Authors: Alfred Jarry

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French playwright and novelist

Author Works

Drama:

Ubu Roi, wr. 1888, pr., pb. 1896 (English translation, 1951)

Ubu cocu, wr. 1888, pb. 1944 (Ubu Cuckolded, 1953)

Ubu enchaîné, pb. 1900 (Ubu Enchained, 1953)

Ubu sur la butte, pr. 1901 (marionette play; shortened version of Ubu roi with songs)

Le Moutardier du pape, pb. 1906 (operetta)

L’Objet aimé, pb. 1909

Pantagruel, pr. 1911 (libretto)

Long Fiction:

Les Minutes de sable mémorial, 1894 (Black Minutes of Memorial Sand, 2001)

César-Antéchrist, 1895 (Caesar-Antichrist, 1971)

Les Jours et les nuits: Roman d’un déserteur, 1897 (Days and Nights: Novel of a Deserter, 1989)

L’Amour absolu, 1899

Messaline: Roman de l’ancienne Rome, 1901 (The Garden of Priapus, 1936)

Le Surmâle: Roman moderne, 1902 (The Supermale, 1968)

Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien: Roman néo-scientific, suivi de spéculations, 1911 (Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician, 1965)

La Dragonne, 1943

Nonfiction:

Almanach illustré du Père Ubu, 1901 (satiric chronicle)

La Chandelle verte, lumières sur les choses de ce temps, 1969

Translations:

La Papesse Jeanne, 1908 (of Emmanuel Rhoïdès’s novel; with Jean Saltas)

Les Silènes, 1927 (of Christian Dietrich Grabbe’s play Scherz, Satire, Ironie und tiefere Bedeutung)

Miscellaneous:

Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, 1965

Œuvres complètes, 1972

Adventures in ‘Pataphysics: Collected Works of Alfred Jarry, Volume 1, 2001

Biography

Although his works are not widely read in English, Alfred-Henri Jarry (zhah-ree) is a significant figure in absurdist literature. His father, Anselme Jarry, a traveling merchant, married Caroline Quernest, a judge’s daughter with noble lineage. Jarry was born in Laval, France, in 1873, during the Feast of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin. Soon after his son’s birth, Anselme Jarry became an alcoholic. Caroline Jarry, an eccentric woman, often affected pretentious airs and draped herself in outlandish apparel. She was separated from her husband and moved to Saint-Brieuc while her son was still young.{$I[AN]9810001090}{$I[A]Jarry, Alfred}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Jarry, Alfred}{$I[tim]1873;Jarry, Alfred}

Jarry was indifferent to his bourgeois father but devoted to his mother, whose eccentricities he would later imitate. His novel L’Amour absolu (absolute love) is a treatment of motherly love that wavers between incest and adulation. A brilliant student, Jarry won prizes in foreign languages and science at Saint-Brieuc and later at Rennes. Short, stocky, and bowlegged, Jarry compensated for his appearance with his caustic wit and rebellious behavior. Aside from the classics, Jarry was influenced by François Rabelais, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, and William Shakespeare. With his schoolmates, Jarry staged bawdy lampoons of his incompetent and physically repulsive physics teacher, Félix Hébert. An early puppet show, “Les Polonais” (the Poles), depicted Père Hébé as a parody of Macbeth. This character would obsess Jarry for the rest of his life and would lead directly to his most famous work, Ubu Roi. While attending the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, Jarry became familiar with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and attended Henri Bergson’s lectures on comedy. After his mother’s death in 1893, he abandoned his education for a literary career.

With his bizarre attire and affected mannerisms, he soon attracted attention at the literary gatherings of Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé and formed a lifelong friendship with Alfred Vallette, editor of the famous literary journal Mercure de France. “Guignol” (puppet show), his first work published in Paris, introduced the figure of Père Ubu and the science of pataphysics, two recurring motifs in his later works. In Black Minutes of Memorial Sand, his first book, Jarry began to develop the trademarks of his style: abstruse scientific jargon, dream reveries, and depictions of a malevolent cosmos.

Jarry squandered his inheritance on publishing two unsuccessful art journals and spent a miserable time in the French army, which he later satirized in his novel Days and Nights: Novel of a Deserter. In 1896, Jarry became general manager for Aurélian Lugné-Poe’s avant-garde theater, Théâtre de l’Œuvre, and produced Ubu Roi on December 10. The play’s blatant use of scatological language and savage humor nearly caused a riot in the theater and created a battle in the press. Ubu Roi was a revolutionary work in French theater that catapulted Jarry into notoriety.

In the years following Ubu Roi, Jarry wrote two more Ubu plays, Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu Enchained. He also completed several novels, including Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician, a version of the Faust myth seen as a fantastic journey through Paris in a sieve. During his final years, Jarry, dissipated on absinthe and ether, lived in squalor and suffered from chronic malnutrition. On November 1, 1907, All Saints’ Day, he died. Characteristically, his final request was for a toothpick, and his funeral was the occasion of a toast among his literary friends.

Jarry was the quintessential rebel who flouted social conventions and lived life on the brink of absurdity. He donned a cape, carried pistols, wore women’s shoes, painted a tie on his shirt, and lived in bizarre dwellings with funereal drapings, live owls, and phallic sculptures. He adapted the personae of his characters, speaking in a mechanical voice and using the imperial “we.” He drugged himself, seeking to transcend human experiences by living life to the extreme.

His works reflect his life, and in many ways Jarry’s novels are forerunners to the contemporary novel. Chronological plot sequences are replaced by fragmentary and disconnected episodes. Sensual images and hallucinatory scenes are juxtaposed, while time and space are condensed and prolonged. Jarry’s novels are collages of pseudoscientific analyses, philosophical tracts, lists, diagrams, and pictures. Cleverly combining science fiction and fantasy, they display an odd mixture of the transcendent and the grotesque.

Jarry’s antirealistic dramas called for theater that penetrates the surface of everyday reality. To accomplish this goal, Jarry elevated the puppet-show format to the status of metaphysical theater. He reduced the set to a blank backdrop, called for emblematic scenery to be carried onstage, and used placards to announce scenic locale. His dramas use anachronisms, modern dress, masks, and universal gestures to create a self-conscious theatricality. In Ubu Roi, improbable and incongruous actions are combined with illogical tirades, neologisms, and verbal nonsense in order to shock and disorient a complacent audience. For these reasons, he is often pointed out as a progenitor of the Theater of the Absurd.

After viewing the original performance of Ubu Roi, William Butler Yeats correctly predicted, “After us, the Savage God.” Savage comedy with its cutting irony, nihilistic worldview, and grotesque imagery is Jarry’s primary legacy to contemporary literature.

BibliographyBeaumont, Keith S. Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. A biography of Jarry that contains both information on his life and critical analysis of his work. Bibliography and index.Beaumont, Keith S. Jarry, “Ubu Roi.” Wolfeboro, N.H.: Grant and Cutler, 1987. Part of the Critical Guides to French Texts series. A detailed study of Jarry’s most significant play.Fisher, Ben. The Pataphysician’s Library: An Exploration of Alfred Jarry’s Livres Pairs. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2000. Although not centering on Jarry’s dramatic work, this study examines Jarry’s concept of pataphysics extensively. Bibliography and index.LaBelle, Maurice Marc. Alfred Jarry: Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd. New York: New York University Press, 1980. A study of Jarry’s works, with emphasis on nihilism and his dramatic works’ relation to the Theater of the Absurd. Bibliography and index.Lennon, Nigey. Alfred Jarry: The Man with the Axe. Los Angeles: Panjandrum Books, 1984. An entertaining and easy-to-read biography of Jarry, covering his life and works. Bibliography and index.Schumacher, Claude. Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire. New York: Grove Press, 1985. Schumacher compares and contrasts the works of Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire. Bibliography and index.Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years, the Arts in France, 1885-1918: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire. 1958. Rev. ed. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1961. A short but valuable assessment that places Jarry in the context of his time.Stillman, Linda Klieger. Alfred Jarry. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A basic and thorough biography of Jarry, treating his life and works. Bibliography and index.
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