By Andrew Lindvall
Jarry is typically cast as a rebel in this narrative: an “enfant terrible,” wherein each of his performances he seeks to bash and scandalize the bourgeoisie. However, this assertion undervalues the legitimate artistic ardor of his contribution. He is credited with the origin of the Avant-Garde movement and is often heralded as influential to artists such as Pablo Picasso, Antonin Artaud, and even John Lennon. Part of the play’s impact lies in how drastically it reacted against the overwhelming majority of Realist theatre being produced in Europe at the time. Ubu Roi overturns the concept of a normal, rational protagonist, and replaces him with a bizarre, absurd antihero. It is easy to see his play as merely a spoof of the existing theatre of the time, but that in fact ignores Jarry’s reasons behind his departure.
In order to appropriately stage this piece, it is important to acknowledge that since it was such a drastic departure from the French scene at the time, much of the initial reaction was negative. Modern scholars now see the premiere as an important work distinguishing the emergence of Avant-Garde theatre. Patrick Lobert explains Jarry’s influence as a contrasting figure against the theatre of the time: “Ubu’s status as farcical protagonist derives from his inability to read his situation self-referentially, since in his pursuit of power he holds an idea of power which is blind to the material circumstances which surround the possession of power…His search for power satirizes the situation of French theatre at the fin de siècle. Ubu roi, composed and staged against the backdrop of the esthetic conflicts pitting bourgeois realism and naturalism against symbolist theatricalism, comments pointedly upon a self referential lack in naturalist doctrines, doctrines which stumble ineptly as they try to create dramatic meanings all the while ignoring their theatrical milieu.” Lobert and most scholars acknowledge this general disrespect for Jarry’s work, and urge modern readers to explore the piece beyond the material’s initial shock.
Historian Keith Beaumont also shares this vision and attempts to reframe the work from its underestimated depth: “It is time to put to rest once and for all the notion of Jarry as the enfant terrible of fin-de-siècle literature, fiendishly setting out to épater le bourgeois and to engineer the greatest theatrical hoax of all time. One has only to read his writings on the theatre to be convinced of the seriousness of his artistic aims and of his reforming zeal.” Beaumont speaks of this “deliberate unsophistication” as deceptive, much like the paintings of the Les Nabis.
Les Nabis were a group of artists of Jarry’s time from whom he lifted a lot of his plays’ visual elements. Their techniques, which seemed almost too simple, were a conscious reaction against the trendy insistence of realism in art. Much like Jarry’s vaguely influential science of Pataphysics, the specifics are less important than the general concept. Jarry likely saw a lot of similarities between the artistic goals of the Nabis and his own: “Ubu Roi certainly does deride every conceivable convention of the then existing theatre. But the play, and its original performance, represented also an attempt to escape from what its author saw as the impasse of realism and naturalism through the creation of an entirely new, and much more vital form of theatre” (Lobert).
In Ubu Roi, Jarry replaces classic tragedy with the characters’ simple desire for sustenance. Structurally organized like a typical five-act French play, the plot unfolds very naturally and clearly, but all events within it only serve to mock and undermine the narrative. The vulgarity of the characters and their motivations only reveals that these grand cultural stories are inherently about a life literally full of nothing but food and shit.
Many other artists have fallen in love with the character of Ubu and what he represents, and have taken his spirit into other types of artistic expression. Père Ubu is an experimental rock band that takes its name from Jarry’s protagonist. Their music contains many references to the play: New Picnic Time is their third full-length album.
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.
LaBelle, Maurice Marc. Alfred Jarry, Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd. New York: New York UP, 1980. Print.
Lobert, Patrick. “Ubu Roi, Jarry’s Satire of Naturalism.” French Literature Series 14 (Spring 1987): 124-32
Puchner, Martin. “Alfred Jarry.” The Norton Anthology of Drama. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009. 305-09. Print.
Pavlovski, Linda. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Linda Pavlovski. Vol. 147. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 225-346. Print.