Alfred Jarry had a profound, incalculable effect on most every art and literary movement of the 20th century movements influencing Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism, Expressionism, Cubism, and especially the Theatre of the Absurd. You can start with Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton and keep right on swerving through the better names of the century; poets Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Tristan Tzara, artists like Picasso, entertainers such as The Marx Brothers, the Goons, Spike Jones, the Bonzo Dog Band, Monty Python, even Mad magazine.
Playwrights Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee all owe much to Jarry, as do other literary greats like Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud, Douglas Adams, Robert Anton Wilson, Boris Vian, George Perec, and J.G. Ballard. In fact, I swear even George Bush and his entire administration have been heavily influenced by the absurdities of Alfred Jarry and his masterpiece, Ubu Roi featuring the bloated, thick and stupid future king, Pere Ubu.
Well, One hundred years ago today Alfred Jarry died of alcoholism and tuberculosis in Paris at the age of thirty-four. Every aspect of his life was a performance of self. More than just writing about Ubu, he lived as Ubu. He blew through a small fortune he inherited from his parents, served in the military, developed a taste for absinthe, and took to wandering around Paris inebriated; alcohol, he said, was his “holy water.” He costumed himself in black biking gear, often in a long hooded cape carrying a green umbrella and two pistols. He also assumed many of the characteristics he wrote for his fictional Pere Ubu: talking in a high falsetto, adopting a mechanical / monotone speaking style, enunciating every single syllable with no inflection or nuance, and Jarry always spoke of himself in the royal "we.”
His sentences were long, convoluted and vaguely descriptive narratives. In every sense of the word, Jarry lived in an intensely eccentric existence! And literally lived “in” … his apartment had been divided in half - horizontally. Forcing everyone except him to stoop, Jarry was less than five feet tall. He ate his meals backwards; dessert first, followed by the main course all the way back to the appetizer and bread, driving waiters mad. Whenever the mood hit him, he’d pull out his pistol and indiscriminately take target practice. On his deathbed, according to legend, Jarry’s last request was for a toothpick … an absurdist till the bitter end.
Jarry’s greatest triumph, Ubu Roi, began as collaboration with a classmate at age 15 while in school at the Lycée de Rennes. Originally conceived as a way to ridicule a mathematics teacher, it was performed with marionettes. I suspect it looked much like a Punch and Judy show, just crammed with more murder and mayhem and still more murder and mayhem. Over the next eight or ten years Ubu Roi took on a life of its own. In Jarry's hands he emphasized the bizarre, expanding on the character of Pere Ubu creating what has been called “the world's first truly unredeemable character.” And not surprisingly, opening night on December 10th 1896 was accompanied by an irate audience’s constant volley of hissing, booing and tossing everything not glued down onto the stage, while the play itself unfolds at a breakneck pace, characters shift in and out of scenes at a dizzying tempo. Dialogue attacks, twists every existing moral and aesthetic value of the day.
But nastiest of all, Ubu Roi lampoons the upper echelon of very proper French society. Well, needless to say something of an insurrection ensued. Some Parisians didn't take well to the acerbic assaults and anarchy delivered by some asinine 23 year-old playwright. Of course, with all that outrage and indignation, Alfred Jarry instantly became the celebrated “enfant terrible” of his time. Opening night was indeed closing night, and Ubu Roi wouldn’t be staged again until 1907. Anyway…