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.
If Père Ubu never trod the boards again in Jarry’s lifetime, he yet made continued appearances in life through Jarry himself, who assumed his creation’s mannerisms and idiom, and was famous in literary circles for his uninflected staccato speech. Jarry commentators are prone to complaining about the attention given to the anecdotes and legends that swirl around their subject at the expense of his writings, but as his French biographer Noël Arnaud noted, “Jarry was not innocent of his myth.”
One might go further and say that Jarry made it all but impossible to separate the two, or so Guillaume Apollinaire argued in an influential memoir published two years after Jarry’s death: “Alfred Jarry was a man of letters,” wrote Apollinaire, “to an unprecedented extent. His smallest actions, his childish pranks, everything he did was literature. His whole life was shaped by literature, and only by literature.” André Breton pursued this line still further, arguing that Jarry had brought the “distinction between art and life, long considered essential”—particularly to the Symbolists whom Jarry drew on for his own early writings—to the verge of being “abolished in principle.”
Brotchie is wary of such readings, citing numerous testimonies from Jarry’s friends that stress the gulf between his public and private personas. And Jarry’s life was by no means merely a “hoard of destructions,” to quote Wallace Stevens quoting Picasso. He spent many months of each year on the banks of the Seine, where he indulged his love of boating and fishing, classic leisure activities of the bourgeoisie so often mocked in his writings. Certainly he inspired deep and enduring loyalty from such as Rachilde and her husband Alfred Vallette, though their patience was often sorely tried by his Ubu-esque antics and idiom; the latter involved not only staccato delivery, but adoption of the royal “we” and numerous Homeric-style epithets, the wind, for example, becoming “celui qui souffle.” This Ubu-patois proved contagious wherever he went, for it was adopted not only by elite Parisian literary types, but also by the very unliterary habitués of the various cafés Jarry patronized during extended stays in the provinces.
Jarry emerges from Brotchie’s skilful collaging of the evidence as a figure of tremendous charisma, and it was surely this charisma that prompted Apollinaire (with whom he shared a taste for billiards) to read his friend’s life as a work of art. There is also, though, something authentically “Pataphysical”—if that isn’t an oxymoron—in such readings. Jarry defined “Pataphysics,” which, like Ubu, had its origins in the taunting of the physics teacher Hébert back in the lycée at Rennes, as the “science of imaginary solutions”; by examining “the laws governing exceptions,” Pataphysics “will explain the universe supplementary to this one.” If, pondering such definitions, one feels vertiginously adrift in a Borgesian labyrinth—well, that may be just one further indication of Jarry’s power to anticipate the dilemmas that would afflict and motivate his literary descendants.
A more prosaic, or at least Darwinian, assessor of Jarry’s slow “suicide by hallucination,” to use the term coined by Roger Shattuck in his brilliant study of the Belle Époque, The Banquet Years (1955), might linger over the fact that his aunt was an alcoholic who, like Jarry, wandered the streets in outlandish, threadbare clothes, and his maternal grandmother died in an insane asylum in Rennes the year of his birth. Drinking himself to death may occasionally have seemed to Jarry an exciting aesthetic program, but it also ran in the family. His sister, Charlotte, died an alcoholic too, and in poverty, having had to sell the properties she inherited from their parents to cover the debts left by Jarry at his death.
Owls, bicycles, bailiffs, and his famous pistol, later acquired by Picasso, are dominant motifs in the Jarry legend—and fish, since, for many years, he lived off what he caught with his own rod in the Seine. (This was in the days before he gave up eating, having realized that “drinking on an empty stomach is more efficacious.”) The owls he kept in his apartment in Paris, an apartment he christened the Calvaire du Trucidé—the Calvary of the Slaughtered—unbothered by their droppings and chunks of raw meat festering around the room. The bicycle was his favored mode of transport, and one of his wittiest and most explicitly blasphemous essays is entitled “The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race.” Barabbas, though slated to take part, is scratched at the last minute, while Pilate is the starter. Jesus begins promisingly, but then suffers a puncture when he cycles over some thorns, and is forced to carry his bike frame—“or, if you will, the cross”—the rest of the way. There are fourteen turns in the treacherous Golgotha course, and Jesus finally falls at the twelfth—though only to continue the race “airborne.”
There is much Christian iconography in many of Jarry’s works, and he was particularly excited by medieval Christian woodcuts, founding two magazines, L’Ymagier and Perhinderion, in which he reproduced choice examples of these, along with Épinal prints and engravings by Dürer. This fascination with primitivism again looks forward to what would develop into one of the vital catalysts of Modernism, and is reflected also in Jarry’s own deliberately crude woodcuts and drawings—the most famous of which is his feral, snouty Ubu—and love of marionettes. There is no doubt that his tastes in this were shaped by his childhood years (from age five to fifteen) in Brittany, that remote and mythical region from which another precursor of Modernism, Tristan Corbière, also hailed.
Parallel to Jarry’s vein of iconoclasm ran a vein of literalness, and one is somehow not surprised to learn that when, in May 1906, he was convinced he was about to die, he had a priest summoned to administer extreme unction. In the event, Père Ubu recovered (by this point his identity was so entangled in that of his alter ego that the letters he wrote describing this experience are in the third person and from the perspective of Ubu), staggering on through a further eighteen months of dissipation before succumbing in November 1907. He remained unaware to the end that he was suffering from tuberculosis, which was only diagnosed at the autopsy.
In his discussion of Jarry in The Banquet Years, Shattuck declared:
There are virtually no standards by which to judge the role Jarry created and the décors with which he surrounded himself in order to sustain it. He left behind every standard, ethic, maxim, golden rule, and secret of success.
Brotchie’s biography does quite beautiful justice to these décors that have proved so essential to the Jarry cult. It is lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed, and offers a detailed account of the precise make, dimensions, and chain (thirty-six teeth) of Jarry’s bicycle, one he ordered from a certain Jules Trochon in 1896, and was to be dunned for by Trochon’s exasperated bailiffs for the rest of his life. While Jarry’s oeuvre consistently evades, as Shattuck suggests, the clutches of conventional literary standards, in life he proved equally elusive to a whole series of dogged debt collectors. Brotchie reproduces some of their letters, which were all treated in an appropriately Pataphysical manner by the sublimely irresponsible Ubu.
Still, though hard to grasp—and sections of his writing, it must be confessed, are so hermetic they make a poem by Mallarmé (a great Jarry admirer, incidentally) read like a newsflash—Jarry yet had an “enooormous” influence on a number of important twentieth-century artists: Picasso (it is still unclear whether he and Jarry ever actually met), Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, and André Breton head this list, while later admirers range from Italo Calvino to Gilles Deleuze, from Eugène Ionesco to Guy Debord, from Georges Perec to Jean Baudrillard. And while he inspired acute “physical repulsion” in Lord Alfred Douglas (not necessarily a bad sign) when they met in 1897, Oscar Wilde was very taken with him, declaring him “extraordinary,” “very corrupt,” “most attractive,” and looking “like a very nice renter” (London slang for a male prostitute). Wilde, it is often said, was never wrong, but here I think he does err; for it was on account of Jarry’s intransigent refusal to be available for hire to anyone, at any price, that his life and works came to embody so vividly the intrinsic and ultimate Pataphysical ideal.