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.
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.
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.
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.”