Other Literary Forms
Alfred Jarry, in addition to being a playwright, was a literary and art critic, a journalist, a poet, and a writer of science fiction.
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...
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