At the first performance of Ubu Roi at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre on December 10 1896 there was pandemonium. Amid the jeering, stamping and shouting, the actor playing Ubu tried to establish order by blowing into a horn, and it was at least fifteen minutes before the play could continue. The press reaction was universally hostile. Ubu Roi appeared to reject everything: any recognizable conception of theatre, any notion of satire, even a conventional idea of the unconventional — its bawdy, for example, was not the knowing innuendo of adults but the silly jokes of schoolboy-virgins. It was in places deliberately lame and unfunny. It must have been utterly baffling. Reviewers condemned it for its pointless vulgarity, lack of wit, irresponsibility and artistic vacuousness. One reviewer appeared to wish to de-louse himself after the performance, writing: ‘Despite the late hour, I have just taken a shower. An absolutely essential preventative measure when one has been subjected to such a spectacle.’ It all seemed to have been conceived by a naughty child to hoax the grown-ups. And in a sense, it was.
The phenomenon of Ubu began as a schoolboy burlesque, the creation of Alfred Jarry and his friends at the Lycée de Rennes in the late 1880s. The prototype for Ubu was his school physics master, M. Hébert. This unfortunate pedagogue, incompetent, fat, unable to keep order, was routinely mocked by the children as ‘Père Heb’, ‘Éb’, ‘Ébouille’, ‘Ébé’, ‘P.H.’ and so on. His tormentors, year after year, had constructed a mythology around him: he had been born on the banks of the Oxus River, the son of a Tartar witch and a member of a race known as the Hommes-Zénormes, emerging from the womb complete with bowler hat, check trousers and three teeth, one of stone, one of wood and one of iron. He had travelled to the Bering Straits, where he had become trapped in a glacier for a thousand years, but after his release had made his way to France, where he had taken a baccalauréat and become a brigand (naturally), dealing with his enemies by the use of a ‘de-braining spoon’. Jarry became the lead-archivist of this oral tradition, and M. Hébert’s lead-tormentor. A schoolfriend, Henri Hertz, wrote:
‘Père Heb’ began to star in various marionette plays that Jarry performed with his friends. At some point in the early 1890s the name ‘Ubu’ emerged from ‘Ébé’ and ‘Ébouille’. By now his earlier collaborators were beginning to slip away into jobs or the army, and Jarry went to Paris, where he continued writing and polishing the Ubu-saga, which was eventually to comprise a cycle of plays beginning with Ubu Roi and including Ubu Cocu and Ubu Enchainé. In the Symbolist Paris of the 1890s he found a place where eccentrics of all kinds were tolerated. Numerous tales were told about him. He would enter a restaurant and demand to be served the last course first, proceeding via the main course to the hors d’oeuvre. He was once asked for a light by a stranger in the street and discharged a pistol shot (un feu). When some children were endangered by his pistol practice, he told their mother: ‘Please do not worry Madame, if any unfortunate event should occur, we will soon engender others by you.’ Andre Gide wrote of his ‘bizarre, relentless manner of speaking, without inflexion or nuance, with an equal emphasis on every syllable, including the mute ‘e’s. Had a nutcracker spoken, it would have done so in exactly the same way.’ After the success of Ubu Roi in 1896 he became famous overnight, and began to adopt the language and demeanor of his creation.
He entered the fray at the end, like a matador in a bull-ring, for the death-blow. Complete silence. Coldly, incisively, he put to Père Heb insidious, preposterous questions, which caused him to falter in mid-sentence and shattered his composure. He encircled him and made him giddy with his sophistry. He wore him out. Père Heb became disconcerted, batted his eyelids, stammered, pretended not to hear, lost ground. Finally, giving way, he collapsed onto the table...The class looked upon the victor Jarry with wonder.
With fear and a sense of recoil also. For there was the distinct feeling that his sarcasm went beyond the general unruliness, that something deep down inside him was taking part in this battle, something different, that his tactics arose from some powerful impulse.
For a long time after his death in 1907 (aged 34) Jarry was given only a token place in the history of the theatre. After the Second World War however, a strange organization was formed, the ‘Collège de ‘Pataphysique’, whose members included Jacques Prévert, Max Ernst, Eugène Ionesco, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and René Clair. ‘Pataphysics (the initial apostrophe is deliberate and silent) had been Jarry’s attempt to synthesize his philosophy: in its briefest formulation it is ‘the science of imaginary solutions’. The Collège championed all of Jarry’s works (which included many further novels and plays), and the 1950s and 60s saw the export of the Ubu plays to the USA, Britain and elsewhere. The Jarry phenomenon, 50 years late, was beginning to roll. It became clear that his work stood as an important precursor to movements such as Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd. A certain strain of childish vulgarity, anti-sense and anti-wit in modernism could in fact be attributed directly to Jarry. Père Ubu, born of a malicious desire to destroy a hated teacher, was now venerated as the totem of those who wished to dismantle the world of grown-up rationality.
Beaumont, Keith: Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study (Leicester University Press, 1984)
Jarry, Alfred: The Ubu Plays (introduction by Kenneth McLeish, Nick Hern Books, 1997)
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