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The King of Charisma

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Romona Bruneri-Severini
Alfred Jarry in front of ‘the Phalanstery,’ a vacation home he rented in Corbeil with a number of other writers, 1898

Arthur Rimbaud, in his famous letter of May 15, 1871, argued that a poet could only make himself into a “seer by a long, immense and reasoned disordering of all the senses.” The French poet, playwright, and novelist Alfred Jarry couldn’t have read this letter, which was only published in 1912, five years after Jarry’s death at the age of thirty-four from a mixture of tuberculosis, poverty, and alcoholism, but there can be little doubt that he would have agreed with Rimbaud’s assessment of what it took to become a “seer.”

Here is the memoirist and femme de lettres Rachilde’s description of a typical day in the life of her friend:

Jarry began the day by consuming two litres of white wine, then three absinthes between ten o’clock and midday, at lunch he washed down his fish, or his steak, with red or white wine alternating with further absinthes. In the afternoon, a few cups of coffee laced with brandy or other spirits whose names I’ve forgotten, then, with dinner—after, of course, more aperitifs—he would still be able to take at least two bottles of any vintage, good or bad. Now I never saw him really drunk….

When he couldn’t afford alcohol, he imbibed ether instead. For both Rimbaud and Jarry, the aim of this systematic self-poisoning was to achieve god-like power: “he becomes,” enthused Rimbaud, “the sickest of the sick, the great criminal, the great accursed,—and the Supreme Knower!—For he arrives at the unknown!” Rimbaud was only sixteen when he wrote this, and his projected life of visionary excess lay all before him. Jarry, writing toward the end of the journey, in one of his last texts, the autobiographical La Dragonne of 1906, presented himself assuming a somewhat different kind of godhead: “He became like a monstrous divinity with the face of a bull, his forehead enlarged and his eyes parted.”

The word “monster” hovers over many of the descriptions and discussions of the life of Alfred Jarry, who is surely Rimbaud’s only true rival for the accolade of the most terrible of the many enfants terribles thrown up by French literature. One should at once point out that, for Jarry, to call something “monstrous” was to praise it in the highest possible terms: “I call ‘monster’ every original inexhaustible beauty,” he observed in an essay published when he was only twenty. His most enduring and resonant creation was the monstrous Père Ubu, who so scandalized Parisian theatergoers that a full-scale riot broke out in the auditorium on the night his play Ubu Roi opened—and closed—at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre on December 10, 1896; and the tyrant Ubu, in all his unregenerate monstrosity, might be said to have stalked through the monstrous history of the twentieth century, a prototype for every scruple-free dictator from Stalin to Idi Amin to Colonel Qaddafi.

Jarry, though by no means a political animal, unleashed in Ubu Roi a sort of sneak preview of the wars and tyrannies to come, and even the most unnerving scenes in the explicitly engagé theater of later playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht or Edward Bond seem prefigured by Père Ubu’s blasé, uninhibited greed. Consider this extract from a scene in which Ubu sets about collecting taxes from the peasants of Poland—this is after assassinating King Wenceslas and seizing power in a farcical, yet successful, coup d’état:

PA UBU. I’ve come to tell you, order you, and inform you that you are to produce and display your ready cash immediately, or you’ll be massacred. Come on in, my lords of phynance, you sons of whores, wheel in the phynancial wheelbarrow.
The wheelbarrow is wheeled in.
STANISLAS. Sire, we are down on the register for only one hundred and fifty-two rix-dollars, which we’ve already paid over six weeks ago come Michaelmas.
PA UBU. That may well be so, but I’ve changed the government and I’ve had it announced in the official gazette that all the present taxes have to be paid twice over, and all those I may think up later on will have to be paid three times over. With this system, I’ll soon make a fortune: then I’ll kill everyone in the world, and go away.
PEASANTS. Mercy, Lord Ubu, have pity on us. We are poor, simple people.
PA UBU. I couldn’t care less. Pay up.
PEASANTS. But we can’t, we’ve already paid.
PA UBU. Fork out! Or I’ll give you the works good and proper: torture, twisting of the neck, and decapitation. Hornstrumpot, am I or am I not your King?

When the peasants resist they are duly massacred, and the scene’s representative “Peasant’s House” is razed to the ground. Père Ubu, a stage direction informs us, “stays behind to scoop up the cash.”*

Bizarrely—another word, like “monstrous,” that clings like a burr to discussions of the Jarryesque—Ubu began life as a schoolboy spoof of Félix-Frédéric Hébert, a hopeless and hated physics teacher at the lycée Jarry attended in Rennes. The grossly incompetent Père Hébert—also known as Heb, Eb, Ébé—had spawned an extensive cult among the potaches, or schoolboys, long before the diminutive but arrogant and uncompromising Jarry arrived in 1888. The Morin brothers, Charles and Henri, had already made Hébert the protagonist of various plays, and one, Les Polonais, is in fact the basis for Ubu Roi.

Jarry and the Morin brothers performed this as a puppet show, with marionettes made by Jarry’s sister Charlotte, in the attic of the Morins’ house—hence the subtitle to the first edition of the play of June 1896: “Restored in Its Entirety as It Was Performed by the Marionettes of the Théâtre des Phynances in 1888.” Phynance here is a nod to Heb’s, and his later incarnation Ubu’s, love of money, a typical Jarry distortion. The play’s notorious opening word, and one that is then frequently repeated, is another: “Merdre!”—normally translated as “Pschitt!”

Jarry’s subtitle certainly gestures toward the collaborative origins of the play, and Alastair Brotchie, in his enthralling, scrupulously researched, and elegantly written biography, recounts in full detail the furor that erupted when a critic called Charles Chassé published a book in 1921 that attempted to debunk Jarry by exposing his infamous play as nothing more than a collective schoolboy prank. It was Jarry’s genius to see how this adolescent jeu d’esprit, once translated to a theater, could evolve into something revolutionary in a range of different ways.

While that opening word signaled an explosive shot across the bows of the well-made play, the production’s marionette-style staging and defiant antirealism anticipated many of the developments in theater that were later classified as “The Absurd.” Its single backdrop was painted by, among others, Pierre Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Édouard Vuillard, and featured a hanged skeleton, a steaming chamber-pot in a fireplace, and a bed covered in snow. To indicate settings Jarry decided that a placard should be hung at the beginning of each scene to show where it took place. To a nervous Lugné-Poe, the director of the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, he persuasively argued in a letter of January 1896:

I am absolutely convinced that a descriptive placard has far more “suggestive” power than any stage scenery. No scenery, no array of walkers-on could really evoke “the Polish Army marching across the Ukraine.”

This bright idea would again prove to have far-reaching consequences for the theater of the twentieth century.

Far from being upset by the pandemonium sparked by his play, it seems that Jarry played a significant part in stirring up the conflict, organizing a “counter-claque,” that is, a posse of supporters whom he instructed to boo in the unlikely event the piece went down well, and to cheer if it received abuse. “The performance must not be allowed to reach its conclusion,” he insisted, “the theater must explode.” Probably the first night would have achieved the succès de scandale Jarry had in mind without this counter-claque, but his recruiting of them indicates the extent to which he craved a kind of anarchy in the auditorium to mirror that enacted in the play itself. On cue, catcalls and fistfights erupted, as Père Ubu, played by the actor Firmin Gémier, wearing a mustachioed mask and false belly, and brandishing a toilet brush as a scepter, blithely revealed his rapacity and cowardice—a sort of ur–Homer Simpson rampaging through a mind-boggling, Monty Pythonesque narrative.

W.B. Yeats happened to be in the audience that night, and while he cheered the play on, feeling, as he put it in his Autobiography, “bound to support the most spirited party,” he also acknowledged, with a tinge of melancholy, that Ubu represented the end of an era, as if Jarry had that night given birth to the “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” at the end of his apocalyptic “The Second Coming” of 1919. Père Ubu, Yeats prophetically noted, was the form that the modern would take: “After us” (meaning nineteenth-century late Romantics such as Mallarmé and Verlaine and himself), he noted in conclusion, “the Savage God.”

The precocious Jarry had absorbed the work of Nietzsche while still in his lycée at Rennes, and Ubu can certainly be construed as one of the least comforting of Übermenschen indulging his will to power. More crucial, probably, was his discovery of the work of the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont, aka Isidore Ducasse, author, before his death at the age of twenty-four, of the luridly transgressive Les Chants de Maldoror, whose Gothic superhero at one point has sex with a shark. As Brotchie notes, some of Jarry’s early work is “grotesquely Maldororian in style,” but while Maldoror’s hair-raising cruelties exhibit a Sadean inventiveness and refinement, Ubu’s crimes are essentially banal. In the words of Boggerlas, son of the assassinated King Wenceslas, Ubu is “a common little adventurer, a mister nobody from nowhere, fat toad, stinking tramp.”

Rabelais was Jarry’s other great inspiration, and indeed he toiled for years over a libretto based on Pantagruel that was finally staged in 1911, four years after his death. There is an earthiness to Jarry’s humor in all the many genres in which he wrote: his philosophical, or “néo-scientifique” novel, Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll (which also saw the light of day only after his death), features a bum-faced baboon called Bosse-de-Nage whose only but repeated utterance is “Ha-ha.” The name Faustroll itself captures Jarry’s determination to blend “dissonant elements” in order to create the monstrous, to quote again from the essay he wrote when he was twenty: the cerebral, philosophical Faust is yoked to the all-too-physical troll, and it is interesting to learn from Brotchie that Jarry took the part of the Troll-King in a production of Peer Gynt staged by Lugné-Poe at the Œuvre in November 1896. Lugné-Poe praised Jarry’s performance as “enooormous,” though clearly he wasn’t prepared for the equally “enooormous” response to the show that succeeded Peer Gynt the following month. Stung by the vituperative attacks of the conservative press on Ubu Roi, Lugné-Poe distanced himself from the aberrant young playwright, and Jarry’s involvement with live theater—as opposed to puppets—was effectively at an end.

  1. *

    Alfred Jarry, The Ubu Plays, translated by Cyril Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor (London: Methuen, 1968). 

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