Jarry & Ubu

December 10: On this day in 1896, Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi opened and closed in Paris, the play having caused a near-riot in the audience and then a tempest in the press. A slap at not just bourgeois values but the well-made play, the Ubu premiere is now regarded as a landmark moment in the history of modern theater, or the absurdist branch of it.


Jarry's characters talked in staccato, as if machines; they moved as marionettes through imaginary scenery, wearing masks and placards. When Ubu came on stage with a large target drawn on his belly, a toilet-brush for a scepter, and the play's opening line of "Shit!" there was a prolonged yelling and shoving match between the avant-garde and the rear-guard. When things finally calmed down, and Ubu was able to say his second line—"Shit!"—there was a second round of scuffles. For the twenty-three-year-old playwright, this was the ideal reception for a play written to reflect "the eternal imbecility of man, his eternal lubricity, his eternal gluttony, the baseness of instinct raised to the status of tyranny; of the coyness, the virtue, the patriotism, and the ideas of the people who have dined well."


Jarry's absinthe-and-anarchy lifestyle would kill him ten years later. He spent the time carrying the Ubu story on to Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu Enchained, refining his science of "pataphysics," roaming Paris on bicycle and in whiteface makeup, dining on the fish he caught in the Seine, living in his midget-sized rooms, created from a regular apartment cut in half horizontally. In time, Symbolists, Surrealists, Dadaists, and Absurdists would claim him as their own, but in fin de siècle Paris, says Elizabeth Wilson in Bohemians, Jarry was in a class by himself: "His extraordinary life-as-work-of-art went beyond any popular bohemian stereotype, taking the implications of life as art as far as they could possibly go."


W. B. Yeats said something similar. After attending opening/closing night, and even shouting on Ubu's side, he commented that the end-of-era event was an ominous one:

After Stephane 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.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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