Today I am celebrating the birthday of Alfred Jarry who was born in Laval in northern France in 1873. He was a writer whose most famous work, the play Ubu Roi (King Ubu), is considered to be a forerunner of the Dada movement and the Theatre of the Absurd.
Ubu is a grotesque character, he is ugly, vulgar, stupid, greedy and cruel. He represents everything that is wrong with the way the bourgeoisie abuse their position of power. The play has elements of Macbeth and Hamlet and is about how Ubu becomes king of an imaginary Poland. There is a fight with the Russians, a fight with his equally awful wife and a bit with a bear. On the opening night the audience was split between the traditionalists and the avant-garde. The opening line ‘Merdre’ (translated in English as either Pshit or Shittr) drew outrage from half the audience and cheers from the other. Generally it was mayhem. The dress rehearsal and the opening night were the only times that the play was performed during its author’s lifetime.
The character of Ubu began life as a cruel characterisation of Jarry’s physics teacher, a man named Hébert. The original sketch was written by his friends Henri and Charles Morin and was performed with puppets. They began to write more and more bizarre stories about their teacher and gave him an imaginary life as Père Heb. The character had a misshapen body, a massive belly, only three teeth (one made from stone, one from iron and one from wood) and also a retractable ear. As they grew older his friends lost interest in Père Heb, but Jarry continued to work on the idea and to develop the character into the monstrous Ubu.
It wasn’t long before Jarry discovered the joy of alcohol. He was particularly fond of absinthe which he referred to as his Green Goddess. There is a story that he once painted his face green and rode through Paris on his bicycle in her honour. At eighteen he was drafted into the army. He was less than five feet tall and they didn’t have a uniform small enough to fit him. So his ridiculous appearance in an oversized uniform plus his chaotic character meant that he caused a bit of a stir and generally disrupted military discipline. He was excused parades and eventually discharged on medical grounds.
Back in Paris, he applied himself to writing, drinking and spending time with friends. He wrote his first play, Caesare, Antichrist, in 1895 which was inspired by the Book of Revelation. Ubu made his first appearance in this play. Ubu Roi was performed the following year and after that Jarry began to take on some of the speech characteristics of his infamous creation. He referred to himself using the royal ‘we’ and called his bicycle: that which rolls. He wrote three more plays about Ubu and also several novels. The last, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician was published after his death. It tells of the adventures of Faustroll, an anti-philosopher who is born at age 63 and dies at the same age in the same year. He journeys through an imaginary Paris with a lawyer named Panmoufle who is the story’s narrator. They travel in a twelve metre long copper sieve and are accompanied by an ape called Bosse-de-Nage who dies on the journey. ‘Pataphysics, which must be spelled with the apostrophe, is another invention of Jarry’s. I find what he means by it rather hard to pin down. He says: ‘Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one. Also that it is: the science of imaginary solutions. In truth ‘pataphysics has been defined my many people in a hundred different ways. So it is the study the games governing the special occurrence of a sporadic accident. It is also the repressed part of a rule which ensures that the rule does not work. As I can best understand it, it is about the way things might happen, but probably don’t.
Jarry died of tuberculosis in 1907 aged 34. He was pretty poor when he died but had loads of admirers, including Picasso. His work made a massive impression on people working in theatre, art and literature. In 1948 the Collège de ‘Pataphysique was founded. Members have included Eugène Ionesco, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and also Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx. Jarry also devised a pataphysical calendar. It has thirteen months of twenty nine days each. The twenty-ninth day of each month is imaginary, with two exceptions: Gidouille 29th is always non-imaginary but Gueules 29th is only non-imaginary during leap years. According to the pataphysical calendar today is the first day of Absolu.