Anti-Classicism: Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi
“Everyman is capable of showing his contempt for the cruelty and stupidity of the universe by making his own life a poem of incoherence and absurdity.”
Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi was first performed in Paris in 1896. Notoriously a riot broke out and the play was shut down, only to be later revived in a puppet theater. The play certainly set out to shock and is a dramatic break from the French tradition of “well-made plays” and classical tragedy. The play sets out to mock, in the most offensive way imaginable at the time, the greed and corruption of late nineteenth century French bourgeois culture and even foreshadows the totalitarian abuses of the twentieth.
In crafting Ubu Roi, Jarry borrows extensively from the Shakespeare plays that deal with seizing power and usurping established authority particularly the tragedies Macbeth and Hamlet and the histories Julius Caesar and Richard III. As in Macbeth, Ubu, urged on by his wife, murders his benefactor taking his position to be defeated in turn by his victim’s son. We see the ghosts of ancestral kings as in Hamlet and he queen’s premonitions of the ruler pending death from Julius Caesar. There is the endless treachery of Richard III and even the bear from the Winter’s Tale.
Jarry’s turn toward Shakespeare was not just a fascination with English drama, but a repudiation of French classicism. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan dramas were wild, chaotic and endlessly varied. They included a haphazard mix of verse and prose. Kings and nobles shared the stage with farmers, craftsmen and drunks. Decades of history were condensed into a few short hours of stage time. Introspective monologues alternate with the massive carnage of on stage battle scenes. This is a dramatic change from the well-ordered universe of the French stage. In fact Jarry could be seen as a parody of Racine, the paragon of French drama. Racine’s specialty was the pathos of tragedy. His writing style was rational, ordered, refined and poetic. Unlike the complex and varied Shakespearean dramas Racine followed the classical unities of time place and action. Jarry went in the exact opposite direction with comic absurdity. He was irrational, heterogeneous, chaotic and obscene. He avoided the classical unities and created a play that was, like Shakespeare, varied in time, place and action.
Racine’s classical models are Greek—the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides and the theoretical works of Aristotle. Jarry also had classical models, but not the logical and restrained poetics of classical Athens. His Classical prototypes come from the Romans—the historians of tyranny: Seutonius and Tacitus, and the poets of chaos: Seneca and Lucan. Père Ubu keeps pace with Nero and Caligula with his massacre of three hundred nobles, five hundred magistrates and countless financiers. His logic and ethics come not from Aristotle but from the rhetoric of tyrants, responding to rational argument with aggression and power “ Isn’t it just as good to have wrong on your side as it is to have right?”
Perhaps an even greater contrast with Racine is in the use of language. Racine used the formal and structured alexandrine and restricted vocabulary to create an artificial and mannered style. Jarry on the other hand uses slang, invective and nonsense. Ubu Roi opens with the exclamation “Merdre” a nonsensical invective somewhere between “shit” (merde) and “murder” (meurtre). For Racine and Boileau, clarity of language reflected clarity of thought.
“Before writing, then learn how to think. Expression follows thought, and will be as clear or obscure as the thought was in the first place. What is clearly understood is clearly expressed, and the words to it come easily.”
Boileau’s L’Art poétique
Clear thought and expression were the tools of the modern, rationalist age—a counter to the dogma and superstition of the late medieval world.
“Never offer the spectator anything incredible … the absurdly marvelous has no attractions for me; the mind is not affected by what it does not believe.”
Boileau’s L’Art poétique
But this rational age has produced it’s own kind of stupidity and corruption concealed beneath the veneer of convention and propriety as presented in Scribe’s realistic portrayal of Second Empire society in his “well-made plays.”
“Talking about things that are understandable only weights down the mind and falsifies the memory, but the absurd exercises the mind and makes the memory work.”
Jarry uses absurdity, violence and excess to jar us out of our conventional habits and complacency, to help us break out of habit and laziness and see the world differently. But the extremity of argument seems to go beyond a narrow critique of Second Empire bourgeois society. In Ubu Roi we are faced with examples of totalitarianism and mass murder. The worst sins of the 20th century are catalogued in a single short play a decade before the century even began. “Except, hold it, in 1906 there was no fascism” as Tom at Wurthering Expecations wondered while reading Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless. Isn’t fascism a later development? How could these writers be so aware and descriptive what was to be decades in the future? It turns out that fascism is not a new idea in the 1930’s, but it has roots that run deep in the intellectual milieu of the late nineteenth century. Jarry and Musil were surrounded by the theoretical foundations on which 20th century totalitarianism was built. But that’s a story for another day.
- Rationalism meets Le Romanesque: Racine’s Iphigénie (severalfourmany.wordpress.com)
- Ubu Roi – Theatre Review (cbennettwrite.wordpress.com)
- Deterritorializing Design: Rethinking the Relationship between Theory and Practice (wired.com)