The 1896 premiere of Ubu Roi in Paris was a violent affair. Alfred Jarry, the 23-year-old playwright, planted friends in the audience to pick fights and holler obscenities. Brawls began when Père Ubu—sometimes translated as “King Turd”—strutted onto the stage wielding a toilet brush as his scepter. Ubu uttered the first word, “Merdre,” and the crowd erupted. The play came to a halt for 15 minutes. One theatergoer described the night as “five acts of shrieking and gesticulating by utterly grotesque puppets that created the impression of some sort of hallucinatory vision.” W.B. Yeats, who attended the premiere, wrote that Jarry’s absurdist debut hailed the end of one era and the beginning of another: “After all our subtle colour…what more is possible? After us, the Savage God.”
Jarry may not be a household name outside France, but depending on whom you ask, he’s either the last Symbolist or the first modernist writer. André Breton, the father of Surrealism, who coined the term “black humor” in a 1940 anthology on Jarry and others, wrote that Jarry annihilated the difference between life and art. A parody of Macbeth, Ubu Roi amounts to a scatological schoolboy prank staged as high art. Today Ubu Roi is one of the most frequently produced plays not written by Shakespeare, and the shit king’s role is often cast with stand-ins for conservative politicians—including, in several recent essays and productions, Donald Trump.
An exhibition of Jarry’s work at the Morgan Library and Museum, “Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being,” now viewable online, introduces an American audience to this critical bridge figure among the early 20th century avant-garde. It’s the French writer’s first major museum exhibition, and it presents a remarkable array of his books, magazines, and prints alongside art by his friends, his acolytes, and artists he influenced, including Henri Rousseau, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard, Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró. Jarry’s impact is far reaching. ’Pataphysics: A Useless Guide, a 275-page book by Andrew Hugill, catalogs Jarry’s network of influence, including the impressions he left on Oulipo, punk rock, Net art, and science fiction. However, the exhibition mostly restricts its focus to 20th century books, paintings, and works on paper.
The crux of Jarry’s sprawling influence is an imaginary science he named “pataphysics,” which combined his love of paradox, farce, and absurdity with an aesthetics derived from medieval monsters and puppet theater. He put pataphysics forth as a tonic for a culture he considered staid, stagnant, and dominated by bourgeois tastes. The musician and theorist Paul Miller, known as DJ Spooky, writes in the exhibition’s catalog that Jarry represents our “urge toward creative chaos, toward a rational irrationality.” Over time, though, pataphysics may have turned to poison. As the exhibition hurtles toward the 21st century, it reveals that artists have mostly failed to keep up with the strange and lawless world Jarry and his cultists imagined. Its grotesque conduct became more real and less satirical. At the same time, the story of how the physical world became pataphysical is too imprecise and tangled to lay on a single figure, even one as complicated as Jarry.
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Among Jarry’s many fascinations were monsters, marionettes, religious icons, and Épinal prints, a colorful form of 19th century mass production. His monsters are his most fabulous works. “Usually the word ‘monster’ signifies some sort of unaccustomed harmonizing of dissonant elements,” Jarry wrote. “I call ‘monster’ every original inexhaustible beauty.”
He was born in Laval in 1873. A precocious and insolent student, he and his schoolmates jousted with their teacher Félix-Frederic Hébert—a petty and pompous man, boring and ill-prepared for his own syllabus—and made him the subject of several lampooning plays. Jarry expanded Hébert’s vulgarity and girth and transformed him into Père Ubu, who Jarry said represented “everything in the world that is grotesque.” Ubu would prove to be Jarry’s most inexhaustible monster.
Jarry was peripatetic, but after arriving in Paris at 17, he kept an apartment with two owls, which he had stuffed after they died. At night he held court at Symbolist salons run by Stephane Mallarmé, Rachilde, and her husband, Alfred Vallette, where Jarry sang songs from his play and staged early versions with marionettes. He adopted his character’s mannerisms, enunciating words one syllable at a time and adopting the royal “we.” On one occasion, he enticed several men to join a black-magic ritual, only to trick them into handling his feces. Even before the play was staged, every artist in Paris knew of young Jarry and Père Ubu.
Jarry’s obsessions were infectious. He met Rousseau in 1894 before visiting Pont-Aven, where he learned to drink from Gauguin, recently returned from Tahiti. Gauguin was on the cusp of fame, but Rousseau remained an outsider. Jarry borrowed Gauguin’s tools to make woodcuts and was perhaps the only critic who took Rousseau seriously when his painting La Guerre was first exhibited in May 1894. The Musée d’Orsay lent the masterpiece to the Morgan’s exhibition, and it was placed alongside the only lithograph Rousseau ever made: an incredible print of La Guerre on orange paper, published as a foldout in Jarry’s first journal, L’Ymagier, which he started that year with Remy de Gourmont. L’Ymagier collected medieval etchings, 20th century prints, and contemporary woodcuts by artists like Rousseau and Gauguin, illuminated by commentary. His other books and magazines from this time, including an early play, César-Antéchrist, also weaved media that were popular at different times, and Jarry played with typography the same way. L’Ymagier ran for only five issues, but Jarry developed these techniques in subsequent magazines and books. When Ubu Roi was banned after its second night, Jarry and Bonnard, inspired by popular almanacs, published a book of Ubu drawings and wisdom and created a set of marionettes to continue performing the play.
Still, Jarry’s influence skipped a generation. He had a habit of isolating friends, aided by his fondness for pranks and penchant for booze. Ubu Roi nearly bankrupted the Oeuvre, the famed Symbolist theater, and although he wrote often, his books made little money. By 1900, few of Jarry’s colleagues were willing to produce or publish his work, and he spent his final years dodging debts. When he couldn’t afford absinthe, he drank ether instead, and he died from tuberculosis in 1907, leaving behind a trilogy of plays featuring Ubu and his family, a collection of writings on theater, and several fantastical novels. The most influential, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, was published in 1911 and reads like both a heroic epic and a scientific treatise, giving it the quality of a fable. It was mostly ignored outside of a few circles. The Surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Jarry’s drinking companion and one true disciple, wrote that it was the most significant book published that year; as it happens, Apollinaire also published his own first book of poetry, illustrated by woodcuts of medieval beasts. Picasso, a friend of Apollinaire, was enamored of Jarry’s public character; Picasso memorized passages of Ubu Roi, claimed his pet owls descended from Jarry’s, and purchased the writer’s papers and Bulldog revolver after his death.
Faustroll announces the imaginary science Jarry named pataphysics, an influential French cultural export, despite the fact that it eludes definition. In Faustroll, Jarry offers a series of vague principles: Pataphysics is the investigation of exceptions to the rule. It deals in specifics rather than the general. It is as far beyond metaphysics as metaphysics is beyond physics. Alastair Brotchie writes in his riveting biography, Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life, that with pataphysics, Jarry suggests “theories should be valued for their originality, independently of meaning or efficacy.” Apollinaire brought pataphysics to Dada in the 1920s (Tristan Tzara owned a rare edition of Faustroll) and then to Surrealism, in which artists were inspired by Jarry’s exploration of paradox. Rachilde, the author of Monsieur Vénus and once Jarry’s close friend, called him “the precursor of all the buffoons of the present-day world of letters.” Several such buffoons, including Miró and Max Ernst, were early members of the Collège de ’Pataphysique, founded in 1948, which introduced Jarry to artists and writers like Marcel Duchamp, Georges Perec, Umberto Eco, and Italo Calvino. Jarry’s ideas inspired poststructuralist philosophers, especially Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard. Gilles Deleuze wrote that pataphysics “opened the way to phenomenology” and that Jarry was “an unrecognized precursor to Heidegger.”
Pataphysics grew out of Jarry’s studies under Henri Bergson—a philosopher of perception and time—and reading of Friedrich Nietzsche. Though Faustroll described Jarry’s “science of imaginary solutions,” he considered Ubu the first pataphysician. Like a freakish trickster figure, Ubu is a bumbling superman who ruled by his id and overturned everything stable. Despite Jarry’s intention to give the world a poetic science, pataphysics was, by design, completely untethered. And with Jarry’s death, Père Ubu took on a life of his own.
One of the most unsettling things about reading Ubu Roi today is just how unremarkable its shocking moments are. The most controversial part in 1896 was the word merdre. But other aspects of the play take on new resonance. Ubu plots with his wife, farts, and exacts taxes on “phynance” (Ubu-speak for bourgeois income). A favorable reviewer in the Mercure de France wrote, “A cruel glutton, a mastodon of selfishness and vanity, a self-important swine inflated with stupidity and stuffed with presumption, this epic marionette…symbolizes the apotheosis of the belly and the triumph of the snout in human history.” Jarry didn’t invent the petty tyrant, but Ubu is a clear archetype of the rogue and despicable leader. Ubu was an everyman, but his crude specter’s presence can be recognized in so many public figures today—Trump, Boris Johnson, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro—which suggests the acuity of Jarry’s invention. Jarry made his art out of monsters, and part of his significance lies in how clearly he understood the timelessness of their motives, tics, and impulses. Jarry, who reveled in irony, may have been delighted to see Ubu surpassed by real-life conditions, and the thread between Ubu’s world and ours is present, if occluded. However, the Morgan show does not fully unpack his influence. Examining how Jarry influenced both art and life requires tracing where the less savory bits led, even (or especially) if not under an Ubuesque banner of liberal satire.
Part of what “The Carnival of Being” does—and it feels as though by accident—is reveal how, over time, pataphysics has become an excuse rather than a principle. The exhibition is lucid in showing how Jarry synthesized Symbolism, naive painting, and lowbrow art; how along with Gauguin, Bonnard, and Félix Vallotton, Jarry revolutionized woodcuts; how he threw open the door for European modernism; and even how, after Jarry’s death, Ubu took on an artistic life of his own. But after taking us near to the wild heart of Jarry’s genius, it becomes clear just how much his influence in art today lingers as a feeble spirit.
The exhibition ends with a small but scattershot array of visual artists who depicted Ubu or called themselves pataphysicians. Some of these are marvelous and significant: A book of drawings and essays on theater by Antonin Artaud shows how closely he studied Jarry. William Kentridge used Ubu’s bodily horrors as a nightmarish allegory to pillory apartheid. But there’s a reason David Hockney, the inimitable master of style, was reluctant to design a 1966 revival of Ubu Roi at London’s Royal Court Theatre: He couldn’t make it work. His painting of Ubu and his family is childish and crude but has none of their energy.
A full reading of the writer’s impact is lost in the mythology of Jarry the prankster and pataphysician. With “The Futurist Manifesto,” Jarry’s friend F.T. Marinetti was inspired by Jarry’s contempt for the public to rouse fascist riots in Italy, and Peter Handke’s most famous play involves actors insulting the audience. Are these not equally indebted to Jarry and Ubu? Jarry was vibrant but anguished, an enfant terrible and an alcoholic who shot at pedestrians with a pistol. The Morgan’s only mention of his elaborate misogyny is a brief label noting an automatic machine he designed to beat women. It’s an awful idea but hardly an original one and surely not independent of meaning or efficacy. Parsing Jarry’s politics from his play may miss the point of his literature, which was to collapse the distances between art and life, performance and impropriety, tragedy and absurdity. But annihilating distance doesn’t negate one pole or the other; it fuses them.