai désormais.

Private sources have revealed to me that my Strumpot is huger than the whole world, and therefore worthier of my services. From now on I shall be the slave of my Strumpot.8

Of course, throughout both plays Ubu has always been foremost a servant to his belly, and his statement is a great absurdity.

Nowhere, however, does Kristeva's theory of semiotic/symbolic confrontations manifest itself more clearly than in Jarry's use of language, especially his use of neologisms, syntactical distortion, enumeration, contradiction, and repetition. The signifier merdre, for instance, is a distortion which elongates and emphasizes the common scatological obscenity merde. An audience in 1896 (when Ubu Roi was first performed) would expectedly be shocked at such a word being uttered on the stage, but as Kristeva points out, obscenities do not have signifieds but are “minimal marks of a situation of desire, where the identity of the signifying subject … is exceeded by a pulsional conflict which is linked to an other.”9 The obscenity also “mobilizes the signifying resources of the subject … and connects (it) … to the pulsional body, to movement of rejection and appropriation of the other” (Polylogue, 168). Merdre is a signifier functioning heterogeneously, creating an eruption of signification. It may serve as an evocation of disgust so deep that conventional language [is] powerless to express it,”10 or it may signify endearment: “Madame de ma merdre.” Merdre also signifies aggression, functioning as the battle cry/warning for the conspirators to attack the king. As these different meanings and connotations accumulate, merdre, as signifier, becomes evocatively complex: a metonymy for all of Ubu's instincts, connected with elimination (therefore, food), aggression “sabre à merdre” and desire (“Madame de ma merdre”). In its various uses merdre is linked to pulsional conflict as posited by Kristeva: to the body (the instincts) and to rejection (its shock value: it was to be used in a public setting).

Like his use of merdre, Jarry's invention of neologisms further demonstrates a conflict between the subject and social constraints (in this case, tragedy and noble or elevated language); Michael Issacharoff, in “Ubu and the Signs of the Theater,” has already pointed out how neologisms are both signs and anti-signs and how, in Ubu's speech, “neological compound substantives are used to subvert the normal transmission of sense and reference” (282). For instance, Ubu's weaponry such as “sabre à merdre,” “pistolet à phynances,” “ciseau à oneilles,” etc. all subvert in the same manner. The second noun in this sort of a French construction would normally modify the first word, yet in these examples, the latter mocks the first and breaks the forward thrust of the phrase the way “Je n'ai pas peur, mais j'ai encore la fuite” (IV, v) disrupts the flow of a thought. This is an example of the syntactical distortion and discontinuities (in the form of contradiction or oddly-paired signifiers) which Kristeva has said mark the conflict of drive facilitation and constraints and prevent completion of the forward thrust or motion of sentences and/or phrases.

Some of the play's neologisms were meant to have a powerful evocative significance, and variations of the same word accumulate to emphasize their importance, such as gidouille, cornegidouille and other distortions of andouille (chitterlings) which, according to Jarry, represent the powers of the lower appetites.11 Other neologisms appear for comic effect, to undercut the credibility of characters, for instance. The “noble” Bougrelas is literally a “lazy bugger.” Bordure is a distortion of ordure (excrement or garbage). Palotins is a play on paladins (knights) and palot (sickly, weak). Jarry has denied these characters positive name identification by making them not only ridiculous, but evocative of several different meanings in these word-combinations.

The various idioms of violence in Ubu Roi seem simultaneously revolting, disturbing, comic, and entertaining; indeed, they combine in a “cutting of the social continuum” which is one of the articulations of the semiotic. The oft-repeated “mettre dans ma poche,” like the more direct “extraction de la langue … torsion du nez” (I'll put him in my pocket with twisting of the nose and extraction of the tongue—III, viii), or “extraction de la cervelle par les talons” (extraction of the brain by the heels—to Mère Ubu, V, i) appear horrid and absurd at the same time. Like these idioms of violence, ludicrous (and sometimes obscene) non-sequitors also function as disruptive elements. For example, in I, vi, Ubu says in front of the king and court: “je me suis rompu l'intestin et crevé la bouzine” (“I split my gut and bruised my butt”); or, in the last battle with Bougrelas before flight (V, iii): “Ah! J'en fait dans ma culotte” (“Oh! I just crapped in my pants.”).

“Le Parler Ubu” (Ubuspeak) is characterized by its use of neologisms, archaisms, slang and scatology, and it disrupts and subverts the social continuum by rhetorical techniques such as repetition, accumulation, exaggeration, puns, and platitudes.12 Ubu's speech during the battle with the Russian army (IV, iv) provides one of the best examples:

Ah! j'ose à peine me retourner! Il est dedans. Ah! c'est bien fait et on tape dessus. Allons, Polonais, allez-y à tour de bras, il a bon dos, le miserable! Moi, je n'ose pas le regarder! Et cependant notre prédiction s'est complètement realisée, le baton à physique a fait merveilles et nul doute que je ne l'eusse complètement tué si une inexplicable terreur n'était venue combattre et annuler en nous les effets de notre courage. Mais nous avons dû soudainment tourner cadaque, et nous n'avons du notre salut qu'à notre habileté comme cavalier ainsi qu'à la solidité des jarrets de notre cheval à finances, dont la rapidité n'a d'égale que la solidité et dont la légèreté fait la célébrité ainsi qu'à la profondeur du fossé qui s'est trouvé fort à propos sous les pas de l'ennemi de nous l'ici présent Maîtres des phynances. Tout ceci est fort beau, mais personne ne m'écoute. Allons! bon. ça recommence!

I'm afraid to turn around. Ah! He fell in. That's fine; they've jumped on him. Let's go, you Poles; swing away; he's a tough one, that swine! As for me, I can't look. But our prediction has been completely fulfilled: the physical stick has performed wonders, and without doubt I would have been about to have killed him completely, had not an inexplicable fear come to combat and annul in us the fruits of our courage. But we suddenly had to turn tail, and we owe our salvation only to our skill in the saddle as well as to the sturdy hocks of our Phynancial Horse, whose rapidity is only equaled by its solidity and whose levitation makes its reputation, as well as the depth of the trench which located itself so appropriately under the enemy of us, the presently-before-you Master of Phynances. That was very nice, but nobody was listening. Oops, there they go again!

Ubu's use of elevated language in the royal “we” and the complex sentence structure in this disquisition on his cowardice emphasize the disparity between mode and signification of discourse while utilizing the discontinuities (articulated through oppositions) which are traced to Kristeva's chora. This disparity is an essential quality of Jarry's humor because it combines elevated style (royal, intellectual) with ridiculous action (weakheartedness for no apparent reason, and a brilliantly complicated exposition on nothing). The idea of a long discourse on this topic seems absurd enough, but the absurdity is magnified precisely because the speech occurs in the midst of a long battle. Even Ubu, usually in a cloud of self-absorption, must eventually acknowledge that no one wants to listen.

If, as Kristeva suggests, the semiotic can be detected in the “tone, rhythm, the bodily and material qualities of language …” (Eagleton, 188), then the language of Jarry's characters is certainly infused with the semiotic. Because Ubu Roi was written to be performed, the aural aspects of language have special importance. In a grand display of enumeration and alliteration, the most childish exchange of insults can take on a poetic quality (V, ii):

(le frappant)
Tiens, lâche, gueux, sacripant, mécréant,
PèRE Ubu:
Tiens! Polognard, soûlard, bâtard, hussard,
tartare, calard, cafard, mouchard, savoyard, communard!
MèRE Ubu:
Tiens, capon, cochon, félon, histrion, fripon,
souillon, polochon!
(hitting him)
Take that, coward, tramp, braggard, laggard,
PèRE Ubu:
Take that, Polack, drunkard, bastard, hussar,
tartar, pisspot, inkblot, sneak, freak, anarchist!
MèRE Ubu:
Take that, prig, pig, rake, fake, snake,
mistake, mercenary!

Jarry has raised the insult to an art form and maintained the adolescent tone to undercut what should be a very dramatic scene (the last encounter with Bougrelas, their enemy). The sounds have a rhythmic flow, particularly the Ubus' lines, where all their words rhyme. Because of their identical endings, each of these insults merges into the others to produce an overall effect of arbitrariness; one insult will do as well as another.

Later in the same scene, many of these same techniques reappear in the final battle with Bougrelas (V, ii):

PèRE Ubu:
Ah! j'en fais dans ma culotte. En avant, cornegidouille! Tudez, saignez, écorchez, massacrez, corne d'Ubu! Ah! ça diminue!
PèRE Ubu:
Oh! I just crapped in my pants. Forward, hornbuggers! Killem, bleedem, skinnem, massacrem, by Ubu's horn! Ah! It's quieting down.

The first sentence expresses fear and inappropriate commentary. The second, bravado and the reference to his appetites. Then, enumeration of words with the same meaning and the curse by the power of the lower instincts. The last phrase subverts the ferocity of the previous one and indicates another change in tone and mood, a manifestation of conflicting drives and stases. These few sentences encapsulate the flows and marks and energy transfers which predominate in Ubu's speeches and which, Kristeva maintains, articulate semiotic motility.

It was primarily the way Jarry used and invented language which makes him a precursor to the surrealists and a purveyor of the poetic (revolutionary) language of which Kristeva speaks; Jarry's language emphasizes the multiplicity of meaning and its connotative rather than denotative traits. Jarry himself would speak in distinct syllables: ma-da-me, with uniform enunciation on each, a lack of emphasis which indicated a purposeful subversion of particular interpretation and meaning. Like his language, Jarry's own gestures were equally dramatic and spectacular. After shooting at someone who annoyed him (and on similar occasions) he was reported as saying, “Wasn't that as beautiful as literature?” Such deliberate intermingling of the esthetic with the quotidienne was surely an attempt at an entire way of being: to make life and art his creations. A Kristevan analysis would interpret such intermingling as an attempt to integrate instinct with and within an artistic structure. Jarry needed the theatrical structure within which to create and to rebel and (much as both the semiotic and symbolic elements are equally necessary for signification to take place) to semiotize the symbolic order.


  1. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, tr. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia UP, 1984), p. 27.

  2. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), p. 182.

  3. David Zinder, The Surrealist Connection (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1980), pp. 17-18.

  4. Michael Issacharoff, “Ubu and the Signs of the Theater,” in Pre-Text, Text, Context, Robert L. Mitchell ed. (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1980), p. 281.

  5. In Ubu Cocu, Ubu's conscience is depicted as a man whom he keeps with him in a suitcase: his conscience is an entity altogether separate from himself.

  6. All translations of Jarry by Michael Benedickt and George E. Wellwarth, Modern French Theater (New York: Dutton, 1966), except where indicated.

  7. Claude Schumacher, MacMillan Modern Dramatists: Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire (New York: MacMillan, 1980), p. 61.

  8. Translation by Simon Watson Taylor, Alfred Jarry: The Ubu Plays (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 147.

  9. Julia Kristeva, Polylogue, (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1977), p. 168 (translation mine).

  10. George Wellwarth, The Theater of Protest and Paradox (New York: New York UP, 1971), p. 9.

  11. Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor, Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1965), p. 83.

  12. Judith Cooper, Ubu Roi: An Analytical Study (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1966), Chapter 4.

Bettina L. Knapp (essay date spring-summer 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6828

SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. “Jarry's The Supermale: The Sex Machine, the Food Machine and the Bicycle Race: Is it a Question of Adaptation?” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 18, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1990): 492-507.

[In the following essay, Knapp provides a close reading of Jarry's The Supermale, with particular focus on the frequent elision of mechanization, competition, and fornication. The author analyzes Jarry's use of caricature and humor, and places Jarry's concerns about mechanization and masculinity in the context of turn-of-the-century anxieties.]

Alfred Jarry's farcical and fantastic novel The Supermale (1900) focuses upon a sex machine, a food machine, and bicycles that outdo a speeding train. Satiric in intent, the novel uses these as metaphoric devices to further energize Jarry's already super-virile and priapic protagonist. “To survive,” the author noted, “man must become stronger than the machine, as happened when he gained dominion over wild beasts … It is simply a question of adapting to the environment.”1

Jarry's protagonist, André Marcueil, the Supermale, detached, unfeeling, and identityless, may in certain regards be viewed as the prototypal man of the future. Power-hungry, driven to perform outstanding acts, attempting to surpass all others in whatever domain he sets his mind to conquering, Jarry's dehumanized Supermale is victimized by the very machines he seeks to outdo in velocity and dexterity. To become overly dependent upon machines, as is Marcueil's case, is dangerous. It may lead to a condition of hubris, and, as C. G. Jung has stated, it may divest an individual of his or her independence:

This proud picture of human grandeur is unfortunately an illusion and is counter-balanced by a reality that is very different. In reality man is the slave and victim of the machines that have conquered space and time for him; he is intimidated and endangered by the might of the military technology which is supposed to safeguard his physical existence; his spiritual and moral freedom, though guaranteed within limits in one half of his world, is threatened with chaotic disorientation, and in the other half is abolished altogether. Finally, to add comedy to tragedy, this lord of the elements, this universal arbiter, hugs to his bosom notions which stamp his dignity as worthless and turn his autonomy into an absurdity.2

Although fun and frolic run rampant in The Supermale, so, too, do deeply erotic currents. One could, indeed, look upon much of the truculence and verve implicit in The Supermale as a twentieth-century reenactment of the Greek comus, a joyful procession dramatized by the Megarians and Dorians in honor of Dionysus. These fun-filled celebrations, in which an effigy of the phallus was carried about in merriment and veneration, were expressions of the ecstasy experienced by the participants during their seasonal fertility rites. Like the Greek comus, the central image in The Supermale is the phallus and everything associated with it. Unlike the phallus of the Dionysian festival, however, the phallus of Jarry's protagonist elicits neither rapture nor delight, nor even hope, as experienced so potently by the ancient celebrants. On the contrary, the modern novel terminates with the destruction of a human being, bringing in an element of sadism that was not part of the comus.

Jarry's humor does not evoke belly laughter. It is sardonic, ridiculing, and destructive, closely akin to those spasmodic reactions Baudelaire labeled “laughter” and which he defined as a “perpetual explosion of his [the author's] anger and suffering.”3 The phallus enables Jarry to distill his strange mechanical concoctions with blendings of sexual—perversions, such as sado-masochism, voyeurism, narcissism, homosexuality, priapism, nymphomania—the use of masks, and sundry other rituals designed to enliven the events.

Exaggeration, used as a literary device by Jarry, increases the ugliness of his creatures, devoid of any redeeming feature. It also magnifies the humor, irony, and absurdity of certain situations and characters depicted in The Supermale, thus mirroring to a great extent the notions concerning comedy set down by Cicero. “The province of the ridiculous lies within limits of ugliness and certain deformity; for the expressions are alone, or especially ridiculous which disclose and represent some ugliness in a not unseemly fashion.”4

Although prurient images and events are narrated in The Supermale, this novel is not pornographic. There are no minute descriptions of sexual acts, nor does Jarry delve into the nonexistent emotional reactions or yearnings of his protagonists. His pen is caustic, leveling blows and counter-blows against an ugly society, exhibiting no deep feelings for individuals or their private emotional aberrations. Distanciation is Jarry's technique: a plethora of insensitive personalities, unable to relate to anyone, including themselves, perform their antics with marionette like alacrity and verve. The absurdity of their buffoon like acts elicits cerebral and morbid reactions, and macabre grins reminiscent of the rictus worn by the gargoyles of Notre Dame.

Jarry stops at nothing when depicting his views. Whether his humor is raw or sardonic or overflows with instinctuality, it all serves his goal of devaluating what he finds distasteful in the personal and collective world: the dangers of psychological and spiritual imprisonment for both the individual and society as a whole, as a result of overdependence on the machine.

Jarry (1873-1907) was born at Laval, to a traveling salesman father and a romantic, emotionally unstable mother. With his penetrating and incisive mind, possessed of extreme curiosity, ardent, sarcastic, temperamental, and quixotic, Jarry was considered by his schoolmasters to be an excellent student. After passing both of his baccalaureate examinations he went to Paris in 1891, ostensibly to prepare for entrance to the Ecole Normale.

Once in Paris, however, he immersed himself in the artistic and literary worlds, and changed his mind about his future career. He felt an affinity with the symbolists—Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé—who searched for and discovered a whole new realm beyond the world of appearances: an unlimited world where things material and immaterial were alive and breathing; where matter and spirit, the mobile and the immobile, the rational and the irrational, were fused into one.

Rachilde and her husband, Alfred Vallette, the directors of the magazine, the Mercure de France, took an immediate interest in the “strange” lad who “appeared in their offices, more frequently than not, attired in a bizarre bicyclist's outfit. “He attracted their attention with his outlandish antics, and the verve with which he narrated his colorful tales about “walking streets” and people who entered their apartments from the top rather than from the ground floors. Rachilde described Jarry as looking like a “wild animal.” His face was pale, almost mask-like, his nose short, his mouth incisive, his eyes black and “singularly phosphorescent … at once starry and luminous, like those of night birds.” The avant-garde poet, writer, and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, stunned by Jarry's brio and the manner in which he recited his verses, the metallic ring of their rhymes and the mood created by their varied rhythmic patterns and images, considered him the “personification of a river.”5

Although Jarry radiated charm and kindliness, characteristics that endeared him to his large circle of friends, he was an anarchist, an impenitent, and a humorist à la Rabelais. From him came neither romantic sweetnesses nor beautiful plastic images, but mordant, satiric, cruel ironies, invective, puns, neologisms, jokes, and riddles. Jarry's Haldernablou (1894), a narcissistic work pointing up his sexual inversion, relates in part, the love Duke Haldern harbors for his page Ablou. More significant, perhaps, than almost all of Jarry's writings—including his César Anté-Christ (1895), Absolute Love (1899), Messaline (1901), The Female Pope (1908), and his many other works—was his play King Ubu (1896), for it rocked and shocked Parisian audiences, and the theater the world over has not been the same since.

Jarry had succeeded in liberating himself from society, in living an uninhibited existence whatever the consequences might be. His dream world had become his reality. In order to make this state possible and to maintain it, he fed on alcohol and ether, spent money before he earned it. His poverty, his unwillingness to eat, his overconsumption of what he considered to be “holy water” (alcohol) and a “sacred herb” (herbe sainte, meaning absinth) led to his physical disintegration and disease. From 1903 on, he wrote with extreme difficulty. His friends tried, unsuccessfully, to draw him away from his erratic existence, his unhealthy haunts, and his nocturnal ventures. Jarry grew steadily sicker. Late in October 1907, after having made an appointment with his friend Dr. Saltas, he failed to show up. Such a lacuna was not like Jarry. Dr. Saltas grew worried. He shared his concern with Alfred Vallette. Both men went to Jarry's small room on 7 rue Cassette. They found him half-unconscious, dirty, his legs already paralyzed. They took him to the hospital. His last wish, which was granted him, was as “strange” as had been his life: he asked for a toothpick. The wish seems a little less strange if one realizes that Jarry did not believe in death as a finale. In a letter to Madame Rachilde, written on May 28, 1906, several years after the publication of The Supermale, he declared that though the brain decomposes after a person's demise, it still functions, it still dreams, “and its dreams are our Paradise.” In any case, it is recorded that Jarry died on November 1, 1907, at the age of thirty four of tubercular meningitis.

Viewed by many scholars as one of Jarry's most important works, The Supermale is far ahead of its time, a forerunner in many ways of the ideas proclaimed by the Futurists and the Cubists. In Filippo Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto (1909) he suggested that the art to which the machine age gave birth was based on “violence, energy, and boldness.” Futurist painters, such as Umberto Boccioni, fascinated by this fresh approach to life brought on by the machine, remarked: “Everything moves, everything runs, everything turns swiftly.”6 Fernand Léger, inspired by the Cubists, depicted modern urban life in his canvases with all of its harsh flashing electric lights, its sounds of traffic, its machine-like movements of individuals and crowds. For him, the machine stood mighty, and inspiring, like God.

The action in The Supermale, purported to take place in 1920, is high-speed, high-tech, high-keyed. Mechanically oriented, it introduces all types of devices and instruments into the story: electric lights and push buttons on doors and in rooms, dynamometers, water denaturation processes, flying machines (planes), cars in the form of military shells, fecundating and sex machines, and more.

Even as a novel, The Supermale is machine-like: devoid of psychological analyses, feelings, and climaxes. Like the fixed or moving parts which make up the framework of the machine, what is of import in The Supermale are the facts of the story that is related. The protagonists, robot-like in essence, perform acts and participate in collective situations as if they had been programmed to do so by some invisible transmitter and energy charge emanating from a standardized menu or course that had been set up. Like disparate objects brought together for some kind of experiment, these parts of beings, or split-offs, breathe, live, function, and die never knowing themselves plain. In so doing, however, they provoke and elicit reactions from surrounding objects and beings—even from the reader. Never does a flesh-and-blood person make his or her appearance; never do we see into a real person's face. Masked and disguised, the persona holds sway in The Supermale: the outside, the hard glistening, smooth or corroded metallic entity.

Jarry's protagonist, a Nietzschean Ubermensch type when it comes to his male prowess is reminiscent in some ways of other sexually active men, namely, Don Juan and Casanova. Like Jarry's protagonist, they, too, were confused as to their sexual identities; their aggressivity and sadistic approach toward womankind followed a pattern of behavior revealing their unconscious distaste for them. To be an absolute male, in Marcueil's eyes, is to be able to accomplish “the act” more completely, more thoroughly, and more often—eighty-two times in the space of twenty-four hours—than anyone else on earth. Such an outlook has transformed him, in the eyes of the Scientists, into a human machine. Only when this sex machine finally meets his match, with the “Machine to Inspire Love” invented by an engineer, chemist, and doctor, are readers made privy to the most fantastic of Futurist, Cubist, Dadaist, Surrealist, and Absurdist situations.


Jarry's disturbing humor is based to a great extent on caricature. This technique, which succeeds in inflating certain patterns of behavior, results in disproportion in the novel's framework, altering its dimension and focus, so that the protagonists and the events depicted are taken out of the world of reality and placed in one of artifice. According to Bergson, caricature, which reveals an aspect of an author's psyche, is a device marked with “insensibility” and “ulterior motive.” It enables Jarry to express in veiled terms his paradoxical feelings of inferiority/superiority. The caricaturist, Bergson contends, like the puppeteer, can force his creatures to express the most outlandish or excoriating emotions under the guise of folly. “The art of the caricaturist lies in his ability to seize that frequently imperceptible movement, and to make it visible for all to see by inflating it.”7 Jarry performs just such a feat in The Supermale.

No one would guess from external appearance that the thirty-one-year-old André Marcueil—small, puny, pale, skeleton-like, his relatively long hair curled with a curling iron, and wearing a pince-nez—a Supermale: an exceptional individual with unlimited energy able to perform the sexual act so many times without experiencing the least bit of fatigue. Like eating or sleeping, “love,” he maintains, “is an act without any importance, since it can be accomplished indefinitely” (21). Jarry's hero has reduced the sexual act to a mechanical one devoid of feeling and inspiring no need for relatedness on the part of the participants.

Marcueil suffers from an idée fixe: to survive, he must outdo anyone and everyone. His first claim to fame occurs during a bicycle race. Like many a competitive sport, bicycle racing fires Marcueil's energy, arouses his spirits, and fills him with élan. At high speeds his body feels electrified, as if injected by some outerworldy current which gives him a sense of power, exhilaration, and fulfillment.

That bicycle racing should fascinate Marcueil is not surprising. Although not mentioned in English literature until 1769, and not heard of in France until 1799, it took on fad-like proportions by the 1880s, and 1890s. Indeed, the Tour de France, enlisting the best cyclists of the time to compete over a broad-course of more than 2,500 miles, was organized in 1903.

As a means of transport, a bicycle differs from a train, plane, car, and the like, in that this machine requires personal effort on the driver's part, thereby affirming his or her will, directive, acumen, and energy. Secondly, the driver is responsible for maintaining the bicycle's equilibrium and speed, that is, its performance in the outer world. Thirdly, the rider sits astride on the bicycle, as did the horseman in medieval times. The constant motion and friction induced by the motility of the machine suggests the possibility of an erotic or masturbatory experience.

Who better than Jarry, for whom bicycle riding was a passion, knew the attributes of this machine and could describe them in ample and accurate detail? He understood how a bicycle could imbue his protagonist with feelings of autonomy as he forged ahead in the open space before him, thereby symbolically declaring his independence from anyone else.

Such hyperactivity, however, has psychological side-effects. An introverted and egocentric type, Marcueil is unable to relate to people in a normal way. Living as he does in his own secluded domain, his fantasy world alone is alive as he roams about in unheard of realms. The source of his constantly-generating libido (psychic energy) focuses solely on the gratification of his needs and desires. Never does he examine a situation or a personality. Such a psychological condition is dangerous since it allows an undifferentiated object/subject to gain greater dominion over the ego (center of consciousness), thereby diminishing its importance proportionally. Because of the ego's defective relation to the subject/object it neither grows nor evolves. Rather than attaining some kind of freedom or independence, it veers continuously between subject and object, increasingly enslaved by the subliminal pulsions that hold sway.

Five bicyclists—one of whom is Marcueil—participate in the frenzied race described with brio in The Supermale. The bicycles, vintage 1920 and geared to cover a 10,000 mile course, are described as having tires fifteen millimeters in diameter, no handlebars, and seats that force the rider to practically lie horizontally as he pedals at breakneck speed. Not only do the riders wear masks to protect them from the dust and the wind, but the aluminium cord that binds them to each other is attached to their headgear and to their bodies in such a way as to prevent them from looking toward the side or in back of them. Nor can they move about on their seats. Such a vise-like condition suggests, symbolically, a sort of imprisonment: in the manner in which they live, think, and feel.

That each cyclist wears a mask for protection is understandable. Purposeful anonymity is also served via the mask which leads us to suggest that the five cyclists are really one: each a facet or mirror-image of Marcueil, the Supermale. Jarry's propensity for using the mask, in this and other works, indicates a need to hide the inner being, to maintain privacy by secreting the individual behind a facade that at the same time allows him or her to peer out into the world. In Jarry's essay “The Uselessness of Theater in the Theater” he suggests that the mask points up the collective quality of the characters involved, imposing upon them a visual expression of a personality trait. In another essay, “Twelve Arguments on the Theater,” he further declares that the writer who breathes life into his masked beings creates a new existence; a fresh dynamism that comes into existence with the exteriorization of an inner conflict. The mask, then, frees the forces within the personality that cannot be integrated, enabling them to crystallize on the stage or in the novel, and there to live out their lives in conflict or in harmony.

The spectators watching Marcueil race take seats in the train against which the cyclists are racing. The lead automobile rolling in front of the cyclists is shaped like a high explosive shell. When it takes off, like a bullet in space, the racers, following its momentum, keep increasing their speed, until they reach 120 kilometers per hour. The excitement generated by the velocity of the cyclists, the automobile, and the train, and the images that catapult paroxystically before the reader spawn tension—which is of course Jarry's goal.

Since the race is to last four days, food is provided the participants by a “Perpetual Motion Food Machine.” The “food,” made from a combination of alcohol and strychnine, is, according to the doctor who invented this concoction, highly nutritive and beneficial. Small, colorless, bitter, and broken cubes are placed on five trays (one for each of the riders), which are then attached to a small table placed in front of each of the riders' mouths. While he pedals, he consumes. Not a minute is lost.

At the end of the first day, Marcueil first notices a drumlike mechanism suspended beneath his white speedometer on each side of his bicycle, its function being to attenuate any shock coming from the front wheel. Unfortunately or fortunately, the drum gets caught in the wheels of the lead car, which then unwittingly pulls it and the bicycle along. Although such a situation could be disastrous, Corporal Gilbey, in charge of the racers and unseen by the spectators riding in the train, takes advantage of the automobile's momentum to pull the bicycles “fraudulently” along. Although Marcueil is unable to look about and sees the train only out of the corner of his eye, he notices that it is going at a fast clip, which he thinks, is what gives him the distinct impression of being completely immobile. Certainly an optical illusion, he thinks.

Problems arise on the second day of the race. Piercing and strident sounds of grinding metal coupled with enormous vibrations, almost break Marcueil's eardrums. As he looks in front of him, he realizes that the lead automobile has been replaced by a “flying machine” shaped like a trumpet. This strange apparition seems to be turning on itself in the air, then zooming toward the cyclists, the wind generated by these stunts nearly drawing Marcueil and the other cyclists into a funnel-like whirlwind. Upon recovering from what he considers a surprising situation, Marcueil looks at his ivory speedometer which tells him he is going 250 kilometers per hour.

Something horrible and unprecedented occurs on the third day of the race. The rider directly in front of Marcueil is Jewey Jacobs, whose knees are but a yard from his own, and who has been going at such a “fantastic” clip ever since the beginning of the race that Marcueil has had to counterpedal several times so as to slow his pace down, thereby keeping to the schedule. Now Marcueil observes a stiffening of Jacobs's hamstrings. The toes on his right foot, having been tied to a leather toe-clip, seem rigid, without any ankle play; his marble-colored legs, going up and down isochronously, never waver in their movement. Another, apparently minor detail mentioned by Marcueil, is the unpleasant odor which seems to be emanating from Jacobs. Moments later, he realizes that he is inhaling the smell of a decomposing body.

Stunned, Marcueil screams out the news, but the noise made by the train and the “flying machine” overhead is so deafening that it blocks out all other sounds. No one in the train notices anything strange, particularly since Jacobs's bicycle is going more rapidly than the others. In fact, cyclists and observers all scream out their praise of him unaware that rigor mortis has already set in. Nor does the “Perpetual Motion Food Machine” stop serving Jacob simply because he is dead. Were it to cease doing so, its inventor would lose a great deal of money since he had contracted for five people to be fed and not four.

On the fourth day Marcueil's speedometer reads 300 kilometers per hour. The riders, including Jacob, are still traveling at breakneck speed, seemingly unhampered by the smoke issuing from the locomotive that blows their way, even blinding them momentarily.

In time, Marcueil figures out the kilometers they have traversed and notes that he can actually hear the trans-Siberian express in the distance. Speed is increased still more, when one of the riders begins putting all of his weight on his back wheel, thereby forcing the others to peddle more rapidly. Then something incredible occurs: a ghostlike cyclist, Pédard, appears as if from nowhere right in front of the train, exceeding its speed as well as that of all the cyclists. Who is this Pédard sporting a pince-nez, a high hat, and short elastic boots? Marcueil wonders, asking himself whether he is hallucinating. When, at a certain moment, a light appears behind the horizon and encircles Pédard's countenance as does a halo, then illuminates his entire being, he thinks he is in the presence of some divine figure sent by heaven to aid the cyclists.

The Terminus is finally in sight. The bicyclists win the race. How is it possible for the human machine to surpass the mechanical one? And who is this Pédard who has succeeded in energizing the cyclists to such an extent that they surpass anything and everything. Mystery? Magic? A miracle?

Marcueil's singular interest in cycling indicates an instinctive urge to surpass, to outdo, to transcend others, particularly those he considers weak or even average. Psychologically, he is attempting to destroy what he considers to be his own shadow qualities: his small physical stature, his frail appearance, his lack of macho, everything his ego (center of consciousness) cannot accept about himself and, therefore, seeks to destroy. His obsessive approach to life progressively obliterates his identity, thus encouraging a further loss of consciousness of himself as an individual. Rejecting and casting aside characteristics he dislikes, but which are his own, is tantamount to self-destruction. Indeed, one can suggest that such comportment is suicidal. The nonpersonal power drive, and the frenzy and excitement of the constant competition between himself and the machine (or himself and the goals he sets), are instrumental in further debilitating his already shaky ego.

Because the ego, the director of the conscious personality, is so shaky the purely physical (autoerotic) condition aroused by the bicycle and the motion of riding itself keeps Marcueil imprisoned in the madness of his frenetic activity, thereby preventing any broadening of view from becoming operative.

That body consciousness alone prevails divests Marcueil of any kind of conflict or healthy reactions to situations, acts, or people who might in some way counter his idée fixe and so pave the way for psychological growth and broadening of vision.8

It might also be suggested that the prolonged concentration and the intensity of the energy or libido used to fulfill the racer's objective, precludes the necessity of forming any permanent relationships with another person and of delving into his own psyche. No camaraderie or fraternal spirit exists with the other cyclists. Indeed, as the race progresses, the reader grows aware of the fact that the five cyclists are but split-offs of Marcueil and not individuals in their own right.

Marcueil's will to succeed as a cyclist, conceals both unconscious feelings of inferiority as well as of superiority. An arrogant belief in his ability to outdo everyone else and the continuous discipline needed to fulfill his goal, enables him to gain dominion over what he considers unconsciously his inferior body, thus inferring a belief in his own perfection—and continuous perfectibility.9 Intent upon winning the race so that he may prove to the world that he is in fact outstanding and so reveal the Supermale-Deity residing within him, he is arrogating to himself what is not properly his. Marcueil, attempting to portray himself as an exceptional individual, is in reality the plaything of his instinctual world. As a robot-like individual, unfeeling, and unthinking, Marcueil is the puppet of nonpersonal forces within his psyche, and, as such, seeks only to gratify his needs—and nothing more.


The same energy expended by Marcueil as a bicyclist is later focused on sexual matters. Just as the sporting event was different from the norm, so, too, is the performance of the sexual act. Marcueil wears a powdery mask while performing his virtually nonstop bodily acrobatics. Such a persona is designed to hide what his ego considers his inferior characteristics and reveal only those factors that correspond to and meet with its goals. When Marcueil achieves his goal by successfully demonstrating his superior sexual prowess, he earns adulation from his entourage.

Nor does Marcueil enjoy any emotional rapport with his sexual partner. Achievement is what counts and not the depth of the experience. Furthermore, like the bicycle, the female participating in the event is merely a means to an end: a machine whose sole function is to enable him to pursue his intent.

As Jarry resorted to caricature in his description of the bicycle race, so he indulges in imagistic portrayals of Marcueil's ribald acts. His intent for the most part is to disfigure and unmask what he considers to be a corrosively restrictive notion of morality. Caricature as a technique, Freud declared, is one of the ways used by the artist to reject those who stand for “authority and respect and who are exalted in some sense.”10

To give credence to Marcueil's sexual feats, Jarry quotes and misquotes statements made by historical and religious figures of old: Diodorus, Proclus, Pliny, Muhammad—the last of whom, he says, had the vigor of sixty men. Rabelais, also mentioned by Jarry, is reported to have stated that Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.), Aristotle's successor as the head of the Peripatetics, wrote about an Indian who, after having taken certain herbs, performed the sexual act seventy times in one day. A pseudoscientific discussion of reproduction, priapism, satyriasis, aphrodisiacs, diet, alcohol, and stimulants is also included.

Under Marcueil's tutelage, Ellen Elson, the daughter of William Elson, a celebrated American chemist (the identification with Edison is intended), develops her potential: nymphomania. Like Marcueil, she is devoid of identity. She is all women in one, a collective power. Marcueil's unconscious reaction to what he looks upon as a formidable force is one of fear: she, like all other women, is ready to strike out at the innocent male, to castrate and dismember him. Understandably, then, one of the factors involved in the performance of his sexual acts is his intent to subdue and subjugate his partner.

As an anima figure (the unconscious aspect of the man's personality), Ellen is pictured as a vamp. Never does he assume the sublime or divinely endowed proportions of Dante's Beatrix or Petrarch's Laure. Although Ellen is depicted frequently as beautiful on the outside, Marcueil sees her subliminally as deformed and grotesquely destructive, particularly when he identifies her with a Siren.

Half-woman or half-bird, this feminine image, as viewed in myths and legends (the Lorelei, Mélusine etc.), although a seductive power, is a negative instrument. She is capable of luring and capturing the young, unsuspecting male, whom she then devours in her embrace, but frustration and despair ensue, since she can neither satisfy him nor herself. Moreover, Sirens, whose goal is to conquer the male so as to acquire power over him, have been featured in literary works as devoid of human feeling. Yet unmediated instinct, which Sirens symbolize, has been attractive to men since time immemorial. Let us recall in this regard that when hearing the mesmerizing songs of the Sirens, Ulysses filled the ears of his crew with wax and had himself tied to the mast of his ship so that he would not yield to their allure. So mesmerizing and frightening were Sirens considered that Aristotle, Pliny, and Ovid wrote about them and in Christian times figures of these maidens with double tails were depicted on the chapel at Saint Michel at d'Aiguillhe at Le Puy, while sirens in the shape of birds are found at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire.

On another occasion Marcueil identifies Ellen with her car, which he depicts as a “metallic beast” a “fabulous and lewd God,” a “large scarab which flapped its outer wings, scratched, quivered …” (64). The chauffeur's mask she wears, he remarks, transforms her head into that of a sea-bird. Its eyes fascinate him. There is something supernatural about them. When peering into them, he feels he is going back to ancient times: Ellen is a reincarnation of the Queen or Courtesan archetype—the woman forever ready to satisfy any and all needs of the male.

Intent upon conveying his great appreciation for the favors she is to bestow, Marcueil takes out his knife to cut some flowers to give her. Moments later, and inexplicably, he thinks better of it.

That mention is made throughout the novel of cutting and sticking instruments such as knives, and pins is not surprising. Identified with the phallus, activity, and aggressivity, these sharp objects are also associated with acts of dismemberment. Hindus (Marcueil disguises himself as one during his sexual encounters with Ellen) relate them to some of their “terrible” divinities, who use these implements for cruel and bloody purposes. That Marcueil decides not to cut the flowers, indicating a spiritual and emotional rapport, suggests a redirecting of libido on his part: a rechanneling of this powerful energetic force.

Such dismembering instruments, in Marcueil's case, suggest the presence of murderous instincts. His obsession with death (indicated with the demise of Jacobs, the cyclist) may be coupled with his love-hate relationship with Ellen and his unconscious desire to kill what he considers to be her Lorelei, or Siren-like, factors. Those, as previously mentioned, are manifested when he pictures her as a giant bird of prey: a domineering, destructive. and castrating woman.

Marcueil's unconscious fear of failing to reach his goal of seventy or more orgasms in one day becomes obvious in the trip he takes to the zoo on the day planned for this “great” event. It is the animal in him, and nothing more, that he seeks to develop to its ultimate. Amid the many caged beasts on display at the zoo, he spots something very special and strange: a very special and strange animal: a dynamometer, a machine which both fascinates and acts as a threat to him. Because it measures the limits of human strength and can perform any activity indefinitely, he views it as dangerous competition. Marcueil wants to be able to surpass everything and everybody in the sporting sphere, be it human or mechanical. He decides, therefore, that this automatic power, which the public considers monumentally useful, must be destroyed.

Significant as well is the sex Marcueil projects onto this dynamometer: he identifies its shiny “vertical cleft” or “slot” with the feminine gender. Although the machine is massive, he is convinced that it can be easily destroyed How? By injecting a 10-centime piece into the proper slot. After doing just that, he grabs the chair-like contraption and shakes its two arms, after which a terrible clanking sound can be heard. Suddenly heaps of broken tubing, screws, bolts, nuts, dials, twisted springs—like animals' innards—fall to the ground before him.

Since the dynamometer, paradigmatic of Marcueil's relationship to the feminine principle and hence representing a threat to his well-being, has been destroyed, the next step is to do away with Ellen, even though she helps him prove his virility. Is Ellen Marcueil's only human victim? According to some reports, several young women on and surrounding his estate have been violated innumerable times recently and have died from the experience. No one accuses Marcueil overtly of having perpetrated these acts; nevertheless, the reader senses that he is the culprit.

The great day of sexual acrobatics approaches. Marcueil accomplished twenty-four hours of virtually uninterrupted coitus as if participating in a religious ritual. First performing his ablutions, then eating special foods, he dons his Indian mask (consisting of golden powder, rouge etc.) likening him to the incredible orgiastic performer mentioned by Theophrastus. The room in which Marcueil and Ellen fulfill their sexual antics is fitted out like an altar: with candles, incense, soft cushions. As for the event, it is viewed as an apotheosis and an epiphany, two deities becoming one: duality transformed into unicity. The successful conclusion to the climactic drama is marked by the playing of a Te Deum on the victrola.

That Marcueil disguises himself as an Indian when performing the sexual act is not surprising. Yogico-tantrics, known for the extraordinary power they have over their bodies, perform the maithuna rite, consisting of sexual union which is viewed as a transformation ritual: the mortals become a divine couple. A period of preparation, consisting of meditation, prayers, fasting, and other such rituals and sacrifices, always precedes the act, which never terminates with ejaculation of semen. To permit emission of semen is to fall into the law of time and death: that is, to be the victim of empirical existence. Under such conditions, lovers would be merely libertines and not the detached, Godlike beings they seek to become. Before “supreme great happiness” can take place and “unity of emotion” be experienced, all thought and notion of identity (ego-consciousness) must be obliterated. Only then can the condition of emptiness be achieved.11

Although Jarry was well versed in Hindu religious practices, there is little resemblance between Marcueil's sexual stunt and the maithuna ritual, except perhaps for the number of times coitus is repeated. What does emerge from Marcueil's lovemaking procedures is the emphasis on sadomasochism, implicit in many of Jarry's works. Voyeurism also comes to the fore in this instance, since, to give the sexual experiment a scientific cast, Dr. Balthybus observes the events “discreetly” through a small window in the wall. It is he who confirms the fact that the love-act was performed eighty-two times within the space of twenty-four hours; that it could have been extended indefinitely had an artificial rather than a human fecundating machine been used.

Although elated by the fact that he has succeeded in outperforming Theophrastus' Indian, Marcueil still feels a desire to kill Ellen—or Hellen, as he now calls her, after the Greek beauty. He is convinced that only after her demise can his compulsive sexual desires be alleviated. He does not kill her, however, since he mistakenly believes her dead when she has only fainted as a result of her ordeal. Then, and only then, does he laugh, wax sentimental, and say: “I adore her” (140).

In the days to come, after Ellen has awakened from what has been diagnosed as a hypnotic trance, she tells her father she loves Marcueil and wants to marry him. When he refuses, Science takes over. Ellen's father calls upon Arthur Gough, an American mechanic who has built a most unusual electromagnetic machine: one that would “Inspire Love.” Since Marcueil, the Supermale, considers himself a machine with an iron organism, Gough posits that to combine human and nonhuman machines would transform Marcueil into a loving husband.

The knowledge needed to build the machine to inspire love is predicated on some of Faraday's electromagnetic inventions as well as on the electric chair. Here, too, the satiric intent is quite obvious Since the electric chair gives instantaneous death at 2,200 volts, Gough assumes (and we do not know why) that nothing hurtful can happen if Marcueil is exposed to 10,000 volts. Marcueil is placed in the chair and tied down, after which a strange-looking platinum crenulated crown, with teeth pointed downward, is placed on his head. A diamond-like object carved in the shape of a table is installed in both the front and the back of the crown. Ear-flaps made of copper and a sponge-like fabric extend over his temples, thus assuring contact between the human and the mechanical machines. Pieces of semicircular metal, that shine like cabochons, are placed on specific areas over his scalp and hair.

No sooner is the current turned on, putting the Supermale's nervous system into contact with the 10,000 volts, than something goes awry. Rather than the Machine to Inspire Love influencing the human being, the opposite seems to have taken place. Dire results ensue: the machine behaves erratically, spiking and sparking madly and uninterruptedly. Its inventor diagnoses the problem: this incredible instrument has fallen in love with the Supermale. Because the Scientists had not foreseen such a possibility, they had made no provisions to prevent it. As the speed of the mechanical parts accelerates, the voltage increases and the metal of the crown turns white-red. Marcueil, in a paroxystic frenzy, bursts the chains imprisoning him and jumps up from his seat. It is too late. The melting metal flows onto his face like so many tears, explodes, and burns: his demise is preceded by pitiful screams.

As for Ellen, she eventually finds a husband—normal in every way.

Although The Supermale is a farce and its humor is based on man as machine, beneath the bicycle race and the sexual antics exists a fiercely macabre and negative note. That Marcueil dies at the hands of the machine indicates the fragility of the human species and its negative view of the machine age and its increasing power over individuals and societies.

The bicycle, the Perpetual Motion Food Machine, the dynamometer, and the Machine to Inspire Love suggest a takeover by the very instruments designed to alleviate pain and suffering in the world and to facilitate daily living. Even more dangerous, perhaps, is the fact that the machine is increasingly cutting people off from nature in general and from their nature own, in particular. The dehumanization process, which Jarry foresees as his protagonist competes with the machine, encourages a condition of facelessness. Psychologically, neither Marcueil nor Ellen have identities; both are unrelated to others as well as to themselves. Robot-like, they go through life as others, insensitive, unable to relate or become emotionally involved. Will twentieth-century men and women succumb to the same fate?


  1. Alfred Jarry, Le Supermale (Paris: Eric Losfeld, 1977) 147. All quotes come from this edition.

  2. C. G. Jung, Collected Works. 10. Translated by R. F. C. Hull (New York: Pantheon, 1964) 268.

  3. Charles Baudelaire, Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1961) 981.

  4. James Feiblemen, In Praise of Comedy (New York: Russell and Russell, 1962) 88.

  5. See Jacques Henry Levesque, Alfred Jarry (Paris: Seghers, 1951) 12-64.

  6. Helen Gardner's Art Through the Ages. Sixth edition. Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, editors (New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, Inc, 1975) 733.

  7. Henri Bergson, Le Rire (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1960) 4, 5, 20.

  8. Esther Harding, Psychic Energy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973) 208-18, 8, 107.

  9. Harding, Psychic Energy 107.

  10. Sigmund Freud, The Basic Writings. (New York: Random House, 1939) 77.

  11. Mircea Eliade, Yoga (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973) 260.

Teresa Bridgeman (essay date July 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6175

SOURCE: Bridgeman, Teresa. “Innovation and Ambiguity: Sources of Confusion in Personal Identity in Les Jours et Les Nuits.French Studies: A Quarterly Review 45, no. 3 (July 1991): 295-307.

[In the following essay, Bridgeman examines the linguistic ambiguity and innovation of Jarry's second novel, Les Jours et Les Nuits, and his contemporaries' mystified and unreceptive response to it.]

Alfred Jarry's Les Jours et les nuits: Roman d'un déserteur presents a challenge in ambiguity which few readers appear prepared to take up.1 Remy de Gourmont, in his review for Le Mercure de France of Jarry's early collection, Les Minutes de sable mémorial, defends obscurity which, as part of the process of literary innovation, represents the essence of the creative spirit; and blames the reader for any difficulties in reading: ‘L'obscurité en écriture, quoi? La préface de M. Jarry donne un système par lequel un anatomiste se guiderait,—mais avouons plutôt que l'obscurité n'est souvent que l'ombre même de notre ignorance ou de notre mauvais vouloir’.2 Is the innovation in Les Jours et les nuits so great that nearly a century after it was written it is still too new for the reader to grasp, whether through ignorance or ill will? Or does the obscurity of Les Jours et les nuits lie not in its undeniable innovative force but in the layers of meaning described by Michel Arrivé,3 and in the fluidity of the relationship between text and reader, both of which leave the reader facing too great a gulf of uncertainty that none of the elaborate structures and wit of Jarry's language can conceal?

The reading problems expressed by early commentators on Les Jours et les nuits as yet remain unresolved. The novel holds no classifiable position in the literary canon, unlike Jarry's Ubu Roi which bears the label of precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd, or Faustroll which has become the flagship text of the Collège de 'Pataphysique. Les Jours et les nuits is strikingly different from Ubu Roi and in this respect it disappointed contemporary critics such as Henri Ghéon, whose review of the novel for L'Ermitage expresses bewilderment. Expecting the burlesque and epic acidity of Ubu and finding instead a blend of dream and reality, he protests at the ‘alternances fâcheuses qui achèvent de déconcerter le lecteur’4 and which in his view lead to a lack of balance in the whole. Even Quillard,5 who appreciated the skill and beauty of Jarry's language, nevertheless foresaw that a readership still accustomed to the tales of bourgeois adultery popular since Flaubert might find it unapproachable.

One of the puzzles presented by this text is why a twentieth-century audience should also be unreceptive, for, although Jarry has had the support of the forward-looking critics of his time, and also of writers such as Breton, Queneau, Leiris and the members of the Collège de 'Pataphysique, his works (other than Ubu Roi) are still hardly known among the general public. In particular, Henri Béhar6 describes the inability of his pupils to identify with Les Jours et les nuits, despite their expressed willingness to do so. Why should the innovations of a century ago still present problems to the reader?

Les Jours et les nuits abounds in elements which should appeal to the readership of the late twentieth century. The central themes of the mind, the will, and desire have been popular throughout the century; the word-games which have brought success to Queneau and Perec are there, as are the paste-in techniques of Dos Passos. In addition, we encounter a degree of spoken French woven into the narrative which must have thrilled Queneau or Céline, an early use of the monologue intérieur which far surpasses Dujardin's Les Lauriers sont coupés in subtlety, and, as Saillet has pointed out,7 moments of stream of consciousness which are worthy of Joyce. We further encounter a pleasure in intertextuality (made more explicit in Faustroll) which should please followers of Gérard Genette, and moments of cinematographic prose to match the works of Dashiell Hammett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. That so many of these techniques regarded as of the twentieth century should occur in a novel published in 1897 speaks for the degree of innovation in the novel, but makes the lack of appreciation from present-day readers harder to understand.

A brief description of the central themes of the novel will provide some insight into a major source of difficulty: the questions concerning personal identity which it raises. Les Jours et les nuits recounts an exploration of the powers of the mind and the individual. It follows the thoughts, memories, fantasies, experiences, theories and experiments of the central figure, Sengle, in a narrative which slips from dream to reality in a blend of Sengle's past and present, interspersed with poems and anecdotes.

Sengle is seeking the figure of his beloved brother, Valens, who may never have existed except in Sengle's mind (‘Sengle n'était pas bien sûr que son frère Valens eût jamais existé’ (p. 767)) as a projection of himself. This quest ends in failure, as Sengle loses contact even with his own identity: ‘Et Sengle tâtonnait dans la nuit vers son Soi disparu’ (p. 835). The ambiguous relationships between dream, memory and reality in Sengle's thought are reflected at all levels in the language of the novel, in the vocabulary which is often exotic, unexpected, or neologistic, and in the complex syntax. They are also reflected in the ‘cohesive’ and ‘pragmatic’ indicators in the text, those elements which provide readers with clues of person, time and place, and of social context, enabling them to establish what might be happening in the novel, and to identify their own position in relation to the novel.8 As Sengle's exploration of identity is a central theme, so are the markers of person essential to the reader's approach. If those signals are ambiguous or conflicting they will contribute to the difficulties experienced by the reader in approaching the novel. As I shall discuss below, Jarry makes use of such indicators to generate a degree of complicity between either the reader and Sengle, or the reader and the narrator, but his use of them can also serve to alienate the reader.

Let us examine these indicators in more detail. Although Les Jours et les nuits has a number of autobiographical elements,9 one of the frictions in the personal relationships set up by the novel occurs between the identification of the reader with the author and narrator on the one hand, and with Sengle on the other. For, although Sengle, who like Jarry is a writer, may echo some of Jarry's experience and character, they do not share a speaking voice and there is often an ironic gap between the identities of the narrator and Sengle. As the novel progresses, there are increasing signals that the reader should move from a close identification with Sengle to a relationship in which his or her individuality and judgement must be asserted independently: for instance, in reading a prose piece by Vensuet (pp. 789-90) the reader will form a more detailed and considered opinion than Sengle's dismissive ‘prose d'officier’ (p. 790) which is a straight repetition of his former judgement ‘vers d'officier’ (p. 758).

There are also moments when the reader is pushed into a relationship of complicity with the author which repeatedly relegates Sengle to the tragi-comic role of Don Quixote. He tilts at windmills for the sake of the lady of his thoughts, Dulcinea: ‘Et Sengle avait dulcinifié ou déifié sa force’ (p. 795), with Dricarpe (in ‘Chevaux de bois’) as his Sancho Panza, and his identification with this role culminates in the penultimate chapter ‘Sur la route de Dulcinée’. Thus as Sengle fails in his own search for identity, he loses contact not only with himself but also with the reader. There is, however, a further subtlety in the relationship of the reader with Sengle. For at the end of the novel, although Sengle himself is lost in the dark, his motivations, and therefore he himself, continue to exist in the reader's memory, evoked by the lines of the Chinese legend which close the novel.

The longest and most explicit passage in which the author as narrator addresses the reader directly occurs at mid-point in the novel, and under circumstances which nevertheless leave the reader unsure of his or her own position.

Puisse ce chapitre faire comprendre à la foule, la grande héméralope, qui ne sait voir qu'à des lueurs connues, que d'autres peuvent la considérer comme une exception morbide, et calculer les ascensions droites et déclinaisons d'une nuit pour elle sans astre; qu'il lui fasse pardonner ce que dans ce livre elle trouvera sacrilège envers ses idoles, car en somme nous affirmons ceci …

(p. 788)

Here, the atmosphere of complicity between Sengle and the reader is abruptly broken by Jarry's formal intrusion into the narrative (this formality is expressed through the use of nous rather than je), for he implies that the reading public, including the reader, is in the position of a night-blind soldier, unable to see or understand what the writer grasps fully. Thus, in interpreting Les Jours et les nuits, the reader will make mistakes because of the limits of his or her possible understanding.

Such a passage acts as a direct challenge to individual readers to be different from the mass of readers so clearly despised by Jarry, and deliberately sets up an antagonistic relationship between author and reader. At the same time we as readers, having already experienced the obscurities of the text, realize the impossibility of escaping from the role in which Jarry has cast us. Once the figure of Jarry the author has been revealed, he cannot be excluded from the reader's awareness, even when silent.

Jarry does not allow these suggested roles of author and reader to remain unchallenged. He forces the reader to reconsider this relationship as the chapter continues, for we see Sengle deliberately deceiving a group of night-blind soldiers by pretending to be their general. In this picture of Sengle the writer fooling the héméralopes (who, as we have seen, represent the readers) into believing that he is a figure of authority and wisdom (see p. 764: ‘un général intelligent serait un grand mage’) there lies the suggestion that Jarry is fooling his reader. Because of our blindness we must take on trust Jarry's account of himself, leaving Jarry free to fool us as he chooses.

I have discussed this passage in detail because it contains a number of keys to the reading of the novel. It also highlights one of the most disconcerting elements of Jarry's writing: that the edifice of Jarry's text is built on a fundamental uncertainty, that of the deceptive powers of language, leaving us with the suspicion that everything might be a game in which the reader is the victim.

This question of the deceptive role of language is closely related to Jarry's views on the function of literary language expressed in ‘Un peu de sacrilège’, where we find the following words spoken by a God, Dom***:10

Les Commandements seraient monstrueux d'exiger la confidence d'un soi compliqué à qui n'en est pas digne. Le Christ en ses paraboles parlait selon l'actuelle compréhension des peuples. Et il faut se faire foule pour entretenir la foule—sauf dans l'œuvre d'art, qui ne la regarde pas.

(p. 815)

Leaving aside the question of elitism inherent in this concept, Jarry makes a very important distinction between discourse as comprehensible communication, and art, which has no obligation to render itself understandable to the masses. This distinction is close to that made by Mallarmé in his introduction to René Ghil's Traité du verbe, between the ordinary everyday language of communication, and the language of poetry which is not governed by the same rules.11 The expression of such a concept of the function of literature from the lips of the deity can act as a reassurance to its readers: art is not meant to be understood on the level of everyday communication, and they should therefore not expect to understand everything in Les Jours et les nuits. This is an explicit statement concerning obscurity in art; the main objective of a work of literature is not necessarily to be understood.

The idea has already been expressed in ‘Linteau’, the introduction to Minutes de sable mémorial, described by Gourmont as a ‘système par lequel un anatomiste se guiderait’,12 which states that literature should ‘suggérer au lieu de dire, faire dans la route des phrases un carrefour de tous les mots’ (p. 171). In the above passage from Les Jours et les nuits, Jarry apparently suggests that in experiencing the novel, its readers are free to interpret the text as they wish, but that this does not necessarily constitute an act of understanding. Both of these passages underline the elusive nature of Jarry's novel and imply that the reader who looks for a definitive reading of the novel will be disappointed.

In the varying relationship between text and reader certain techniques can be singled out which contribute to the shifting patterns of personal identity in Les Jours et les nuits and thus aggravate the reader's sense of uncertainty. I shall discuss first Jarry's use of spoken style. One of the most innovative features of his language is the incorporation of constructions and terms characteristic of spoken French into the body of the narrative, in such a way that these constructions are identified by the reader as part of the discourse of the narrator, thereby linking them to the authorial voice. Godard13 has suggested that until the publication of Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), authors such as Zola, Vallès and Barbusse, although introducing versions of ‘spoken style’ into their novels, had been careful to distance the authorial and narrative voice from such styles, presenting them in the form of direct or indirect quotation. Godard has good reason to claim that Céline was the first to introduce ‘spoken style’ into the narrator's discourse in a consistent manner, but I would contend that Jarry's close association of ‘spoken style’ with the narrative and authorial position is sufficiently strong to be worthy of note, although the variety of registers and the rapid passage from one to another which are essential stylistic features of Jarry's novel must preclude such a consistent use of spoken style in the narrative voice. Thus passages of high rhetoric may remain just that, or be interspersed with interjections in a different tone, and passages of spoken French may end with a classical reference. Indeed, in my view, the flexibility shown by Jarry's discourse in allowing the intrusion of ‘spoken style’ into passages related by the third-person narrator, closely associated with the author's own position, flies more strongly in the face of convention than the first-person narrative of Voyage au bout de la nuit in which the stylistic revolt can be associated with the speech patterns of a character.

In Les Jours et les nuits, styles usually confined to spoken French occur in dialogue, and in unmarked thoughts, where the indication that they are Sengle's thoughts, not the words of the narrator, is either delayed or not provided. This imitation of unplanned discourse enhances the impression of familiarity between narrator, characters and reader. It is part of the stream of consciousness technique sometimes used by Jarry which I shall return to, but in the meantime I shall give a few examples of this which create an impression of proximity between narrative voice and reader.

Consider, for instance, the following passage:

Sengle comprit l'utilité au régiment des caleçons contre le contact de ces doublures. Désinfectées, soit, physiquement; mais les relents y restaient en esprit. Détail aggravant: les chaussures. Tout ce qu'il y a de plus petit, chercha-t-il.

(p. 752)

It is apparent here that such a technique can involve a degree of ambiguity in the identity of the speaking subject. In this example, the indication that the abbreviated style of the first sentence, and the familiar tone of ‘Tout ce qu'il y a de plus petit’ are the result of a direct transmission of Sengle's thought only comes with ‘chercha-t-il’; until this point, the reader cannot distinguish the speaking voice from the third-person narrator of the immediately preceding sentence.

In contrast to this, in the following chapter the spoken style is not marked in any way as being part of Sengle's internal thoughts: ‘Lui qui avait peur des glaces se mirait par ces baies dans d'autres militaires’ (p. 753). Jarry also makes use of narrative fillers which would be more commonly found in spoken French, for example: ‘auquel il ne comprit rien d'ailleurs’ (p. 754) contains the filler d'ailleurs which could be a tiny snatch of style direct libre, but which could equally well belong to the discourse of the external narrator (I shall use the term style direct libre to describe the direct transmission of what would otherwise be expected to be reported speech).

However, the use of forms more common to spoken French does not always involve such ambiguity. Indeed, it may represent an assertion of the author/narrator's direct relationship with the reader. For example: ‘(malgré le titre de ce livre, ce qui fait qu'on l'a choisi)’ (p. 794) comes at the end of a series of interjections into the process of Sengle's thought made by a narrator very close to Jarry himself. Another example of this can be found in the tag n'est-ce pas in ‘mais toute science est plus analyse qu'une littérature, n'est-ce pas?’ (p. 796), which must also represent a direct address by the narrative voice to the reader. This tag is not really a question requiring an answer, instead it acts as a phatic marker, establishing that the reader is present and continuing to be interested in the text.

Jarry also makes use of the strongly exophoric presentatives voici and voilà to generate the impression of direct physical speech between the narrative voice and the reader. For instance the ‘Et voici que vogue son lit’ (p. 749) in the opening passage of the third chapter generates the impression of spoken French in a situation where the speaker and reader are physically present. In some instances, the presentative can act as an indication of style direct libre, as in the case of ‘En voici un qui commence la déroute’ (p. 776) which provides the reader with direct access to a thought or spoken phrase commenting on the action. Here, in a further blurring of identity, it is not clear whether the thought comes from Sengle or whether it has been spoken by another soldier, and is heard through Sengle's ears.

The use of demonstratives may also serve to heighten the impression of personal judgement by the narrator which he is inviting the reader to share: ‘Et la confession fut comme toute confession, avec cet amusement que le prêtre crut parler à la soldatesque coutumière’ (p. 815), where ‘avec cet amusement’ emphasizes a speech situation of ‘you, me and the text’. Here Sengle, the narrator and the reader all share in the amusement, having access to the information necessary to perceive the humour of the situation, whereas the priest has no knowledge of Sengle's nature and thoughts.

Jarry's use of the devices described above is not a constant feature of the novel. Instead, he uses them to form part of the word-play which enriches his language and is a source of pleasure for the reader. He can combine familiar and elevated expressions to generate a strongly ironic tone: for instance, when Sengle is invited to a literary party of the type which he clearly despises, Jarry's description is a combination of preciosity and familiarity: ‘où il commit la gaffe de ne point paraître, d'ailleurs …’ (p. 756), in which ‘il commit’ and ‘ne point’ are neatly balanced by ‘la gaffe’ and ‘d'ailleurs’, conveying an overall impression of parody.

This use of both spoken expressions and more elevated styles to dislocate the register of certain passages through contrast is worthy of further scrutiny, for these shifts of register often indicate a possible change in the narrative voice, as in the following passage: ‘Avec ces loques ça ne fait rien de se salir. On a les mains grosses, les mollets fondus, les pieds lourds, la tête qui pèle dans le képi, le dos se voûte en souvenir du ou en attendant le sac’ (p. 762). The intrusion of the conscious manipulation of grammar at the end of this very direct passage forces the reader into an awareness of style as style. In it, Jarry separates the definite article from the noun, thereby flouting grammatical rules while avoiding the repetition of ‘sac’. In this instance, Jarry places concision and neatness above grammatical considerations, and the device intrudes into the physical misery of the soldier.

Equally, Jarry breaks the flow of pseudo-scientific discourse in ‘Pataphysique’ with a brutally vulgar phrase: ‘Il est très important que ce soient des battements; mais que la diastole soit un repos de la systole, et que ces petites morts entretiennent la vie, explication qui n'est qu'une constatation, Sengle s'en foutait comme du savantasse, son quelconque auteur’ (p. 794). This type of sudden contrast in narrative position prevents the reader from developing any security in his or her relationship with the text. Unable to make a distinction between the lower rhetorical register belonging to the speech of characters and a higher style belonging to the narrator, we are left disconcerted, because both voices may use both registers. The breakdown of the barriers between written and spoken styles thus involves a reworking of the relationship between author and reader and marks Jarry as a precursor of much twentieth-century novelistic prose.

It is interesting to note that in his introduction of some of the characteristics of unplanned discourse, Jarry avoids the unnecessary repetitions and uneconomical use of words usually associated with it. Indeed, he often exploits the possibilities of a freedom from the rigid rules of grammar to generate greater economy of expression, as in the example ‘en souvenir du ou en attendant le sac’ discussed above. This economy of expression can also be seen in an abbreviated note-like form, which can either generate an internal stream of consciousness, a cinematographic stream of experience which involves the description of events, or style direct libre. This stylistic feature contributes directly to the ambiguities of the speech situation, and the blend of internal and external experience, both new or original techniques in themselves at the time of writing, increases the sophistication of Jarry's manipulation of language.

My first example combines both these techniques:

Il est venu un tas de gens, le général avec, c'est bien possible, tous soldats militaires trimballant un machin doré qui est l'étendard, érigé sur le ventre d'un lieutenant très fier (c'est l'étui des dépêches, disait l'héraut d'Aristophane).

(p. 755)

This passage represents a range of speaking voices without providing any of the usual textual indications of quotation marks, or he said, he thought, they said and so on, which are usually included to provide the reader with a clear picture of the speech situation. It is possible that the entire passage represents Sengle's own thoughts, ranging from the dislocated and familiar stranded preposition of ‘le général avec’ to the classical reference to Aristophanes. But, as is elsewhere the case, several elements do not appear to be part of Sengle's own thoughts, but a direct report of the spoken phrases which he is hearing. Thus, ‘un tas de gens, le général avec, c'est bien possible’, although unmarked as such except by punctuation, takes on the potential status of remarks exchanged among Sengle's fellow soldiers. At some point there appears to be a further transition to a register appropriate to Sengle's thoughts, which themselves can range from the literary to the obscene, but the brackets which enclose the reference to Aristophanes present a further possibility in the identity of the speaking voice. Although they may merely represent an aside in Sengle's own thoughts, they may also indicate another shift in the narrative voice to the third person narrator, the fictional counterpart to Jarry himself. In accordance with Jarry's own principle of ‘suggérer au lieu de dire’, I would suggest that the text contains the possibilities of all these speaking voices, and therefore remains ambiguous for the reader.

Such passages also have the effect of adjusting the proximity of the reader to the text. This unfolding of experience, without any commentary, in which the reader must react without any certain knowledge of the identity of the speaking voice, can bring the reader closer to the text. In such a case our identification with the consciousness through which we are experiencing the text can be intensified to the point where our awareness of any narrative voice is effaced. However, the lack of textual interpretation of identity may push the reader into the position of a film-goer, who hears and sees directly the speech and actions of the protagonists but who must draw his or her own conclusions on the nature of events. This technique thus generates a conflicting relationship between the reader and the text. On the one hand, the reader experiences more closely the thoughts and physical sensations expressed, as would be expected of the monologue intérieur used by Dujardin, or Joyce's stream of consciousness, but on the other hand, the cinematographic aspect of Jarry's technique is closer to that of Robbe-Grillet, and has the effect of increasing an impression of non-participation. This impression is often shared by both Sengle and the reader, initially in Sengle's dreams, such as ‘Consul romanus’, but later as a deliberate choice in ‘Jusqu'à une date’. Sengle's approval of the idea of experience through all the senses without active participation is expressed in ‘Adelphisme et nostalgie’: ‘Et il semblait évident à Sengle, quoique trop paresseux pour être jamais allé le voir fonctionner, que le cinématographe était préférable au stéréoscope …’ (p. 770).

Another feature of Jarry's writing which calls the position of the reader into question is the author's use of condensed sentences (this is not ‘ellipsis’ in the sense described by Halliday and Hasan,14 so I have avoided this term here) in which he has pared down the elements to a dense formulation of meaning. Of these sentences, the most relevant are those which, through the deletion of repeatable elements, not only generate an effect of style, but which also affect the understanding of the text, and hence the reader's interpretation of his or her position in relation to the text. Some such sentences can involve the reader in a generative process, according to the principle of ‘suggérer au lieu de dire’, in which we find ourselves competent to build a satisfactory construction of meaning from them. Others, however, can exclude the reader from participation in a communication process because they violate the Griceian maxim of Quantity,15 and do not supply sufficient information for us to be able to interpret them to our satisfaction. In such cases, it is not the identity of the speaking voice which is in doubt, but the reader's position in the relationship of power between text and reader.

An example of the condensing of information, but in such a form that an interpretation is retrievable, occurs in ‘Consul romanus’:

Sengle et Valens s'étaient rhabillés et assis sur le bord de la citerne, les mains jointes sur les genoux et les pieds mouvant les joncs, suivant la fuite ondulante au repère des paroles visibles.

(p. 779)

In this passage which describes Sengle and Valens watching the priest dive, the phrase ‘suivant la fuite ondulante au repère des paroles visibles’, in which the noun ‘repère’ does not seem to make sense, can be interpreted as ‘suivant des yeux la fuite ondulante afin de repérer les paroles visibles du curé en forme de bulles’. A further ambiguous but intelligible condensed sentence is: ‘Après les assassinats possibles acceptés, et tout le nécessaire pour l'évasion vers soi’ (p. 815). This sentence presents a number of difficulties involving rank-shifting and deletion of nouns and verbs, and the structural branching of two different clause types from ‘après’, but the element which contributes to ambiguity in personal identity is the deletion of the Actor16 from each clause. This presents a problem of cohesion because there are two Actors involved. A fuller rendering of these clauses to illustrate this problem would be, restoring the missing indicators of person: ‘Après les assassinats possibles [de Sengle furent] acceptés [par le curé] et [après que Sengle eut achevé] tout le nécessaire pour l'évasion vers soi’. In these examples, the reader avoids being relegated to the status of héméralope because a (seemingly) logical pattern of meaning can be constructed from them.

There are other instances, however, where the text appears to assume a knowledge which the reader does not have. For instance the brief reference to ‘le suicide militaire classique’ (p. 776) gives no explanation of what such a suicide might be, leaving the reader unsure of what has happened. Likewise ‘un étang couvert, servant de sépulcre, sous une église’ (p. 778), or ‘avec les cheveux pareils à un trou sur la fumée chaude’ (p. 779), or ‘Tout le régiment était parti: c'était le plus décoratif déshabillage’ (p. 781) exclude us from the images evoked by Jarry because we cannot imagine what they might refer to. This technique again alienates us from the text and from the speaking voice, because the discrepancy between our understanding and the apparent knowledge of the speaking voice is emphasized, leaving us conscious, as readers, of our inferior position.

In the examples given above, we have seen the repudiation of the reader by deliberate obscurity in the narrative text, which, by implication, is a repudiation by the author himself of the héméralope, unable to understand a greater artistic truth. However, as Sengle's quest moves towards failure, the withholding of knowledge from the reader serves to change our relationship, not with the narrator or imagined author, but with Sengle's inner consciousness from which we are increasingly excluded. In a conversation between Sengle and Philippe, for instance, both speakers refer to events outside the novel of which the reader knows nothing:

—Vous savez que de sortir ça ne m'a pas été utile à Biarritz?

—Je sais, j'ai lu.

(p. 804)

This tells the reader almost as little as a conversation overheard in the street; it provides little context for interpretation.

Expectations concerning the reader's relationship with the text are also confused by Jarry's use of simile. The question again is one of complicity or rejection through the presence or lack of shared knowledge. Simile typically generates an alternative image which acts as a point of comparison and a reference point for the initial idea in the text. It can be expected to draw on an element from the shared experience of the writer and the reader which will enhance the reader's understanding of the text. Jarry does not often make use of simile, but when he does, it tends to generate a further layer of complexity, rather than acting to clarify. For instance, in the first chapter he likens Sengle's position while making love to that of the male tarantula: ‘comme on dit que peut le plus souvent éviter l'anguleuse patte empoisonnée le mâle de la tarentule’ (p. 747). The effect of this is not to enlighten: even the narrator has not seen what the male spider does, relying only on hearsay—comme on dit. Instead it creates an impression of exoticism, as does the later simile: ‘semblables à la méduse marine qui n'a qu'un trou pour anus et bouche’ (p. 752), which occurs in the course of the description of Sengle's uniform in ‘Éteignoir’. Equally, in ‘Consul romanus’, ‘Et comme on apporte un squelette d'argent à l'issue des festins, il se courba’ (p. 779) adds a dimension to the imagery without clarifying the situation. By the means described above, Jarry sets up a complex of personal relationships within the text and between text and reader which are constantly changing. He demands familiarity and yet denies the reader the status of an equal. The effect of this on his readers is naturally disturbing, and they may react by being unwilling to co-operate with the text.

In the course of this discussion, I have described several elements in Jarry's novel which might cause the reader difficulties of identification with the text. Such a picture is one-sided, concentrating on the possible problems caused by obscurity, and does not convey adequately the cohesive threads which act to counter-balance them. Jarry is not only hyperculte, Béhar's term17 which, although jargonistic, describes so exactly the multiple cultural context of Jarry's works; he is also hyperlinguistique and hyperstylistique, using not one narrative technique but many, which are inextricably interwoven to generate an elusive pattern.

Perhaps Ghéon, in suggesting that the novel lacks balance, was expressing the lack of balance which Les Jours et les nuits induces in the reader. It may be that the complex manipulation of the very techniques described above so narrows the possible audience for such a novel, because of the refinement of linguistic appreciation demanded, that the novel becomes a novel for connoisseurs, almost a novelists' novel. Certainly, in it, Jarry has made no concessions to la foule, which in his opinion need not concern itself with art. For the reader to enter fully into the contract of reading, the appeal of Jarry's rich and subtle language must outweigh the confusion induced by its multiplicity.


  1. All page references to Les Jours et les nuits are to volume 1 of the Pléiade edition of Jarry's works (Paris, Gallimard, 1972).

  2. Remy de Gourmont, review of Jarry's Minutes de sable mémorial, in ‘Les Livres’, Le Mercure de France (October 1894), p. 177.

  3. Michel Arrivé, Les Langages de Jarry: Essai de sémiotique littéraire (Paris, Klincksieck, 1972).

  4. Henri Ghéon, review of Les Jours et les nuits in L'Ermitage, 8th year, no. 7 (July 1897), Geneva, Slatkine reprint XV, 1968, p. 68.

  5. Pierre Quillard, review of Le Surmâle, Revue Blanche, 216 (1 June 1902), 198-200.

  6. Henri Béhar, Les Cultures de Jarry, Écrivains (Paris, PUF, 1988), p. 6.

  7. ‘Les fervents d'Alfred Jarry ont une secrète préférence pour Les Jours et les nuits, qui n'est pas plus satisfaisant, au point de vue du roman classique, que l'Ulysse de James Joyce (il y aurait un parallèle intéressant à établir entre ces deux monstres narratifs), mais prend à distance, comme poème, la valeur d'une porte entrebaillée sur le mystère de son auteur’, Maurice Saillet, Sur la route de Narcisse (Paris, Mercure de France, 1958), p. 27.

  8. In the course of my analysis I shall draw on the work of M. A. K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan on Cohesion in English (London, Longman, 1976, 3rd impression 1979), and on the pragmatic models set out in G. N. Leech, Principles of Pragmatics (London, Longman, 1983) to support my suggestions concerning the possible processes which may be operating on the reader.

  9. See Saillet, op. cit.

  10. Dom***, who passes judgement, is not Dom[inus], our Lord, or anyone else's Lord, but an absolute and non-specific Lord who cannot be qualified by markers of personal possession.

  11. ‘Narrer, enseigner, même décrire, cela va et encore qu'à chacun suffirait peut-être, pour échanger toute pensée humaine, de prendre ou de mettre dans la main d'autrui en silence une pièce de monnaie, l'emploi élémentaire du discours dessert l'universel dont, la Littérature exceptée, participe tout, entre les genres d'écrits contemporains.’ Stéphane Mallarmé, Introduction (‘Avant-dire’) to René Ghil's Traité du verbe (Paris, Giraud, 1886), pp. 5-6.

  12. Gourmont, op. cit., p. 177.

  13. Henri Godard, Poétique de Céline (Paris, Gallimard, 1985), pp. 34-36.

  14. M. A. K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan, op. cit.

  15. Grice's lectures at Harvard on speech act theory introduce the concept of the Co-operative Principle in communication, which brings the assumption that the speaker is communicating his message to the listener in its most understandable form, following maxims of quantity, quality, relation and manner. These may be intentionally non-fulfilled in four ways: violation, opting out, clash or flouting. In Towards a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse (University of Illinois, Bloomington, 1977), p. 160, Mary Louise Pratt extends this concept to suggest that works of literature are an intentional non-fulfilment of the CP in the only way which does not threaten communication, through flouting.

  16. ‘Actor’ is one of the terms used by M. A. K. Halliday to label the grammatical function (as opposed to the grammatical class, i.e. noun) of a linguistic item in order to show what part each component of a clause or sentence is playing in the overall structure. See An Introduction to Functional Grammar (London, Edward Arnold, 1985, reprinted 1989), pp. 31-37 for a more detailed description of this system of analysis.

  17. Béhar (op. cit., p. 16).

Ben Fisher (essay date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Fisher, Ben. “The Companion and the Dream: Delirium in Rachilde and Jarry.” Romance Studies, no. 18 (summer 1991): 33-41.

[In the following essay, Fisher discusses the pre-Freudian significance of delirium in the novels of Jarry and of his close friend and biographer, the writer Rachilde.]

It is inevitable that discussion of the dream in literature, and particularly over the last hundred years, tends to focus on Freud and the relevance of Freudian interpretation. The mark of Freud upon twentieth-century thought is in fact so great that other reflections on the dream are often forgotten. This article discusses two French novels of the 1890s, Rachilde's La Princesse des ténèbres1 and Alfred Jarry's Les Jours et les nuits2, which belong to the period leading up to the publication of Die Traumdeutung (1900) and illustrate an approach to the literary dream which is distinct from Freudian attitudes, and has identifiable links with the native thought of the time. The novels also merit joint discussion on the grounds of the high level of intertextuality that exists between them. Jarry and Rachilde were close friends—indeed Jarry paid Rachilde the compliment of selecting her novel for the library of his Dr. Faustroll in the first manuscript version of Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien (O.C. [Œuvres Complètes] I, p. 1221)3, and praised it further in an article written for La Plume in 1903.4Les Jours et les nuits and La Princesse des ténèbres share an approach to consciousness and delirium that makes for a fine practical example of the cult of textual mystery so dear to the Symbolist circles in which Rachilde and Jarry moved. At the same time, these works represent the apogee of the writing of delirium in both novelists, who subsequently moved away from their shared ground in opposing directions.

Jarry, a figure of diverse and extensive reading, and with contacts in virtually all the important Symbolist circles of the 1890s, often serves as a useful indicator of the writings fashionable among the members of these circles. In the matter of philosophical influences his literary connections are, however, less important than the influence of his schoolmasters. At the Lycée de Rennes, where his physics master embodied the nascent figure of Ubu, another master freely expounded the writings of Nietzsche, not even available in French at that time (O.C. III, p. 531), and at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris Jarry was an attentive pupil of Henri Bergson, who was in the habit of developing his own thoughts while teaching. Jarry's notes from these lessons apparently survive.5 Anne Clancier, in a lecture given at Cerisy-la-Salle in 1981, has debated the question ‘Jarry avait-il lu Freud?’,6 without ultimately answering the question as posed; nowhere in Jarry can the presence of Freud be precisely located. Yet in the period prior to 1900 when he was producing his most distinctive work, Jarry became one of the most sustained illustrators in French literature of altered states of consciousness—the interface between life and the dream. The environment of thought in which he does this is non-Freudian (or equally, pre-Freudian), and his work at this time also shows the strong influence of Rachilde, a greater practical influence on his work than many care to admit. The links are nowhere closer than between La Princesse des ténèbres and Les Jours et les nuits.

It is hard to imagine a less fashionable French author than Rachilde (1860-1953). Born Marguerite Eymery, she married author and publisher Alfred Vallette after making an independent entry on to the literary scene, and together the couple were the driving force behind the Mercure de France, founded in 1890 and rapidly developed into the major social and artistic focus of late Symbolism. Rachilde tried her hand at various literary forms, but found her major success with the novel. There is no denying that much of her popularity rested on the risqué subject matter of certain of her writings, which often deal with taboo subjects such as homosexuality (Les Hors-Nature, 1897) and sexual inversion—the very titles of Monsieur Vénus, Madame Adonis and La Marquise de Sade are intended to shock, before one even reaches their narratives. These works do not stray into the cheaply pornographic veine grivoise, but their licentious associations have for some reason given rise to a widespread assumption that they are unfit for serious study. Their author's status has sunk accordingly. Also, while being for her contemporaries the most prominent woman writer of the Belle Epoque, Rachilde is unsuited to the mainstream feminist critique that has rescued many women writers from neglect—indeed she was noted for her pamphlet Pourquoi je ne suis pas féministe, published in 1928.7 Nor has she been well treated by those who have promoted Jarry since the Second World War: indeed in recent years the highly respected Jarryist Noël Arnaud has chosen to launch a blistering and excessively partisan attack on Rachilde's biography of Jarry, Alfred Jarry ou le Surmâle de lettres.8 Rachilde was also an influential critic, through her reviews of novels and other prose in the Mercure de France, and her popular mardis at the Mercure's premises, first in the Rue de l'Echaudé St-Germain, and later the Rue de Condé, were a major focus for the avant-garde around the turn of the century.

A fertile imagination and the great speed at which she wrote combined to make Rachilde's output of novels dauntingly large, yet most texts are hard to find today. Her current reputation is largely based on the few novels now in print, usually her urbanely bloodthirsty earlier novels Monsieur Vénus and La Marquise de Sade, which are far from being representative of her whole work. La Princesse des ténèbres is one of her many novels that have fallen into neglect; indeed it has yet to see its second edition. It chronicles the declining health and growing delirium of Madeleine Deslandes, an innocent, withdrawn provincial girl who in the course of the novel marries an upright and sympathetic local doctor, Edmond Sellier. The heroine's maiden name indicates the morose mood of the region where the novel is set, in tune with her frame of mind. It is relatively simple to spot literary inspirations in Rachilde, all the more so given that they often involve Sacher-Masoch's Venus im Pelz; here, the shadow of Madame Bovary is unmistakable, with a suitably ethereal slant to suit the fashion of the 1890s. Thus the doctor is not in fact Madeleine's true love; she undergoes a series of visions in which she meets the mysterious Hunter, who is quite patently the Devil. His identity is never explicitly stated, but lies not very deep between the lines—there is even a coy reference to the devil as he appears in a German play that Jarry was attempting to promote in translation at the time.9 Passion grows more intense at each of Hunter's meetings with the heroine, who is ignorant of his identity—and with this growing passion there is a proportional decline in her health. Hunter asks her to keep herself for him alone on her wedding night, and it is strongly implied that her pregnancy results from their encounter on that night. After her husband has diagnosed her as suffering from lycanthropy (the form of madness commonly associated with the appearance of werewolves), she miscarries, imagining that Hunter has asked for the baby in order to feed it to his dog (PT, p.339). Before long she dies, possessed by near-constant visions of Hunter. The plot shows particularly deft handling of tension between the Present and the Beyond, and it is only in the final pages that the illusory nature of Madeleine's encounters with Hunter is clarified; the shock is genuine and strong for the first-time reader.

This form of tension between the Present and the Beyond is reflected in Jarry's Les Jours et les nuits, published in 1897 but started in 1895, the year of La Princesse des ténèbres.10 It is a novel whose exterior is drawn from life, with many identifiable echoes of Jarry's own military service and of his revulsion at the brutality of military life. These aspects naturally invite comparison with Georges Darien's Biribi, selected by Jarry for the first draft of Dr. Faustroll's library along with La Princesse, but the influence of this brutally frank account of Army penal companies in Tunisia is distinct from the plot and psychology of Les Jours et les nuits, which are governed by notions of delirium, displaying here a considerable debt to Rachilde. It goes without saying that there is also much that is original and peculiar to Jarry, who creates a projection of himself in Sengle, the hero of the novel.

Les Jours et les nuits is subtitled ‘Roman d'un déserteur’, and its fascination lies in the strange desertion from the army that Sengle performs. He deserts from within; both from within the army and from within himself. By counterfeiting illness—though it cannot be unequivocally stated that Sengle has no real medical problems, his demobilisation being nominally on account of heart problems—he quickly becomes an internee of his barracks' hospital, as did Jarry during his own service, and finds a physically comfortable life as a patient while awaiting his réforme. His comfort is, however, tempered by observation of the gruesome, ignorant cruelty of the hospital and its inhabitants. The initial parallel with Rachilde emerges in Sengle's inner evasion. The precisely detailed, matter-of-fact world that he inhabits in civilian life fades as he enters the military world, and the dream begins. Sengle briefly imagines an escape to Belgium, lulled in his reverie by a repetitive ‘Le train roula vers des Amiens et des Lille …’ (O.C. I, p. 753), and from this point on the specificity of Sengle's world is lost. More often than not it is hard for the reader to distinguish reality from dream—and it is precisely so for the character also. This point of shared experience is the real key to following Jarry's novels, all of which are commonly held to be more ‘difficult’ than they need be. Sengle is moved into a world where the dream takes over—in other words, into a state of delirium.

Delirium invites medical attention, but that to which it is submitted by Rachilde and Jarry is strictly pre-Freudian, as it involves no attempt at psychoanalysis. Madeleine Deslandes is treated little differently from any stereotyped sickly young wife, excepting her husband's diagnosis of her lycanthropy, which (even admitting a fin-de-siècle taste for Petrus Borel) is so Gothic as to court ridicule, even without considering its technical inaccuracy. Sengle's treatment in the Rabelaisian cour des Miracles11 of the army hospital (O.C. I, p. 775) is hopelessly incapable of addressing his mental disturbance. The psychological aspects of Sengle's malady, explored in greater depth than the psyche of Rachilde's heroine, confirm links between these novels and Bergson, Jarry's schoolmaster. Like Freud, Bergson saw the dream as a symptom, but he allied himself with those who saw its details as symptoms of physical rather than mental illness.12 This ties in with the narrative of La Princesse des ténèbres, where there is a simple and direct correlation between delirium and physical illness. Les Jours et les nuits is a more complicated case, just as Jarry is a more complicated writer than Rachilde, and hinges on a more tangible parallel with Bergson, many of whose theories Jarry had heard long before their publication, in the classrooms of the Lycée Henri IV. Sengle is a writer, and here is Bergson on dreams and writing, working from the example of Robert Louis Stevenson:

[…] vous verrez que l'auteur a connu, pendant une certaine partie de sa vie, un état psychologique où il lui était difficile de savoir s'il dormait ou s'il veillait. Je crois, en effet, que lorsque l'esprit crée, lorsqu'il donne l'effort que réclame la composition d'une œuvre ou la solution d'un problème, il n'y a pas sommeil.13

This is precisely Sengle's state of mind. He makes no distinction between unpleasant reality and the world into which he deserts, and after a certain point cannot distinguish day from night—hence the title of the novel. His own literary creation takes the form of a dream book:

Sengle construisait ses littératures, curieusement et précisément équilibrées, par des sommeils d'une quinzaine de bonnes heures, après manger et boire; et éjaculait en une écriture de quelque méchante demi-heure le résultat. […] Des professeurs de philosophie chantent que cette similitude aux productions naturelles est du Chef-d'Œuvre.

(O.C. I, pp. 793-94)

Sengle understands his dreamer's power as his own way of controlling the world (he also has a degree of magnetism over physical objects), and from this develops the first clear version of Jarry's pseudo-science of ‘la pataphysique’, a way of viewing, grasping and manipulating the world which he would develop explicitly in Faustroll, and implicity in L'Amour absolu and Le Surmâle.

The blending of illusion with reality follows the same pattern as in La Princesse des ténèbres: an imperfectly delineated setting, the onset of illness, real or affected, and a specific symptom prominent in both novels, namely visions of a companion figure. In Rachilde's novel it is Hunter, the masterful and diabolical lover, and in Jarry's it is the shadowy figure of Sengle's younger brother, Valens. The presence of a brother does not challenge either the equivalence with a lover figure or the value of the self-projection by Jarry, who had only an elder sister; it has been demonstrated that Valens is a fond echo of homosexual lovers from Jarry's life,14 so both conditions are satisfied. The hazy indications of incestuous feelings (but not acts) in the novel point the way to Jarry's later depiction of them in L'Amour absolu. Just as Hunter represents the perverse ideal of Madeleine's illusory passion, Valens represents not only a physical ideal—his beauty is constantly stressed—but also an idealized image of the brothers' childhood, indivisible from more adult games played together. At the opening of the novel the brothers are with two women:

La chambre et ceux qui étaient dans la chambre et leurs actes furent les mêmes les autres heures de la nuit, Sengle et Valens répondant peu aux filles parce qu'ils pouvaient plus intelligemment parler entre eux, et ne parlant pas entre eux parce qu'ils se comprenaient assez d'être ensemble.

(O.C. I, p. 748)

Sengle speaks little in the novel, and Valens, whether present or remembered, not at all. Shortly before Jarry declares Sengle to have genuine medical concerns, he causes him to doubt the very existence of his brother. Even photographs fail to convey an impression of him as Sengle retreats from the memory of the palpably real Valens towards the memory of his ideal. Divisions between Sengle and others become blurred, even at the grammatical level of the agreement of verbs, as Alain Verjat has demonstrated.15 Sengle consciously absorbs the vaporous ideal of his sibling into his own being, and through this act of will compounds his delirium still further. Dream and reality meet, and clash:

Et Sengle, amoureux du Souvenir de Soi, avait besoin d'un ami vivant et visible, parce qu'il n'avait aucun souvenir de Soi, étant dépourvu de toute mémoire.

Il avait essayé de réaliser en soi ce souvenir de Soi en coupant sa légère moustache et endurant de son corps une méticuleuse épilation grecque; mais il s'aperçut qu'il risquait d'avoir l'air d'une tapette et non d'un petit garçon. Et surtout il était très nécessaire qu'il demeurât ce que Valens allait devenir, jusqu'au malheureux jour où la différence de deux ans et demi n'étant plus visible, ils se confondraient trop jumeaux.

(O.C. I, p. 769)

Sengle's first decision to report sick comes immediately after the lengthy reflection on the metaphysics of love of which this is a part. In Rachilde's novel, the appearance of Hunter is governed by parallel emotional stress; Madeleine finds herself able to summon him when she is being put under pressure to marry Edmond Sellier (PT, p.271). Thus, at the outset, both Hunter and Valens have for their unmistakably real companions the same status as the lonely child's invisible friend: someone who is conveniently available when wanted, absent when not, but above all who responds to a deep-seated need that palpable company cannot fulfil. In Sengle it is a need for a completion of his self, which would cancel out weaknesses and add to perceived strengths, such as physical beauty. In Madeleine, it is the need for both an extrovert lover and an escape from provincial monotony. The two protagonists meet parallel ends, in which the companion figures are prominent and are no longer under control: Madeleine dies and Sengle is reduced to a vegetable state by being hit on the head by a lump of plaster, after obtaining his release from the army; this imbecility is in Jarry's terms a fate worse than death, which for the author of Faustroll is a highly fluid concept. Both characters meet their obliteration through a state of delirium. Madeleine's death is closely associated with strong sensory impressions of Hunter, whose very appearance becomes confused:

Ses chaussures étaient poudreuses, tellement poudreuses qu'elles se confondaient avec le sable des allées du jardin, et qu'aussi, planté droit, sans pieds, on pouvait le croire ondulant au-dessus du sol, émanant de la terre, mais ne la foulant pas.

(PT, p. 345)

Hunter is drifting out of the frame of Madeleine's imagination, and is a world away from the more realistic figure she first encountered. Similarly, Sengle loses his impression of his brother; at the time Valens will be entering military life in his turn, he finds himself staring at a plaster moulding above him on the wall; in it he develops a vision of Valens, which he stands on a table to kiss. The plaster falls, the table tips up under Sengle's feet, and the damage is done: ‘Et Sengle tâtonnait dans la nuit vers son Soi disparu comme le cœur d'une bombe, la bouche sur son meurtre’ (O.C. I, p. 835).

Both of these extended dreams lead to oblivion, through the process of self-delusion that leads the dreamer away from an undesirable reality into a delirium where the products of the imagination are as real, and indeed more destructive, than the contents of the real-world environment. The tension between the two sides lies in the division that the reader is able to perceive but which is veiled within the mind of the central characters, which is all the stronger as the novels are inherently biased towards the spiritual depiction of their central figures. Thus, Rachilde's heroine is unable to perceive her own growing illness, in fact she perceives quite the reverse, namely a growing strength in her relationship with Hunter, and on the earthly level of much of the narration, she becomes an uneasy, slightly pathetic figure for the reader as a result. Her proto-existentialist speech of self-definition on her deathbed only adds to the tragedy of her delusions. As one might expect, the situation in Jarry's novel is very much more involved, with the complications of his oblique manner of discourse and his added imposition on Sengle of other, artificial sources of hallucination. These have been ably discussed by Henri Béhar, and so require no discussion here.16 The ability of Sengle to create further states of hallucination, mainly through drugs, is a side issue to the main psychological progress of the novel, and in fact these hallucinations themselves constitute a temporary means of escape from another, more fundamental escape that is already under way and threatens the very identification of the hero.

The central delusion of the two figures, although self-generated, is involuntary, unlike Sengle's escape into hashish. Its onset stands as that of an illness, and thus attracts medical attention—in the case of La Princesse des ténèbres the love and later the professional attentions of a doctor, in Les Jours et les nuits the life of a hospital patient, even if that hospital is alternately lax and inhuman. For medicine only exacerbates the illness, reinforcing the internal value of the companion—Madeleine reacts against her doctor to rely more and more on Hunter, and the cures Sengle undergoes create obsessions, poisoning his mind to the point where he sends cultures of scarlet fever to his distant, beloved brother, intended to make him ill enough to avoid military service (O.C. I, p. 830). Sengle's true illness has advanced to the point where it feeds itself and generates more sickness, until he sees a solution only in the crippling of a healthy brother. The illness is thus becoming perceptible from the outside—in other words, it is developing symptoms, and is therefore open to treatment. However, Sengle loses his reason before any treatment can appear; the medical notions are subservient to the tragic slant common in Jarry's novels, and indeed in those of Rachilde.

The Bergsonian concept of the dream was never as fully developed as the Freudian version, and it is if anything even more dated. It is impossible to say whether the delirium in the two novels discussed above is intended to be specifically Bergsonian, as Jarry's notes from his lessons remain unavailable, and any thoughts of Bergson's direct influence on Jarry or, at second hand, his friend Rachilde, can only be conjecture. However, the importance of the blurring of dream and life highlighted by Bergson fits easily into the intensely anti-realist streak of the general Symbolist aesthetic, and in these works, produced at the heart of one of the primary Symbolist milieux, the Mercure de France circle, we see notably sustained examples of literary delirium. The companion figures introduce statement rather than escapism; the difficulty of human relationships that governs the disaffected sadism of Rachilde's early novels, and would equally govern the rejection of affection in Jarry's L'Amour en visites, is developed into attempts to create the complete personality, with the internal generation of the vital figure of l'Autre. Yet the companion, as we have found, triggers delirium and ultimately invokes oblivion; tragedy is internalized by this effect, and is thus hard to analyse from outside. Through these self-contained figures, the Symbolist cult of difficulty becomes more than a decorative trope, and paints a cold portrait of the imaginative human as an endangered species.

The portrayal of tragic delirium is only sustained within the span of these particular novels, as the authors' stances rapidly drew apart. For Jarry, the pataphysical powers of Sengle define a central and unique direction for his subsequent work, leading directly to Faustroll. Rachilde, however, always suspicious of the abstruseness that characterizes Jarry's work, moved slowly away from writing about delirium, and we may note as a stage on that journey L'Heure sexuelle (1898), which, in a re-drafting, replaced La Princesse des ténèbres as Jarry's selection for Dr. Faustroll's library. L'Heure sexuelle relates the life and hallucinations of a novelist, Louis Rogès, who is obsessed with the figure of Cleopatra and attempts to project it on to a prostitute. He seeks to be ‘celui qui va tuer le rêve’,17 and he does so by trying to live out the dream with the prostitute, Léonie, whose unsuitability for the rôle of Cleopatra is the source not only of humour but also of an affirmation that dreams cannot govern life—or at least not a life which is not destined for a tragic end, like those of Madeleine Deslandes and Sengle. For Rachilde, a way out has developed, and the therapy of the dream can be used as an antidote—whereas for Jarry the experiment of delirium points the way to still deeper alterations of the psyche, and to the constant reaching for the mysteries of the Self and the Beyond that is the hallmark of his novels.


  1. Jean de Chibra, La Princesse des ténèbres (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1895). The nom-de-plume is relatively transparent, ‘De Chibra’ being a near-anagram of ‘Rachilde’; Jarry cited it as a perfect anagram, in the form ‘De Chilra’. Page references are to this, the only edition (PT henceforth). The work is dated 1896, but the date of its dépot légal is 1895.

  2. Alfred Jarry, Les Jours et les nuits, in Œuvres Complètes, 3 vols. (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris: Gallimard, 1972-88), vol. I, pp.745-837. Page references for Jarry are to the Pléiade edition (henceforth O.C.).

  3. The definitive version of the list of books appears in O.C., p.661.

  4. ‘Ce que c'est que les ténèbres’, O.C. II, pp.432-35.

  5. See Henri Bordillon, Gestes et Opinions d'Alfred Jarry, écrivain (Laval: Editions Siloé, 1986), p.37.

  6. Anne Clancier, ‘Jarry avait-il lu Freud?’, in Colloque de Cerisy, Jarry (Paris: Belfond, 1985), pp.235-57. Especially interesting for its analysis of L'Amour absolu.

  7. See Claude Dauphiné, Rachilde, femme de lettres 1900 (Périgueux: Pierre Fanlac, 1985), especially pp.123-26. This book, a creditable example of the Home Town Biography genre, is as close to an academic study of Rachilde as we yet have.

  8. Noël Arnaud, ‘Jarry à son ombre même’, Revue des Sciences Humaines, no. 203 (1986), 97-125, pp.111-14. Arnaud is one of the critics once behind the Collège de 'Pataphysique, who sought to stress Jarry's modernity by giving him quasi-divine status and excluding the power of contemporary influences. Arnaud is justified in criticizing the simplicity of Rachilde's biography (published by Bernard Grasset in 1928, and source of most of the popular anecdotes about Jarry), but his insistence that Rachilde in fact disliked Jarry is both unsubstantiated and absurd.

  9. This was Christian Dietrich Grabbe's Scherz, Satire, Ironie und tiefere Bedeutung, translated by Jarry as Les Silènes. The reference is to the Devil feeling cold on a hot summer's day, away from his furnaces (PT, p.196: ‘Je suis le voyageur qui passe … et qui s'en va, car le froid me chasse!’). See O.C. II, p.29, for Jarry's rendering of Grabbe's joke.

  10. Keith Beaumont, Alfred Jarry: a critical and biographical study (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1984), p. 147.

  11. Jarry's taste for Rabelais is reflected not only in the grossness of the hospital but also in the archaic names of Busnagoz and Nosocome, the medical staff.

  12. Henri Bergson, Le Rêve, in his Œuvres Complètes (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1959), 878-97, p. 883.

  13. Bergson, op.cit., p. 885. The lecture that forms Le Rêve was delivered in March 1901.

  14. Noël Arnaud, Alfred Jarry: d'Ubu Roi au Docteur Faustroll, (Paris: La Table Ronde, 1974), pp. 356-60. Arnaud suggests a number of possible identities, in a fusion of which we can find the inspiration for Valens.

  15. Alain Verjat, ‘Si le miroir n'éblouit’, Revue des Sciences Humaines, no.203 (1986), 141-60. In this precise study of the language of the novel, Verjat cites as an example the sentence ‘Sengle et Dricarpe sur leurs lits voisins écoutait et contait’ (p. 144). Dricarpe is a character of unremitting but comic vileness.

  16. Henri Béhar, ‘L'écriture du rêve dans Les Jours et les nuits’, in Colloque de Cerisy, Jarry (Paris: Belfond, 1985), pp. 137-53.

  17. Rachilde, L'Heure sexuelle (Paris: Editions Baudinière, 1933), p. 19. This edition of the novel is the most readily accessible, being held on microform by the Bibliothèque Nationale. The first edition (Paris: Mercure de France, 1898) joined La Princesse des ténèbres in using Rachilde's supplementary nom-de-plume, in this instance spelt ‘De Childra’.

Jill Fell (essay date June 1995)

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SOURCE: Fell, Jill. “Alfred Jarry's Alternative Cubists.” French Cultural Studies 6, Part 2, no. 17 (June 1995): 249-69.

[In the following essay, Fell suggests that Jarry was one of the first to use the word “cubisme” and that Jarry practiced a linguistic cubism in essays such as “Commentaire pour servir à la construction practique de la machine à explorer le temps” and plays such as César-Antechrist, as well as through his neologisms and textual acrobatics that emphasized multiple points of view.]

The emergence of the artistic movement of Cubism is officially put at about 1907-8.1 Given that its origins have been the subject of fierce debate, however,2 and that neither Apollinaire, who set himself up as the Cubists' theoretician, nor Picasso, ever accepted that Cubism was only a matter of translating the visual image into cubic form, it may be worth investigating an alternative usage of the word cubiste, coined in 1894 and in limited circulation in French avant-garde circles well before Cubist painting was defined and named. Given also that this early use of cubiste was a mischievous neologism based on the Greek words kubistitire (κυβιsτητηρε) and kubistontes (κυβιsτωντεs), both used to refer to acrobatic tumblers and that Picasso's work of 1904-5 focused intently on acrobats, the apparent fluke takes its place in a mysterious cluster of flukes, if not a meaningful pattern.

The word cubiste in its Greek sense of ‘acrobatic tumbler’ was coined by a writer who was venerated and courted by four of the leading figures of the avant-garde around 1901-5. The writer was Alfred Jarry, whose uncompromising ‘Umour’ fitted well with the aims of Apollinaire's periodical, Le Festin d'Ésope,3 to which the future Surrealist writers Max Jacob, André Salmon and eventually Picasso himself also contributed. Jarry's coinage, which snips off the final syllables of the two Greek variants used by Homer and Plato, to produce a succinct Gallic compromise, first appears in an article of May 1894 and recurs in subsequent texts published in 1895 and 1900.

In considering the origins of Cubism it is also important not to overlook Jarry's artistic collaboration with Paul Fort, poet, editor and onetime director of the Théâtre d'Art, whose early collection of poetry, Ballades. Louis XI, Curieux Homme, he helped to illustrate and to whom he lent his personal typeface, especially cast for his own luxury journal, Perhinderion. Fort's so-called Closerie des Lilas circle in Montparnasse included Apollinaire and Metzinger, who have been said to represent the two distinct wings of Cubist theory in its early stages.4 Jarry attended their meetings during his sporadic visits to Paris in the final three years of his life from 1904 to 1907.5

It has been suggested that the 1896 production of Ubu roi canalized the ‘Jacquerie artistique’ of the time and that Jarry transmitted a taste for the strange and marvellous to Apollinaire and the Festin d'Ésope group. His ironical system of a universe additional to this one, put forward in Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien, is moreover thought to have encouraged Picasso in his project of disrupting accepted appearances.6 More seriously, the austere, shamanic figure of the Roman acrobat, Mnester, whom Jarry introduced as foil to the debauched Empress, Messalina, in his novel of the same name, highlights the movement towards a more ascetic form of art and the search for purity of thought and expression. This purity of thought which can be achieved by the ascetic or hermit parallels the physical achievement of the acrobat who maintains his skill through painful and rigorous training, a discipline to which Picasso's circus paintings bear witness. Jarry's purpose in writing Messaline was entirely serious and, taken with other texts, clearly demonstrates his intellectual affinity with early Cubism.

The term cubisme as the name for a certain style of painting is said to have sprung from a review of the Paris Salon d'automne of 1908 by the critic Louis Vauxcelles. Vauxcelles's inspiration apparently came from overhearing Matisse, in his capacity as an official on the jury, criticize Braque's submissions for having ‘trop de petits cubes.’ Piqued by the jury's opprobrium, Braque withdrew all his paintings and it is not now certain whether Matisse was offended by a particular painting or by all of them. In his review Vauxcelles accused Braque of over-simplification and of reducing everything to cubes. His subsequent article discussing Braque's two exhibits at the spring Salon des Indépendants likewise referred to ‘bizarreries cubiques’.7 Vauxcelles had been responsible for adopting the term fauve several years earlier: now his derogatory reference to Braque's cubes gave rise to the label of Cubism. Matisse refused to acknowledge the initial remark8 but wrote the following account in 1935:

According to my recollection it was Braque who made the first Cubist painting. He brought back from the south a Mediterranean landscape that represented a seaside village seen from above. In order to give more importance to the roofs, which were few, as they would be in a village, in order to let them stand out in the ensemble of the landscape, and at the same time develop an idea of humanity that they stood for; he had continued the signs that represented the roofs on into the sky and had painted them throughout the sky. This is really the first picture constituting the origin of Cubism, and we considered it as something quite new, about which there were many discussions.9

Matisse is here referring to one of Braque's Estaque landscapes, probably Maisons d'Estaque.

Opposing Vauxcelles's sneering view of the new art, Apollinaire, from his position of intimacy with several of the artists who were struggling to create new forms, set himself up as their theoretician. He disliked the simplistic label of Cubism as a term to describe their very different efforts. He evolved his own term, orphisme, which pointed to the new art's strong relationship with music, but had to compromise in 1911, when the Salon des Indépendants assembled the exhibits of eleven avant-garde painters in the same room under the heading of Cubism. Apollinaire felt bound to accept the invitation to write the explanatory piece in the exhibition catalogue, despite his resistance to a simplistic name, coined in mockery.

Apollinaire's later book, Les Peintres cubistes, divides the new movement into four categories: ‘Scientific Cubism’, ‘Physical Cubism’, ‘Orphic Cubism’, and ‘Instinctive Cubism’. It could be said that Orphic Cubism, as described by Apollinaire, defines the artistic ideals towards which both Jarry and the young Picasso were striving, and that it is the plasticity and swift-moving feats of the acrobat which exemplify it more than the rigid angles of the cube. We can relate Apollinaire's statement that Orphic Cubism portrays an individual imaginative reality to Jarry's wish to be able to recreate forms and colours according to a personal vision. In his novel Les Jours et les nuits Jarry advocates a rapid assimilation of images as his ideal:

Capturer dans un drainage rapide les formes et les couleurs, dans le moins de temps possible le long des routes et des pistes (…) et l'esprit peut d'autant plus aisément après cette assimilation recréer des formes et les couleurs nouvelles selon soi. Nous ne savons pas créer du néant, mais le pourrions du chaos.10

Jarry's theory is based on his faith in the creative unconscious part of the mind and partly derives from his observations as a racing cyclist. Apollinaire's statement lays similar emphasis on new visual combinations deriving from an individual perception:

Le cubisme orphique est l'autre grande tendance de la peinture moderne. C'est l'art de peindre des ensembles nouveaux avec des éléments empruntés non à la réalité visuelle, mais entièrement créés par l'artiste et doués par lui d'une puissante réalité. Les œuvres des artistes orphiques doivent présenter simultanément un agrément esthétique pur.11

Although Jarry was writing about poetic creation and Apollinaire about painting, the belief in a visual element which derives uniquely from the artist's own imagination was shared by both writers.

In 1894 Jarry was just becoming known as a poet and commentator on contemporary art. That same year he published an article, philosophical in content but facetious in tone, in L'Art littéraire titled ‘Visions actuelles et futures.’ It is in the second Vision that we find cubiste, or rather demicubiste, used as a noun and applied to a kinetic oddity of Jarry's own design. Here is the passage in all its dense neologistic glory:

Phallus déraciné, ne fais pas de pareils bonds! Tu es une roue dont la substance seule subsiste, le diamètre du cercle sans circonférence créant un plan par sa rotation autour de son point médian. La substance de ton diamètre est un Point. La ligne et son envergure sont dans nos yeux, clignant devant les rayures d'or et vertes d'un bec de gaz palloïde. (…) Ne fais pas de pareils bonds, demi-cubiste sur l'un et l'autre pôle de ton axe et de ton soi! (…)

OC I 339

The introduction of a huge hopping phallus into an Aristophanes comedy or a piece of medieval mummery would normally signal a comic interlude. Jarry introduces the entrance of the so-called Bâton-à-physique with such a fanfare of erudition that the comic element of the Phallus is killed dead. The Physick-Stick12/Phallus arrives on stage with an armoury of complex geometrical and literary credentials (of which the corrupted word cubiste is one), assembled by Jarry to dignify his creation and to dazzle his readers.

Jarry read Greek and Latin literature as a private passion and has here modified the rare word kubistitir which means ‘acrobatic tumbler’ or, more precisely, ‘circularist’, into the prophetic cubiste, whereas French writers on Greek dance forms ordinarily render it as kubistétère. This is the first recorded occurrence of the word cubiste in French literature and represents Jarry's private delight in a word which seems to say the very opposite of what it actually means. The archaic Greek verb kubistan was in fact first used to denote the movement of jumping and diving fish. The term was then transposed to denote the forward and backward flips of acrobatic tumblers in their gymnastic routines. The Iliad contains the word in both senses. It is used by Plato and Xenophon to describe the dangerous stunts performed by acrobats engaged to entertain at private banquets. In 1895 a French academic, Maurice Emmanuel, published a thesis on Greek dance forms, Saltationis disciplina apud Graecos, preserving the Greek terms intact. He then transcribed the Greek word kubistitir, meaning tumbler, into a French equivalent, kubistétère, when translating the thesis into French for publication under the title Essai sur l'orchestique grecque (subsequently expanded into La Danse grecque antique the same year). This form of the word was retained by Louis Séchan in his 1930 book of the same title. Emmanuel helpfully points to the piscatorial origins of the various verb forms kubista, ekkubista or exekubista, describing these gymnastic movements as follows:

Exécuter des ‘sauts de carpe’ qui permettent à l'acrobate à franchir un obstacle en prenant pour points d'appui alternatifs les mains et les pieds.13

Séchan omits the fishy connection but here gives a very exact description of the action kubistan:

L'art de kubistétère consistait essentiellement à se jeter sur les mains (kubistan), puis, à revenir à la position normale soit en rabattant ses jambes, soit en achevant un tour complet. Il pouvait faire ainsi une série de tours rapides, et parfois même peut-être, l'appui des mains étant supprimé, il accomplissait de véritables ‘sauts périlleux’.14

In his detailed account of the dance by the Roman mime, Mnester, Jarry's description of the movement is exact, but he perverts the Greek kubistitir to cubiste:

Le mime, après un saut et demi périlleux, est retombé sur les mains, en posture de cubiste.

OC II 111-112

Jarry's italics indicate the use of a technical term, but he leaves the nonclassical scholar in the dark as to the frame of reference.

Jarry's use of the neologism is aptly chosen to describe the Bâton-à-Physique or Physick-Stick, (OC I 339) a hybrid creation of his own, based on the stick of Papa Guignol and Punch,15 but promoted to the status of sacred Hindu Phallus, with attributes drawn from the brothel scene of Lautréamont's Chants de Maldoror. The Physick-Stick's end-to-end method of self-propulsion accurately imitates the difficult gymnastic routine whereby the acrobat or gymnast performed a series of forward flips (ekubista) formerly over upright swords, and backward flips (exekubista) in a straight line, landing on hands and feet alternately.16 The even more difficult gymnastic stunt ‘faire la roue’, in which the acrobat twines his feet round his neck and rolls like a wheel, had survived unchanged from antiquity as the most demanding exercise, through which a Greek gymnast kept his body at the peak of suppleness. Jarry's description of an actual performance by the acrobat Juno Salmo gives his first hand impression as follows:

Jambes croisées derrière sa tête, noeud compliqué de membres ou de tentacules, (…).

OC II 335

This is the final position of the fictitious acrobatic dance by Mnester miming the seduction of the sun by the moon and the one in which his statuette is cast by the Empress Messaline. Emmanuel's account meanwhile attests to the antique pedigree of the stunt:

Exercice du τροχοs, merveilleux pour assouplir les membres: le pédotribe oblige l'élève à se transformer en boule et le fait rouler sur lui-même comme un cerceau.17

Jarry's textual researches and the fairground entertainments where he was able to observe acrobats at first hand clearly backed each other up. In his article ‘La mécanique d'«Ixion» Jarry admits to absconding from school trips to the Théâtre-Français in order to watch the clowning routines of Pierantoni and Saltamontes in their street performances and refers to the fairground feats of ‘circulating Snake-men’:

Ixion, d'après les poètes, est ligoté sur la roue, extérieurement à la circonférence. Ainsi ‘circulent’ les hommes-serpents dans les foires, la nuque aux talons.

(OC II 405-7)

Maurice Emmanuel confirms Jarry's observations.18

As far as the future artistic movement of Cubism is concerned, an interesting feature of the acrobatic Physick-Stick is that it ejaculates images gyroscopically, as described here with continuing neologistic verve by Jarry:

Tu es l'emblème bourgeon de la génération (…) spontanée, vibrion et volvoce dont les images gyroscoposuccessives révèlent à nos yeux, hélas trops purs, ta scissiparité, et qui projettes loin des sexes terrestres le riz cérébral de ton sperme nacré jusqu'à la traîne où les haies d'indépendantes pincettes des chinois Gastronomes illustrent la Vierge lactée.

OC I 339-340

This rotatory motion is the characteristic which makes it recognizable as Jarry's later Painting Machine which appears in ‘Clinamen,’ the chapter of Faustroll dedicated to Paul Fort, spinning randomly like a top to ejaculate thirteen pictures, whose transmutation into words is the only evidence of their existence but which probably belonged to Fort, Jarry's main supplier of exotic woodblocks for the early numbers of L'Ymagier. Faustroll/ Jarry chooses to make a gesture of faith in the future reputation of his friend Henri Rousseau by placing the operation of the machine in his charge.19 That Jarry should invent the word cubiste when recording his visions of the future and link it to the idea of a rotating mechanical projection of pictures is a curious coincidence.

If we turn from Jarry's acrobatic stick to his later ‘Commentaire pour servir à la construction pratique de la machine à explorer le temps’, we find interesting observations on rotation, cubic rigidity and the visual aspect of passing through time:

Trois gyrostats en rotation rapide, dont les lignes des coussinets soient parallèles aux trois dimensions, engendrent la rigidité cubique.

Following on from this in a complex argument, which has been compared to modern descriptions of black holes,20 Jarry here sets out to prove the reversibility of the future:

La marche dans le Passé consiste en la perception de la réversibilité des phénomènes. On verra la pomme rebondir de terre sur l'arbre, ou ressusciter le mort, puis le boulet rentrer dans le canon. Cet aspect visuel de la succession est déjà connu, comme pouvant être obtenu théoriquement en dépassant la lumière, puis continuant à s'éloigner d'une vitesse constante, égale à celle de la lumière.

OC I 742-3

His conviction of the possibility of conveying simultaneous actions together places him intellectually at the nucleus of the Cubist debates out of which Duchamp's Nue descendant l'escalier eventually emerged and identifies him as one of the early supporters of experiments which conjure up aspects of visual reality different from the norm. He concludes his argument with the following definition:

La Durée est la transformation d'une succession en une réversion.

Jarry's deliberations do have a similar ring to the comments of the critic, Léon Werth, who, in a review of an exhibition of Picasso's work that took place in May 1910, referred to ‘turning forms’ and ‘opposition of planes’ relating them to Bergson's concept of Durée. Werth wrote of having his attention drawn to the ‘thought’ to which they were cumulatively equivalent: that is, to the ‘power and right of these forms to transfer on to the plane of a picture the sensations and reflections which we experience with the passage of time’.21

Jarry was not content to let his philosophical pronouncements on the Physick-Stick sink without trace in a minor ephemeral journal and decided to introduce the Stick as a leading character in the ‘Acte héraldique’ of his strange and unproducible drama, César-Antechrist. The text of Ubu roi made up the so-called ‘Acte terrestre’ of this hybrid four-act play, published by Mercure de France in 1895, a fact which gave it considerable collector's value. Within ten years, copies of this book were extremely rare and Apollinaire was only able to obtain one through Jarry himself. The heraldic manifestations of Ubu and the Palotins follow the Physick-Stick and César-Antechrist in the ‘Acte héraldique’, as luminous, spherical forms. Indeed Ubu's rotatory progress ‘semblable à un œuf, une citrouille ou un fulgurant météore’ imitates that of the Physick-Stick as wheel. We cannot ignore the glaring centre of the word cUBiste in such close proximity to the kernel figure of Jarry's satirical work. Indeed in a later text Père Ubu, antithesis of Picasso's bone-thin acrobats, boasts that he can perform ‘le saut périgiglyeux.’ (OC I 504). The ‘UB-’ brandmark, which diverts the Greek upsilon away from its true Greek ‘I’ or ‘Y’ sound to the Latin ‘U’ sound reveals the cunning linguistic tampering which makes this word singularly Jarry's own.22

Turning to the other dramatis personae of the ‘Acte héraldique’ we find that they are conventional armorial bearings in name alone. Jarry's mischievous imagination selects from the heraldic vocabulary only those words which, with slight variations, have an obscene or mildly vulgar second meaning.23 Representing a practical demonstration of the identity of opposites, the Physick-Stick's freedom of movement, unique in a landscape of frozen escutcheons, allows it to be pale or fess—vertical or horizontal bar. Jarry repeats the same piece of text from Les Chants de Maldoror: ‘NE FAIS PAS DE PAREILS BONDS … !’, a quotation which he now uses as the Physick-Stick's theme tune, bequeathing it a ready-made identity, that of God's lost and errant giant strand of hair, the fantastic product of Lautréamont's imagination, whose gruesome act of flaying an unwitting young man in a brothel was later depicted by both Magritte and Dalí.24 Jarry also points to his exact source for the word cubiste and lends a particular shading to it by introducing a quotation from Plato's Symposium—a part of Aristophanes' discourse on Love. Variants of the word kubistitir in the sense of an acrobatic tumbler occur in several classical texts. In another work, Euthydemus, Plato represented the acrobatic movement of imitating a wheel, as the acme of physical and mental skill.25 In César-Antechrist Jarry is at pains to draw an equation between the cartwheeling kubistitir of private banquets, as described in Xenophon's Banquet and Plato's eight-limbed hermaphrodite of myth which could revolve on its eight limbs at great speed like a tumbler.26 Zeus cut the creatures in half to produce the monosexual four-limbed human beings of today. The harshness of the punishment consisted in the yearning which the sundered halves, whether cut from a purely male, female, or hermaphrodite whole, would continually feel for their missing ‘other half’ and is probably linked to the homosexual theme of Jarry's previous drama, Haldernablou. Jarry's quotation from Plato refers to Zeus' threat to splice the two-legged beings a second time:

La droite cherchera la gauche, et l'homme fendu longitudinalement sautera sur une seule jambe27

OC I 291

This colourful myth is mentioned by Rabelais, from whose works Jarry borrowed on more than one occasion and whose validation must have made it doubly attractive. It seems likely that Jarry concocted the word cubiste purely for bafflement—a prize in his private collection of ambiguous words. A peculiar coincidence with regard to the unlikely link between the name Cubist to designate a type of painting and its archaic antecedent is that Plato's cartwheeling androgyne was selected by Gargantua to be his personal sign—the ymage or emblem that he wore in his cap, another link in the chance chain which ties this abstruse word to an aesthetic context. Here is the relevant passage:

Pour son ymage avoit, en une platine d'or pesant soixant-huit marcs, une figure d'esmail competent, en laquelle estoit portraict ung corps humain ayant deux testes, l'une virée vers l'autre, quatre bras, quatre pieds et deux culz, telz que dict Platon, in Symposio avoir esté l'humaine nature a son commencement mysticq.28

In this review of Messaline in La Revue blanche, Jarry's reference to its form as that of a medal could almost be taken to indicate a conscious effort on his part to link the novel to the above passage:

La forme de ce roman est nette, éclatante et définitive, comme un camée ou une médaille de ces temps anciens.

OC II 606

If the reference to Gargantua's ymage is intentional, it would certainly help to connect the demi-cubiste of César-Antechrist to the cubiste of Messaline.

Jarry's esoteric personal jargon was noted by the novelist Rachilde, who credited him with ‘les tournures grecques’.29 The erudite writers, drawn to her mardis at the Mercure de France offices would certainly have been capable of taking part in the game. Amongst the classical scholars within this circle at least Henri de Régnier, Pierre Louÿs, Pierre Quillard and the Greek poet, Jean Moréas, should have been able to tune in to Jarry's use of cubiste in relation to the well-known passages from Plato and Xenophon from which he had plundered it.30

The fact that Jarry comes back to the word cubiste when writing Messaline five or six years after he had originally coined it suggests that it had remained in his personal jargon even after his written style had shed most of the more cumbersome trappings of the Symbolist style. First published in serial form in La Revue blanche at the very watershed of the two centuries, Messaline represents a new style of suggestive writing with many points of reference in Greek and Latin literature31 and brings into focus the otherwise murky intertext running through Jarry's previous poetry and novels. It evinces Jarry's clear belief that his works would one day be collected and read as a whole. The word cubiste, resurfaces for the first time since César-Antechrist. carrying the associations of the previous work and new ones of considerable pertinence to twentieth-century art and literature.

Once more Jarry gives a careful pointer to his source text for cubiste, which is not the same as previously, but which is yet again linked to an aesthetic context, however improbable this link may seem. Now his textual reference points to a passage from the Iliad which had entered the annals of the history of aesthetics through Lessing's Laocoön. In his discussions on the differences between the sister arts of poetry and painting Lessing had selected Homer's dynamic account of Hephaistos' life-like engraving on Achilles' magic shield as a unique example of ‘visual literature’. Homer's description of the scenes on the shield is singled out as an exceptional case of a poet successfully describing a static series of pictures set in space (‘das Nebeneinander der Dinge’) in terms of a dynamic sequential narrative (‘das Nacheinander der Dinge’). The rhythms and typical scenes of human life are depicted in microcosm with added sound effects. Jarry's choice falls on the scene of the ploughman, whose circling he compares to the motion of the chariots in the Emperor Claudius' arena and whose small beaker of mead mirrors its cupped form in microcosm, described as follows in Messaline:

Et selon l'enseignement d'Homère, en images sur le bouclier d'Achille, après chaque virage aux traces parallèles autour des deux bornes de porphyre vert surmontées par des œufs d'or, l'aurige laboureur32 vidait une grande coupe, au fond de la grande coupe du cirque.

OC II 103

The description ends with two acrobats or kubistitire whirling at the centre, as if Homer intended to indicate a blurring of the boundaries between life and art under the aegis of a whirling dance. Jarry himself adopted a similar narrative technique in Faustroll to describe the pictures of three of his contemporaries and friends.33 It is odd to discover that the word cubiste had already been linked by Jarry to one of the most important texts on aesthetics well before the official advent of Cubist painting.

In Messaline the chapter describing the dance of the mime and cubiste, Mnester, is significantly positioned at the end of Part I as the coupling point of the novel's two halves.34 Reputed to be the familiar and homosexual companion of the late Caligula, to whom he dedicates his dance, Mnester combines the characteristics of Plato's cartwheeling, double-sexed kubistontes, rendered in gold and enamel to form Gargantua's emblem, with Homer's whirling kubistitire/acrobats graven by Hephaistos at the very centre of Achilles' impenetrable magic shield.35 Mnester is so flexible that he can assume almost any position, dislocating his joints and undulating like an oriental belly dancer—also spinning and humming like a top and, indeed, like Jarry's own Painting Machine.

Leaving aside the rebellious icosahedron and the polyhedron crystals which appear at various points in the Ubu cycle and which are invoked by Jarry in his earliest pronouncements on words and meaning, there are certainly similarities between his literary experiments and the Cubist experiments in art, especially in his idealization of Pure Thought (the archaic concept of Nουs) as opposed to Reason36 and in his search for new truths through disrupting, deforming and looking beyond the familiar world. The motif of the impossibly bent kubistitir prefigures the grossly distorted forms of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and other so-called Cubist works. Furthermore Jarry's description of the three superimposed ‘arenas’ of Barnum's circus, given here, could be seen as a paradigm of his own highly condensed literary texts:

Ce n'est qu'un grand cirque a-t-on dit. Soit; mais imaginez une arène dans laquelle vous en versez trois autres de dimensions respectables. Une fois posées, vous vous apercevez qu'elles tiennent juste autant de place que trois assiettes sur une nappe de banquet. Dans chacune de ces trois pistes, vous lâchez quelques troupeaux d'éléphants (…) Dans les airs s'enchevêtre une forêt vierge d'agrès nécessaires à plusieurs douzaines de funambules et gymnasiarques (…) Au-dessous grouille un peuple de clowns, une harde de chevaux.

OC II 333

Indeed the acrobatic leaps of Jarry's imagination and his many-layered text has been likened to Joyce's literary technique.37

In 1928, with the advantage both of hindsight and her intimate knowledge of the man and the work, Rachilde placed Jarry at the very source of the Cubist movement, not only by virtue of his own tiny woodcuts but because of his role in unleashing what she calls (after the title of one of her own books) the ‘Demons of the Absurd’:

Il a été, qu'on le veuille ou non, l'animateur du mouvement cubiste en France. On n'a qu'à comparer ses bois gravés par lui-même avec les plus récentes créations de ce genre hermétique (je dis hermétique par pure politesse). Alfred Jarry fut vraiment le premier fondateur de l'école que j'appellerai, faute d'expression plus technique: l'école des démons de l'absurde.38

That Jarry's attention should light on the rare archaic word kubistan and that he should adapt it into a word which was to brand one of the foremost artistic movements of the future century is one of those quirks of fate akin to the phenomenon of Clinamen which would have delighted him.39 The connection with physical and mental discipline bestowed on this word by Plato and Xenophon, together with the magical gift of animating inert designs that Homer seems to suggest the acrobat possesses, could have been exploited by theorists to give the so-called Cubist movement an interesting extra dimension. The strange myth of our many-limbed, cartwheeling hermaphrodite ancestors, cut up by Zeus and sewn together by Apollo, also has rich, if coincidental aesthetic implications for the dislocated, hacked about and queerly pieced-together bodies of Picasso's Cubist canvases. The bi-sexual overtones which Jarry lent to the word cubiste as a result of his reading of Plato and Rabelais, allied to the very personal ‘-UB-’ hallmark, may have outlawed it to a realm of personalized jarryesque argot poised between the absurd, the risqué and the esoteric, too far removed from the simple cube and beyond the pale of serious debate.

Two facts certainly make it seem very strange that Apollinaire omitted to link the Greek word kubistan with the Cubist movement, at least in his more speculative writing on the subject: firstly, that Jarry set aside a copy of César-Antechrist for him in 1903 at his specific request and it is therefore unlikely that he did not take note of Jarry's cubiste/acrobate analogy;40 secondly, his linguistic pleasure from the fact that two prominent Cubist painters outside France were the Czech, Kubicsta and the German, Kubin,41 implies that he would have been equally delighted by Jarry's chance coinage of cubiste thirteen years too early. Bearing in mind that Apollinaire edited his reference to Kubicsta and Kubin out of his final version of Les Peintres cubistes, we could speculate that he likewise refrained from introducing such a peculiar red herring as Jarry's premature coinage for fear that this eccentric sidetrack could undermine his efforts to define the complex new movement in an intelligible and serious way. The public was crying out for elucidation, not more bafflement. In order to justify his acceptance of the term Cubism, Apollinaire, in his turn, coined the verb cubiquer to indicate an effort on the part of the new painters to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image.

If we collate Jarry's very dispersed pronouncements, however, particularly ‘Visions actuelles et futures’, ‘Être et vivre’, ‘Clinamen’, ‘La mécanique d'Ixion’, ‘Pataphysique’, and ‘Commentaire pour servir à la construction pratique de la machine à explorer le temps’, we find him theorizing about Time being the fourth dimension of Space, about memory, movement and form in a way which touches closely on Cubist debates. His violent novelties and love of the irrational are thought to have been a crucial ingredient in the atmosphere which gave birth to Cubism.42 It would not be too far-fetched to posit that the detail of his more complex theories was so well known to Fort, Fargue, Apollinaire and other key figures within the Closerie des Lilas circle as to be part and parcel of the arguments which helped to model the new more exploratory and explosive aesthetic spirit. Although intended to be derogatory, a little-known review of the Spring Salon des Indépendants of March 1908 which appeared in Le Rire actually senses the spirit of Ubu, (Rachilde's ‘Démon de l'absurde’), to be at the root of the new painting:

It's Ubu Roi but in painting. I particularly recommend the painting Hunger, Thirst, Sensuality, in which a woman—if one may call her such—is eating her right leg, drinking her blood, and with her left hand … No, I could never tell you where her left hand is wandering, no doubt in memory of Titian.43

Out of Braque and Picasso, the two accepted originators of Cubism, Picasso certainly had a fervent admiration for Jarry and there are apocryphal stories of their roaming the Paris streets firing revolvers. Picasso's portrait of Jarry cruelly captures the pathos of the ageing alcoholic, suggesting that it was indeed drawn from life, but it is not certain that they actually met.44 It is also unlikely that Picasso, whose French remained rudimentary for some while, knew Jarry's theoretical texts at first hand as did Francis Picabia. Nevertheless his Arlequin of 1915, which he boasted was the best thing he had ever done and which depicts Harlequin as a cross between a knobbed cane, the hand of a clock and a keyhole, with its displaced sliver of a grin doubling as a sticking out tongue, displays similar characteristics to Jarry's Physick-Stick, stacked in a boxroom but waiting to bound out.

The advent of Dada and Surrealism finally revealed Jarry's contribution to the artistic ferment in the first two decades of the century and the debts which the prime initiators of the avant-garde movement owed him. As to the emergence of the word cubiste via Jarry's pen, with its archaic associations of Protean plasticity, so much apter to the aims of the so-called Cubist painters than the word ‘cube,’ denoting geometric rigidity, Jarry would have no doubt liked to claim some Delphic sense of its imminence. Perhaps Apollinaire's knowledge that the word cubiste had a shadow meaning made it easier for him to come to terms with his title Les Peintres cubistes whilst deploring the designation cubisme. The composition of Picasso's well-known Acrobate à la boule (1905) happens to place a massive cube supporting a monumental Strong Man in opposition to the frail androgynous figure of a young acrobat, thus uniting cube and cubiste and colluding with Jarry's prophetic invention.

We cannot however credit Jarry with mysterious powers. Words have lives of their own and we can only note two distinct usages of the word cubiste, the one a neologistic noun, short-lived and occulted, a swift phantasm of a past culture blipping momentarily on to the literary screen a few years before its famous Double, the adjective pertaining to cubisme, became a lasting monument to one of the most important artistic movements of the century.


Alfred Jarry coined the word demi-cubiste independently for his article, ‘Visions actuelles et futures,’ published in L'Art littéraire. From the implication that his source was Plato's Symposium, we can infer that he intended the word to mean ‘half an acrobat,’ i.e. a halved, one-legged being, (‘l'homme fendu longitudinalement’) forced to hop like the Physick-Stick. This passage was reworked as a dialogue for the ‘Acte héraldique’ of César-Antechrist published in the March 1895 number of the Mercure de France journal. The bound volume of the full four-act play of César-Antechrist (which contained the first published version of Ubu roi as its ‘Acte terrestre’) then came out under the Mercure de France imprint in November 1895. The word cubiste does not occur again in Jarry's published work until the novel Messaline, which was serialized in the Revue blanche in 1900 and published in book form the following year. Jarry uses it at first to denote the handstand position adopted by the Roman acrobat, Mnester, during his dance routine as follows:

Car le mime, après un saut et demi périlleux, est retombé sur les mains, en posture de cubiste.

His second reference is to the report of an actual find of a bronze effigy of a Greek acrobat discovered at Capri, which he must have come across during his own random literary excavations:

Et les fouilles modernes ont exhumé un de ces cubistes de bronze à la piscine à Caprée45

OC II 119

This time the acrobat is depicted not in mid-leap, but as the rolled up ball or wheel (τροχοs) referred to above, one of the fetishistic souvenirs (‘effigies, semblables à des œufs d'or,’) struck by Messalina to placate the populace after Mnester's execution.46 The description of the little statue as a ‘portrait de métal’ carries resonances of Jarry's 1894 reference to the androgyne of Gargantua's personal emblem, his gold and enamel ymage or ‘figure d'émail.’

The noun cubiste therefore occurs four times in published works of Jarry's between 1894 and 1900, but in three subtly different forms:

  • (i) as mythical hermaphrodite, halved and quartered (demi-cubiste);
  • (ii) denoting a handstand (posture de cubiste);
  • (iii) as acrobatic tumbler typical of Greek private entertainments (cubiste).

Each one of these references has a valid, if chance, bearing on aspects of Cubist painting unconnected with any geometrical or cubic aspect, whether it is the slicing of the visual image into its many parts, the reversing of the image, or the twisting, contorting and spinning of the object or body to dematerialize it in the attempt to capture a new form of visual reality.

The re-coining of cubiste took place in 1908 in relation to the artistic movement of Cubism and to Braque's cubic forms. It is simply a curious coincidence that the writer who wrestled most passionately with the defining of the so-called Cubist movement had in his possession a rare first edition of a book containing the earlier 1895 coinage of his close friend, Alfred Jarry of the rapid ‘parler Homère’. By sheer fluke Jarry had purposely concealed his own artistic ideal of the ‘circulating’ acrobat, with its connotations of upsidedownness, gymnastic shape-changing and the conciliation of opposites, within the same word. Whether any echoes of Jarry's usage afforded Apollinaire secret pleasure or whether his copy of César-Antechrist remained a collector's piece with the pages uncut can only be a matter of speculation.


  1. The following dictionary definition taken randomly from the 1973 edition of the Grand Larousse could serve as a rough guide to the public perception of the artistic movement of Cubism and its origins. It begins as follows:

    CUBISME n. m. (de cube) Le cubisme est une révolution plastique sans précédent, qui à partir de 1907, va relever le concept de forme de son discrédit académique, mais en obligeant les apparences à entrer, à leur corps défendant, dans une sorte de cristallisation polyédrique où ne subsistent plus que des vestiges de l'apparence.

  2. A concise account of the contradictory stories surrounding the coining of the term ‘Cubism’ is given in the Introduction to William Rubin, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 389; also in the same book, Judith Cousins with the collaboration of Pierre Daix, ‘Documentary Chronology’, 435, n. 62.

  3. Apollinaire published a shortened version of Jarry's L'Objet aimé in Le Festin d'Ésope in December 1903.

  4. See Mark Roskill, The Interpretation of Cubism (London and Toronto: The Art Alliance Press, 1985), 24.

  5. See Lucien Aressy, La Dernière Bohème. Verlaine et son milieu (Paris: Jouve et Cie, 1923), 225-6. The list of writers and artists within the Closerie des Lilas group given here extends until 1914, seven years after Jarry's death. His name can, however, be linked to those of his known associates, Gustave Kahn, Mécislas Goldberg, André Fontainas, Lugné-Poë, Pierre Quillard, André Salmon and Marinetti for the earlier period of 1904-7.

  6. ‘Jacquerie artistique’ is the term used by Charles Chassé, author of D'Ubu roi au Douanier Rousseau (Paris: Nouvelle Revue Critique, 1947), quoted in Anthony Blunt and Phoebe Pool, Picasso the Formative Years (London: Studio Books, 1962), 23-4. See also Gerald Kamber's Introduction to Max Jacob and the Poetics of Cubism (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971) citing Jarry's belief in ‘un univers que l'on peut voir et que peut-être l'on doit voir à la place du traditionnel' as ‘a kind of ground for the whole cubist movement.’

  7. See Louis Vauxcelles, ‘Le Salon des Indépendants,’ Gil Blas (20 mars, 1908) 2 and Louis Vauxcelles, ‘Exposition Braque. Chez Kahnweiler, 28, rue Vignon.’ Gil Blas, 14 novembre, 1908. Reprinted in Edward Fry, Cubism (New York: McGraw Hill, 1966), 50-1 cited in the bibliography of Rubin, op. cit.

  8. Cf. Henry Hope, Georges Braque (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1949), 30-3.

  9. Cited in Rubin, op. cit., 355.

  10. Alfred Jarry, Oeuvres complètes, volume I, ed. Michel Arrivé (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972), 770, referred to hereafter as OC I; volume II, ed. Henri Bordillon, Patrick Besnier and Bernard le Doze (Paris: Pléiade, 1987) referred to as OC II; and volume III, ed. Bordillon, Besnier and le Doze with the co-operation of Michel Arrivé (Paris: Pléiade, 1988) as OC III.

  11. See Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Les Peintres cubistes’, Oeuvres complètes de Guillaume Apollinaire, ed. Michel Décaudin (Paris: André Balland et Jacques Lecat, 1966), IV, 24-5.

  12. I am using Roger Shattuck's translation in ‘Visions of Present and Future,’ Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, ed. Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965), 111-12.

  13. Maurice Emmanuel, La Danse grecque antique (Paris: Hachette, 1896), 277.

  14. Louis Séchan, La Danse grecque antique (Paris: de Boccard, 1930), 225.

  15. See Louis Lemercier de Neuville, Histoire anecdotique des marionnettes modernes (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1892), 34:

    Le bâton! Voilà le grand argument de Guignol comme aussi de Polichinelle. Le bâton résout tout: il termine les différends, il paye les dettes, il renvoie les importuns, il corrige les femmes, il se venge des hommes, c'est le Deus ex Machina de tout ce petit monde lilliputien.

  16. Xenophon's Banquet, II, 11-16, gives the best-known description of an acrobat performing the perilous somersaults (ekubista and exekubista) over swords in and out of a hoop at a private banquet. Jarry's friend, Pierre Louÿs, describes a more leisurely version in his poem ‘La Jongleuse’:

    Parfois elle faisait la roue sur les mains et sur les pieds.
    Ou bien, les deux jambes en l'air et les genoux écartés,
    Elle se courbait à la renverse et touchait la terre en riant.

    Pierre Louÿs, Les Chansons de Bilitis (Paris: Librairie Charpentier et Fasquelle, 1900), 288-9.

  17. Emmanuel, op. cit., 228.

  18. Kubistan, c'est se jeter sur les mains, la tête en bas, pour exécuter dans cette posture incommode des exercices variés. Il suffit d'avoir sous les yeux les représentations antiques de cette danse acrobatesque pour y reconnaître des tours chers à nos bateleurs.

    Emmanuel, op. cit., 276.

  19. Et ayant braqué au centre des quadrilatères déshonorés par des couleurs irrégulières la lance bienfaisante de la machine à peindre, il commit à la direction du monstre mécanique M. Henri Rousseau, artiste peintre décorateur, dit le Douanier, mentionné et médaillé.

    OC I 712

  20. See Linda Klieger Stillman, ‘Machinations of Celibacy and Desire,’ L'Esprit créateur, Winter 1984, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, 25-6. Stillman points out Jarry's uncanny anticipation of black holes, with his theory of reversibility: the apple returning to the tree and the cannon ball to the cannon as here stated in his personal vision of a Time Machine's ability to convey reversed or simultaneous Durée which dates from 1899.

  21. Quoted in Roskill, op. cit., 31.

  22. Was it an inspired or an informed twist of Vauxcelles's vitriolic pen which led him to dub Juan Gris's 1912 Homage to Picasso ‘Père Ubu-kub’? Christopher Green relates this remark to Jarry's antilogical philosophy, rather than to the philological connection with Greek contortionists. Christopher Green, Juan Gris (London and New Haven: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1992), 15. The reference is cited in Judith Cousins with the collaboration of Pierre Daix, op. cit., 389.

  23. Cf. Michel Arrivé, Lire Jarry (Brussels: Éditions complexes, 1976), 27-41.

  24. Isidore Ducasse, Les Chants de Maldoror (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), 141-9.

  25. Arising from the argument about whether Dionysodorous and Euthydemus knew everything from Plato's Euthydemus 294e:

    In the end Crito, I too was carried away by my incredulity and asked whether Dionysodorous could dance.

    —Certainly he replied.

    —And can you vault among swords and turn upon a wheel at your age? have you got to such a height of skill as that?

    —I can do anything, he said.

  26. Plato, Symposium, 190b:

    In the first place there were three sexes, not as with us, two, male and female; the third partook of the nature of both the others and has vanished, though its name survives. The hermaphrodite was a distinct sex in form as well as in name, with the characteristics of both male and female, but now the name alone remains, and that solely as a term of abuse. Secondly, each human being was a rounded whole, with a double back and flanks forming a complete circle, (…) These people could walk upright like us in either direction, backwards or forwards, but when they wanted to run quickly they used all their eight limbs, and turned rapidly over in a circle, like tumblers who perform a cartwheel and return to an upright position.

  27. For a through discussion of Jarry's use of the word cubiste in relation to Plato's usage, to which this article is much indebted, see Thieri Foulc, ‘Mnester ou l'art du sphéricubiste’, Europe (mars-avril 1981), 120-5.

  28. Rabelais, Gargantua VIII. For a commentary of this passage see M. A. Screech, Rabelais (London: Duckworth, 1979,) 140-3. Screech refers to Horapollo's On Hieroglyphics and Alciatis' Emblemata, which prove that pictures can have meanings in themselves without calling upon words to express them. He draws an analogy between the emblematic pictures of the Renaissance and Egyptian hieroglyphs.

  29. Rachilde, Alfred Jarry. ou le Surmâle des lettres (Paris: Grasset, 1928), 149.

  30. To take two examples of the vogue for Greek words: Jean Moréas (Papadiamantopoulos) had already drawn criticism for overuse of Greek neologisms in his review of Félix Fénéon's Les Impressionnistes. The Nabis were in the habit of referring to their workshops as ‘ergastères’ from the Greek εργαsτιριο. Paul Sérusier signed some of his work ‘Erg. Sérusier.’

  31. See Brunella Eruli, ‘Sur les sources classiques de Messaline’, L'Étoile-Absinthe, Tournées 1-2 (mai 1979), 67-83.

  32. The word aurige from the Latin aurigus meaning ‘charioteer’ was in more general use than kubistétère, referring to the recently discovered bronze charioteer at Delphi.

  33. The ‘islands’ visited by Dr Faustroll are examples of the technique. In particular the pictures of Beardsley, Bernard and Gauguin are given the Homeric treatment, as are the unidentified pictures in ‘Clinamen’, dedicated to Paul Fort. Jarry's description of Dürer's engraving of the martyrdom of St. Catherine, titled ‘Considérations pour servir à l'intelligence de la précédente image’ and described by several commentators as a forerunner of Dalí's paranoia critique, is a more complex amalgam of spoof and erudition which as much looks forward to the picture legends of Just So Stories as back to the Iliad. OC I 998-9

  34. Cf. Eruli, op. cit. After examining the two versions of the Messaline manuscript Brunella Eruli formed the view that Jarry intended to emulate the geste of Apollo in knotting the split being together, by electing to divide the novel at this particular point.

  35. Several commentators have remarked that Jarry endows Mnester with some of his own external characteristics such as the very small feet, pale face and painted lips. Jarry played up to his expected role of clown, entertainer and Kobold (as Gide depicted him). Mnester's central role in the novel, his ambiguous sexual identity and athletic prowess point clearly to the author, cubiste and ubiste.

  36. Cf. Haldernablou:

    Nous, Pure Pensée, alourdis [sic] par notre corps trop de chair.

    OC I 217

    and ‘Pataphysique’:

    Il résultait de ces rapports réciproques avec les Choses, qu'il était accoûtumé à diriger avec sa pensée (…) qu'il ne distinguait pas du tout ses pensées de ses actes ni son rêve de sa veille.

    OC I 793-5

  37. This observation was made by Carola Giedion-Welcker, art historian and author of Anthologie der Abseitigen. See her monograph, Alfred Jarry (Zürich: Verlag die Arche, 1960), 81, for an interesting analogy between Jarry's many-faceted character, Varia, in L'Amour absolu and James Joyce's Anna Livia Plurabelle.

  38. Rachilde, op. cit., 88.

  39. Paul Sérusier, who was known for his study of Plato (see note 26) and who collaborated closely with Jarry as scenery painter and bit-part actor, refers enigmatically to ‘la contrefacon kubiste’ as follows:

    Maintenant que la contrefaçon kubiste va s'écrouler, je pense qu'il sera permis de faire de la géométrie plane, simple, avec un esprit de claire simplicité chrétienne et française.

    In a 1915 letter to Maurice Denis, Sérusier is here bemoaning the corruption of the pure geometrical forms, which would have made Cubism a natural development of the Beuron Abbey aesthetic doctrine embraced by Maurice Denis and himself. Is Sérusier using ‘kubiste’ in its Greek or Jarryesque sense or is he simply denigrating the movement?

    Quoted in Agnès Humbert, Les Nabis et leur époque (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1954), 100.

  40. See Jarry's letter to Apollinaire of 27 October 1903, OC III 578:

    Voici bien six mois que j'ai mis de côté un César-Antechrist, quoique ce bouquin n'ait pas grande importance, mais il a été long de retrouver le premier acte. Maintenant, j'ai tout complet.

  41. Apollinaire, op. cit., IV, 931:

    L'art français du cubisme a déjà de l'influence à l'étranger, et particulièrement en Espagne et en Bohême ou toute la jeune école de peinture est cubiste, et par une singulière coincidence l'un des cubistes tchècques se nomme Kubicsta de son nom véritable. Il y a également des cubistes en Allemagne où par une coïncidence presque aussi singulière, l'un d'eux se nomme Kubin.

    This digression which Apollinaire included in his much reworked manuscript Méditations esthétiques—Les Peintres nouveaux was omitted from the final version which was published as Méditations esthétiques—Les Peintres cubistes.

  42. Cf. Blunt and Poole, op. cit., 23-4; and especially John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Vol. I, 1881-1906 (London: Pimlico, 1992), 359-67.

  43. Translated and cited in William Rubin, op. cit., 351. Rubin credits Étienne-Alain Hubert with drawing his attention to this review.

  44. See Sylvain-Christian David, ‘Jarry et Picasso’, L'Étoile-Absinthe, Tournées 9-12 (1981), 109-10, who quotes an account attributed to the years 1905-1907 given in La Vie imagée de Pablo Picasso, published in Arts, no. 340 (4 janvier, 1952):

    Picasso vient d'ailleurs de connaître Jarry, dont la passion pour l'usage du revolver est devenue légendaire. ‘Il faut, dit-il, que l'homme s'amuse à l'image de son créateur. Dieu s'amuse férocement depuis qu'il est Dieu seulement il ne s'amusera pas longtemps, car je suis là …’ Il n'est pas rare que Picasso et Jarry déambulent ensemble des nuits entières.

    Quoting Pierre Cabanne, Le Siècle de Picasso (Paris: Denoël, 1975, vol 2), 305, David gives the disprover:

    Un soir de grande dépression, il avoua à ses compagnes, Jacqueline et Hélène ‘qu'il regrettait de n'avoir pas connu Jarry, un autre pitre désespéré. Il était allé voir un jour chez lui, avec Apollinaire, mais il était sorti et il n'est jamais revenu.’

  45. Cf. Pléiade Note 3 to II 119 which gives Don Cassius (LX, xxii and xxviii) as the reference for this find but charges Jarry with fabricating the posture.

  46. Thieri Foulc, op. cit., touches delicately on the obscene connotations of this posture, termed by Jarry ‘le baiser de Narcisse,’ but which can also represent the alchemical knot—the dragon devouring its tail.

I should like to thank the University of Kent for help with funding the reproduction fees, Professor Graham Anderson for advising on the Greek and most of all Professor Roger Cardinal for encouraging this inquiry and for rigorously criticizing the deficiencies of early drafts. Any faults that remain are my responsibility. Address for correspondence: Mrs Jill Fell, 21 Ridgway Place, London SW19 4EW.

Curtis Perry (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8760

SOURCE: Perry, Curtis. “Vaulting Ambitions and Killing Machines: Shakespeare, Jarry, Ionesco, and the Senecan Absurd.” In Shakespeare Without Class: Misappropriations of Cultural Capital, edited by Donald Hedrick and Bryan Reynolds, pp. 85-106. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

[In the following essay, Perry traces the echoes of Shakespeare's Macbeth in Jarry's surreal Ubu Roi, and then examines the ways in which both Macbeth and Ubu inform Eugène Ionesco's absurdist Macbett.]

In an interview from 1966, Ionesco acknowledged Shakespeare's relevance to the theater of the absurd in such a way as to deny any more specific personal influence:

Didn't he say of the world that “it is a tale told by an idiot” and that everything is but “sound and fury”? He's the forefather of the theatre of the absurd. He said it all, and said it a long time ago. Beckett tries to repeat him. I don't even try: since he said do well what he had to say, what can we possibly add?

(Bonnefoy 1970, 49)

Disclaimers notwithstanding, Ionesco could not resist repeating Shakespeare. His Macbett, first produced in 1972, restages Shakespeare's Macbeth along lines sketched by Jan Kott and anticipated by Alfred Jarry's notorious farce Ubu Roi (1896): “My Macbeth is somewhere between Shakespeare and Jarry; it is close to Ubu Rex. … It was my friend Jan Kott's book Shakespeare Our Contemporary which showed me the way” (Lamont 1993, 182). As its pedigree suggests, Macbett is intended to be a doubly radical revision of Shakespeare, eager both to demonstrate absurdist elements in Shakespeare's play, and to render ridiculous those heroic aspects of the play that might obscure the meaninglessness of its violence. Accordingly, as several critics have noted, Macbett elaborates Shakespeare's suggestion that rebellion and tyranny may be part of an endless cycle of political violence.1 When Macol (the Malcolm figure) seizes the throne at the end of the play, his final speech is cobbled together out of the avowal of sin that Shakespeare's Malcolm uses to test the loyalty of Macduff (“My poor country shall have more vices than it had before” [Ionesco 1985, 103-4]).2Macbett thus ends with the promise of “confineless harms” to come (Ionesco 1985, 104).

Macbett, however, is at its most heavy-handed when bent on illustrating what Kott calls the “grand staircase of history,” with its inevitable cycles of political violence (Kott 1964, 75). The earnestness of its political message coexists only uneasily with its flights of parodic whimsy: even Martin Esslin, generally one of Ionesco's champions, tactfully described the play's depiction of the political machine as “far from sensationally original” (1973, 54-55). Beyond its depiction of state violence, however, Ionesco's play is interested in anatomizing the kinds of desires that fuel this political machine, an emphasis borrowed perhaps from Jarry, whose Ubu Roi reduces the Macbeth story to a farce of unchecked infantile appetite. Ionesco's sense of Shakespeare as “the forefather of the theatre of the absurd” is based in part on the way that Macbeth's actions are motivated by desires that lose their objects, so that what begins specifically as ambition to rule morphs into a vague and ultimately insatiable wish to be “Whole as the marble, founded as the rock, / As broad and general as the casing air” (3.4.21-22).3 This transformation in Shakespeare's title character provides a starting point for the absurdist farces of Jarry and Ionesco, with the result that analysis of absurd desire in Ubu Roi and Macbett can still (almost four decades after Kott's book) illuminate ways in which Shakespeare seems both radical and contemporary.

Why Shakespeare? Partly of course because of the familiarity and accessibility of Shakespeare's plays.4 Partly because attacking Shakespeare's cultural status has its own inherent shock value. But more importantly, because of Shakespeare's participation in a strand of Renaissance dramatic experimentation that is in some regards analogous to the drama of Jarry and Ionesco. I call that strand the “Senecan absurd” because it seems to me to be part of the thematic inheritance of the Senecan tradition in Renaissance drama best described by Gordon Braden. Briefly, Braden argues that Seneca's tragic heroes strive toward total autonomy, attempting to establish “personal identity as a force that transcends its origins and contexts” by the sheer magnitude of their passionate will (Braden 1985, 34). But, at the same time, these heroes—spurred on by mimetic rivalry—require acknowledged dominion over those around them and thus rely for satisfaction upon the very contexts they aspire to transcend. Hence the restlessness that Braden finds at the core of Senecan ambition (Braden 1985, 60-62). Though Braden's analysis emphasizes the period's interest in greatness of spirit, it seems to me that this same inheritance leads as well to a series of experiments with more nearly absurdist concerns. That is to say that a fair amount of the period's Senecan experimentation explicitly probes the limits of personal autonomy and the instability of mimetic desire, thereby emphasizing both the final inseparability of desire and context, and the radical dehumanizing of autarkic aspiration. The tragic protagonists in such plays—brutal, insatiable, and finally stripped of human feeling—anticipate the concerns of Jarry and Ionesco. Shakespeare's Senecanism makes him Ionesco's “forefather.”


Jarry's humor is sometimes called Rabelaisian in acknowledgment of its emphasis on lower bodily appetites and functions (Esslin 1961, 255; LaBelle 1980, 66-70). From the play's notorious first word—“Merdre” (merde with an extra letter, translated by Barbara Wright as “Shittr”)—the play is obsessively scatological.5 Pere Ubu features an enormous gut (“he looks like an armed pumpkin” [90]), and an appetite to match. And indeed the play does contain elements of the Rabelaisian worldview described by Mikhail Bakhtin. Here, for example, is the exchange after Mere Ubu first suggests regicide to her husband:

Oh! Mere Ubu, you insult me, and you'll find yourself in the stewpan in a minute.
Huh! you poor fish, if I found myself in the stewpan, who'd mend the seats of your breeches?
Well, what of it? Isn't my arse the same as anyone else's [N'ai-je pas un cul comme les autres (35)]?


The emphasis on the lower/open body is used here, as in Rabelais, to suggest that everybody is fundamentally the same—wrapped in the same fleshy bodies and driven by the same basic urges. For Jarry, as for Rabelais, this is above all a rhetoric of de-idealization: what is the meaning of manners, rank, decorum if what's important about a person is of the register of appetite and “arse”? Everyone's are the same as anyone else's.

In Rabelais the de-idealizing motifs of the open/lower body are used to criticize pretensions of serious culture in favor of the values of the carnivalesque: communality, festivity, the primacy of the body. The universality of this register leads to a demystifying of desires based on power, position, wealth, and so on, desiderata that fade to relative insignificance next to the urgency of the body in grotesque realism. Not so, however, in Ubu Roi. In Jarry's play, Rabelaisian motifs of grotesque realism coexist with and are even seen as integral to murderous ambition lifted from the story of Macbeth. The exchange quoted above continues as follows:

If I were you, what I'd want to do with my arse would be to install it on a throne. You could increase your fortune indefinitely [augmenter … tes richesses (35)],
have sausages whenever you liked, and ride through the streets in a carriage.
If I were king, I'd have a big headpiece made. …
And you could get yourself an umbrella and a great big cloak that would come right down to your feet.
Ah! I yield to temptation. Clod of a shittr, shittr of a clod, if ever I meet him on a dark night he'll go through a bad quarter of an hour.
Oh good, Pere Ubu, now you're a real man.


Instead of debunking political ambitions, Pere Ubu's lower-body appetites seem inextricable from them. He pursues office with the same boisterous infantile greed that makes him gobble up Mere Ubu's cooking before the king arrives in the play's second scene.

This exchange is typical of Jarry's play in that it cobbles together three different kinds of desire: Pere Ubu's appetite for sausages (the stuff of grotesque realism); his desire for more wealth (mundane bourgeois aspiration); and his interest in the trappings of public authority (carriage, headpiece, umbrella, cloak). Everybody is subject to appetites of the belly, and most people want more money, so Ubu's desire for the outlandish props that represent authority seems the most absurd and the least familiar of Pere Ubu's desires. But the exchange, in which the promise of such props makes Ubu yield, suggests that they capture Ubu's imagination. As a farce of Shakespearean ambition, this accomplishes two things. First, it associates political ambition with the least heroic and most familiar kinds of appetites (the bodily and the bourgeois). Second, it renders the objects of ambition so trivial as to be manifestly not worth striving for. In the world of this farce, ordinary men driven by enormous appetites kill each other for trifles.

By emphasizing the outlandish triviality of the objects Ubu craves, Jarry literalizes what Macbeth himself comes to feel only too late: “There's nothing serious in mortality: / All is but toys” (2.3.93-94). Accordingly, Jarry strips the political ceremonies between Ubu and King Venceslas of the stateliness characterizing the equivalent scenes in Macbeth. The following exchange from Macbeth is a ritual exchange of loyalty and reciprocal support that represents an ideal of civility:

The service and the loyalty I owe,
In doing it, pays itself. Your highness' part
Is to receive our duties; and our duties
Are to your throne and state children and servants;
Which do but what they should, by doing every thing
Safe toward your love and honor
          Welcome hither!
I have begun to plant thee, and will labor
To make thee full of growing. Noble Banquo,
That hast no less deserv'd, nor must be known
No less to have done so, let me infold thee
And hold thee to my heart.
          There if I grow
The harvest is your own.


Jarry stages a similar scene, but mocks the display of reciprocal loyalty as just another exchange of toys:

THE King:
Pere Ubu, I want to recognize your numerous services as Captain of the Dragoons, and I am making you count of Sandomir as from today.
Oh Monsieur Venceslas, I don't know how to thank you.
THE King:
Don't thank me, Pere Ubu, and be present tomorrow morning at the great Review.
I'll be there, but be good enough to accept this little toy whistle [ce petit mirliton (47)].
(He presents the king with a toy whistle)
THE King:
What do you expect me to do with a toy whistle at my age?


Ubu treats the whistle as if it stood for his loyalty and gratitude, and as if it were an adequate requital for Venceslas's generosity. And though Venceslas is taken aback, the title of Count of Sandomir seems equally trivial. Everywhere in Ubu Roi, public life is represented as the traffic in trifles and toys. Later in the play, the power of Ubu's monarchy is vested in yet another set of comic props: a hook for executing enemies and a cart called “the phynancial conveyance” (75) for carrying off their money. It is possible that Jarry had in mind Macbeth's own anguished discovery that the props of monarchy—“fruitless crown” and “barren scepter” (3.1.60-61)—add up to nothing in and of themselves. Only in Jarry's play their fruitlessness of such objects is obvious and everybody wants them anyway.

Ubu becomes king at the start of Act 3: “By my green candle, here I am, the king of this country and I've already got myself indigestion and they're going to bring me my big head piece” (59). Ubu's indigestion results from a grasping hunger that, in keeping with the play's conflation of different kinds of appetite, makes him gobble up sausages as readily as he grabs the throne. As king, his grasping appetite leads him to have all the nobles killed in order to take their property. Then, having killed his magistrates and officers, Ubu himself is forced to drag the phynancial conveyance “from village to village” to collect taxes. As he explains his taxation to reluctant subjects, he offers a glimpse of the fantasy that drives his enormous greediness:

I've changed the government and I've had it put in the paper that all the existing taxes must be paid twice, and those that I impose later must be paid three times. With this system I shall soon have made my fortune, then I'll kill everybody and go away. [Avec ce système, jaurai vite fait fortune, alors je tuerai tout le monde et je m'en irai].

(76; 78)

This is a key moment in the farce, since it is the only instance in which Ubu offers any explanation for his ambition beyond the kind of overtly trivial proximate objectives we have been looking at: the carriage, the head piece, the umbrella, the cloak, and so on. But of course this genocidal fantasy is no less absurd. Since the wealth that Ubu extorts is valuable only in relation to an economy involving other people, his greediness is literally inconsistent with his fantasy of universal destruction. Ubu wants to triumph in his world—to monopolize the goods and props that are understood to be valuable and prestigious—but only as a means to achieve a kind of impossible autonomy that would destroy that world itself. We might think of this as a kind of political analogue to Ubu's indigestion: both are included to demonstrate the degree to which his appetites are driven by sheer greediness, and divorced from any pragmatic end (satiation of the body, pleasure, political influence, etc.).

Though crudely (and amusingly) put, this moment in Jarry's play strikes me as a sophisticated response to the paradox of ambition in Macbeth. For Macbeth too strives for the crown only to find that it is a proximate goal standing unsatisfactorily for a fantasy of total autonomy. One wonders, for example, why Macbeth should be so suddenly upset about Banquo's heirs in 3.1, since he knew about the witches' prophesy before killing Duncan and since he has no children of his own. It seems that Macbeth's anxiety has to do with the idea of successors in general. Or, more generally, that he chafes at anything that proves him to be other than “perfect, / Whole as the marble, founded as the rock, / As broad and general as the casing air” (3.4.20-22). Macbeth—like Ubu—grasps hungrily at triumph over others while dreaming of total autonomy.6

We might describe this as the paradox of mimetic desire: so long as value is given mimetically by competition with others, total victory can only diminish the desirability of the end. In Ubu Roi and Macbeth, the fantasy of unlimited power and autonomy remains in conflict with the mimetic desire that shapes its approximations. Consequently, as each protagonist aspires toward his impossible fantasy of perfect autonomy, he can do so only by exercising the kind of power over others that comes with domination in the social sphere. The gap between aspiration and action renders political power absurd. What's more, the need endlessly to exert power over others in search of this fantasy transforms both men into dehumanized killing machines. After ascending to the throne, Macbeth vows to act violently and without reflection (“From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand” [4.1.146-48]); Ubu—once he yields to temptation at the beginning of the play—kills gleefully, repeatedly, and without a second thought.

But where Shakespeare treats this struggle for autonomy as a tragic aspect of exceptional heroic ambition, Jarry caricatures the mimetic structuring of desire. Moreover, though the earthy, Rabelaisian elements in Ubu Roi may remind us of bodily appetites that can in themselves be satisfied, there is no sense that a character like Ubu can ever stop short of indigestion. Jarry himself described his play as an “exaggerating mirror” designed to reflect back the vices of his Parisian audience. As such, it uses Ubu's pure greed to lampoon the restless hunger of bourgeois aspirations perceived to have lost all moorings in bodily pleasure or true need (Jarry 1961, 174). This then is Jarry's revision of Macbeth: in order to lampoon the conventionalized aspirations of his audience, he transforms it into a play about the uneasy relationship between mimetic desire for various conventional objects and the essentially self-centered and absolutist impulse behind competitive desire as such. The unbridgeable gap between the former (desire for power over others, for a crown, for money, for esteem) and the latter (desire to be “perfect” in Macbeth, or to “kill everybody and go away” in Ubu Roi) renders the immediate objects of ambition absurd, and commits the desiring subject to a project of serial approximation that goes on without meaning or end.

Jarry studied with Henri Bergson at the Lycèe Henri IV in Paris. It is likely, therefore, that Ubu Roi's penchant for broad caricature and repetitive drives owes something to Bergson's famous theory of comedy as “something mechanical encrusted on the living” (Bergson 1980, 84). In particular, one can imagine Bergson's ideas influencing Jarry's depiction of Pere Ubu as a killing machine, acting on impulse without introspection or conscience. Such elements of Bergsonian farce may also explain Ionesco's interest in Ubu Roi, since similar ideas lie at the heart of his dramaturgy. Thus, when asked about the mechanical aspects of his plays—the way lines are repeated, for example, or the way that characters' patterns of speech can seem to be driven by cliché—Ionesco too alludes to Bergson:

I realize now that this isn't just a formula or a dramatic device. It's a mode of being. At the start, you have “a little of something mechanical encrusted on the living.” It's comic. But if the mechanical gets bigger and bigger and the living shrinks and shrinks, things become stifling and then tragic, because we get the impression that the world is slipping from our mental grasp.

(Bonnefoy 1970, 108)

Tragedy for Ionesco is the acceleration of the mechanisms of farce in order to imitate the experience of an alienated “mode of being.” In Macbett, these mechanisms are structured and driven by mimetic desire: each of the play's characters is driven to repeat the atrocities of his predecessor while striving for the same inconsequential triumphs. While Jarry is interested in the aggressive and autarkic impulses that find mimetic expression, Ionesco is concerned to show how the conventionality of aspiration dehumanizes his characters. As the objects of their desire lose specificity, the characters in Macbett are rendered interchangeable and reduced to cogs in an automated system of emulation and violence.

Ionesco depicts the mechanized and undifferentiated nature of his characters by relying heavily upon repetition. Macbett and Banco, for example, each deliver the same long and gruesome soliloquy during their initial battle with the rebels (“The blade of my sword is all red with blood” [14-18]). Similarly, denunciations of Duncan first spoken by Candor and Glamiss are later repeated, with only the slightest variations, by Banco and Macbett (4-5, 68). The relationship between the play's repetitiveness and the vacuity of mimetic desire is evident in the exchange in which Glamiss and Candor talk each other into rebellion against Duncan:

He's no better than we are.
Worse, if anything.
Much worse.
Much, much worse.


Such repetitions evacuate the conspirators of individual personality while, at the same time, the indignation of each conspirator feeds off of the other in a way that underscores the degree to which such attitudes are reinforced by the stated opinions of others. The rebellious impulse, in short, stems from an interchangeable and mimetically structured ambition. This introductory representation of ambition sets the stage for Macbett's rebellious ambition later in the play, about which the same might be said:

Yes, he's a good king. Though he should be more appreciative of his impartial advisors—like you for example.
Or you.
Like you or me.
He's a bit of an autocrat.
Very autocratic.
A real autocrat!


All who want the crown are conspirators; all conspirators want the crown because the crown is what is wanted. They are interchangeable and mutually reinforcing pieces in a system of recurring rivalry and violence.

Beyond this general anatomy of ambition, Macbett's own desires are given a more thorough treatment in the play. There is no Lady Macbett, in Ionesco's version, to goad her husband to murder. Instead, there is a composite figure—both Lady Duncan and the lead witch—who seduces Macbett and simultaneously gives shape to his rebellious imagination. The crucial scene is staged as a strip tease: the first witch removes a mask and reveals herself to Macbett as the beautiful lady Duncan; then she strips down to a “sparkling bikini” in the manner of a dancer at “la Lido Club or Crazy Horse Saloon” (1985, 56; see also Lamont 1972, 245).7 The smitten Macbett offers to be Lady Duncan's “slave,” to which she replies:

(holding out the dagger to him) I'll be yours if you wish. Would you like that? Here is the instrument of your ambition and our rise to power. (seductively) Take it if that's what you want, if you want me. But act boldly. Hell helps those who help themselves. Look into yourself. You can feel your desire for me growing, your hidden ambition coming into the open, inflaming you. You'll take his place at my side. I'll be your mistress. You'll be my sovereign.


Macbett's ambition is given as a kind of irresistible erotic desire, an equation that alludes to Lady Macbeth's association of regicide with manliness. Here, to seize the dagger means to desire Lady Duncan and therefore to be a real man. Such manliness is enfeebling, though: the scene ends in a darkness through which we can see only Lady Duncan's “glistening body” and Macbett rolling at her feet (58).

Many of the play's critics have obscured the function of this scene, either by failing to examine the kind of erotic desire invoked or by decoupling ambition from eros. Nancy Lane does both, for example, when she argues that “the lure of feminine sexuality, rather than political ambition, is the driving force behind Macbett's actions (Lane 1994, 179). In fact, though, what lures Macbett is not “feminine sexuality” so much as the spectacle of the female body in its most objectified and commercially packaged state. A strip tease artist should be simultaneously—and more or less equivalently—desirable to all present. And since in their commercial setting such performances are repeated over and over, their venues operate on the premise that one dancer will do more or less as well as the next: the package is the product in this kind of erotic exchange. Ionesco's emphasis on the sparkles of Lady Duncan's bikini and the glistening of her skin underscores precisely this point. This in turn means that Macbett is seduced not by the specific allure of a specific body and the erotic promise that it holds, nor by “the lure of feminine sexuality” as such, but instead by an empty, ritualized, and universally consumable spectacle.

In the theater, Lady Duncan's costume is bound to seem comically inappropriate, rendering Macbett's erotic desire ridiculous. This effect underscores the scene's serious point: that Macbett's desire is in no way idiosyncratic or personal, since its object is only a conventional trope of desirability. This is in keeping with the play's characteristic use of repetition in that it tends to evacuate the protagonist of individuality, demonstrating that Macbett's erotic desire is just like everybody else's. In fact, Ionesco links erotic desire and political ambition here precisely because the two are similarly structured within the play: Macbett strives for the throne because it's what one strives for; similarly, he lusts after Lady Duncan simply because she transforms herself into an icon of what one lusts after. Taken together, these offer an anatomy of fully mimetic desire in that the allure of each object is finally based on its very conventionality.

Such conventionality, in Macbett, strangles feeling. One of the characteristic comic techniques in this play—and in Ionesco's work generally—involves the juxtaposition of horror and brutality with the most exaggeratedly conventional behavior. As the play's first battle rages in the wings, a woman crosses the stage unconcernedly on her way to do some shopping (19). Candor's army is guillotined on stage while Duncan, Lady Duncan, Macbett, and Banco sit down to high tea (31-36). Banco and Macbett each conclude their descriptions of the carnage of war with the banal observation that “It's been quite a pleasant day” (16, 18). These horrific scenes are designed to convey a deadening of feeling that is in turn part of the play's analysis of the way its characters—forged in the crucible of convention—are driven by the same desires as everybody else.

Ionesco does not lavish attention on Macbett's tyranny in the manner of Shakespeare's play. The scenes that follow Macbett's ascension are comically truncated, as is his fall. But Ionesco does retain some of Macbeth's forceful bravado in the face of all challenges. When his coronation banquet is disturbed (in this case by the ghosts of Duncan and Banco) Macbett responds with self-reliant disdain: “I don't need anyone's help. (To the guests) Get out, you slaves” (98). When Macol appears, backed by a powerful Carthaginean army, Macbett's response is “I fear no one” (99). His confidence, like Macbeth's, is bolstered by a prophesy that seems to promise invincibility: “Silly little sod. Shoo! I killed your fool of a father. I wouldn't like to have to kill you, too. It's no good. You can't hurt me. No man of woman born can harm Macbett” (99). Ionesco ties up some of Shakespeare's loose ends by revealing that Macol is in fact the biological son of Banco and “a gazelle that a witch transformed into a woman,” subsequently adopted by Duncan (99). When Macbett finally realizes that the prophesies are coming true, his response is a tribute to Jarry: “Shit” (101)!

In the context of the play's hasty and intentionally outlandish wrap-up (a gazelle!), Macbett's heroic bravado sounds silly. This is precisely the point, of course. Macbett is most sure that he has achieved something triumphant at the very moment when everything in the play seems most ridiculous. The hastiness of the way these events unspool nicely conveys the vacuity of conventional ambition, compressing Macbett's sense of victory together with the audience's feeling that the game itself has been empty and trivial. For this reason, the nod to Ubu is apt as well. For like Jarry—who makes a farce of the gap between the absolutism of ambitious desires and the trivialized objects that come to stand in for them—Ionesco's comic effect here hinges on the fact that the objects of mimetic desire (the throne, the “sparkling bikini”) necessarily fall short of the kind of triumph Macbett imagines them to represent. Though Macbett is revealed to be striving toward the perfect autonomy of victory (“I don't need anyone's help”), he can do so only by striving for the conventional, the banal, the ephemeral, the absurd. This is the central paradox of mimetic desire in each of these plays. But where Jarry is concerned with the way social convention structures the expressions of a more primitive selfish aggression, Ionesco emphasizes simply the all-pervasiveness of conventionality. That is why there is no one character in Macbett as vivid as Pere Ubu: where Ubu represents a primal and competitive self-regard that motivates conventional aspiration, Ionesco's play sees nothing prior to the conventionality that so interchangeably structures the play's motivating desires.


Like Ubu or Macbett, Shakespeare's Macbeth strives toward perfect autonomy from within the mimetic structure of political competition. Indeed, from the moment he has it, Macbeth recognizes that the crown cannot be “the be-all and the end-all” (1.7.5). His seemingly pragmatic wish to be safely enthroned quickly gives way to the more explicit and impossible fantasy of being “perfect / Whole as the marble, founded as the rock, / As broad and general as the casing air” (3.4.20-22). Awareness of the impossibility of this desire finally reduces Macbeth's aspirations to “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.26-28). Macbeth's willingness to explore and to articulate for us the paradoxical nature of such tragic striving is what allows him to hold our interest, and perhaps our sympathy, even after he has become a killing machine.

The most vivid instance of this occurs just after the fiasco of the banquet in Act 3, as Macbeth sets out to revisit the witches:

                                        For mine own good
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.(8)


According to the OED, “tedious” could mean something like “painful” or “slow,” but its primary meaning, then as now, was more like “wearisome.” I prefer to understand Shakespeare's use of the word in the last sense, for this makes it a remarkable expression of Macbeth's growing sense that his actions signify nothing. To describe mass murder as merely tedious bespeaks a colossal desensitization, dismissing horrible actions like the killing of Macduff's family as motions that simply need to be gone through. As with Macbeth's allusion to the “bank and shoal of time” earlier in the play (1.7.6), a spatial metaphor stands in awkwardly for moral and temporal registers here. What matters, though, is the directionlessness of the way Macbeth imagines himself by this point in the play. The meaningful directive of his earlier ambition (to “o'erleap” obstacles and achieve the throne [1.4.49]) is replaced with a weary recognition that no direction will lead to the (impossible) end. Except, perhaps, self-destruction: Braden describes how Macbeth's “pursuit of … radical integrity” must culminate in “an annihilation of himself and of all around him, a suicide of the soul (Braden 1984, 292).

This I think is the reason that Jarry and Ionesco found Shakespeare to be contemporary, and why they both returned to Macbeth: not just the play's cynical depiction of state violence, but the way it explores the paradoxes of ambition and mimetic desire, the tragic necessity of the gap between the fantasy of absolute autonomy and the conventional objectives that must stand in for it. Shakespeare himself offers a marvelously compact phrase that captures precisely this irony when, in Hamlet, Horatio describes the heroism of Hamlet's father as being driven by “a most emulate pride” (1.1.83). The heroism of Old Hamlet, as Horatio's phrase unwittingly makes clear, involves two simultaneous and contradictory desires: the desire to be better than other men and the need to imitate their objectives. The same phrase describes Macbeth's predicament, the way his pride's transcendent aspiration is confined by the sheer conventionality of its approximations. For “emulate pride,” more generally, is Shakespeare's name for the mimetic desire that drives masculine ambition, and this in turn is what is developed in the absurdist revisions of Shakespeare offered by Jarry and Ionesco.

But in this regard, Shakespeare is merely the most familiar of the many Renaissance dramatists who seem contemporary. For while the richness of Macbeth's meditations is unique, interest in the heroic pursuit of “radical integrity” and its necessary limitations is in fact something of an obsession in renaissance English drama. The best examples—both of this pursuit and of its absurdity—are found in Marlowe's studies of outsized ambition, in which, as Stephen Greenblatt has nicely described it,

the objects of [the hero's] desire, at first so clearly defined, so avidly pursued, gradually lose their sharp outlines and become more and more like mirages. Faustus speaks endlessly of his appetite, his desire to be glutted, ravished, consumed, but what is it exactly that he wants? By the end of the play it is clear that knowledge, voluptuousness, and power are each mere approximations of the goal for which he sells his soul and body; what that goal is remains maddeningly unclear.

(1980, 217)

This is very like the trajectory of Macbeth's impossible desires, which cannot be satisfied by any of the serial murders he undertakes in search of the be-all and the end-all. The fantasy of Barabas (the protagonist of Marlowe's Jew of Malta [s1590]) to enclose “infinite riches in a little room” (1.1.37) bespeaks a worldly greed that, like Ubu's or Macbeth's, is driven by a desire for transcendent autonomy. The absurdity of this desire is registered, in Marlowe, by means of repetition: Marlowe's heroes, driven toward impossible ends by emulate pride, pursue them by means of serialized contests with rivals. Indeed, Marlowe—with his flair for brutal farce and “the mechanical encrusted on the living”—is much closer to the manner of Jarry or Ionesco than is Shakespeare.9

Since this kind of emphasis on the ironies of mimetic desire is evidently part of what Ionesco finds compelling in Macbeth, then Shakespeare is “the forefather of the theatre of the absurd” partly because he participates in this larger Renaissance interest in the absurdity of emulate pride. To make this claim is to argue for some intellectual continuity between this radical strain in Renaissance drama and the equally radical theater of Jarry and Ionesco. In each case, the drama reduces conventionally ambitious political actions to the quixotic pursuit of an impossible dream of completion. And though the process can be treated as tragedy or farce, in each case the actions themselves become mechanical and trivial as they are revealed merely to be serial approximations of this fantasy. The intended effect, in each case, is a powerful exposé of conventional ambition, an attempt to lay bare its self-delusions, its destructiveness, and its basic inhumanity.

I call this strain in Renaissance drama the “Senecan absurd,” for it has its roots in Seneca's hugely influential tragedies. On the one hand, Seneca's tragic protagonists strive always to achieve a unique style of transcendent self-realization, and often—as Braden describes—by means of terrible atrocities: “heroic evil is the ultimate autarceia, enforcing and exploiting a radical split between the self's needs and the claims of its context” (Braden 1985, 47). On the other, Senecan drama is full of intimations that the fantasy of transcendent autonomy is necessarily delusional, since such pursuit also requires the world as witness. Thyestes is Seneca's richest exploration of emulate pride, and in the interests of brevity I will confine my remarks about the Senecan absurd to a discussion of that play's murderous desires.

The action of the play pivots around the archetypal sibling rivalry of Atreus and Thyestes, a pair of brothers who have been locked for a lifetime in competition over the kingdom of Mycenae. Thyestes was the first transgressor—seizing his brother's land and wife in the play's prehistory—but he has paid for it since with a long and impoverished banishment. Nevertheless, Atreus castigates himself bitterly for his failure to harm his brother further since, as he puts it, “crimes thou dost not avenge, save as thou dost surpass them.10 It quickly becomes clear that this is a story of competitive pride, not a story of justice. Indeed, Atreus seems determined not only to do harm to his brother, but also to commit the ultimate crime. In particular, he strives to outdo the revenge of Procne, who killed her children and fed them to their father in retribution for the rape and mutilation of her sister. But, characteristically, competition and imitation are closely linked in Atreus's imagination. His attempt to top Procne is in fact a reenactment of her revenge. After luring Thyestes back to the palace with talk of forgiveness, Atreus kills Thyestes's children and feeds them to their father.11 When the deed is done, Atreus is eerily (if briefly) exultant: “Peer of the stars I move, and, towering over all, touch with proud head the lofty heavens” (163). In keeping with Braden's generalizations, Atreus imagines the sheer horror of his actions as a kind of self-creating transcendence.

The connection between competition and emulation is similarly evident in the delusional way Atreus imagines his brother throughout the play. As Atreus plans his revenge, he suggests on several occasions that Thyestes would happily commit equivalent atrocities if given the chance: “I know what thou complainst of,” Atreus declares in his moment of triumph, “thou grievest that I have forestalled thee in the crime, and art distressed, not because thou hast consumed the ghastly feast, but because thou didst not offer it to me” (181). There is no reason to think that this is accurate, since Thyestes is depicted as a timid man attempting to reconcile stoic precepts with a desire for comfort. But it becomes clear, over the course of the play, that this delusional understanding of his brother's intention is absolutely essential to Atreus's self-fashioning.

Atreus's willful distortions lie at the heart of Seneca's didactic purpose, for they cast light on the disfiguring nature of competitive psychology. Atreus needs to feel that his horrid actions represent a total victory over his brother. The absoluteness of this victory is what allows Atreus to feel himself “towering over all.” But in order to feel that his atrocities represent a victory, Atreus needs to believe that his brother has in fact been competing. Atreus's assertions about his brother seem strange because they seek to serve each of these somewhat contradictory psychic needs: they assert simultaneously that Thyestes has been the mirror image of Atreus—cut from the same cloth, plotting the same revenge, invested as heavily in the contest—and that Atreus's victory has been total. Since the Thyestes we see is not competing, Atreus needs first to assert that there has been a contest, and then that he has won. Once again “emulate pride” seems an uncannily precise description of this pathology, capturing as it does the way that the pride of victory is contingent upon similarity and emulation. Atreus commits his crime in pursuit of a fantasy of self-realization that requires a symmetrical rival in Thyestes.

The last exchanges between Atreus and Thyestes are enormously difficult to unravel.12 Atreus vacillates between triumph and the uneasy recognition that even this cannibal banquet has been too little:

Crime should have limit, when crime is wrought, not when repaid. E'en this is not enough for me. Straight from the very wound I should have poured the hot blood down thy throat, that thou mightst drink gore of thy living sons—my wrath was cheated by my haste.


In fact, Atreus finds satisfaction only by asserting that watching Thyestes's torment has proven the legitimacy of his own children: “Now do I believe my children are my own, now may I trust once more that my marriage bed is pure” (179). Atreus's concern with the question of legitimacy goes back to the play's prehistory, in which Thyestes has eloped with Atreus's wife. But his certainty here is puzzling because there it has no logical basis: nothing has been said or done to prove the legitimacy of the children. This too underscores the delusional quality of Atreus's mania for revenge. Perhaps Atreus, imagining that his brother too is obsessed with emulate competition, assumes that he would have taken this moment to declare his paternity? There is no indication that Thyestes wants to claim paternity of Atreus's children, so we might say that in this instance, as in the larger revenge plot, Atreus invents a contest in order to declare himself unquestioned victor. Because Thyestes remains unconcerned with the rivalries Atreus invents, however, the impulse behind them cannot be fully satisfied.

The story of Atreus's unsatisfiable appetite is framed, in Seneca's fiction, by the eternally unsatisfied appetites of his ancestor Tantalus—whose horrific afterlife (always hungry and thirsty, food and drink recede from his grasp eternally) makes him a figure for “ever-gaping hunger” (93). The play's first act shows a reluctant Tantalus forced by a Fury to rekindle the cycle of family violence that has plagued the family:

GHOST of Tantalus:
Here will I stand and prevent the evil deed. Why with thy scourge dost fright mine eyes, and fiercely threaten with thy writhing snakes? Why deep in my inmost marrow dost rouse hunger pains? My heart is parched with burning thirst, and in my scorched vitals the fire is darting—I follow thee.
THE Fury:
This, this very rage of thine distribute throughout thy house! So, e'en as thou, may they be driven on, raging to quench their thirst each in others blood.


This amounts to an almost hydraulic account of Atreus's hunger for vengeance: the Fury fills Tantalus with hunger and thirst; these force him to follow; the pangs are discharged into Atreus where they become murderous bloodthirstiness. Tantalus thus serves a quasi-allegorical function in relation to the play's main plot, as a representation of the kinds of “ever-gaping” competitive appetites that drive the family toward atrocity. This also fits the didactic purposes of Seneca's stoicism, depicting emulate pride not only as delusional but as inherently restless and dissatisfied. Hence, too, the play's interest in structures of endless repetition: since emulate pride cannot find release in total victory, its rage is never spent. By contextualizing Atreus's story with the allegorical nod to Tantalus, Seneca associates this restlessness with endless repetition, eternal grasping at an impossible goal. The implication is that, from one perspective, Atreus and all the cursed killers of his family are killing machines, repeatedly generating horrors in serial approximation of a fantasy of infinite revenge, total victory, and transcendence.


Once Thyestes is described in these terms, it is easy to see how the exploration of ambition in Renaissance plays like Macbeth or Marlowe's tragedies extends Seneca's bitter critique. For these plays share with Seneca their depiction of ambition as an “ever-gaping hunger” for a kind of triumph over the world that can never be realized within it. One important implication of this is that Renaissance dramatists were very sophisticated readers of Senecan tragedy, able to mine it for a radical critique of public aspiration applicable beyond the specific excesses of Nero's Rome. It is only because this kind of influence is difficult to pin down that debates over the influence of Senecan tragedy have centered instead on borrowed phrases and comparatively trivial formal elements (Kiefer 1977; Miola 1992, 3-9). More particularly, Macbeth transposes Senecan concerns in (at least) two ways. First, by taking the story out of the family and moving it more overtly into the political sphere. By doing so, the play makes Seneca's critique of mimetically structured ambition more explicitly a critique of public aspiration in general. Second, it builds Seneca's interest in repetition more directly into the plot. Macbeth takes the place of the whole house of Atreus, committing a series of atrocities in an increasingly dehumanizing attempt at perfection. Each of these formal innovations expands upon what is merely allegorical in Seneca's scheme.

Jarry, recognizing in Macbeth a fierce attack on the complacency of social convention, retells it as farce. Ubu takes his cues as to the value of items and positions from others, but his enormous selfishness is driven by a desire to destroy and transcend the world around him. In keeping with this perspective—which allows for no inherent value in the objects of mimetic competition—the objects fought over in Jarry are hilariously trivial. This generalizes Macbeth's ruminations on the meaninglessness of the crown, stripping the story of specific political context and supplying instead a perspective within which any and all public ambitions are mocked.

Ionesco's Macbett keeps Jarry's focus on the triviality of conventional desires but shifts the focus once again. Instead of looking at the selfish and trivial desires of one character, Ionesco emphasizes the degree to which all desires are trivial because conventional. As a result, Ionesco's is a play of interchangeable parts: the endless hunger of Tantalus, Macbeth, and Ubu is replaced by a murderous society in which everyone has the same murderous appetites as a matter of course. This approach emphasizes most fully the dehumanizing tedium of repetitive violence stoked by conventional ambition. Within this world of trivial and violent interchangeability, Macbett's boasts of autonomy and triumph are designed to ring with bitter, Senecan irony.

The formal innovation of Renaissance Senecanism—which makes endless repetition into part of the plot—is extended still further in Ionesco's absurdist revision: in addition to shaping the actions of the plot, mimetic repetition structures the way Ionesco's characters think, talk, and relate to one another. The fantasy of transcendence that generates this repetition in earlier Senecan drama is further attenuated here by the total failure of individuality, but Macbett's hollow ambition is still to stand alone as a fully triumphant and self-sufficient king. Indeed, if one thinks of such repetition as a major formal innovation of the theater of the absurd, used to express a modern alienation from what Ionesco calls “transcendental roots,” then perhaps the affinity between theater of the absurd and Senecan drama will seem almost inevitable (Esslin 1961, xix). I am struck, therefore, by the fact that Camus's influential essay on the Absurd turns to Sisyphus—doomed forever to roll a stone up a hill, doomed to fail, endlessly trying—as an emblem of the Absurd hero. That Seneca and Camus both use the endless torments of the classical underworld to represent the emptiness of worldly action is a coincidence that underscores a real continuity between Absurdist and Senecan concerns.

Literary history is always overdetermined. Shakespeare and Seneca are not the primary influences upon Absurdism, nor would Ionesco or Jarry have necessarily conceived of their relation to Shakespeare in the terms I have proposed. But these affinities do offer some explanatory context for the uncanny sense that Shakespeare is in dialogue with some of the most radical innovations of modern drama. That is to say, they begin to explain what in Macbeth seems modern and why Shakespeare was doing it. More importantly, sketching this chain of influences is designed to demonstrate Shakespeare's participation in a much larger tradition of radical dramaturgy that owes its staying power to a remarkably powerful, adaptable, and therefore vital critique of the absurd desires beneath public ambition. It is my hope that recuperating this genealogy strengthens it, lending a greater cumulative weight to its insistent exposé of emulate pride.

But in order to make use of this perspective, we must attend to the alternative models of desire implicit in these plays. For despite their shared emphasis on eating (the cannibal banquet in Seneca, Macbeth's disrupted feast, Ubu's gourmandizing, tea and carnage in Macbett), these plays tend to lack depictions of healthy appetite. Hunger, we might say, leads directly to indigestion. This too may have Senecan origins: Thyestes's return to court, for example, is depicted as a kind of fatal weakness for comfort, a failure of stoic indifference that makes Atreus's crimes possible. More generally, Braden has argued for a close analogy between the stoic's dream of perfect indifference and the kind of transcendence aimed at by Atreus: both are driven by a desire “to keep the self's boundaries under its own control (Braden 1985, 23). Both, in short, have a fundamental hostility to the demands of neediness. The same hostility permeates the world of Macbeth, where the drunken porter alone stands as an attenuated but crucial gesture toward a Rabelaisian perspective that celebrates instead the self's openness.

The coarseness of Jarry's farce ensures that the registers of bodily need are always present. This means that though Ubu's greed is driven by a fantasy of transcendence, the play's audience can intuit a Rabelaisian alternative to his Senecan drive. But this possibility is forestalled in Ionesco's Macbett, a play that reduces bodily appetites to convention and thus to emulate pride. In doing so, Ionesco reproduces a hostility to pleasure that leaves its audience once again with only the stark choices of Senecan tragedy: destructive emulate pride or complete withdrawal from the world. This nonchoice may explain why audiences have found Macbett comparatively unsatisfying as a piece of dramatic art. For indeed, the grim emphasis on the destructiveness of mimetic desire throughout these incarnations of the absurd underscores for me the importance of an alternative model of desire not based on competitiveness and mimesis. While recovering this Senecan tradition may provide us with a radical and long-standing critique of ambition, it should also lead us to look beyond stoic hostility to need, and to celebrate instead the more immediate desires and satisfactions of the body.


  1. On Shakespeare's interest in cyclical violence see Booth 1983, 91-92, and Sinfield 1986. On Ionesco's reinscription of Shakespeare's political violence see: Lamont 1972, 231-53; Kern 1974; Sessa 1978; Scott 1989, 72-88.

  2. See Macbeth, 4.3.46-100.

  3. All citations from Shakespeare's Macbeth will appear in this form.

  4. Even in France, which did not have a strong Shakespearean tradition until the eighteenth century (Jusserand 1899; Heylen 1993).

  5. For the French see Jarry 1962, 33. For the translation see Jarry 1961, 9. I use these editions throughout.

  6. This basic argument has been made in several critical vocabularies. See for example Adelman 1992, 130-46, Braden 1984, and Brooks 1948, 22-49.

  7. Lamont 1972, 245.

  8. On the Senecan heritage of this passage see Miola 1992, 93.

  9. On paradoxes of desire throughout the Marlowe canon, see Tromly 1998.

  10. Seneca 1961, 105. I use this text throughout. On the excessiveness of revenge in Senecan drama see Kerrigan 1996, 114-17.

  11. As has been remarked, this Senecan motif of child killing symbolizes the desire of the hero to kill the future—that which is beyond control, that which necessarily limits perfect autonomy—and is picked up by the images of children and child killing in Macbeth. See Braden 1984, 291-92, and Miola 1992, 108.

  12. Perhaps in order to elaborate some of what seems elliptical, Jasper Heywood's translation of Thyestes (1560) adds one final speech in which Thyestes calls for self-punishment. See Kerrigan 1996, 111-12.

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Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968. Reprint, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bergson, Henri. 1980. “Laughter.” In Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. Garden City: Doubleday, 1956. Reprint, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bonnefoy, Claude. 1970. Conversations With Eugène Ionesco. Trans. Jan Dawson. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston.

Booth, Stephen. 1983. King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Braden, Gordon. 1984. “Senecan Tragedy and the Renaissance.” Illinois Classical Studies 9.2: 277-92.

———. 1985. Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger's Privilege. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Brooks, Cleanth. 1948. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Camus, Albert. 1969. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O'Brien. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Esslin, Martin. 1961. The Theatre of the Absurd. Garden City: Anchor Books.

———. 1973. “Review of Macbett.Plays and Players 20.12: 54-55.

Greenblatt, Stephen. 1980. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heylen, Romy. 1993. Translation, Poetics, and the Stage: Six French Hamlets. London: Routledge.

Ionesco, Eugène. 1985. Macbett. Trans. Charles Marowitz. In Exit the King, The Killer, and Macbett: Three Plays by Eugène Ionesco. New York: Grove Press.

Jarry, Alfred. 1961. Ubu Roi. Trans. Barbara Wright. New York: New Directions.

———. 1962. Tout Ubu. Ed. Maurice Saillet. Paris: Librairie Général Française.

Jusserand, J. J. 1899. Shakespeare In France Under the Ancien Règime. London: T. Fisher Unwin.

Kern, Edwin. 1974. “Ionesco and Shakespeare: Macbeth on the Modern Stage.” South Atlantic Quarterly 39.1: 3-16.

Kerrigan, John. 1996. Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kiefer, Frederick. 1977. “Seneca's Influence on Elizabethan Tragedy: An Annotated Bibliography.” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 20: 17-33.

Kott, Jan. 1964. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boleslaw Taborski. Garden City: Doubleday, 1964.

LaBelle, Maurice Marc. 1980. Alfred Jarry: Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd. New York: New York University Press.

Lamont, Rosette C. 1972. “From Macbeth to Macbett.Modern Drama 15: 231-53.

———. 1993. Ionesco's Imperatives: The Politics of Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lane, Nancy. 1994. Understanding Eugène Ionesco. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Marlowe, Christopher. 1994. The Jew of Malta. Ed. James R. Siemon. London: A & C Black.

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Scott, Michael. 1989. Shakespeare and the Modern Dramatist. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan.

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Sessa, Jacqueline. 1978. “Deux Avatars Derisoires de Macbeth: L'Ubu Roi de Jarry et le Macbett de Ionesco.” In Travaux Comparatistes. Ed. Lucette Desvignes. Saint-Etienne: Centre d'Etudes Comparatistes et de Recherche sur l'Expression Dramatique, 135-53.

Shakespeare, William. 1974. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sinfield, Alan. 1986. “Macbeth: History, Ideology and Intellectuals.” Critical Quarterly 28: 63-77.

Tromly, Fred B. 1998. Playing With Desire: Christopher Marlowe and the Art of Tantalization. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Paul Edwards (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Edwards, Paul. “Introduction: Alfred Jarry, From Reading to Writing and Back Again.” In Collected Works of Alfred Jarry, Volume I: Adventures in Pataphysics, edited by Alastair Brotchie & Paul Edwards, translated by Paul Edwards & Antony Melville, pp. 11-18. London, England: Atlas Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Edwards provides an in-depth discussion of Jarry's early work and his literary influences.]

Clown? Practical joker? Nihilist? For many, Jarry has been the trickster of modern literary history. He is primarily remembered for creating Ubu, a monster often thought to be a force beyond his control, and in consequence Jarry is imagined as the victim of his creation, as a man made over into a puppet. In the face of this persistent attitude, revived at intervals by unscrupulous publishers, an increasing number of scholars, gravitating around the inspirational work of the College of 'Pataphysics, have been diligently editing the individual works, supplying a broader view, and painting the portrait of Jarry the writer. Despite the legendary anecdotes, which bring to mind Mozart's exuberant pranks following the completion of a work he knew to be great, Jarry spent his short life doing virtually nothing but reading and writing. Familiarity with Jarry's life and œuvre makes it easier to see what he was not. The time is long overdue to break another taboo and put forward the idea that Jarry was also a poet.

Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) was six when he moved with his mother from the Mayenne to neighbouring Brittany, staying first in Saint-Brieuc, then attending the Rennes Lycée where he was taught physics by Félix-Frédéric Hébert, the original for Père Ubu. He finally settled in Paris in 1891, considering himself an adopted Breton by virtue of his childhood. He never published his juvenilia (1885-90), in which he imitates the (French) Romantics, but saved it, later copying some out neatly and calling it “Ontogénie” (Ontogenesis), with a possible pun on “the birth of a genius”. From the Romantics he derived his taste for the destructive forces of nature and for the fantastic, from the hurricane to Walpurgisnacht. From Hugo's Les Djinns he learnt the poetic effect to be gained from picture poems and page-layout. In addition to Romanticism, the child Jarry was influenced by Molière's comic spirit, which he likewise adopted; the combined result was mock-heroic epics, or mini-epics, in classical alexandrines. The best example of this is his verse drama The Antliad, a battle of shit-pumps, and of schoolboys armed with ink-pots. Scatological and irreverent in the style Ubu would later come to stand for, it should, however, not hide from view the contemporaneous La Seconde Vie, ou Macaber, Jarry's first mature poem and a turning-point in his production. Its hero, Aldern (“Alfred” in Breton), goes one step further than Goethe's Faust in that he actually drinks the phial of poison and penetrates into hell: from this experience he learns a “deep wisdom” for the future conduct of his life. Whether this poem was an account of a mystical experience, the recollection of a dream or sheer bravado, Jarry at fifteen was projecting himself as a poet-seer.

In Paris he went to the Henri IV Lycée, where he met Léon-Paul Fargue (the “Ablou” of Haldernablou) and was taught philosophy by Henri Bergson. Having hesitated between the sciences and the humanities, he finally opted for literature and sat the entrance exam for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, intending to be a teacher. He was rejected three years in succession, and moreover failed to get a degree (“Passed with the grade: ELIMINATED”, in the words of his certificate). Ironically, he had in the meantime been publishing Symbolist poems, articles and reviews in the established and newer Paris journals. Jarry's career as a “man of letters” had already begun. He followed the progress of Symbolist theatre, and participated in the first French production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt, rewriting some lines of the translation and playing the Troll King himself, until, in 1896, he succeeded in getting Ubu Roi staged. He also attended Mallarmé's Tuesday salons and those of the Mercure de France, the review and publishing house run by Alfred Vallette and his wife, the novelist Rachilde. He frequented two erudite writers in particular, Marcel Schwob and Remy de Gourmont, who introduced him to works of literature and art from periods and countries (notably Britain) likely to interest him.

Jarry's career as a poet strictly speaking lasted just two years and resulted in only one collection of poems, Les Minutes de sable mémorial (1894). The first edition of 216 copies is what the French call an “artist's book”: the typography is carefully calculated, the paper precious, and there are woodcuts in different colours. The text is given plenty of “poetic space”, that is to say plenty of white paper to let it breathe. It should be approached slowly, like a series of allegorical illuminations in an old parchment that tell their own secret story.

Jarry's poetic forms in Les Minutes are mostly traditional. He employs alexandrines or octosyllabics, sometimes heterometric lines, rarely the “impair”, the line with an odd syllable count which had recently been made famous by Verlaine. There is virtually no free verse, a still more recent invention, for Jarry preferred not to relinquish the magic of fixed forms, rhyme and number (French verse works by counting syllables, including mute “e”s). Nor does the poet borrow from oral expression; on the contrary, Jarry even went so far as to pronounce mute “e”s in everyday conversation. For the eye there is a picture poem, and for the ear, resoundingly assonant metrical prose (as employed by Catulle Mendès before him, in Lieds de France, and Paul Fort after him, in Ballades). The several passages of strictly metred prose are the only novel features as regards form (and have in one instance been translated here into “trochaic prose”, a corresponding novelty). Various typographical possibilities are also explored: serif and sanserif titles and sub-titles answer one another, while ideograms conjure up the printing practice of the sixteenth century (following Gourmont's example in Le Château singulier). Marinetti, his admirer, and Apollinaire, his friend, on being made aware of such aesthetic use of typography, would seek to use it to break with tradition, whereas Jarry was more interested in folklore than in the avant-garde: he was a friend of the Pont-Aven painters, had been first published as an art critic, and now in his poetry he described Gerhard-Louis Munthe's paintings of Norse legends, and the “primitive” work of Paul Gauguin.

For all its traditional and folkloric elements, Les Minutes is a typical fin-de-siècle production, recognisably Idealist (in the limited sense of “anti-Naturalist”) by its Gothic and fairy-tale motifs, reinforced with Celtic mythology and the Breton landscapes of Jarry's childhood. The vocabulary is Decadent, full of Latinate compounds, resuscitated etymologies, Rabelaisian and regional words, but also scientific terms taken from botany, entomology, zoology and mathematics. It is in his use of scientific thought and expression that Jarry sought to distinguish his writing from the French literary tradition of his peers. The established Symbolist authors and their sources are plundered by the twenty-year-old for their linguistic beauties and stylistic opportunities. Jarry does not get the tone quite right, however, when he tries to imitate Lautréamont, despite a common interest in science and “severe mathematics”, because the characteristic style of Maldoror depends on the hero's single-minded search for the expression of evil and a wholesale defiance of God, neither of which Jarry pursues systematically. Haldernablou, his homosexual play, is written in a conspicuously borrowed idiom, and although its Prolegomena hit a convincing note the play as a whole may give the impression of being a mere show of style, notwithstanding its autobiographical elements. Paralipomena III is written in a style that echoes Lautréamont's parody of popular novels, but employed by Jarry to describe a dream that resembles a play by Maeterlinck. The mixture of tones is impossible, since Maeterlinck depends on effect, and Lautréamont on critical distance. The result may set the reader's teeth on edge, but that is of no importance when mixing elements in a crucible.

Received opinion smells a rat. The mixture of styles, even within a single text, coupled with the absence of clear allegiance to any of the literary schools within the wider Symbolist movement (psychological, idéo-réaliste, Roman, Anarchist, etc.) does not help Jarry to stand out as a “recognisable” author in the market-place. A painter, for example, who exhibits thirty dissimilar canvases, sells few; a painter who shows thirty examples of the same thing has good sales, because he has a “recognisable” style. It is all too easy to conclude that Les Minutes was “everything and nothing”; certainly Jarry's early books play upon themselves, since his writing is highly metatextual and relativistic, but that he wrote pastiches has always been argued out of hand and lacks positive evidence. Even the excrement he heaped upon Pierre Loti and a few others (in Faustroll) is not pastiche, and nor is it parody. Might the situation, in fact, be the opposite, that Jarry does not indulge in parody at all?

There is something necessarily obvious about parody, and no individual author is thus ridiculed by Jarry in Les Minutes. He certainly made use of the Symbolists' techniques, but did not seize upon their tics and exaggerate them to humorous effect. Jarry's modus operandi is to combine opposites in a scientific way, like an alchemist, or a zoologist in the style of Leonardo da Vinci, who grafted the wings of a dragonfly on to a lizard. And so Jarry tried out the various schools … in combination.

A great many new “-isms” were proclaimed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and a burgeoning poet could be forgiven for having done his apprenticeship in a number of them. Téodor de Wyzewa, in a review of Marcel Schwob's Mimes, starts with an anecdote about a young writer who wishes to compose something in a fashionable style about a pretty redhead and who, being a little slow to compose and literary styles being quick to change, finds himself obliged to imitate in turn an epic poem modelled on Victor Hugo, a Naturalist novel, a series of complaints in free verse, a psychological study, a symbol, an essay on the Self, and a neo-Christian short story (Mercure de France, July 1893, pp. 193-202). Jarry, accepted into the coteries of the Mercure and other journals directed by the new generation, wrote in the styles that were then fashionable.

A closer examination of Les Minutes reveals certain impurities. The Funeral Lieder are laments written in the metred prose of Jarry's patron Catulle Mendès, but even stricter in form, and which take up the themes from two poetic generations ago (the Romantics: Aloysius Bertrand, Achim von Arnim, Petrus Borel, Victor Hugo …). The fashionably occult or magical elements of Three Antiques are in fact only given lip-service, being merely the “furniture” of a memento mori in three tableaux; and the apparently Decadent alliterations, rather than being comic exaggeration are more likely to have been modelled on medieval Latin poems, which were much appreciated by Gourmont. The Aristophanean drama Puppet Play is ensconced in anomalously precious prose, and the music in its interval, Phonograph (a Symbolist exercise in which Mallarméan “suggestion” is supposed to replace description), has a modern mechanical contraption as its poetic subject, in the wake of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Following this, the closet drama returns Ubu to the scene, but suddenly a Platonic monologue describes him as the symbol of perfection; the Platonic Form then seats itself on the toilet. In his Lullaby for the dying, Jarry employs liturgical distichs for his black scenario, weaving between Gothic morbidity on the one hand, and the innocence of Max Elskamp and Saint-Pol-Roux on the other. In his Opium dream he borrows from all the “authorised” sources (Villiers, De Quincey, Gautier, Schwob, Baudelaire), even slipping in a reference to the occultists, before the personal themes of guilt and bereavement return (with surprisingly Freudian twists). The ecclesiastical architecture leads to The Regularity of the Reliquary, which, while being an overt homage to Saint-Pol-Roux's shapely ideo-realist picture poems, also seems to be a silent re-creation of De Quincey's Savannah-la-Mar (in Suspiria de Profundis). Jarry's Tapestries are descriptions of paintings from the new school heralded by Munthe, but are inaccurate in their details and careless in their interpretation of Norse mythology. Without reproductions of the originals, the scenes are impossible to reconstruct because the reader cannot know what is description and what is metaphor. The folk-tale atmosphere is there to build up a sense of superstitious fear before Jarry's incongruous introduction of monera at the very end (these were the putative origin of the chain of life according to a recent scientific controversy). The monera give way to the Five Senses, in which Jarry employs the Jesuitic technique of describing the sensations of each sense in turn, as recommended in Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises (famously exploited in Huysmans' A rebours), to describe here not the life of Christ but rather something which resembles artificial insemination (or worse). There follows a poem dedicated to the painter most venerated by the Symbolists, Gauguin, but Jarry's Man with the Axe is more a definition of art than a straight description of the painting. Two related poems were originally to accompany this: Ia Orana Maria uses Elskamp's Catholic tone to conjure up Tahitian “primitivism”, and Manao Tùpapaù the almost animistic experience of Death's presence—a return to the autobiographical, perhaps too directly, for the poem was withheld from the book. The sources for Haldernablou and Caesar-Antichrist, too numerous to mention here, are discussed in the notes.

From this general overview a pattern may be seen to emerge, in which styles are juxtaposed like complementary colours, to bring each other out. If the pattern consists mostly of experimentation, one element remains in the crucible after the fireworks: the autobiographical. The notes at the end of this volume are in part intended to amplify this aspect, and in particular to draw out the theme of mourning from under its cloak. As a book about loss, mourning and memory, Les Minutes is entirely serious.

The poems about loss had, as their indirect object, Jarry's mother. “Indirect”, because the literary treatment of death is an inevitable rite of passage for a poet, especially one imbued with the lore of Brittany; and indirect also because Jarry had written about death long before having to deal with it in real life. His mother had watched over him during a serious five-month illness, and died shortly afterwards, in the spring of 1893. Did he believe that he was responsible for her death, that he had killed her? The themes of loss and guilt, so much a staple of Christian poetics, are at the centre of Jarry's reading at the time, especially of English literature. He translated Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and read De Quincey's Confessions and Suspiria de Profundis. Poe's Raven, a favourite of the Symbolists and translated by Mallarmé, appears to have been a model of poetic structure for Jarry, with its hammered rhythm used to reinforce the feeling of fatality and never-ending remembrance. Jarry's interest in death, or rather in the transition from the wide-awake dream to death (Lullaby, Funeral Lieder III, …), is contemporary with Maeterlinck's plays, such as La Mort de Tintagilles and L'Intruse, which are, from beginning to end, an enactment of the awareness of death's approach. Death, for Jarry, is “the concentrated recapturing of Thought” (Prologal Act) and his recurring symbol for the inexpressible, as developed beyond its status as a subject of melancholy to become for him a symbol of the poetic process itself—another attempt to confound two opposites.

Jarry's collection is also a treasure trove of metatextuality and manifestos. Les Minutes opens with an orthodox, slightly schoolboyish statement of allegiance to Mallarmé's creed of “suggestion”, polysemy and difficulty: it will be up to the reader, he writes, to “dissect” his “diamonds”, these words that are the “polyhedra of ideas”. His foreword, his “Lintel”, presupposes the entrance to an edifice, maybe even a cathedral, but the reader soon discovers that the chapels it contains are heterogeneous. The accumulation of genres—poems, poetic prose, theatre, engravings—makes the reader wonder if Jarry was not in fact searching for a form of Total Art, a marriage of the arts, but a marriage of paired opposites, the grotesque with the sublime. Hugo, in his celebrated Preface to Cromwell, had called for the grotesque and the sublime to alternate, but Jarry's response to this is extreme: the sublime depiction of bereaved love in The Regularity of the Reliquary falls to the grotesque scene in which Ubu is about to be cuckolded in the toilet, not to mention his stuffing his Conscience into his suitcase.

Despite the fact that leading Symbolists proclaimed Les Minutes a masterpiece, when the book came out the reviewers suspected it was a piece of mystification (like Adoré Floupette's tongue-in-cheek Les Déliquescences). Today it is almost universally frowned upon by dons and students alike, unable to make it fit the absolute criterion of seriousness: internal coherence. Those who consider Les Minutes to be a parody of Symbolism rather than a product of it, usually refer to the inclusion of Ubu as proof that the book as a whole has been sapped from the inside. But it is Ubu above all who unites the sublime and the ridiculous: he is the sovereign Self of the writer, Caesar-Antichrist, the creating Word-God, the temptation of absolute possibility, the Platonic sphere of perfection, and the black sun of writing's self-reference.

Les Minutes virtually disappeared during the twentieth century, and this may be explained by a more serious objection. The book lacks “a sense of other people” (Wallace Stevens), a factor which has become the condition of poetry amongst poets over the last century. Although Jarry copied down every word of Bergson's eclectic lectures, Nietzsche (taught at Rennes before the German philosopher was available in French translation) had already impressed him deeply, and the egoism of the Self seems to have struck a deeper chord. Gourmont's essays on Idealism, which argue that the radical subjectivity of experience should be reflected in poetry, must likewise have been close to Jarry's concerns, since we find echoes of the idea in his manifestos Visions of the Present and Future and To Be and To Live.

Jarry succeeded in pushing Symbolism to new limits while at the same time anchoring it to traditional forms and themes. He drew its strands together, seeking contrasts and paradox, turning its energies inwards and against themselves. He did not “explode” Symbolism so much as implode it, producing a concentrated creative chaos which either resists the reader, or allows him to grow his own crystals in its super-saturated solution. It is, as we say, a hard act to follow.

Kimberly Jannarone (essay date August 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9797

SOURCE: Jannarone, Kimberly. “Puppetry and Pataphysics: Populism and the Ubu Cycle.” New Theater Quarterly 17, no. 3 (August 2001): 239-53.

[In the following essay, Jannarone argues that the 1896 production of Ubu Roi represents a complicated mixture of folk culture and highbrow art, and suggests that Jarry envisioned his audience in a more complex way than did other Symbolist artists.]

I expressed my astonishment at the attention he was paying this species of an art form intended for the masses.

—Kleist, ‘On the Marionette Theatre’

The biography of Alfred Jarry (his eccentric behaviour, his adoption of Père Ubu's name and persona, his alcoholism and early death) is as well known as the biography of Père Ubu (his evolution from the incompetent professor of physics in Rennes to the brilliant and worldly professor of pataphysics).1 This essay uncovers the biography of a third character equally essential to understanding the phenomenon of Ubu roi—that of the rural French puppet, the working-class guignol who found himself thrust upon the stage of the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre in 1896.

The entry of the small-town puppet into the Parisian avant-garde scene of the fin de siècle will be discussed here as signifying a moment that has not been fully considered in its cultural context: a moment of tradition and the avant-garde, and of urban and rural fusion. I bring this third biography together with an understanding of pataphysics to read Jarry's appropriation of puppet-theatre conventions as an attempt to make his own theatre a catalyst for imaginative action, not a product for consumption by the audience. This emphasis on catalysis is what makes Jarry's project a philosophically developed populism. Through this discussion, I will argue that pataphysics can be used as a model for the avant-garde as a whole: it is social agitation wearing the garb of aesthetic sophistication.

My entry to this discussion is an examination of the practices of the nineteenth-century rural puppet theatres in the north of France that Jarry frequented as a child and referenced throughout his career. These traditions not only influence the Ubu cycle stylistically, but also suggest a new understanding of its intended impact. My approach to Ubu roi foregrounds the interaction of the play and the audience—specifically, the methods the production employed to encourage individual creative activity—on both formal and social levels.

The theorem of pataphysics is that it is possible (and essential) to adopt a personal strategy of interpreting and creating a world that rejects existing paradigms. Jarry sought in his life to prove that this is possible; his works are meant to be catalysts that will inspire the adoption of pataphysical principles by others. Pataphysical reasoning evacuates the notion of incompatibility. If the imaginary and the real are identical (as pataphysics insists),2 there are only two crimes of perception one can commit: the first, to insist upon the supremacy of any one version of the truth;3 and the second, to accept a preexisting theory as one's own. Thus, the duty of the pataphysician is to provide his audience with a catalyst for individual action.

Jarry's conception of theatre reaches far beyond the proscenium into the audience's imaginations: the event on stage is not intended to be a finished work of art. My argument is that the 1896 production of Ubu roi represents a complicated intertwining of folk and highbrow culture. I unravel this in terms of the working class and le beau monde, praxis and aesthetics, signified by small-town puppets and big-city philosophy.

For an avant-garde artist to delve into traditions of the past for inspiration is not uncommon,4 but Jarry's appropriation of puppet theatre conventions is important not so much for its continuity of artistic tradition as for the relation between art and its audience that puppetry represents. This relation must be understood in terms both of the milieu in which French puppetry operated in the nineteenth century, and of the physical forms of the puppet theatre. In the following sections, I delineate the characteristics of rural French puppetry essential to understanding Ubu's ancestry.


Puppetry, until the end of the nineteenth century, was a rural, working-class phenomenon in France.5 The class placement was evident on all levels: the puppeteers, the audience, and the puppets themselves all possessed manifestly working-class attributes. Discussions of puppet characters inevitably begin with a history of their origins: for example, Guignol, certainly the most famous French puppet character,6 originated in Lyon around 1800, a by-product of Lyon's floundering silk-working industry. Paul Fournel, in his history of Guignol, describes the audiences at Guignol's theatre, the Caveau: ‘The clientele of the Caveau is exclusively common, representing the same diversity as the Lyonnaise people at the beginning of the nineteenth century’7—a people that included a range of workers ‘from day labourer to silk worker’, ‘from extreme poverty to the working poor’, ‘young and turbulent artisans and workers’, and, the majority, who were ‘porters from the Port d'Ainay’.8 This is Lyon, but the characteristics of the puppet theatre milieu are the same throughout rural (most of non-Parisian) France.9

The puppeteers often worked at the same jobs as their audiences. Léopold Delannoy's Théâtres de marionnettes du Nord de la France10 describes in great detail the puppet theatres, both permanent and travelling, of northern France at the fin de siècle—puppetry of the kind that Jarry would have seen as the troupes travelled west near Rennes and Laval (where he grew up).11 Delannoy describes the practitioners of puppetry in Lille as having occupations as diverse as ‘those one would find in Lille: weaving, filtration, metallurgy, or construction’.12

The puppeteers who made the puppet theatre their single occupation were condemned to a hand-to-mouth existence; many worked at another job, or made the puppet show a family enterprise, which was helpful for ‘economic viability’.13 In either circumstance, a puppeteer earned ‘about the same as a poorly-paid day labourer’.14 In other words, puppeteers occupied the same social and economic class as their audiences. Louis Poire-Cuite, a popular puppeteer of Lille, housed his theatre in his basement. His wife was the daughter of a worker: ‘One could say that his theatre knew the masses.’15

Throughout rural France, puppeteers provided their audience of equals with popular entertainment that reflected the concerns of their shared working-class milieu. The days of the performances and the admission prices provide strong evidence for this: for puppet plays coincided with the only days a worker had for leisure (Sundays and holidays), and admission, when charged, was often less than the price of a loaf of bread.16 The vast number of plays that were performed over a weekend or during the course of a fair testifies to the small audience and the large number of people who watched the show repeatedly.17

These shared social and economic (and, inevitably, educational) circumstances point towards the shared values of the puppeteers and their audiences. In addition to being an extremely popular form of entertainment, the theatre also served a larger social function. Whether it was in a basement theatre or on the street, the puppet theatre brought the people together, addressed topical local issues, and disseminated information: ‘For all the illiterate townspeople, it was the neighbourhood gazette.’18

Puppetry also sometimes served as social agitator. McCormick and Pratasik argue that the ‘ethos of Guignol was decidedly populist, and off-the-cuff political comments slipped into the dialogue every evening’.19 This argument is put forward most frequently about the theatre of Guignol, due both to the popularity of Guignol himself and to the markedly unstable social atmosphere of Lyon in the mid-nineteenth century, but the arguments carry equal weight for puppet theatres in northern France.20


The rural puppeteers, in addition to being financially ill-furnished, were often ‘almost illiterate’,21 and had little access to any of the sophisticated literary or artistic traditions of their country. But in the mid-nineteenth century, the Bibliothèque Nationale undertook the publication of its great authors—and other European authors in translation—in cheaply-bound editions known as ‘livraisons’. They were sold everywhere, and became immensely popular.22 Thus, uneducated puppeteers found the sources for their plays among the great classics of French and European literature: plays by Dumas, Balzac, Scribe, Hugo, Shakespeare, etc. The result of this was the creation of a repertoire that Delannoy describes as a kind of ‘atticisme populaire’.23

The puppeteers, however, manifested no great regard for the literary nature of their sources. The dramatic literature on which a puppet play was based was reduced to the fundamentals of the plot, resulting in what Delannoy describes as a ‘schéma’, ‘an outline as condensed as possible, which they filled in following their imagination’.24 They would then take even more liberties with the text: ‘they would mix them up in their fashion, adding or subtracting according to their fancy’.25 The masterpieces of European literature were stripped to bare scenarios and then performed with comical and vulgar embellishments: the workers got their culture and their amusement at the same time. The great benefit of the travelling popular theatre for the workers was that the classics were divested of everything that might otherwise have rendered them inaccessible: they were brought directly to the town, they were practically (if not in fact) free, and they were perfectly comprehensible.

What was anathema to the Comédie Française was thus the pinnacle of entertainment for the majority of the country. The classics were appropriated by puppeteers, not venerated; they were baldly employed for entertainment, not for meditation. If to use the great works of dramatic literature as springboards for popular performance is a distortion of the original function of the works, it is a distortion that operated on all levels of rural puppet theatre.

The twistings of plots and texts mirrored the contortions of grammar and abundant malapropisms that accompanied a puppet performance. The language did not retain the precision of either the original works, of standard French, or even of any local patois. Often it was a perversion of all three (due to varying degrees of literacy among the performers and the itinerant nature of most of the puppeteers), resulting in a manner of speaking that had no real-world correlate.

Fournel outlines three characteristics of puppet-speak: ‘distortions (involuntary or comical), a lexicon, and an accent’.26 These distortions and accents identify the voices of the puppet characters as steadfastly rustic. The strange accents and bold neologisms identify them as friendly figures, defiant, fiercely funny. In addition, the irregularity of the puppet's speech licensed a more outrageous commentary on local events than the use of regular language would have allowed: its significant remove from reality allowed it an outsider status, from which more could be dared. During elections, festivals, and any public event, the puppeteers would utilize their peculiarities of speech to make ‘transparent allusions’27 to political and social activities—allusions that would not have been possible for a regular actor or person.

Much may be said about the distinctive characteristics of speech employed by rural French puppeteers. For our purposes, a brief quotation from Delannoy will suffice to suggest the sound of a performance. He describes the language of the puppets of the north: ‘They spoke in the patois of Lille in rolling the r's and in abusing a bit that which we call rhotalism.28 This sound—of a fiercely rolling r decorating a malapropism within a lawless sentence based on Scribe or Shakespeare—is the sound of atticisme populaire.


The puppeteers in the north of France in the nineteenth century operated either out of basement theatres (such as the Caveau in Lille), in a portable booth (as at the fair), or from inside a castelet,29 which was formed by the puppeteer draping most of the lower half of his body (usually his legs or feet would show) and placing the puppet stage on top of his head to manipulate the puppets from below. In a basement theatre, the atmosphere was as noisy and as active as at the fair: ‘In a brouhaha of cries and songs, of laughter and noise, the show begins. It is very hard to distinguish the voices of the actors.’30 In each case, the performance space is crowded, active, and makeshift, with an audience that is rarely still.

Puppet conventions of mise en scène evoke, from a modern perspective, a fading cultural conception of performance, in which the show is both a more collective and a more individual endeavour than is typical of contemporary theatre. In contrast to most modern spectators, who watch performances on a lighted stage from a darkened room, the traditional puppet theatre spectators gather around the framed space, with a full view of the puppets, the stage, and even the moving strings (if used).31 Due to the nature of the audience—loud, boisterous, and usually crowded together—its members were constantly aware of their position as members of a group. For this was a public event that brought performers and spectators into the same physical and—most significantly—the same creative space.

The crude nature of the theatrical elements played an essential role in the level of imaginative participation by the audience. The sets, for example, were decorated with scenery and props that announced the scene more through easily translatable signs than through representation. Often a puppeteer would own only one backdrop, and that with ‘little iconic significance’ and ‘little attempt at realistic representation’.32 Delannoy describes the toiles de fond (back-cloths) in Lille: ‘garishly painted, better to catch the eye, and without much care for design, from either a natural or a theatrical perspective’.33

Often the styles would be haphazardly mixed, as on one curtain which depicted ‘a public place in Rome with the Sainte-Ange chateau reflected in the Tiber!’34 The audience members deciphered the scenic confusion from placards, the puppets' dialogue, and their own imaginations. Thus, at the same time as the audience members were quite conscious of their situation in a crowd, they were also active in the individual process of interpreting the simple props being conspicuously manipulated before them.

The last detail of the formal characteristics of the rural puppet theatre that is important for understanding Jarry's project is the movement of the puppets—sudden, jerky, and liberated from all limitations of gravity and verisimilitude. The puppet, in its freedom from most conventions of realism, from written texts, and from regular language was giddily carefree and unashamedly vulgar: an example par excellence of popular theatre.


The reader familiar with Ubu roi will already have noticed the similarities in temperament and form between the rural puppets and Jarry's creation. I will draw the connections more explicitly in a later section; first, we need to contrast this milieu with the one which is usually invoked in reference to Ubu: that of Symbolism and the Parisian artistic elite.

The popular puppet described above is at a far remove from the idea of the puppet that by the 1880s had made its way among the Parisian artistic elite. In the salons and the theatres of the Left Bank, the question of the non-human performer was much in discussion. This discourse was not homogenous, or even linearly defined, but it can be understood as a flux of three main tendencies.

First, the puppet represented for some a pure form, an untainted abstraction that would allow for a complete understanding of character to emerge from a work of art. Second, the marionette was touted as the model of the perfect actor because of its complete manipulability. Third, on a practical level, wide dissatisfaction with contemporary theatre encouraged a search for the most radical change imaginable: the elimination of the human actor. These three ideas all point, as we will see, toward a similar theory of the practice of the theatre: that of the individual auteur and the fully-realized artistic vision. I will discuss these three tendencies synchronically to illustrate the position the wooden man occupied in the Parisian avant-garde.

First, however, we must briefly examine the text that many point to as the first serious aesthetic treatment of the puppet by a European artist: Kleist's ‘Über das Marionettentheater’ (1810),35 an essay that dramatizes a conversation with a professional dancer who extols the superiority of a marionette's movements compared to that of a human. Because marionettes do not think or act consciously, their motions are free from the flaws of humanity. ‘Grace’, Kleist's fictional dancer argues, ‘appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one, that is, in a puppet or in a god.’36 The essay puts forward the argument that metaphysical authenticity may only be found in those who have never eaten ‘from the Tree of Knowledge’;37 once having eaten, the only way back to a pure state is to eat again: i.e., to become a god. Neither of these being possible, the human (the essay implies) is trapped in an imperfect state. The puppet provides glimpses of a lost (and now unattainable) perfection.

Kleist's essay was hugely influential in Paris, where we find this description of the sublimity of the wooden performer repeatedly echoed in Symbolist experiments with marionette theatre. In spite of its title, however, ‘Über das Marionettentheater’ makes no practical demands or suggestions about the theatre whatsoever—a point with important consequences to our understanding of the Left Bank discourse.

The metaphysical implications of Kleist's essay influence the elaboration of a theory of the puppet actor that the Parisian artists bring closer to the theatre. André Antoine, a founding figure in theatrical naturalism, exemplifies this theory in a letter of 1893, in which he contends that the best dramatic actors are ‘in reality mannequins, more or less improved marionettes (according to their talent), that the author decorates and manipulates according to his fancy’.38 This is an argument taken up on many fronts by avant-garde artists arguing for the use of marionettes in their theatre.

However, Antoine's enthusiasm for the puppet is, again, more metaphysical than practical. Antoine extols the marionette en route to an argument for the supremacy of the director: the marionette is cited as merely an example of the complete manipulability the human actor should strive to achieve.39 On the whole, the naturalists were ‘too attached to the human, in its most ordinary and most corporal dimension, to interest themselves in marionettes’.40

Maurice Maeterlinck posits this objection to human actors with a slightly different emphasis: he argues that a human actor fossilizes the fictional character. His statement on non-human actors had serious theoretical repercussions for, among others, Aurélien Lugné-Poe and Jarry. Maeterlinck writes: ‘Something in Hamlet died for us, the day when we saw him die on the stage. The spectre of an actor dethroned him, and now we can never banish the usurper of our dreams.’41 Once a character has been portrayed by an actor, it is liable to be forever married in the viewer's mind to that actor. Maeterlinck proposed the use of a wooden or shadow actor that would inspire the creation of a ‘character’ in the viewer's imagination, while itself remaining abstract in its very concreteness. He wrote in his Théâtre d'androïds:

It is perhaps necessary to dispense entirely with the living being on the stage. … Will the human being be replaced by a shadow, a projection of symbolic forms, or a being that has the aura of life without being alive itself? I don't know; but the absence of the human seems essential.42

In spite of these views, and of the plays Maeterlinck wrote that were published in 1894 under the title Trois petits drames pour marionnettes, none of his plays was performed by marionettes in his own lifetime.43 Further, these formulations of the superiority of the marionette to the human actor fall precisely in line with those of Antoine: the human actor is insufficiently able to convey the aims of the artist (director, author). For Maeterlinck, who envisioned the drama of man in spiritual and not in active terms, the composition of the actual performer was irrelevant beside its ability to channel the metaphysical dimensions of the piece.


For examples of the use of the marionette in actual performance in fin de siècle Paris before Jarry, we must turn to the brief but important career of the Petit Théâtre de la Galerie Vivienne.44 Founded in 1888, the mission of the Petit Théâtre was to present marionette performances of the world's classic dramas, from Aristophanes to Hrosvitha to Shakespeare.

Although the Petit Théâtre used mechanized puppets, not the hand-operated puppets which we have been examining, the productions of the theatre are the closest we come to Symbolist puppet performances in Paris, and they are characteristic of the Parisian high-art attitude toward marionettes. The Petit Théâtre attracted a regular audience of both established and soon-to-be avant-garde artists throughout its existence, from 1888 to 1894. Its founders, Maurice Bouchor (author) and Henri Signoret (operator of the theatre), aimed to reveal the spiritual essence of classic dramas by staging neo-mystery plays with marionettes.

The Petit Théâtre had an immense following among the artistic elite. The most vocal member of its audience was Anatole France, who reviewed the performances of the theatre regularly and ecstatically. His pieces on the Petit Théâtre, all of which emphasize the mystical qualities of the pure, mysterious, and divinely innocent puppets, strongly echo the formulations of Kleist—while being based in practical examples, and in a real interest in the institution of theatre. Therefore, his essays deal directly with the performances he witnesses, and with the implications for other theatres. He argues for a puppet's superiority to people via a condemnation of the human actor and of the human incapacity for metaphysical purity.

I am grateful to [the rue Vivienne marionettes] for replacing the live actors. … Actors destroy the art of the theatre. … I cannot stand the eminent actors such as those in the Comédie-Française. Their presence is so overwhelming that it overshadows everything else. Only they exist. They distort the dramas which they should be truthfully representing on stage.45

France's reverence for the rue Vivienne puppets extends to impassioned praise of the lead puppet in a performance of Hrosvitha's Abraham:

A beautiful puppet such as you, Madame, would excel over any actress of flesh and blood. … Nowadays it is only you, Madame, who can still convey religious sentiment. … I would express it thus: true artistic ideas and refined thoughts find their way into the wooden head of the puppet as never into the brain of the fashionable actress.46

He was far from alone in this view of the superiority of the rue Vivienne puppets. Paul Margueritte believed that these marionettes were bringing the theatre closer to artistic perfection and transcendent spirituality:

These impersonal puppets, beings of wood and cardboard, possess a pale and mysterious life. Their aura of truth surprises, disquiets. Their essential gestures contain the complete expression of human sentiments.47

Essays such as these flourished during the Petit théâtre's existence, all discussing the marionette's aesthetic and spiritual superiority to the human actor.48 It is crucial to note, however, that the natural puppet is never invoked.

Bouchor himself is careful to distinguish between his puppets and the crude handheld form. This distinction is emblematic of the wide gap between the Symbolist and the popular use of the marionette:

I have to admit that if the marionettes are, in principle, superior to ordinary actors, this is not the case in all spheres. I was not at all thinking, of course, of modern drama or the bourgeois comedy. I abandoned the merry satire and the coarse farce to our friend Guignol … [whose] marvellous agility is precisely the opposite of our sluggish marionettes who are well formed, above all, and, except by chance, very noble in their movements.49

Bouchor writes that even the comedic scenes in Shakespeare had to be cut for the Petit Théâtre's puppets: ‘Nothing rough or violent was appropriate to the marionettes.’50 These comments reveal with utmost clarity that the marionette, even in practice, still represents for the Parisian avant-garde an idealized, abstracted form. It is not adopted out of a real interest in folk culture or for its public appeal: it is employed as a metaphysical exercise, or as the only theoretical solution to a broadly-perceived theatrical crisis.

In sum, although individual perspectives differ, the issue of the marionette relates, in each case, to artistic control: control of the author or director over the performer; and, as evidenced in these reviews of the Petit Théâtre, imaginative control over the audience member. Only an impersonal performer will be able to avoid the obtrusive individual nature of an actor and perfectly channel the vision of the artist. If a total vision is to be given to the audience, the puppet is the best vehicle.


I have given a sampling of the most striking features of this complex discourse within the Parisian circles in order to establish the unique situation of Jarry, who had moved to Paris from Rennes in 1893 and brought Père Ubu with him. Jarry's ideas intersect with this discourse on many levels, but his exposure to Symbolist aesthetics and ideas combines with his experience of the puppet theatre he saw in Laval and Rennes. Having a real admiration for the puppet theatre in practice as well as in theory, and having been a part of the rural community in which the puppet was born, Jarry's indebtedness to the makeshift porte-paroles of the working-class French (the ancestors of Père Ubu), is considerable, and he readily embraces it.

In stark contrast to the theatre described above, the Ubu cycle includes all the vagaries and the vulgarities of the rural castelet. Whereas much of the discussion of puppetry near the end of the century focused on the aesthetic and metaphysical dimensions of the wooden players, Jarry viewed the crudity of the popular form as of no less importance than the philosophical implications of its roots.

The trucs and funny voices of Ubu are a far cry from Symbolist appropriations of the form of puppetry: we will now see that this is directly related to the different aims Jarry has in employing this form. If the Symbolists admired the puppet for the completeness of vision it allowed the artist, Jarry admired the ideals of individual identity and communal activity that the rural puppet represented.

Jarry borrows from the puppet theatre and employs its forms in a philosophically developed context. The capital difference between Jarry and the Symbolists in this regard is that, in the midst of a discourse on the aesthetic and metaphysical nature of artificial man, Jarry introduced the artificial man himself in all his vulgarity, crudity, and simplicity.

Roger-Daniel Bensky suggests that the introduction of the ‘jeu dans le castelet’ into Parisian society was the most brazen part of Jarry's manoeuvre:

It is precisely in this ambition of a theatrical transposition that the audacity and originality of his endeavour resides.51

And Didier Plassard argues that Ubu roi transcends ‘its original dimension of a schoolboy farce to become a theatrical manifesto, the grotesque inversion of the Symbolist ideal’.52

Jarry was not the first to attempt to bring the homme de bois53 into high artistic society: what I am arguing is that his introduction of the jeu de le castelet had the impact it did because of the nature of the fusion his work represented. Guignol and Polchinelle54 both had made it into Paris by mid-century, but in a severely compromised form—that of ‘folk culture’ enjoyed vicariously by city-dwellers. Deprived of a social context, the rural puppets were deprived of their punch. Fournel notes the consequences of such a change in context: ‘In Paris and the big cities, it wasn't the common people who came to Guignol, but the curious and the intellectuals.’55

As the century moved on, ‘the curious and the intellectuals’ found increasingly more room for puppetry in their lives, as evidenced in Maurice Sand's move of his mother's puppets from Nohant to Passy (at that time a suburb of Paris) in 1880. But the Sand theatre (which played for ‘an educated and artistic audience personally invited by Maurice’)56 was already very much a fashionable salon enterprise, which became ever more elite as it inched its way closer to the centre of Paris.

This move to the centre—of Paris and of artistic culture—is what we need to understand in order to grasp the idea of puppetry as it was flourishing at the time of Ubu roi. The move was simultaneously geographical and cultural. Bensky's suggestion that the introduction of castelet puppetry into Parisian theatre constituted the scandal makes sense in spite of the widespread discourse on marionettes I outlined above: although the avant-gardists were discussing puppetry, Jarry's invention is singular. He combines the vulgarity of the working-class puppet with an ideology that is part philosophical, part aesthetic, and part scientific, owing as much to Nietzsche and Bergson as to the schoolchildren who originated the Ubu cycle:

This curiously impervious personage seems to be both a simple puppet traversing an improbable series of adventures with rapacious imbecility, and the enormous axis of his own cosmos, which obeys unfathomable laws.57

Traditional rural puppetry has met the urban aesthetic elite, and the resulting synergy can only be called pataphysics. The following sections of this essay pair the crude forms that Jarry employs with the sophisticated justifications he gives for their use.


The connective tissue in Jarry's project is pataphysics. Thus, a working definition of pataphysics is necessary to discuss the project of the Ubu cycle. Jarry's creation, which is often described by a hyphenated series of words (such as ‘pseudo-scientific-philosophical-aesthetic-metaphysical-programme’), is, above all else, an attitude, a perspective on reality—‘the absolute right of the individual perspective’.58 It is epistemological in nature: it questions the givens of the world and proposes perpetual questioning as a way of life. It is an undogmatic, outward-directed phenomenon that asks its adherents to practice its tenets themselves. It does not exist as an end, but as a means to an infinite number of ends.

The few authorial explications of pataphysics that we have59 have been cited by most Jarry scholars in attempts to explain this creation: here, I want to emphasize a particular characteristic of the following quotations—their boundless enthusiasm for the boundless nature of thought. First, a definition: ‘Pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general.’60 Second, a proof: Jarry argues that the common conception of a watch as round is no better than the conception of it as rectangular (as it appears from the side), thereby rendering ‘universal assent’ an ‘incomprehensible prejudice’.61 Third, a mandate: ‘opposites are identical’.62

So pataphysics is a doctrine of absolute relativism—and yet it is grounded in emerging scientific and philosophical models: subjectivism directly related to Schopenhauer, Kirkegaard, and Nietzsche;63 a scientific approach influenced by Charles Boys, Lord Kelvin, and William Crookes.64 One of the many paradoxes of pataphysics resides in this fusion of science and art (presumed) objectivity and subjectivity. Even as the individual is galvanized to disregard existing theories of science, thought, and reality, he or she is encouraged to construct his or her own theories with rigorous logic, or at least with elegant idiosyncrasy.

The philosophical underpinning of Jarry's project is that radical agnosticism in the universe on all levels, exercised with rigorous scientific methods, creates faith. Absolute relativism paves the way for absolute conviction—the conviction of the legitimacy of one's invention. Thus, a pataphysical project will ideally lead not to a result, but to a process of creative exploration.65 What pataphysics requires is a catalyst to get that process going. And the theatre is the ideal site for such a project: the Ubu plays thus represent practical as opposed to theoretical pataphysics.

The Ubu cycle's considerable inheritance from the puppet theatre centres on simplicity of form. Jarry adopts a style born of necessity for traditional puppeteers and consciously utilizes and transforms it for its configuration of the audience/performer relationship. Pataphysical reasoning requires not only that the artist/pataphysician/perpetrator encourage the creative feeling in his audiences, but also that he ensure their creativity as central a place in the performance as that of the artist. One man for an army, a cardboard horse's head for a horse, a plain backdrop with placards—each of Jarry's suggestions for the first production of Ubu roi,66 direct borrowings from the puppet theatre, are catalysts: they are meant to stimulate, not to limit, the viewer's imagination.


Jarry writes in 1896 that audiences enjoy feeling that ‘they are participating in the creation of the play’.67 For Ubu roi, a play set in ‘Eternity’, with action that takes place ‘Nowhere’,68 with constumes that have ‘as little local flair or period-specific colour as possible’,69 and having for scenery a blank curtain and a sign, minimalized theatrical accouterments, like those of its puppet theatre precedents, allow the activity of the audience—their creative interaction with the performance—to command centre stage.

‘Every spectator has a right to see a play in a decor which does not clash with his own view of it.’70 Jarry's first suggestion for the decor for the premiere of Ubu roi at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre embodies this decree:71

One single stage set, or, better still, a plain backdrop. … A formally dressed individual would walk on stage, just as he does in puppet shows, and hang up a placard indicating where the next scene takes place. … (I am absolutely convinced that a descriptive placard has far more ‘suggestive’ power than any stage scenery.)72

What Jarry adopts from the puppet theatre is the ‘suggestive’ power of the form. The ‘stupidity of trompe l'oeil73—the standard in contemporary theatre scenery—resides in its aspiration to present a fixed interpretation. But a non-representative background with placards, as in puppet shows, will force the viewer to engage in the creative act himself. ‘Each spectator can then conjure up for himself the background [l'endroit] he requires, or, better still, … the spectator can imagine, by a process of exosmosis, that what he sees on the stage is the real decor [le vrai décor exomosé sur la scène].’74

Exosmosis: what the viewer imagines becomes the ‘real’ event. The simple suggestive power of traditional puppet theatre scenery is theorized into a metaphysical act of empowerment—one which grants the viewer's imagination absolute legitimacy. Precisely the same process of exosmosis is at work in the backdrop for the 1896 production of Ubu roi, in spite of the curtain being the polar opposite (in terms of formal design) to the blank curtain. The final curtain—a fantastical blend of elephants, skeletons, bookshelves, and trees—still takes its cue from the puppet theatre.75

Crowded with such seemingly antithetical images inhabiting the same space—‘indoors and out of doors, and even the torrid, temperate, and arctic zones’76—and populated with apple trees, boa constrictors, and a gallows, the Ubu roi curtain embodies both rural naivety and urban sophistication: a style is adopted, but more important is the type of audience-performer relationship the style implies. The Nabis'77 crude anti-realism prohibits the audience from viewing the background as ‘scenery’ in a conventional manner; instead, it encourages active interpretation and engagement. Provided with a multitude of images, the audience members can perform a reading of the curtain, choosing which elements suit them best.78 What they choose becomes the scenery, according to the process of exosmosis.

Jarry argues in his essays preceding the Ubu roi production that, given a trompe-l'oeil backdrop or a naturalistic setting, the spectator will accept that scenery as necessary for the play. ‘It is far more arduous to extract the quality from a quality than the quality from a quantity.’79 Like a human actor and a character, the two will become wedded in the viewer's mind by their unproblematized presentation and identification. But the frenzied backdrop of Ubu roi approaches more nearly Jarry's pataphysical mission:

It is right that each spectator view the stage in the decor which fits his vision of it.80

The audience will choose from the apparently incompatible and unrelated elements ones that correspond to their own ideas. The creative freedom of the castelet's simple curtain remains, but enters a new realm when combined with Jarry's notion of the catalyst.


The Ubu cycle's language serves a related function to that of the curtain: it catalyzes the viewer into creative interpretation. The continual employment of neologisms—‘merdre’, ‘cornephynance’, ‘cornegidouille’, etc.—forces the hearers to supply their own meaning for the undefined terms.

This feeds into a critical concept in Jarry's work: to suggest rather than to say: ‘To suggest instead of to say, to make in the path of phrases a crossroads of all the words.’81 A pataphysical theatre will not escort its audience to a specific image or idea; instead, it is intended to serve as a spur to the imagination of the viewer by providing a supply of provocative images, words, and combinations.

Again, this pataphysical concept has a solid foundation in the puppet theatre. The Ubu cycle's rhetorical flights from mock-Shakespearean bombast to childish oaths and vulgarities mirror the liberties rural puppets took with their texts. The language of the Ubu cycle, with its origins in schoolboy mispronunciations (intentional or otherwise) and distortions of classroom French, clearly relates to the idiosyncratic puppet patois discussed above. Amidst the linguistic confusion, the audience must make its own decisions as to meaning.

In the 1896 production of Ubu roi, another kind of lingual anomaly with roots in puppet traditions was added: the ‘special accent’ Gémier adopted for Ubu (which closely resembled Jarry's own evenly-accentuated manner of speaking)82 can be read as analogous in function to the blank curtain: with a lack of emphasis given to any syllable, the listener must provide every nuance. These adopted conventions indicate more than a lineage in form: in each case, the audience, by creatively interpreting the non-representation and unfamiliar signs, supplies much of the imaginative force of the performance.

This specialized language may also be intended to ensure the liberty in content of the characters' words in Ubu roi, as it did for the working-class performers discussed above. ‘Merdre’ might have escaped rural censors in a way it couldn't escape outraged notice in Paris. And the ‘special voice’83 Jarry advocates may also have been intended to serve this purpose of masking: of course, it has roots in the most ancient puppet traditions. Henryk Jurkowski's A History of European Puppetry describes the ‘distorted speech’ of antique puppets, the nose-pinching of the sixteenth-century English puppeteers, and the invention of the ‘swazzle’ (a device put in the mouth when speaking to deform the voice).84 A wooden puppet is freer in speech than a human; a human puppet, as the 1896 premiere proved, is not.

However, the practical consequences of puppetry for Jarry's project cannot be overstated: puppet theatre conventions, and especially puppets themselves, are better suited to Jarry's plays than are human-performer-based traditions. Puppets can be made to do things humans cannot. Many of the Ubu cycle's apparently unstageable stage directions make more sense when viewed through the lens of puppet theatre: characters can be impaled, split in half, shoved into suitcases, all while continuing to speak. Boats can sail on land and crocodiles can come and go as they please.

All of these have direct precedents in the rural puppet theatre: puppet versions of Faust included a sinner's body being ripped in half and then re-assembling itself, and crocodiles had made their presence felt on puppet stages by the eighteenth century.85 The imaginative freedom of such conventions extends equally to the artist, the performers, and the audience member.


Jarry was not disingenuous: the Ubu cycle was not atticisme populaire, but an appropriated (re-Atticized) form of it. The difference between his project and that of the Symbolists lies in the amount of populaire manifest in the work. Arthur Symons, the unamused critic who has left us one of the most detailed reviews of the 1896 performance, describes the appearance of Père Ubu and his vulgarity as the sign of a mostly regrettable conclusion to a hyper-refined era:

In our search for sensation we have exhausted sensation; and now, before a people who have perfected the fine shades to their vanishing point, who have subtilized delicacy of perception into the annihilation of the very senses through which we take in ecstasy, a literary Sans-culotte has shrieked for hours that unspeakable word of the gutter which was the … ‘Leitmotiv’ of this comedy of masks.86

The verdict, ‘Des Esseintes relapses into the Red Indian’,87 serves as a sarcastic counterpart to the more tristful conclusion of Yeats on the spectacle: ‘After Stéphane Mallarmé, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.’88

Père Ubu defies these one-dimensional portrayals of himself as a nihilist and a destroyer. The theatrical attack of which he is the protagonist is not meant to be a mere sweep into the ‘slop-pail’, as the preface to Ubu enchaîné reveals:89

Hornstrumpot! We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well. But the only way I can see of doing that is to use them to put up a lot of fine well-designed buildings.90

In a burst of pataphysical brilliance, Père Ubu states the purpose of the Ubu cycle's apparent destruction: to make room for the construction of something else afterwards. If Ubu is the end of one era, he is just as powerfully the beginning of a new.91

The above discussion shows that Père Ubu resists alignment with barbarism just as surely as he resists being of a piece with the aesthetic elite: he is composed of equal parts of both worlds. Symons, Yeats, and other outraged or despairing critics of Père Ubu focus only on half the picture: the primitive form alone was not enough to spark the legendary riots of Ubu roi, nor, even, was the vulgarity of Ubu's character. What is remarkable in Jarry's creation is the synergy created from a combination of le beau monde and the working-class puppet, a synergy born not from the insubstantial connective of novelty, but from the rigorous logic of pataphysics. Bensky illustrates the paradox of Ubu:

On the one hand, Ubu is perhaps a rudimentary character, nothing but a stylization of a real prototype, exhibiting a schematized character; this is the ‘embryonic’ aspect of the type. On the other hand, this schema retains numerous significations—far from the childish originals—and invests them with a more complete nature; it is then a complex symbolic creation in which the multiplicity of signs approaches perfection.92

Ubu signifies a synthesis, a kind of pataphysical generosity, which Jarry's words to the opening-night audience of Ubu roi confirm: ‘You are free to see in Monseiur Ubu as many allusions as you wish, or a simple puppet.’93

Jarry's essays on the theatre, although they are written in a deceptively pompous style, repeatedly demonstrate a belief in the crowd's imaginative potential. ‘Light is not detached from shade, but, given sufficient time, penetrates it.’94 ‘The mind desires that what has been revealed should be known by the most ignorant.’95Ubu roi has the advantage of being accessible to the majority of the public.’96 This belief in the masses is a crucial distinction between Jarry and the Symbolists. Anti-bourgeois in the most categorical sense, Jarry is both a populist and a member of le beau monde; he embraces working-class aesthetics and aristocratic garb, gutter-talk and poetry, tradition and innovation. What pataphysics excludes is bourgeois mentality: Monsieur Prudhomme, the tradition of nontraditions that comprise the activities and the entertainments of the benumbed middle class.


The production of Ubu roi, then, centres not on producing a work or a commodity, but on a process of becoming. The Ubu cycle, like pataphysics itself, encourages a total recreation of the world by the individual, on the individual's own terms. To find the proper spurs to prick the sides of the audience's ambitions: this was what Jarry sought, in his weirdly dexterous conflation of philosophy and theatre, tradition and innovation, art and life. Jarry's oeuvre, which includes his life, can be read as a manifestation of pataphysical principles.

Once again, we have intersected with the tenets of Romanticism and Symbolism, which aspire to realms of creativity and existence that transcend the merely human. But the most significant point in this comparison, for our purposes, is when it breaks down. Jarry enacts this creation on all levels: artistic, philosophical, scientific, and personal. Further, and more consequential, pataphysics extends this principle beyond the capabilities of the genius artist, making the ‘virtue of originality’ attainable even for the foule.

Peter Bürger, in his Theory of the Avant-Garde, posits that the task of the avant-garde artist is not to produce finished works of art, but to bring art into the praxis of life. His theory catches the driving impulse of Jarry's project: the desire to erase the learned distinctions between ‘art’ and ‘life,’ between creative and factual existence, between the artistic and the quotidian. For Jarry, the impulse to make people perceive daily life differently annihilates all other concerns.

We can read Jarry's creation of Ubu, and the subsequent re-invention of his own life, as setting an example, bringing pataphysics into praxis. From a posthumously published manuscript:

Thus, it is more difficult for the spirit to create a character than it is for matter to create a man, and if one absolutely cannot create—that is to say, give birth to a new being—then one should keep quiet.97

Total re-invention is proved to be possible, and not just for Jarry, who emphasizes: ‘What one man has done, another man can do.’98 Practical applications of pataphysical principles prove that people are not bounded by what they perceive as their given lot: they actually possess limitless power—imagination—which they can incarnate at will. A pataphysical theatre creates the ideal conditions for the individual's imagination, with the assurance—which Jarry provides in his very identity—that what we imagine can become reality.

These are serious consequences for ‘an art form intended for the masses’,99 but the rural puppet can support them. Jarry's endeavour demonstrates that the ‘low’ is just as complicated as the ‘high’: the working-class puppet theatre thus affirms the individual while acknowledging the collective, something the Parisian puppet theatres did not achieve. His radical fusion of popular forms with elite philosophy attempts to catalyze the individual imagination of the audience members in order to force a rejection of bourgeois values—values that include laziness, inertia, and unquestioned acceptance.

By rejecting the Symbolist theatrical ideal of creating a total vision for the audience, and, instead, deliberately aiming to create only a partial vision, Jarry found a way to utilize the traditions of the rural puppet theatre—which had been in active use as catalysts for its audiences for centuries. The Ubu cycle encourages its audience to embark on its own imaginative flight, and to demand not perfection, but incompleteness, from theatrical performance.


  1. For the most engaging accounts, see Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years (New York: Vintage, 1955) and Rachilde's Alfred Jarry, ou le surmâle de lettres (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1928). Also see Keith Beaumont, Alfred Jarry: a Critical and Biographical Study (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1984).

  2. It constantly equates the two, as in ‘Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions’, from Alfred Jarry, Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, ed. Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor (New York: Grove Press, 1965), p. 86.

  3. Since ‘the truth … exists in several different versions’. See Selected Works, p. 86.

  4. The Russian Futurists and the French Nabis leap to mind as other avant-garde artists who mined methods of creative activity that seemed to hearken to a simpler or purer tradition—an impulse that has clear foundations in Romanticism. Both the Romantics and the Nabis will surface again in the course of this examination.

  5. And in the rest of Europe: see John McCormick and Bennie Pratasik, Popular Puppet Theatre in Europe, 1800-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) for an overview.

  6. Guignol is so representative of French puppets that his name now generically signifies puppets and puppetry: ‘un guignol’, ‘en guignol’, etc.

  7. Paul Fournel, Guignol: les Mourget (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1995), p. 27. All following translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

  8. Ibid.

  9. For a detailed examination of the singular status of Paris in France at this time, see Christophe Charle, in Paris fin de siècle: culture et politique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1998).

  10. Léopold Delannoy, Théâtres de marionnettes du Nord de la France, ed. Marie-Claude Groshens and Pierre Soulier (Paris: G.-P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1983).

  11. In the early nineteenth century, the majority of travelling marionette shows in France ‘functioned almost entirely within their own region or immediately adjoining ones.’ (See McCormick, p. 34)

  12. Delannoy, p. 41. ‘Il ne faudrait pas croire que les propriétaires de théâtres de marionnettes, qui existaient dans la seconde moité du XIXe siècle, étaient des spécialistes et qu'ils se contentaient de donner des représentations pour gagner leur vie. Ils faisaient ce métier … en dehors de leurs occupations habituelles.’

  13. McCormick, p. 29.

  14. Ibid., p. 30.

  15. Delannoy, p. 44.

  16. McCormick, p. 73.

  17. Ibid., p. 75.

  18. Fournel, p. 27.

  19. McCormick, p. 28.

  20. As the documents of Delannoy demonstrate, perhaps unintentionally. The accounts of the conditions of the theatres and the hardships the performers and audience members endured are recounted not with an acute political awareness, but with an attitude of fond reminiscence and an attempt at precision in regard to the facts.

  21. Delannoy, p. 72.

  22. Delannoy credits these editions with the inspiration for the puppetry repertoire in Lille. ‘Les auteurs classiques de notre pays, ceux de l'étranger traduits en français, étaient à la portée de toutes les bourses modestes, sous forme de petits livres … publiés sous le titre général de ‘Bibliothèque nationale,’ vendus à raison de vingt-cinq centimes le volume’ (Delannoy, p. 72).

  23. Delannoy, p. 97.

  24. Delannoy, p. 71. This resembles the practices of the commedia dell'arte more than any other dramatic form, and shares a few significant factors, including the use of scenarios instead of memorized lines as the basis for any individual performance. The comparison is not purely formal: both, of course, shared economic and social status, and plied their trade more for profit than for pleasure, for an audience of equals.

  25. Delannoy, p. 97.

  26. Fournel, p. 109.

  27. Delannoy, p. 97.

  28. Ibid.

  29. The term ‘castelet’ is one of several European versions of ‘little castle’, a term for a one-man portable puppet booth. The term orginates in fourteenth-century Flemish puppetry, which hid its manipulators within the scenery itself, which often included a castle. See Henryk Jurkowski, A History of European Puppetry, two vols. (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1996), Vol. I, p. 60-1.

  30. Delannoy, p. 51.

  31. The history of puppet conventions often considers marionettes and puppets together (a marionette as we understand it in English can be included in the general category of ‘puppet’ as a puppet with strings). Throughout this discussion, I use ‘puppet’ as a default referent for hand puppets, marionettes, and rod puppets. See McCormick, p. 127-47, for precise delineations.

  32. McCormick, p. 88. The authors also note that the scenes might be painted on cloth from sacks of flour or sugar, if (as was often the case) the puppeteer could not afford to buy new cloth.

  33. Delannoy, p. 27.

  34. Ibid.

  35. See Jurkowski's chapter on Romantic interest in marionettes in History, Vol. I, p. 246-90, and Harold B. Segel's section on Kleist's essay in Pinocchio's Progeny: Puppets, Marionettes, Automatons, and Robots in Modernist and Avant-Garde Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 14-17.

  36. Translated by Christian-Albrecht Gollub in German Romantic Criticism, ed. A. Leslie Willson (New York: Continuum, 1982), p. 244.

  37. Ibid.

  38. In a letter of 1893, quoted in Dider Plassard, L'Acteur en effigie: figures de l'homme artificiel dans le théâtre des avant-gardes historiques (Lausanne: Editions l'Âge d'Homme, 1992), p. 28.

  39. These ideas reach a height of radicalism in the later (1911) formulations of Edward Gordon Craig, who objects to human actors on the grounds of their independence: ‘The whole nature of man tends towards freedom; he therefore carries the proof in his own person that as material for the Theatre he is useless.’ See Edward Gordon Craig, On the Art of the Theatre (London: Heinemann, 1968), p. 56. Of course Craig was English and appeared on the scene later, but he exemplifies the desire to replace the human actor, and his ideas found solid support in Paris. This was also happening in Italy and in Zurich on an even more dehumanized scale, but the experiments of the Italian Futurists and the Dadaists are beyond the scope of this essay.

  40. Plassard, p. 28.

  41. Quoted in Plassard, p. 35.

  42. Ibid.

  43. In spite of Lugné-Poe's plan to do so in 1893. In a parallel occurrence to the 1896 Ubu roi performance, Lugné-Poe had agreed to produce Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande with puppets, but in the end he used a live cast. (See Henderson, p. 126.) Another interesting note is that, much later, the author claimed never to have intended his plays to be performed by non-human performers. In a 1931 letter, found in Reginald S. Sibbald, Marionettes in the North of France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1936), Maeterlinck protests: ‘Comme je n'avais à cette époque [1894] aucun espoir de voir les petites pièces représentées par des acteurs, sur un théâtre normal, je m'étais, un peu ironiquement, résigné à les destiner à un théâtre de marionettes. Mais je n'avais songé à les écrire pour les marionettes. Je me suis reste fort peu occupé de marionettes’ (p. 4). This may well suggest an exaggerated indifference: however, the facts remain that his plays were never performed en guignol and his treatises were always theoretical.

  44. See Jurkowski, Vol. II, p. 13-19, and Segel, p. 79-86.

  45. Translated in Jurkowski, Vol. II, p. 19.

  46. Ibid.

  47. From Paul Margueritte, Le Petit Théâtre, 1888, quoted in John A. Henderson, The First Avant-Garde, 1887-1894 (London: Harrap, 1971), p. 123.

  48. A role which Bouchor himself was eloquent in elaborating: ‘Marionettes … are above all lyrical, and the ideal place of their action cannot be other than that of poetry; all the gates of dream open before them; the highest speculations are naturally familiar to them, and these strange figures move comfortably within the systems, beliefs, and symbols of all times and peoples; everything that is distant, fairylike, and mysterious, is particularly suited to them’ (translated in Segel, p. 83).

  49. Ibid.

  50. Ibid.

  51. Roger-Daniel Bensky, Structures textuelles de la marionette de langue française (Paris: Librarie A.-G. Nizet, 1969), p. 44. Bensky, however, emphasizes the transgression of the traditional rules of puppetry.

  52. Ibid. Plassard emphasizes the dual nature of the performers of the premiere of Ubu roi (half-human, half-puppets) as essential to this ‘retournement’.

  53. As Rachilde refers to Jarry/Ubu (see Rachilde, p. 29).

  54. When Guignol went to Paris in 1866, he had a tremendous initial reception, even playing at Les Tuileries, but his theatre lasted only a year.

  55. Fournel, p. 50.

  56. Jurkowski, Vol. I, p. 382.

  57. Bensky, p. 45.

  58. Ibid., p. 55.

  59. The most concentrated of which are found in Jarry's posthumously published novel. See Alfred Jarry, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: Exact Change, 1996).

  60. Jarry, Faustroll, p. 21.

  61. Ibid., p. 23. ‘Why should anyone claim that the shape of a watch is round—a manifestly false proposition—since it appears in profile as a narrow rectangular construction, elliptic on three sides; and why the devil should one only have noticed its shape at the moment of looking at the time?—Perhaps under the pretext of utility.’

  62. Alfred Jarry, Oeuvres complètes d'Alfred Jarry, ed. Michel Arrivé (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), I, p. 342.

  63. See Henri Béhar, Jarry: le monstre et la marionnette (Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1973), and Jurkowski, Vol. I, p. 15-17, for an overview of the emerging thinkers whom Jarry read.

  64. See the extensive notes to Faustroll for Jarry's specific application of these and other scientists and mathematicians.

  65. As shown by Jarry's response to a friend who confronted him after a lecture at the Salon d'Automne in 1903. The friend confessed he hadn't understood a word of Jarry's speech. Jarry replied: ‘That was precisely my intention, because recounting comprehensible matters serves only to dull the mind and confuse the memory, whereas the absurd exercises the mind and makes the memory work hard.’ (See Simon Watson Taylor, ‘The Magnificent Pataphysical Posture’, Times Literary Supplement, 3 October 1968, p. 1133.) This apparently worked; Rachilde writes that Jarry's constant defamiliarizing in speech ‘compliquait la conversation’ (Rachilde, p. 149).

  66. Delineated in his letter to Lugné-Poe, Oeuvres complètes, p. 1042-4.

  67. Selected Works, 70.

  68. Jarry, Oeuvres complètes, p. 400-1.

  69. Ibid., p. 1043.

  70. Selected Works, p. 71.

  71. Jarry had previously suggested heraldic decor in the stage directions to his unproduced drama, César-antechrist (1895).

  72. Selected Works, p. 67.

  73. Ibid, p. 71.

  74. Ibid.; Tout Ubu, p. 141, emphasis in the original.

  75. See the discussion of scenic confusion in the puppet theatres in Lille, above.

  76. Arthur Symons, ‘A Symbolist Farce’, Studies in Seven Arts (London: Constable, 1906), p. 373.

  77. Painters of the curtain included Bonnard, Ranson, Sérusier, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, and Jarry himself.

  78. Marvin Carlson has described this process of subjective reading as latent in the nature of theatrical performance in his Signs of Life (1990). He describes a ‘psychic polyphony’ created by the complex array of signifiers on stage, which provokes ‘an unique and individual’ reading by the audience member.

  79. Selected Works, p. 71.

  80. Jarry, Oeuvres complètes, p. 406.

  81. Ibid., p. 171.

  82. This speech has its precedent in Guignol himself: Fournel describes the speech of the Lyonnais puppets as an accent ‘qui valorise quelque peu les syllables non accentuées’. See Fournel, p. 114, and for many references to Jarry's habit of accenting even the unaccented syllables, especially Rachilde, op. cit., and André Gide, ‘Le groupement littéraire qu'arbritait le Mercure de France’, Le Mercure de France, 298 (July 1940-December 1946, No. 1000).

  83. Selected Works, p. 68.

  84. Jurkowski, Vol. I, p. 48, 110, 140.

  85. Jurkowski, Vol. I, p. 113. And McCormick and Pratasik point out that in the nineteenth century ‘few companies were complete without one or two animals’ (McCormick, p. 109).

  86. Symons, p. 376-7.

  87. Ibid., p. 376.

  88. Remarked after watching the premiere of Ubu roi. See William Butler Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1926), p. 348-9.

  89. Symon's phrase. (See Symons, p. 371.)

  90. The Ubu Plays, ed. Simon Watson Taylor (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 104.

  91. In César-antechrist, Père Ubu takes over the role of Anti-Christ in the continual oscillation from God to Anti-Christ, which Jarry portrays as a cycle as natural and eternal as that of day to night.

  92. Bensky, p. 45.

  93. Jarry, Oeuvres complètes, p. 399.

  94. Selected Works, p. 82.

  95. Ibid., p. 80.

  96. Jarry, Oeuvres complètes, p. 1044.

  97. Ibid., p. 412.

  98. The Supermale, trans. Ralph Gladstone and Barbara Wright (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 10.

  99. The epigraph from Kleist; Willson, p. 240.

Further Reading

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Anastasi, William, and Michael Seidel. “Jarry in Joyce: A Conversation.” Joyce Studies Annual 6 (1995): 39-58.

Interview with the artist William Anastasi, whose work draws upon that of Alfred Jarry and James Joyce and argues that Jarry was an influence on Joyce and that Shem, the Parisian twin in Finnegans Wake, is partially based on Alfred Jarry.

Bridgeman, Teresa. “On the Likeness of Similes and Metaphors (With Special Reference to Alfred Jarry's Les Jours et Les Nuits.Modern Language Review 91, no. 1 (January 1996): 65-77.

Essay examines the slippage between simile and metaphor in Jarry's second novel.

Corcoran, Marlena. “Drawing Our Attention to Jarry, Duchamp, and Joyce: The Manuscript/Art of William Anastasi.” James Joyce Quarterly 32, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1995): 659-71.

Examines the work of writer/graphic artist William Anastasi, who incorporates the ideas and works of Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce in his art.

Fell, Jill. “The Deceptive Images of Alfred Jarry: Lost, Found, and Invented Portraits by Beardsley, Rousseau and Rippl-Ronaï.” Word & Image 15, no. 2 (April-June 1999): 190-98.

Interdisciplinary essay about how contemporaries in Jarry's artistic circle attempted to “capture” Jarry's likeness in art, and discusses Jarry's multiple public personae, along with his contemporaries' reactions.

Greenfield, Anne. “Camus's Caligula, Ubu and the Surrealist Rebel.” Romance Notes 26, no. 2 (winter 1985): 83-9.

Compares Camus's Caligula and Jarry's Ubu as examples of surrealist rebels.

Koos, Leonard R. “Comic Cruelty: Artaud and Jarry.” In Antonin Artaud and the Modern Theater, edited by Gene A. Plunka, pp. 37-50. Rutherford, New Jersey: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.

Essay in a book-length work on Antonin Artaud suggests that the Theâtre du Alfred Jarry, which was founded in 1926, had enormous influence on the development of Artaud's Comedy of Cruelty.

Lennon, Nigey, and Bill Griffith. Alfred Jarry: The Man with the Axe. Los Angeles: Panjandrum Books, 1984. 128 p.

Short, illustrated book for a general audience focuses on Jarry's unusual personae.

Motte, Warren F. “Clinamen Redux.” Comparative Literature Series 23, no. 4 (winter 1986): 263-81.

Philosophical essay, on the concept of “clinamen atomorum”—literally, swerve of atoms—briefly considers Alfred Jarry's fascination with the concept of “clinamen” and free will in Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll, Pataphysicien.

Reed, Alice Gray. “Le Corbusier's ‘Ubu’ Sculpture: Remaking an Image.” Word & Image 14, no. 3 (July-September 1998): 215-26.

Historically-grounded essay examines the Ubu drawings, paintings and sculptures Le Corbusier worked on from 1942 to 1965, speculating on the meaning of Jarry's character to Le Corbusier's art.

Schumacher, Claude. “Some Aspects of Blasphemy and Religion in Contemporary French Theatre.” Assaph C: Studies in Theatre 6 (1990): 103-16.

Essay on blasphemy and religion in the theater which argues that the history of contemporary theater began with the performance of Ubu Roi on December 9 and 10, 1896.

Simpson, Juliet. “Symbolist Aesthetics and the Decorative Image/Text.” French Forum 25, no. 2 (May 2000): 177-204.

Discussion on the French Symbolists which includes a brief discussion of Jarry's early works.

Stokes, John. “Beardsley/Jarry: The Art of Deformation.” In Reconsidering Aubrey Beardsley, edited by Robert Langenfeld, pp. 55-69. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989.

Essay searches for the origins of modernism in the parallel development and creative friendship of the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and Alfred Jarry.

Turner, Elizabeth Hutton. “La Jeune Fille Américaine and the Dadaist Impulse.” In Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender and Identity, edited by Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, pp. 4-21. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.

Interdisciplinary essay examines the trope of a Mary Pickfordesque American girl as portrayed by the French Dadaists and includes a discussion of the character Ellen in Jarry's novel, Le Sûrmale.

Additional coverage of Jarry's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 153; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 192, 258; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama for Students, Vol. 8; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; European Writers, Vol. 9; Guide to French Literature 1789 to the Present; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 20; Twayne's World Authors; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 14

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Jarry, Alfred (Short Story Criticism)