Jarry, Alfred

born Sept. 8, 1873, Laval, France
died Nov. 1, 1907, Paris

French writer.

He went to Paris to live on his inheritance at age 18; after exhausting it, he led a life of calculated buffoonery. His farce Ubu Roi (1896), considered a forerunner of theatre of the absurd and of Surrealism, featured the grotesque Père Ubu, who becomes king of Poland. Jarry followed it with two sequels, one of which was published posthumously. The brilliant imagery and wit of his stories, novels, and poems usually lapse into incoherence and unintelligible symbolism. A heavy drinker, he died at 34.

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▪ French writer

born Sept. 8, 1873, Laval, France
died Nov. 1, 1907, Paris
 French writer mainly known as the creator of the grotesque and wild satirical farce Ubu roi (1896; “King Ubu”), which was a forerunner of the Theatre of the Absurd.

      A brilliant youth who had come to Paris at 18 to live on a small family inheritance, Jarry frequented the literary salons and began to write. His fortune was soon dissipated, and he lapsed into a chaotic and anarchic existence in which he met the demands of day-to-day life with self-conscious buffoonery. He died in a state of utter destitution and alcoholism.

      On Dec. 10, 1896, at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre (Oeuvre, Théâtre de l'), the director Aurélien Lugné-Poë presented Ubu roi, a dramatic sketch that was first conceived by Jarry at the age of 15, with some schoolmates, to caricature a pompous schoolmaster. The play's principal character is Père Ubu, a grotesque and repulsive character who becomes the king of Poland. Ubu symbolizes the crass stupidity and avarice of the bourgeoisie as his lust for power drives him to abuse his authority and commit acts of cruelty in the name of questionable principles. The play's first production caused a scandal, and it closed after two nights. This inauspicious debut was partly a result of the outrage felt by the audience at Ubu's speech, which was purposely deformed and vulgar, riddled with malapropisms and derisive absurdities. Jarry's sequels to Ubu roi included Ubu enchaîné (1900; Ubu Enchained), Ubu sur la butte (1901; “Ubu on the Mound”) and Ubu cocu (published posthumously in 1944; “Ubu Cuckolded”). The first three plays were performed by Jean Vilar at the Théâtre National Populaire in 1958. Jean-Louis Barrault directed a composite production drawn from his works, Jarry sur la butte (“Jarry on the Mound”), in 1970.

      Jarry also published stories, novels, and poems, but the brilliant imagery and wit of these works usually lapse into incoherence and a meaningless and often scatological symbolism. Jarry invented a logic of the absurd that he christened “pataphysique”; he presented this eccentric metaphysical scheme in Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien (published 1911; “Deeds and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician”).

Additional Reading
Keith Beaumont, Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study (1984); Linda Klieger Stillman, Alfred Jarry (1983); Maurice Marc LaBelle, Alfred Jarry: Nihilism and the Theater of the Absurd (1980).

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