Alfred Jarry’s contributions to drama cannot fully be evaluated without taking into consideration the state of the theater in the late nineteenth century. Despite the impact of naturalism, the European theater of that time was essentially a commercial enterprise. Devoid of artistic ambitions, superficial and noncontroversial in content, drama was viewed as a commodity or, as one critic put it, an after-dinner entertainment aimed largely at a pleasure-seeking bourgeois audience.
It was against this background that Jarry, who knew perfectly well the European literary heritage and was also a keen observer of his own time, conceived his plays. The famous battle that Victor Hugo’s Hernani (pr., pb. 1830; English translation, 1830) caused was mild in comparison to the raucous indignation and hatred that was provoked by the performance of Ubu roi. Jarry’s most vociferous critics took it for an indecent hoax, a political satire, and, worse, a subversive expression of literary anarchism and terrorism composed with the intention of destroying social order. A witness of the first performance later wrote that Ubu roi was in fact nothing less than a gun pointed at society.
Such fears, however, were ungrounded. Jarry, who affected a strong contempt for the masses, had nothing in common with the anarchists. His aim was to revolutionize the theater—playwriting, acting, and stagecraft as a whole—and in this he succeeded. Of the many dramatic theories formulated in the nineteenth century and before, it is, without a doubt, Jarry’s revolutionary concept of the theater that has had the greatest impact on the philosophy and techniques of modern stagecraft. Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty and Samuel Beckett’s, Boris Vian’s, Jean Genet’s, and Eugène Ionesco’s contributions to the Theater of the Absurd are all in one way or another indebted to Jarry.
Beaumont, Keith S. Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. A biography of Jarry that contains both information on his life and critical analysis of his work. Bibliography and index.
Beaumont, Keith S. Jarry, “Ubu Roi.” Wolfeboro, N.H.: Grant and Cutler, 1987. Part of the Critical Guides to French Texts series. A detailed study of Jarry’s most significant play.
Fisher, Ben. The Pataphysician’s Library: An Exploration of Alfred Jarry’s Livres Pairs. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2000. Although not centering on Jarry’s dramatic work, this study examines Jarry’s concept of pataphysics extensively. Bibliography and index.
LaBelle, Maurice Marc. Alfred Jarry: Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd. New York: New York University Press, 1980. A study of Jarry’s works, with emphasis on nihilism and his dramatic works’ relation to the Theater of the Absurd. Bibliography and index.
Lennon, Nigey. Alfred Jarry: The Man with the Axe. Los Angeles: Panjandrum Books, 1984. An entertaining and easy-to-read biography of Jarry, covering his life and works. Bibliography and index.
Schumacher, Claude. Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire. New York: Grove Press, 1985. Schumacher compares and contrasts the works of Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire. Bibliography and index.
Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years, the Arts in France, 1885-1918: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire. 1958. Rev. ed. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1961. A short but valuable assessment that places Jarry in the context of his time.
Stillman, Linda Klieger. Alfred Jarry. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A basic and thorough biography of Jarry, treating his life and works. Bibliography and index.