Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Book of the Day: Alfred Jarry's play was so scandalous it took 50 years to see an American first edition. You can own it.

Assembled by Dr. Robert J. Stillman and Dr. Linda Klieger Stillman, of Potomac, Maryland, the gift totals some three hundred items, including books, magazines, correspondence, musical scores, and ephemera, encompassing every significant appearance of Jarry in print, as well as modern and contemporary publications that reflect his ongoing legacy.

Jarry was a ground-breaking pioneer of the early modernist movements of the turn of the twentieth century. His unusual works traversed literature, art, theatre, journalism, and book design. He is best known for the play Ubu Roi (1896) and for his invention of the set of ideas he termed “Pataphysics”—loosely defined as “the science of imaginary solutions.” Jarry’s work would influence such art movements as Dada, Surrealism, and Futurism.

Included among the many highlights are first editions of Jarry’s rare books, several of which are inscribed to his contemporaries, such as Minutes de sable mémorial (1894) and César Antechrist (1895); the first publication of Ubu Roi as it appeared in the avant-garde magazine Livre d’Art; the author’s corrected proofs for Ubu enchaîné; and the two editions of the Almanach du Père Ubu, illustrated by Pierre Bonnard. Other noted artists represented in the collection include George Rouault and Joan Miró.

The collection has two important letters from Jarry to his closest friend, Rachilde, one of which is well-known to scholars as “The Testament of Père Ubu,” signed with his character’s name, and previously belonging to Tristan Tzara, founder of the Dada movement.

The Stillman donation also includes extremely rare copies of Jarry’s own artistic magazines L’Ymagier, co-edited by Remy de Gourmont, and Perhinderion. Many other important avant-garde magazines of the day are represented, such as La Revue Blanche, La Plume, Soirées de Paris, and Le festin d’Ésope, edited by Apollinaire. Along with publications from Jarry’s time are hundreds of journals and artists’ books associated with the Collège de ‘Pataphysique and its affiliated societies all over the world, which have furthered Jarry’s eccentric work and ideas.

In addition, the Stillmans have collected visual art contextualizing Jarry and Pataphysics. These pieces include original Jarry woodcuts, a rare photograph of Jarry in his fencing studio plus other original photos, and works by such modern artists as Joan Miró, Thomas Chimes, and William Kentridge. This parallel collection will be loaned to The Morgan Library & Museum for the special exhibition.

Who was Alfred Jarry and why does he count?

Jarry has had an immense influence on western culture despite producing only one play that barely got underway before fights broke out and forced the curtains down:

king turd.jpg

Jarry, Alfred, King Turd (Boar’s Head Press, 1st Am. ed., 1953). Hardcover, octavo, 189 pp., unclipped dust jacket. Brown cloth boards with gilt titling;

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. The dust jacket has a few small 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.” HBB price: $50.

Let King Turd stand out on yours. Jarry seems uniquely suited to the times.

The Paris Review celebrated Jarry’s short, rumbustious life in 2015 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.

Scholar Antonio Beecroft wrote of Jarry,

There are countless anecdotes of Jarry’s eccentricities. He carried a loaded pistol everywhere, and wasn’t shy about firing it in mixed company. He kept live owls as pets. He refused to drink water, claiming that it was a toxic solvent, so he lived on absinthe and ether instead.

But Jarry was also a scholar of the classics and well read in the sciences. He was a dedicated athlete who traversed vast distances on a racing bicycle. He practiced fencing and fished for his own food in the Seine. Jarry was a lifelong friend to a patient few, including the painter Henri Rousseau, whose work he championed. Beneath the legend lies a compelling and complicated personality.

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.

Of the play on author writes,

It is considered a wild, bizarre and comic play, significant for the way it overturns cultural rules, norms, and conventions. For those who were in the audience on that night to witness the response, including William Butler Yeats, it seemed an event of revolutionary importance. It is now seen by some to have opened the door for what became known as modernism in the twentieth century. It is a precursor to Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd. It is the first of three stylised burlesques in which Jarry satirises power, greed, and their evil practices — in particular the propensity of the complacent bourgeoisie to abuse the authority engendered by success.

The title is sometimes translated as King Turd; however, the word "Ubu" is actually merely a nonsense word that evolved from the French pronunciation of the name "Herbert", which was the name of one of Jarry's teachers who was the satirical target and inspirer of the first versions of the play.

Jarry made some suggestions regarding how his play should be performed. He wanted King Ubu to wear a cardboard horse's head in certain scenes, "as in the old English theatre", for he intended to "write a guignol". He thought a "suitably costumed person would enter, as in puppet shows, to put up signs indicating the locations of the various scenes". He also wanted costumes with as little specific local colour reference or historical accuracy as possible.

Ubu Roi was followed by Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded) and Ubu Enchaîné (Ubu in Chains), neither of which was performed during Jarry's 34-year life. One of his later works, a novel/essay on "'pataphysics", is offered as an explanation behind the ideas that underpin Ubu Roi. 'Pataphysics is, as Jarry explains, "the science of the realm beyond metaphysics". 'Pataphysics is a pseudo-science Jarry created to critique members of the academy. It studies the laws that "govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one".

...As the play begins, Ubu leads a revolution, and kills the King of Poland and most of the royal family. The Queen of Poland then dies. The ghost of the dead king calls for revenge, prompting Ubu to begin killing the population and taking their money. Ubu's henchman gets thrown into prison; he then escapes to Russia, where he gets the Tsar to declare war on Ubu. As Ubu heads out to confront the invading Russians, his wife tries to steal money that Ubu has stashed in the palace. She is driven away by Bougrelas, the crown prince, who is leading a revolt of the people against Ubu. She runs away to her husband, Ubu, who has, in the meantime, defeated the Russians, and who has also been attacked by a bear. Ubu's wife pretends to be the angel Gabriel, in order to try to scare Ubu into forgiving her for her attempt to steal from him. They fight, and she is rescued by the entrance of Bougrelas, who is after Ubu. Ubu knocks down the attackers with the body of the dead bear, after which he and his wife flee to France, which ends the play.

The action contains motifs found in the plays of Shakespeare: a king's murder and a scheming wife from Macbeth, the ghost from Hamlet, Fortinbras' revolt from Hamlet, the reneging of Buckingham's reward from Richard III, and the pursuing bear from The Winter's Tale. It also includes other cultural references, for example, to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (Œdipe Roi in French) in the play's title. Ubu Roi is seen to have been preceded in the spirit of outrageousness, and comic grotesquery by the great French Renaissance author François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel novels.

The language of the play is a unique mix of slang from the playground, code-words, puns and near-gutter vocabulary, set to strange speech patterns.

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.

A man and his shoes: Jarry at home.

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. The term was originally coined by Jarry and his schoolmates in Rennes in the late 19th century as somewhat of a joke. He described it enigmatically as “the science of imaginary solutions.”

The Getty collection adds,

The word has been translated into multiple languages, spawning whole fields of inquiry, literary practice, and conceptual art-making worldwide. Describing pataphysics briefly is a challenge, as even acknowledged pataphysicians do not adhere to any unified definition outside of Jarry’s original.

According to Alistair Brotchie, a regent of the Collège, the science “is practiced by all men, without their knowing it” and “is the very substance of the world.” (Brotchie, 1995). In a Collège de ‘Pataphysique circular, pataphysics is described as “the vastest and most profound of Sciences, that which indeed contains all the others within itself whether they want it or not.”

Pataphysics renders all opposites as equal, and through wordplay pushes rational processes to irrational extremes. Pataphysicians have claimed that the science is at work in the unrealized inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. The painter Asger Jorn considered pataphysics “a religion in the making.”

Jarry wrote hard, played hard, 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.

Jarry’s short life cast a long shadow. The Getty Museum has built an amazing collection of the works of Jarry and

a society known as the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, which was founded in Paris in 1948. It included figures “so prominent in their professions as to reveal the omnipresence of ‘Pataphysics in the innermost offices and conference rooms of our civilization,” as Roger Shattuck wrote in his introduction to a 1960 issue of the Evergreen Review devoted to the pataphysical. Man Ray, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Umberto Eco, and yes, the Marx Brothers were all associates of the Collège.

...His influence spirals out from his immediate contemporaries: Pablo Picasso collected Jarry’s manuscripts (and inherited his pistol), and Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, the architect of Futurism, commissioned Jarry to write articles for his pre-Futurist magazine, Poesia.

Marcel Duchamp’s entire oeuvre can be seen as illustrating aspects of the pataphysical. His readymade sculpture Bicycle Wheel (1913) might even be interpreted as a monument to Jarry the obsessive bicycle rider. Jarry’s work was read at one of the first Dada soirées at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, and André Breton, in his Anthologie de l’humour noir of 1940, credited the French writer with erasing the barrier between art and life.

Jarry even reached classic 60’s rock:

In her book Linda McCartney's Sixties: Portrait of an Era, Linda McCartney mentions that Paul had become interested in avant-garde theatre and immersed himself in the writings of Jarry. This is how McCartney discovered the word "'pataphysical", which he used in the lyrics of his song "Maxwell's Silver Hammer".

As for Ubu and his court, they have never gone out of production. Indeed, every generation finds new relevance in the anarchic work:

According to Jane Taylor, "the central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification". Jarry's metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero — fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil — who grew out of schoolboy legends about the imaginary life of a hated teacher who had been at one point a slave on a Turkish galley, at another frozen in ice in Norway and at one more the King of Poland. Ubu Roi follows and explores his political, martial and felonious exploits.

"There is", wrote Taylor, "a particular kind of pleasure for an audience watching these infantile attacks. Part of the satisfaction arises from the fact that in the burlesque mode which Jarry invents, there is no place for consequence. While Ubu may be relentless in his political aspirations, and brutal in his personal relations, he apparently has no measurable effect upon those who inhabit the farcical world which he creates around himself. He thus acts out our most childish rages and desires, in which we seek to gratify ourselves at all cost". The derived adjective "ubuesque" is recurrent in French and francophone political debate.


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