by Helen Muller
Alfred Jarry burst into the stagnant artistic world of late 19th century France with his explosive play Ubu Roi. A rebel in many aspects of his life, Jarry learned to use the fundamentals of then-popular styles to effect the strong reactions he desired from his audiences (Nell 75). Though history remembers Jarry primarily for the riotous night on which Ubu Roi premiered, his work served as an important stepping-stone between his symbolist roots and the absurdist and postmodern movements (Puchner 306).
As it happens, the infamous Ubu Roi grew out of a “vast and shapeless mass of schoolboy legend and fantasy” (Beaumont 13). Born in Laval, a provincial French town, Jarry struggled with his studies and eventually encountered a fat and hapless physics teacher by the name of Félix Hébert. Hébert, or “le Père Heb,” as he was often called, became the subject of many stories and mockeries from Jarry and his friends (Beaumont 12). His name was transformed into “Ubu,” and it is he that inspired the lewd star of the play. Failing the entrance exams needed to advance in his academics, Jarry became a regular presence in the cafés of the Latin Quarter at the nervy age of 17. He mingled with artists and philosophers who would later inspire him, many of whom fell under the category of Symbolists (Puchner 305).
The Symbolists had significant influence over the theatre of Jarry’s time, and it is also crucial to understand the use of symbolism in Ubu Roi itself. The authors of this style, among them Stéphane Mallarmé, Alfred Vallette, and his wife Rachilde, preferred a sort of metaphysical poetry over wrote, stilted realism, considering the former much more descriptive than the latter (Puchner 306). Symbolism moved away from the movements of Realism and Naturalism then popular in France: the aforementioned artists used stylistic devices involving symbols and symbolism to create art onstage, instead of trying to represent literal situations and happenings. The Symbolist movement was immediately important to Jarry; its center was the Théâtre de l’OEuvre, at the head of which was Aurélien Lugné-Poe. Lugné-Poe was a friend and collaborator of Jarry’s, and the famous premiere of Ubu Roi was performed at the Théâtre de l’OEuvre, after months of Jarry’s convincing Lugné-Poe to undertake it (Puchner 306).
Some of Jarry’s early works follow the dictates of the symbolist style while simultaneously suggesting conflicting ideas that would influence his later, more unconventional works. In The Report of the Terrible Accident, written in 1891, he suggests that art should “suggest instead of stating,” which has become the key phrase for his “crossroads theory”: the idea that the writer should provide various hints, or symbols, which the reader can then piece together (LaBelle 48). This leads to the accepted symbolist theory that the author should embrace the spectator, and perhaps even understand the audience as the more intelligent party (LaBelle 54). Throughout his life, Jarry continually attempted to reconcile the need for the involvement of the spectator with his “didactic misanthropy,” which proved difficult and paradoxical—in fact, his mentor Stéphane Mallarmé, also frustrated with feelings of superiority over and cynicism of those around him, withdrew from society and turned to elitism (LaBelle 55). Ubu Roi challenged the spectator to pick up the pieces of Jarry’s mismatched and bastardized symbolism and derive a greater meaning.
The premiere of Ubu Roi at the Théâtre de l’OEuvre on 10 December 1896 was “one of the greatest uproars which the French theatre has ever seen” (Beaumont 59). Lugné-Poe closed the play after its first night due to the height of the scandal and riot, but Jarry had become famous literally overnight (Puchner 308) and advanced the play’s notoriety for years afterwards, writing Ubu Enchainé (1899), Ubu sur la Butte (1901), and Ubu Almanach (1901). Bizarrely, he also brought the character into his own life: in his later years, he began to speak and act like Ubu, and lived in a modified home with half-height ceilings (Puchner 309). His strange play exists in the French dramatical canon not because of its content, but because of its execution and influence. While it simultaneously mimics and mocks the works of the Symbolists, Jarry’s Ubu Roi steps away from the realist pieces of its time and propels the theatre scholar into the age of postmodern and absurdist thought.
Beaumont, Keith. Jarry, Ubu Roi. London: Grant & Cutler, 1987. Print.
Fell, Jill. Alfred Jarry. London: Reaktion, 2010. Print.
LaBelle, Maurice Marc. Alfred Jarry, Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd. New York: New York UP, 1980. Print.
Puchner, Martin. “Alfred Jarry.” The Norton Anthology of Drama. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009. 305-09. Print.