By Katie Hindman
The vast success and widespread infamy of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (France, 1896) was not necessarily due solely to its content, which was not particularly poignant or overwhelming. Rather, it was due to the abrasive nature of the lead character and the presentation of the piece, which, in the midst of 19th century France, was shocking and revolutionary.
In the late 19th century, France was working though vast political, artistic, and social changes. There were movements and developments that influenced nearly every aspect of French life. Coloring much of the social “awakening” and revolution in 1896 was the current state of political scandal. The Dreyfus Affair, an extreme and prominent example of anti-Semitism, sparked young passion regarding justice and change in 19th century France (Rudroff 277) as well as a skepticism of those in power due to the improper and immoral imprisonment of a Jewish artillery officer (Zola). This led to a sense of unease in the younger generations (Zola), and was possibly one of the events that deeply influenced Jarry’s socially divergent plot and lead character that blatantly mocked power-hungry citizens. These elements likely had intentions of giving weight to developing anarchy. Why have a government when it is likely corrupt? Why not have no government? Such were the questions addressed and written into Jarry’s plot.
When Jarry wrote Ubu Roi, France was in the midst of “La Belle Epoque,” or “The Beautiful Era.” Characterized by scientific discoveries, peace, optimism, and technology (Rudorff), the period produced bourgeois impressionist and realist art and literature that was either visually and intellectually pleasing, from one perspective, or categorized by “complete lack of imagination” from another (Rudorff 94). These realistic and impressionistic pieces of art portrayed only the “soft edges,” no matter how beautifully they did so. France had an artistic scene characterized by fascination with beauty, excess of material goods, and an emphasis on middle and upper classes; from soft, impressionistic paintings by Monet to melodrama and romanticism popular in theatre. Exhausted with the passive art and culture of the era and inspired by passion for political and social change, many young writers, artists, and theatre makers decided to break away from the traditional mold and began to create entirely new work. In 1890s Paris, specifically, there were metaphorical battles between these traditional theories and modern concepts, which led to the laying of the foundation we now know as modern art that would emerge even more prominently throughout the next century (Rudorff 94).
However, it seems as though Jarry wasn’t satisfied with being simply a “modern” artist. He wanted to shock audiences out of their passive state and to make fun of the society and culture that he felt he wasn’t a part of. He was particularly enamored with the concept of anarchy emerging in France at the time. Science, art, and politics were progressing and changing in the late 1800s, much to the dismay of traditionalists; Ernst Mach in Germany was challenging Newton’s ideas about absolute space, arguing for a subjective look at physics; at the same time, Henri Bergson in France was arguing for the subjective look at time as an experience rather than a reality. Scientists alongside artists were challenging traditional views of structure and reality. Alongside the beginnings of unrest and challenge in scientific community, the political climate was uneasy and artists were skeptical alongside the French social activists. To support the rising anarchy, Jarry composed and performed a piece that was a direct counterattack to the lavish and decadent literature at the time (Rudorff 183). It wasn’t just a farce or a joke, it was a blatant attack to the supposedly calm, unperturbed society in Paris. In order to further the anarchist movement, Jarry wrote a play that “attempted to tyrannize art and literature as part of a general attack on the state” (183). Its widespread popularity is an example of the rising popularity of public revolutionaries.
Jarry seemed to spark an artistic revolution in that some future artists felt obligated to create striking artwork that was as provocative as Jarry’s initial production- according to some, after Ubu Roi, “To establish one’s credentials as an avant-garde artist, it was necessary to provoke a riot” (Puchner 309). Modern drama became the “art of scandal” intended to disrupt the calm order of society, to challenge the social constructs and norms of the time, and to create a potential rallying point for radical political movements.
With regards to the context of the world within the play, it is necessary to note that Jarry completely disregarded the supposed need for historical research. Though it was presumably set in present time, there was no locational research conducted during the writing process, contrary to the structure and writing process of previous playwrights. This disregard to the setting was another drastic divergence from the societal norm. He was noted for setting the play in Poland, which was disbanded and technically nonexistent in 1890. It is apparent that Jarry wanted to, as obviously as possible, set his play somewhere that held no significance to the common theatregoer. In fact, Jarry blatantly referred to Poland as “in other words, nowhere” (Puchner 309). Therefore, the play didn’t specifically exist anywhere, making the world of the play the location absurd and anti-bourgeois or realistic. This lack of specific location challenged an audience that was used to having time and place obvious immediately. He ungrounded the setting and placed it in a nonexistent, barren, desolate country, leaving the audience uprooted even at the first look at the set.
Jarry’s Ubu Roi was a direct comment on emerging political scandals and an active stand against the passive bourgious art that was popular at the time. Revolutionizing modern art right at the turn of the century, Jarry remained (in)famous in France as a direct product of societal structure—but not as a passive product, rather as a prominent example of an attack to that culture. In fact, Jarry created a counterattack to the societal structure he emerged from, and, in doing so, created an explosive movement in art to challenge and stray from the structure of traditional theatre as provocatively as possible. Hence, avant-garde was born.
Becker, George J., Edith Philips, and Hedley Howell. Rhys. Paris and the Arts 1851-1896: From the Goncourt Journal Edited and Translated. Ithaca: S.n., 1971. Print.
Puchner, Martin. “Alfred Jarry.” The Norton Anthology of Drama. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009. 305-09. Print.
Rudorff, Raymond. The Belle Epoque; Paris in the Nineties. New York: Saturday Review, 1973. Print.
Zola, Émile, Alain Pagès, and Eleanor Levieux. The Dreyfus Affair: “J’accuse” and Other Writings. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1996. Print.