Alfred Jarry Jarry, Alfred (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

*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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Renée R. Hubert (essay date winter 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Issacharoff (essay date winter 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Linda Klieger Stillman (essay date winter 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Claude Schumacher (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patrick Lobert (essay date spring 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Zelenak (essay date summer-fall 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anne Greenfield (essay date spring 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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J. A. Cutshall (essay date October 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ben Fisher (essay date November 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. A. Cutshall (essay date spring 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Laurie Vickroy (essay date spring 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Teresa Bridgeman (essay date July 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ben Fisher (essay date summer 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jill Fell (essay date June 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Curtis Perry (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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:...

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Paul Edwards (essay date 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kimberly Jannarone (essay date August 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 651 words.)