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.
Ubu Roi is a parody of Macbeth in which a revolutionary (that’s our Ubu!) kills the King of Poland and then does a number of other obscene things; a lot of the action is apparently outright nonsense. Ubu’s first line is “Merdre!”, the French word for shit with an extra r added. It’s hard to translate misspelled expletives; “How is one to duplicate,” asked the translator Simon Watson, “the majestic, tongue-rolling sonority of the word merdre, given only our bleak, unheroic shit to work on?”
A jarring nonsense-cuss was probably enough to get most of an 1896 audience frothing at the mouth; making matters worse, all the actors wore masks, the backdrop was plain, and the props were clearly made of cardboard. It was not long into opening night, then, that the crowd began to bray. The ratio of approving whoops to dismayed boos and hisses has been lost to the ages, but the nays must’ve had it: a riot broke out after the curtain went down.
Numerous witnesses later published accounts of the show. The most notable among them was a confused W. B. Yeats, who apparently liked the show well enough while it was happening but turned against it, beautifully if ponderously, in his autobiography:
The audience shake their fists at one another, and the Rhymer [his partner] whispers to me, “There are often duels after these performances,” and he explains to me what is happening on the stage. The players are supposed to be dolls, toys, marionettes, and now they are all hopping like wooden frogs, and I can see for myself that the chief personage, who is some kind of King, carries for Sceptre a brush of the kind that we use to clean a closet [i.e. a toilet]. Feeling bound to support the most spirited party, we have shouted for the play, but that night at the Hotel Corneille I am very sad, for comedy, objectivity, has displayed its growing power once more. I say, “After Stephane Mallarmé, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after oour own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.”
The poet Catulle Mendès is deeply shaken in his account, too, though not entirely unpleasurably:
A new type has been put before us, created by the extravagant and brutal imagination of a man who is a sort of child. Père Ubu exists … You will not be able to get rid of him; he will haunt you and perpetually force you to remember not only that he passed this way, but that he has arrived and is here …
Only Mallarmé, who’d seen the script, had anything kind to say about it. “With the skill of a sure and sober dramatic sculptor,” he wrote to Jarry, “and with a rare and durable clay upon your fingers, you have set a prodigious figure on his feet, together with his troop.” But even this is not unreserved praise, and he seems to have gotten some variety of the willies: “He enters the repertoire of high taste and haunts me.”
The finest review of all belongs to Arthur Symons, who’s so eloquent in his stuffed-shirtness that he’s worth quoting at length:
The play is the first symbolist farce: it has the crudity of the schoolboy or a savage: what is, after all, most remarkable about it is the insolence with which a young writer mocks at civilization itself, sweeping all art, along with all humanity, into the same inglorious slop-pail … it has been given twice over, before a crowded house, howling but dominated, a house buffeted into sheer bewilderment by the wooden lath of a gross undiscriminating, infantile Philosopher-Pantaloon … Jarry (a small, very young man, with a hard, clever face) seated himself at the table and read his own “conférence” on his own play … Ubu Roi is the gesticulation of a young savage of the woods … In our search for sensation, we have exhausted sensation … a literary Sansculotte has shrieked for hours that unspeakable word of the gutter which was the refrain.
The play was a profound attack on the era’s complacency; it was as startling as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring would be a quarter century later. And Jarry was duly proud of his work: “It is not surprising that the public should have been aghast at the sight of its ignoble other self,” he wrote later, “which it had never before been shown completely … the comedy at the most must be the macabre comedy of an English clown, or of a Dance of Death.”
For more on Jarry, consult Alastair Brotchie’s Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life, or Ian Pindar’s review of same.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.