It’s Alfred Jarry’s World, We Just Live In it

One of the largest stars in my personal cosmology is French writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907).

There are many ways in which Jarry can be said to be a Father of All We Hold Dear. A figure of the Parisian Belle Époque, Jarry was associated with the Symbolists in his day, although Dada, Surrealism, Absurdism, and Performance Art all have their roots in his visionary art. Mental illness and alcoholism both ran in Jarry’s family. When one thinks of the career of, say, Daniel Johnston, one wonders if Jarry mightn’t be diagnosed as schizophrenic today. Obsession and arrested development both seemed to be part of his make-up. A marionette show he cooked up when he was 15 years old formed the basis of his later best-known works, Caesar Anti-Christ (1895) and Ubu Roi (1896), the latter produced by Symbolist theatre maker Aurélien-Marie Lugné-Poe. The opening line of Ubu, “Merdre!” (“shit!”, garbled slighly) set off a riot on opening night, yet is fully within the grotesque French satirical tradition of Rabelais and Voltaire. Ubu began as a comical portrait of one of Jarry’s teachers. He gradually took on a kind of universal quality, a compelling portrait of a gigantic infant-man who selfishly lives to feed his own appetities, and will commit any cruelty he sees fit in order to do so. Yet the portrait is cartoonish. Ubu is a figure of ridicule. When Trump became President in 2016, it was assumed that a thousand productions of Ubu Roi would bloom, for Trump IS Ubu. Perhaps theatre producers demurred on account of the death threats theatres across the country recieved after the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar. Or maybe they just decided mounting Ubu was both redudant and obvious. After all, we are LIVING Ubu Roi on a daily basis.

My first awareness of Jarry and his most famous work was through the avant-rock group Pere Ubu in the ’80s. Also NYC had an Ubu Repertory Theatre Company when I first moved here (1987). It was devoted to producing French theatre, not just the work of Jarry, but it served to make one more aware of the playwright. The Ubu has been in limbo since they were displaced by September 11. Also during the ’80s Gary David Goldberg’s TV production company Ubu Productions, which created Family Ties, and other shows featured a little bumper at the end of every episode which went “Sit, Ubu, Sit! Good dog!” His pooch, the company mascot was named after the Jarry character. Also in 1989 I had the good fortune to see Oliver Platt play Ubu at Lincoln Center! So I got a lot of cool of Ubu reinforcment in the ’80s. A couple of decades later I caught Del Pentecost in the role in John Clancy’s 2006 adaptation Fatboy: An American Grotesque at Soho Think Tank.

The guiding star of Ubu kind of permeates indie theatre culture — at least any indie theatre worthy of the name. Ironically, the original production only had a couple of performances. We haven’t even gotten to the good part yet, which is that Jarry began to LIVE the role. I remind you that the character looked like this:

Kind of like the ghost of a fat Ku Klux Klansman. The actor who had played Ubu in the original production did so in imitation of Jarry. Now Jarry began to talk in an exaggerated imitation of a parody of himself, and to move about the cafes of Paris in that fashion, like some kind of crazy automaton. He continued to write essays, and novels, and poems, and to be this crazy LIVING work of art himself, something we can only read about and never get to experience. Naturally the drinking of much absinthe was involved in all this, and Jarry was to die at the tender age of 34 of TB, aggravated by his abuse of drugs, booze, and, when he couldn’t get his hands on those, dangerous intoxicants like ether.

After he died, another of his lasting, fascinating, and nearly indecipherable works was published: Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician. This book lays out Jarry’s philosophy, known as pataphysics. (You may have heard Paul McCartney’s comical reference to it in the Beatles’ song “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”.) As near as one can make out, pataphysics has to do with making manifest the fruits of the imagination — making them real. The clever name is a riff on metaphysics, which was a coinage of Aristotle’s, meaning merely “after physics”. Pataphysics is what comes after metaphysics. There is what IS, and then there’s what making what isn’t IS. And that is the purest manifestation of art.