Written in 1996 by Gene Van Dyke
One hundred years ago this past December, the theatre world met Alfred Jarry’s “Père Ubu” for the first time. For the premier of Ubu Roi at Lugné-Poe’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, a crowd of intellectuals and invited friends had gathered at the Théâtre Nouveau in the Rue Blanche expecting something new and exciting. The theatre had been at the forefront of theatrical experimentation since its first production of Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande in 1893. Little did anyone realize the extent to which Lugné’s motto “the word creates the décor” would be exploited. What followed was an artistic melee that the Parisian stage (and the world stage) never fully recovered from. Shortly after, Lugné-Poe all but abandoned his spirit of experimentation. Ubu Roi itself was not produced again until 1908, the year after Jarry’s death.
However important the premier of Ubu Roi was, the play’s beginnings might seem a little less than “literary”. The character of Ubu has its origin in a simple schoolboy satire. In October 1888, a 15-year-old Alfred Jarry enrolled at the Lycée de Rennes. While there, he was befriended by Henri Morin, a fellow classmate. Their favorite pastime was inventing stories about a professor named Félix Hébert.
“Hébert had the misfortune to teach physics at the lycée” (Lennon, 25). He was “an enormously fat, ridiculous and ineffectual figure” (Beaumont, 14). Even before Jarry entered the lycée, Hébert “was already the hero-villain of a vast and diffuse body of schoolboy legend, epic and farce” (Beaumont, 14). Morin and his brother Charles had written a play about Père Heb “about a year before Jarry had come to Rennes” (Lennon, 25). That play was The Poles (Les Polonais).
Other similar works by the Morins “were widely read and performed” (Schumacher, 20). Still, it was The Poles that Jarry seized upon and made his own. (The question of Jarry’s authorship would later be attacked in Charles Chasse’s Sous le masque d’Alfred Jarry: les sources d’Ubu-Roi.) The Poles contains the same basic plot as Ubu Roi. In it, “Père Heb, King of Poland” is goaded into taking over the world by his wife. It was “your basic schoolboy satire” hardly an original piece of writing” (Lennon, 26).
In Jarry’s hands, “the play became decidedly more bizarre” (Lennon, 26). He expanded the work and more clearly defined the nature of Heb’s character, adding such things as the concentric circles on his belly that represented “simultaneous states of emptiness and greed” (Lennon, 26). What was evolving was a character that embodied everything that Jarry was growing to hate—the world’s first truly unredeemable character. Jarry would continue to modify the play, eventually renaming the character Ubu. Still, the extent to which Jarry ultimately elaborated on the original “will doubtless never be known” (Beaumont, 17). Regardless, “the world premier of The Poles took place in December 1888, in the Morins’ attic, “using a set of marionettes that Jarry had gotten for Christmas” (Lennon, 26). During the period between the Morins’ attic and the Parisian stage, Ubu continued to fester within Jarry’s mind. Ubu began to appear in printed variations. The first of these was Guignol (1893), and the second was Caesar Antichrist (1894). The actual text of Ubu Roi was printed twice in 1896 before the December premier (Schumacher, 24).
But Jarry would not rest until the play had been realized on the stage.
Alfred Jarry was becoming an established figure in Parisian literary circles. His reputation let him to a meeting with Lugné-Poe. Jarry had been admiring his work with the symbolists for about five years (Schumacher, 24). When he was asked to become Lugné’s secretary in the summer of 1895, Jarry leapt at the chance. Lugné-Poe was going to beUbu’s ticket to the stage. At first, Jarry considered pushing Les Polyèdres (the original title for Ubu Cocu), but changed his mind after Ubu Roi had won favorable reviews in the press (Taylor, 12). On the 8th of January, Jarry wrote to Lugné-Poe, outlining the reasons that Ubu Roi should be produced (Schumacher, 24). In it, he mentioned how cheap a production would be and pointed out that the play was “full of commercial potential” (Lennon, 47).
Jarry’s only close female friend, Rachilde Vallette, was also a friend of Lugné-Poe’s and she asked him not only to stage the play, but to give Jarry “a free hand” in its production (Lennon, 47). The ever-skeptical Lugné was finally won over by the pricetag. He would later find himself with only 1,300 francs drawn in at the box-office—hardly enough to cover the expense (Beaumont, 95). The stage was set. Jarry consumed himself with preparations for the show. “The final production of Ubu Roi, was thus far more the work of Jarry himself than anyone else” (Beaumont, 97).
Jarry made himself a general annoyance to Lugné-Poe. He would note in his memoirs that Jarry was “as stubborn as a Breton mule” (Beaumont, 94). Jarry insisted on certain conventions of speech, action, and setting. The staccato manner of speaking, the misplaced accents, the puppet-like movement, the use of masks, the use of placards, the hodge-podge style of scenic painting—all of these were Jarry’s ideas (Beaumont, 97-99). In fact, a lot of the construction was done by Jarry himself. It seemed as if Jarry could not separate himself from Ubu. And the show went on, despite its author.
The story of Ubu Roi’s premier has been told again and again, but a lot of the facts have been convoluted by time, sloppy academics, and the fallacy of the human memory. We are left with two questions. What exactly did happen in December of 1896? When did it actually happen? The second of these questions may seem easily solved by opening any book on the subject. In fact, I did not even expect the matter to be worthy of discussing beyond quoting a date. What I found, however, was enough variation to merit a closer look.
All of the sources I looked at included two things. First, there are the accounts of a strange curtain speech by Jarry. Second, there are the accounts of the “riot” that occurred during the actual performance. It is a fact of history that both of these events did occur. What has been confused is the actual order in which these events took place. Before I reconstruct what happened, I must first establish an accurate chronology.
Most sources give December 10, 1896 as the date of Ubu Roi’s premier. This is in fact an accurate date, but as Kieth Beaumont points up in his very thorough work Alfred Jarry: “a distinction . . . needs to be made between the dress rehearsal of 9 December and the première of 10 December—a distinction frequently blurred in the memories of those participants who later recalled the scene (including Lugné-Poe), and perpetuated by many writers on the subject since”(100-101). More often than not, the entire series of occurrences is squeezed into one evening and dated the 10th. There were actually two “riots”. The smaller one happened at the Général on the 9th and was preceded by Jarry’s infamous curtain speech. The larger one happened the following evening, but was not preceded by a speech from Jarry. These were the only two performances.
Among the sources I have examined, Beaumont appears to be the only one who has accurately sorted through this mess. In Linda Klieger Stillman’s Alfred Jarry, she fuses both evenings and dates them the 10th (56-57). In Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Appollinaire, Claude Schumacher gets both dates correct, yet claims that the 10th was “calmer” (25). In a work that both excels and suffers from hero worship, Nigey Lennon again fuses the events, but goes one step further by giving the opening date as the 11th (48). This is easily refuted by the fact that the first printed responses are dated the 11th (Beaumont, 101-103). Also, many translations of Ubu Roi also contain these errors in there introduction. One 1953 edition, translated as King Turd by Beverly Kieth and G. Legman, reprints Jarry’s entire curtain speech under the date “10 December 1896” (11).
All of the preceding may seem to be a small matter to some. After all, we are only talking about the difference of a day and perhaps whether or not the audience heard Jarry speak or not. The problem is that historical misinformation breeds (as it obviously has in this case). (I remember being taught in undergraduate that everything had happened on the 10th.) Perhaps Alfred Jarry himself would be more easily satisfied, citing that in a pataphysical sense, all of the sources are accurate.
On the evening of the 9th, friends, intellectuals, and fellow supporters gathered to see what sort of monstrosity Jarry had created. Many of them had already read the play, so the myth of the first riot seems impossible (Beaumont, 100). What was a little unnerving though was Jarry’s curtain speech. Rachilde had tried to talk him out of this, but he insisted following the fashion of the day (Beaumont, 99). In front of the curtain a table was placed. Jarry appeared and walked over to it like an android. He was dressed in a “baggy black suit” and his hair was “plastered down like Bonaparte” (Lennon, 48). Beaumont describes him as looking like a “circus clown in a white shirt with a huge starched front and an enormous bow-tie” and his face white from fear. The speech was “delivered in the clipped tones of Ubu” (99). Jarry thanked many of the critics in the audience and followed with what I believe to be quintessential pataphysics:
“The Sedenborgian philosopher, Mésès, has excellently compared rudimentary creations with the most perfect, and embryonic beings with the most complete, in that the former lack all irregularities, protuberances, and qualities, which leaves them in more or less spherical form, like the ovum and M. Ubu, while the latter have added so many personal details that they remain equally spherical, following the axiom that the most polished object is that which presents the greatest number of sharp corners. That is why you are free to see in M. Ubu however many allusions you care to, or else a simple puppet—a schoolboy’s caricature of one of his professors who personified for him all the ugliness in the world” (Jarry, 11).
He then made a number of apologies as to the final state of the production. He claimed there was not enough time for rehearsal, and that this had resulted in certain cuts to the script—including “several passages indispensable to the meaning and equilibrium of the play” (Jarry, 12). He also admitted that “he and his celebrated scene painters (which included Toulouse-Lautrec, Sérusier, and Bonnard) had been ‘up all night’ painting last minute props” and that the grand orchestra had to be reduced to a piano and a drum (Lennon, 48-49). He ended by saying, “as to the action that is about to begin, it takes place in Poland—that is to say, nowhere” (Jarry, 13). He bowed awkwardly and left.
In front of a restless audience, Ma and Pa Ubu took to the stage. Playing the title role was the “magnificent actor Fermin Gémier, on loan from the Comédie Francaise” (Lennon, 49). Most accounts claim a riot began as soon as Gémier spoke the first word of the play. This is not true of the général. The performance actually went along without any real interruption until Act III, Scene 5. The scene involved the newly crowned King Ubu visiting his former friend Bordure at the Thorn prison.
“Here in place of the door of the prison cell, an actor stood with one arm outstretched; Gérmier ‘inserted’ a key into his hand, made a clicking noise, and turned the arm as if opening a door” (Beaumont, 100). “At that moment, the audience, doubtless finding that the joke had gone on long enough, began to shout and storm” (Schumacher, 73). Everything halted, until a furious Gérmier hit upon the idea of dancing a jig. “The audience broke into laughter, and the performance was able to continue, although further periodic interruptions occurred until the end” (Beaumont, 100).
Lugné-Poe considered the performance a scandal, while Laurent Tailhad considered it “a milestone in the history of Symbolism” (Beaumont, 99). Beaumont recounts W.B. Yeats’ sad reflection:
“After Stéphane Mallarmé, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.” (99).
The premiere, the following evening, was a different matter indeed. In attendance were “all the leading in the worlds of politics, journalism and letters”. Grémier once again spoke the opening ‘Merdre!’ (‘Shite!’). The audience immediately burst out with a roar. Grémier was “unable to get a word in edgewise for the next fifteen minutes” (Lennon, 49). It was the first time that someone had spoken such a word on the modern stage.
Gémier tried to silence the audience by blowing a tramway horn (Beaumont, 100). Many people left the theatre. A fight broke out in the orchestra pit, while Jarry’s supporters yelled, “You wouldn’t have understood Shakespeare or Wagner either!” (Lennon, 48). Others shouted, “Can’t you see that the author is taking us for a bunch of damned fools?” (Beaumont, 100). When Grémier had finally gotten slight control of the audience, he spoke the second word—another ‘Merdre!’. Needless to say, the audience started to howl once more. They shouted at the stage and at each other. When things quieted down again, the play proceeded as planned. Smaller outbursts continued throughout the performance. In the days that followed, the violent battle for and against Ubu Roi would move on into the Parisian press.
When one considers he climate of the Parisian stage during this period, the tumult becomes more understandable. Beaumont points out two things about the French Theatre. First it was a theatre of entertainment that catered to a bourgeois public. For most audience members, it was anything but a place for experimentation. It was “essentially Parisian”:
“In 1900, here were more theatres in Paris alone—some 50 in all—than in the whole rest of France.”
The dominant model at that time was Eugène Scribe’s well-made play. This left a tradition of technique over content. Certainly a few playwrights attempted their own revolutions—Dumas fils, Augier, Labiche and Feydeau, and one would be ignorant to ignore the work of Antoine’s Théâtre Libre. Still, the common taste still prevailed. Beaumont goes as far as to consider this period “the lowest ebb in its history” when “considered from an artistic point of view.”
Secondly, there was also a growing trend toward realism in the theatre, the paradoxes of which were only beginning to be questioned. Plays were supposed to make the audience ‘believe’ in ways that they had never been asked to before. Obviously, Jarry’s creation stood in direct opposition to all of the above. (86-88) Because of Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry has become the adopted father of a number of departures from the theatrical right. The symbolists claimed him, as would the surrealists. The family tree has been drawn—time and time again—down to the futurist and Dada movements. Antonin Artaud—one of the single greatest influences on the second-wave avant-garde—was a disciple of Jarry’s (naming a theatre in his honor). Martin Esslin linked him to the absurdists. From Breton to Tzara to Beckett—the roads, more often than not, seem to lead back to the head of that madman from Laval.
The staging conventions that were broken with Ubu Roi have helped feed the imaginations of designers and directors alike. Any one element is worthy its own analysis—or even better, its own enjoyment. And if you stripped all of these things away you would be left with the one thing that I believe to be Jarry’s most revolutionary contribution—Ubu himself. In 1896, the stage met with its fist true anti-protagonist. He is everything that is foul in the world, in a pure sense—devoid of any redeeming characteristic or capacity. He is not diluted with Iago’s cunning or Macbeth’s guilt. And somehow he is not unlike us.
Alfred Jarry. Beaumont, Kieth. Bath, Great Britain: Leicester University Press, 1984.
Jarry, Alfred. King Turd. tr. by Beverly Kieth and George Legman. New York: Boar’s Head Books, 1953.
Alfred Jarry: the Man With the Axe. Lennon, Nigey. Los Angeles: Panjandrum Books, 1984.
Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire. Schumacher. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Alfred Jarry. Stillman, Linda Klieger. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Introduction to The Ubu Plays by Alfred Jarry. Taylor, Simon Watson. Great Britain: Eyre Mthuen, 1968.