September 15, 2014

Alfred Jarry

Alfred Jarry (France)


Born on September 8, 1873 in Laval, Mayenne,France, Alfred Jarry was of Breton descent on his mother’s side of the family.

      While attending the lycée in Rennes, Jarry as among the boys who devoted a great deal of their time to satirizing and making fun of their obese and incompetent physics teacher, Hébert. Jarry and another classmate, Henri Morin, went so far as to write a play, Les Polonais, satirizing their teacher, who they nicknamed Pére Heb, a large-bellied fool who had three teeth (one of stone, one of iron, and one a wood), a single retractile ear, and a misshapen body. Performed with marionettes, the drama delighted his classmates.That character would later be incorporated into a redeveloped as Ubu Roi in Jarry’s renowned play of 1896.

     Jarry received his baccalaureate and moved to Paris to prepare for admission to the École Normale Supérieure. He was not admitted, but he quickly gained attention for his original poems and prose poetry works, a collection of which, Le minutes de sable mémorial, was published in 1893. That same year his parents died, leaving him a small inheritance which he quickly squandered.     Jarry quickly became an alcoholic, preferring absinthe, which he described as his “Green Goddess.” At one point he painted his face green, riding about the city on his bicycle in honor of the drink.
  Drafted into the army in 1894, Jarry, who stood less than 5 feet tall without a uniform (since the military did not issue uniforms small enough), made so much public fun of his ridiculous situation that he was discharged. That experience later inspired his Les Jours et les Nuits, roman d’un déserteur (Days and Nights, a Novel of a Deserter) of 1897.

     Freed from the military, Paris returned to Paris, where he devoted himself to writing, drinking, and developing deep friendships with figures such as Remy de Gourmont. Invoved with the art publication, L’Ymagier, devoted to the symbolic analysis of prints, Jarry drew on Symbolist motifs for his play Caesar Antichrist (1895), which created a world in which Christ is resurrected not as a spiritual leader but rather as agent of the Roman Empire. The absurd premises of the play and its hermetic imagery, hinted at the absurdist principles and the field of Pataphysics which later emanated from his work.

     The spring of the following year saw the magazine publication of his famed Ubu Roi in Paul Fort’s Le Livre d’art. The play was so outrageous that few expected that it might every be mounted on stage, but theater director Aurélien-Marie Lugné-Poe decided to take a risk of presenting it at his Théâtre de l”Oeuvre. On the evening of December 10, 1896, where an audience mixed with traditionalists and avant-gardists waited, actor Firmin Gémier stepped to the footlights as King Ubu, intoning the play’s opening words: “Merdre!” or “Shitter.” Within a half an hour the place was a scene of pandemonium, audience members shouting, booing, whistling, cheering and applauding. So extreme was the reaction the play was not performed again until after Jarry’s death.

    Rumor had it that Gémier had modeled the character on Jarry’s own staccato, nasal vocal delivery, and had based several of his histrionic stances on Jarry’s own well-known behavior.

    During the following years, Jarry co-founded with Franc-Hohain and Claude Terrasse, the Théatre des Pantins, which performed marionette productions of Ubu Roi.

    Having spent all of his inheritance, Jarry lived in a mud hut by the river, drinking excessively, but continued to write, including what has been described as the first cyborg sex novel, Le Surmâle (The Supermale), and other fictions, many of which were published after his death.

    Among his many drinking friends were the artist Toulouse-Lautrec, Gide, Mallarmé, and Wilde. Wilde found Jarry incredibly beautiful and androgynous, and others recognized the playwright, fiction writer, and poet as being gay.

    Jarry died in Paris of tuberculosis on November 1, 1907. The writer was only 34.

    His work would influence a host of literary movements that followed, including Dadaism, Surrealism, and, as already suggested, the Pataphysics that predominate so much of the Oulipo writings. Picasso purchased several his manuscripts and his pistol Echoes of works can be seen in the writings of Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett.  His complete works are published in three volumes by Gallimard in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade series.

    In his study of Gertrude Stein, J. Malcolm Brinnin writes of Jarry’s poetry:

   Jarry's poetry, showing signs of fragmentary influences from
Mallarme, combined strains of wild fantasy with perverse eroticism
and the humeur noire of anarchy. Reality and unreality were
mixed to his order. His favorite comment on any noteworthy
occasion was "It was as beautiful as literature, wasn't it?"


Le minutes de sable memorial (1893) (Paris: Edition de Mercure de France, 1894 / Paris: Fasquelle, 1932 / Paris: Gallimard, 1977); Œuvres poétiques completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1945)

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