Many ghosts haunt the stage. Aside from the specters of the greats (Barrymore, Bernhardt, etc.), whole genres wait in the wings for a chance at resurrection: the farce, Grand Guignol, the drawing room mystery, live radio, and many other flamboyant choruses of departed productions.
But in this festive afterlife there’s one form of theater that’s far more ... well, unearthly. Its spirit is chaotic, infinitely changeable - an ethereal muse dressed in cardboard, pelts, or nothing at all, and its Saint is Samuel Beckett (with Godot ever waiting for his return), its king is UBU ROI, and its god is Alfred Jarry.
Not many have heard of the surrealist stage, but it’s safe to say that the French literati remember it well. After all, a massive riot breaking out after the premier or having fist fights erupt in the audience during the performance is not one of those things easily forgotten.
It's also a pretty darned good guarantee that anyone who knew the author of the play in question would have a hard time forgetting him. Jarry, after all, was damned close to being as surreal, as absurd, as his creations.
Born in Laval, Mayenne, France in 1873, Alfred quickly showed a precocious imagination. Terrorizing his teachers with his wit and satire, he immortalized one special professor in a very early draft of his - literally - riotous play UBU ROI at 15. Soon after, Jarry set out for Paris with big ambitions and a small inheritance.
In 19th century Europe, Paris was the place to be - and Jarry soon made his mark crafting various sequels to UBU and penning one of my own particular favorite novels: SUPERMALE, the story of a man who, after being fed a special scientific food, whoops a six man bicycle team and then accomplishes ... well, shall we say some phenomenal erotic acts - until meeting his end in the clutches of an autoerotic mechanism.
Jarry was an accomplished creator in many different forms: prints and lithographs, poetry, novels, and - of course - the theater. While all of his works are extraordinary, it is in front of the floodlights that Jarry truly shines. In fact, his first major production created more than quite a stir - causing, as it did, the Great Parisian Critic Riot (or so I’ve dubbed it).
Paris, 1896: A theater packed with beret-wearing, croissant-eating, cigarette-smoking French intelligencia, journalists, and politicos all prepared for an evening’s entertainment - and what do they get? First, Jarry himself, dressed in his inimitable style: walking, moving like some kind of minuscule windup toy (Jarry is often referred to as a clockwork midget), in a loose-hanging dark suit, brilliantly white shirt, outrageously large bow tie, and with his black hair slicked back so severely as to look manufactured. First apologizing for the rough state of the production, Jarry then went into an over-long definition of his science of pataphysics (that has followers confused even today), concluding with the famous opening, “As to the action that is about to begin, it takes place in Poland - that is to say, nowhere.”
Onto the stage stepped Fermin Gémier (borrowed from another theater company) and uttered with conviction and bravado the opening line of, “MERDRE!”
Now to us jaded Americans, standing on a stage - or even a street corner - and merrily proclaiming “shit!” in as loud a voice as possible isn’t even gauche. For God’s sake, “crap” even shows up on prime-time these days. But this was 1896, this was Paris, this was France, and this was simply - my god - unheard of!
The theater was in turmoil - shouting, panicked exiting (handkerchiefs over mouths, suppressing vomit), a slug fest in the orchestra pit … all delaying for at least half an hour the next line which was ... well ... “MERDRE!” again.
I imagine all this as a kind of Hal Roach production: a quiet theater, all gas lights and finery, the ladies waving their fans, the gentlemen looking cool and earnest ... then the lights drop, the curtains part, and there is Jarry with his robotic mannerisms, his pedantic speech, and then there is the king himself, Ubu in his sackcloth vestments. The audience waits, breath held, for that first line -- and then there it is. And with “Shit!” bellowed from in front of the footlights the crowd bursts into a chaotic fracas.
Ubu, and Jarry, had arrived - and the world, and particularly Paris, would never be the same again.
The riotous first performance of UBU ROI would pretty much have lapsed into average weirdness if not for the personal eccentricities of his creator. Ubu, after all, didn’t do that much except speaking in Jarry’s trademarked monotone, broken sentences, stand there and bellow “Merdre!” Jarry, on the other hand, had idiosyncrasies for a whole parade of surreal characters.
Living in a garret whose ceiling was so low that visitors had to always crouch lest they give themselves lobotomies on the gaslights, Jarry took to writing on the walls - filling every available space with his surreal creations. While drinking was common, Jarry took alcohol from a recreational libation to the height of personal picklement - drinking non-stop from morning till late at night. Booze wasn’t the only thing that Jarry indulged in - a connoisseur of fine dinning; Jarry would either stroll down to the Seine and dangle his rod for his supper or take in one of the many Paris eateries. There, though, he habitually ate his meals backwards - dessert to main course to entree to salad to soup to appetizer to bread.
In the days when dressing was something a gentlemen took pride in, Jarry always wore his signature big suit, huge bow tie, and green umbrella (Ubu Roi’s badge of office) - and he was never without his favorite fashion accessories: antique pistols. Jarry must have been quite the sight, toddling around Paris with his mechanized walk and clipped, artificial voice (and always referring to himself in the third person) - ah, but don’t stand and stare too long: those pistols weren’t just for decoration, and the diminutive Jarry was well known for discharging them at odd moments and at no particular target.
Finally, though., this perfected surreal lifestyle took it’s toll, and on All Saints day, 1907 he passed away from alcoholism and tuberculosis, at only 34. His last words, absurd to the end, were “I want ... I want ... a toothpick!”
The lights are down, the seats vacant. The props put away, the actors asleep in their beds. The theater is quiet - save for the ghosts ... and one particular one, the king of the surreal stage, who stands there each night and proclaims in a loud, spectral, voice: “MERDRE!”