Sunday, June 19, 2016

Pride Month Profile (and Book of the Day): The joyously unspeakable Ubu Roi

Alfred Jarry only had 34 birthdays. The Paris Review celebrated his short, rumbustious life last year with an appreciation of his monument, a play delicately referred to- to this day- by most people as Ubu Roi.

ubo roi cover.jpg
Above: the cover of the first edition of Ubu Roi

Here’s their lead:

When the French playwright Alfred Jarry—born on this day in 1873—was fifteen, he enjoyed lampooning his physics teacher, a plump, inept man who so amused his students that he became the subject of Jarry’s first attempt at drama, Les Polonais, staged with marionettes when he was still in short pants. Père Heb, as the physics teacher was called in it, had a prominent gut, a retractable ear, and three teeth (stone, iron, and wood). These features by themselves make him a distinctive figure in the history of French drama. But years later, Jarry revived Heb—as all responsible playwrights do with their juvenilia—making him somehow even more ridiculous, even more obese, and putting him at the center of Ubu Roi, a play so contentious that its premiere, in December 1896, was also its closing night. It lives in the annals of drama because it offended almost everyone who saw it. In this, it prefigured modernism, surrealism, Dadaism, and the theater of the absurd.

At 20, Jarry’s parents died. They left him a small inheritance, which he blew through on alcohol and absinthe. Drafted at 21, his appearance in an oversized uniform (he was five feet tall and the Army had none that small) provoked such merriment and indiscipline he was barred from all drills and parades. He was drummed out for medical reasons and made his way to Paris, where he fell in with the bohemian class, who knew an original when they saw one.

king turd.jpg

Jarry became a whirlwind of ink and drink, cranking out articles, novels, and plays. Dusting off his schoolboy play, he recast it as a loose parody of Macbeth in five acts, and called it King Turd. The story of a man who becomes king of Poland on the strength of his limitless vileness, it seemed sure never to see a stage.

This, of course, meant one became available almost immediately. Auralien-Marie Lugne-Poe took on the production at his Theatre de l’Oeuvre. Paul Walsh of Yale’s Drama School explains:

“Something remarkable happened on December 10, 1896. Something that changed theater forever. On that day a diminutive young man of 23 named Alfred Jarry stood before the gathered audience at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in Paris and introduced his new play. The expectant audience was mixed of friends and foes, enthusiastic supporters and suspicious critics. They had come to see a new play by a writer of promise. What they got instead was a riotous parody, a malicious mockery, a scabrous affront, a puerile attack on literature, on drama, on theater and on themselves. As the first word of the play was pronounced from the stage, the theater erupted in pandemonium: a riot perhaps, or perhaps a demonstration that testified to the belligerent daring of Jarry’s Ubu Roi. Friends celebrated, foes fumed, and the bad-boy avant-garde was born. It took nearly fifteen minutes before the play could continue. People stormed the exits, fist fights broke out, and Jarry’s supporters shouted: “You wouldn’t understand Shakespeare either!” (always a useful retort during any kind of brawl).

One can, perhaps, expect such reactions when the first word spoken in a play is a bellowed, “Shit!” In any event, the dress rehearsal riot and the opening night were the only performances in Jarry’s lifetime, and the scandal pretty much ensured the two following Ubu plays, Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu In Chains, waited many years indeed for productions.

Famous overnight, Jarry doubled down on his drinking, and got new digs the likes of which were not to be seen again until the office in Being John Malkovich:

Jarry moved into a flat which the landlord had created through the unusual expedient of subdividing a larger flat by means of a horizontal rather than a vertical partition. The diminutive Jarry could just manage to stand up in the place, but guests had to bend or crouch.

Already a pioneer of surrealism, dadaism, postmodernism, absurdist theater and futurism, Jarry concocted a philosophy all his own, called “pataphysics”, which anticipated Douglas Adams' Maximum Improbability Drive by 75 years, and died of drink, drugs and TB at 34.

The trouble with a succes de scandale- think the premiere of Stravinsky’s Firebird in 1913, or any concert tour of Madonna’s in the last century- is that it’s hard to top, or even fully appreciate after the event. In this edition of all three Ubu plays, translator G. Legman complained that the trouble with most translations was they tried to cram in as much scatology and general vulgarism as possible to try and recreate the sense of shock Jerry caused that December night in 1896. It was hard to do in 1953, and even harder 60 years later, but Ubu is still a play with which to be reckoned, and is performed around the world to this day.

Our first American edition is in good condition. The dust jacket has a few nicks and chips. The jacket seems to have been designed- with a black-blocked yellow title on a yellow background- to stand out on a bookshelf (one bookseller on describes it as “the title unscathed and boldly visible from even a far-away shelf. It'd make a pointed gift, if one were so inclined.”

Let King Turd stand out on yours.

Jarry, Alfred, King Turd (Boar’s Head Press, 1st Am. ed., 1953). Hardcover, octavo, 189 pp., unclipped dust jacket. Jarry (1873-1907) was a prodigy and a parody all at once. At fifteen he wrote and performed the first iteration of King Turd (Ubu Roi, in French- often the preferred title in English, as nobody knows what it means) as a vicious parody of a hated schoolmaster. Henry Bemis Price: $50.


Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at For more information about any listed book, or more photos, please contact Lindsay at Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like. #RareBooks #HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryScatology #AlfredJarry #UbuRoi #KingTurd

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.