Commentary by Alfred Jarry

By Andrew Lindvall

In order to understand Alfred Jarry’s views on his work, it is necessary to first look at his thoughts related to the theatre as a whole, as well as his theory of pataphysics.

A portrait of the playwright.

“Three main aims can in fact be distinguished in his writings on the theatre, and can be seen to be exemplified in his detailed suggestions for the staging of Ubu Roi : the desire for a theatre based on the principles of extreme simplification, and even of  ‘abstraction’; the need for the theatre to concern itself not with  merely contemporary (and therefore ephemeral) but with eternal and universal themes and preoccupations; and the need for an overwhelmingly visual, as opposed to narrative and psychological, theatre.” (Beaumont)

Illustration of Ubu Roi, drawn by Alfred Jarry.

Actors in Jarry’s theatre are to shed their humanity. Jarry was very fond of masque and preferred that actors wore extremely restrictive costumes, which he thought were in themselves elements of storytelling. He may not have been formally involved in the Symbolist movement, but many of his theories are related, and he certainly borrows frequently from their work. For example, Ubu Roi’s distinctive costume features a large spiral and a cone-shaped hat, which Jarry would have seen as symbolic of the anti-hero’s pomp. Additionally, he wanted the actors to perform in a monotone voice, avoiding psychological acting where scenes do not require it.

Pataphysics can be understood as taking all things to be true, even though they may be wrong or end in contradictions. It is hard to define pataphysics because in doing so you are confronted with the idea that “correct definitions are equivalent to wrong ones; all religions are on a par as imaginary and equally important; chalk really is cheese. It’s an escape from reality–reminding us of just how idiotic the rules that dog our everyday existence are” (Corbyn). This concept is essential in Jarry’s construction of the play, as the idiosyncrasies and messy theories it implies are, in fact, Jarry’s way of commenting on the state of modern thought.

This theory of pataphysics has been extremely influential in the work of artists who came after Jarry. Its threads can be seen in various mediums and artistic arenas. While not directly influenced by Jarry’s work on the pataphysical, this Don Hertzfeldt cartoon provides a great example of its spirit, and provides a more modern take on Jarry’s ideas.

For a more indepth summary of Jarry’s pataphysical ideas, this hourlong lecture titled “The Pataphysics of the Future,” presented by Prof. Andrew Hugill, Prof. Hongji Yang, and Fania Raczinski, contains the most precise definition possible of pataphysics while acknowledging its innate impossibility.

“Why should anyone claim that the shape of a watch is round?…Perhaps under the pretext of utility.” (Alfred Jarry, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician).



Beaumont, Keith. Jarry, Ubu Roi. London: Grant & Cutler, 1987. Print.

Corbyn, Zoë. “An Introduction to ‘Pataphysics.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 09 Dec. 2005. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.


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