French writer. As a high school student in Rennes, thanks to fellow student Henri Morin, Alfred Jarry discovered the skits and songs composed over several years by students to make fun of one of the professors, Félix Hébert. One of these, Les Polonais (The Poles), written by Charles and Henri Morin, constitutes the original kernel which would become Ubu roi (King Ubu). Adding his own contributions to the Rennes cycle, Jarry, after having created sets and costumes for performances with actors in the attic of the Morin family home, produced some puppet plays followed by shadow plays with his Théâtre des Phynances, performed at his mother’s home.
Categorized as a Symbolist, Jarry’s first literary efforts were nonetheless strongly influenced by his Rennes experiences, for example, Guignol (1893), Les Minutes de sable mémorial (Minutes of Memorial Sand, 1894) followed by César-Antéchrist (Caesar the Antichrist, 1895). These plays slowly exposed the Parisians to the character that Hébert had inspired, which had already taken the name of Ubu. After offering the director Lugné-Poe Ubu intime ou les Polyèdres (The Intimate Ubu, or the Polyhedra, 1894, an early version of Ubu cocu, Ubu Cuckolded), he then entrusted him with Ubu roi ou les Polonais (King Ubu, or the Poles) which the director produced at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre on December 9th and 10th, 1896.
A “guignolesque comedy” as stated in the programme, Ubu roi affirms in a grotesque manner the principles already stated in his article, De l’inutilité du théâtre au théâtre (About the Uselessness of the Theatre to the Theatre, 1894), employing actors, shadows, masks, and manikins; Rachilde even had the idea of attaching the actors to ropes suspended from the flying bars, since, according to Jarry, “Ubu roi is a play that was never written for puppets, but for actors playing as puppets, which is not the same”.
The Ubu cycle was extended by Ubu cocu (Ubu Cuckolded), published in 1944, and Ubu enchaîné (Ubu in Chains, 1900), until the character ended by invading the personality of its creator.
After the performances of 1896, Jarry marked a clearer break between a theatre for actors and a theatre for puppets. With the musician Claude Terrasse and the painter Pierre Bonnard, he created the Théâtre des Pantins (end of 1897) and produced Paphnutius, adapted from the 10th century German secular canoness, poet and dramatist, Hrotsvitha, Ubu roi, and Vive la France! (Long Live France!) by Franc-Nohain (censored) using rudimentary string puppets. Then, for a glove puppet item for the Quat’zarts Cabaret, he put together a shorter version of Ubu roi, titled Ubu sur la Butte (Ubu on the Mound, 1901).
In 1902, Jarry went to Brussels where he admired the Toone puppets and gave a lecture on the Pantins. In 1903, he presented parts of L’Abbé Prout (Abbot Prout) by Paul Ranson. A form of comedy unique to puppets, and especially their simplicity and their “abstract” play, are the basis for the aesthetic theatre of Alfred Jarry: an aesthetic that was to be continued in the work of Pierre Albert-Birot, Edward Gordon Craig, and a large proportion of the theatre of the 20th century.
- Arnaud, Noël. Alfred Jarry, d’Ubu roi au Docteur Faustroll [Alfred Jarry, from King Ubu to Doctor Faustroll]. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1974, 457 pp.
- Béhar, Henri. Jarry dramaturge [Jarry as Playwright]. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, Librairie A.G. Nizet, 1980, 304 pp.
- Jarry, Alfred. Œuvres complètes [Complete Works]. 3 vols. “La Pléiade” series. Paris: Gallimard, 1972-1988.
- Jarry, Alfred. Ubu intime [The Intimate Ubu]. Romillé: Folle Avoine, 1985. 203 pp.
- L’Étoile-Absinthe [The Star-Absinthe]. Revue de la Société des Amis d’Alfred Jarry [Journal of the Society of Friends of Alfred Jarry].