25 Reasons Alfred Jarry is the Merdre

You may or may not know who Alfred Jarry is.  He’s this dude:

2070_ajJarry was a strange little man who would paint his face like a clown and spoke in a weird, two-note staccato.  He had a penchant for absinthe and bicycling and he was a mystery even to those close to him.

For us theatre folk, he’s known for writing a little play called Ubu Roi (Ubu the King), which is basically like if you put Macbeth and South Park into a meat grinder, mixed it all up, and then just took a big dump on top of the resulting mixture.

Seriously, though.  It’s all about poop.  In 1896.  In Paris.

Jarry's own woodcut of Ubu
Jarry’s own woodcut of Ubu

So for today’s entry, I’m going to look at 25 reasons you should know who Jarry is, and why he’s a certified badass.

1.  Ubu Roi sparked a riot because the first word was “Shit.”

OK, so the first word was “Merdre,” which is basically “Shit” with an extra consonant thrown in there.  But the extra “R” is the most important part.

2.  Also, the riot was fake.

Yeah.  Jarry wanted his little play to cause such a stir that he apparently staged a riot between two groups in the theatre: one was instructed to boo and hiss at certain parts, and cheer for others, while another group was told to do the EXACT FUCKING OPPOSITE.  And then he told the groups to beat the living piss out of each other, which they did.  Because a play isn’t a play if you can actually hear what the actors are saying (which, apparently, you couldn’t).

3.  Jarry was very particular about the staging of Ubu.

The play’s director arrived to the theatre one morning to find a life-size horse and 40 naked mannequins that Jarry wanted to use in the play.  Jarry had assured the director that the vendor would take them back when the play was over, but that was a lie, and the director had to pay for 40 mannequins and a horse THAT WERE NEVER ACTUALLY USED.

4.  Ubu Roi is regarded as a turning point in theatre history.

Ubu‘s premiere has been called lots of things: the birth of the avant-garde, the father of the Theatre of the Absurd, etc.  Whatever you call it, it completely changed Western theatre forever.  Mind you, it’s a play wherein the main character has a toilet brush for a sceptre and wields a “Shit Pump,” which, yes, is exactly what it sounds like.

5.  Jarry changed the face of the theatre when he was 23.

What were you changing at 23?  You probably weren’t even changing your sheets on a regular basis.

But seriously, check out what W. B. Yeats said about the play, even though he didn’t understand a single word of it:

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 [toilet].  Feeling bound to support the most spirited party, we have shouted for the play, but that night at the Hôtel Corneille I am very sad, for comedy, objectivity, has displayed its growing power once more.  I say, “After Stephane Mallarmé, after Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our 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.”

“After us the Savage God”?  Yeats couldn’t even understand the play, but he saw it as basically the End of Days.  Which, for the standard theatre at the time, it pretty much was.

6.  Ubu was based on an old teacher, who was the butt of his and his classmates’ jokes and doodles.

His name was Hébert (which sounds a lot like Ubu in French).  The woodcut above is a pretty accurate representation of Hébert.  Plus, look at what Jarry had to say about Ubu, and by extension, his former teacher:

I intended that when the curtain went up the scene should confront the public like an exaggerating mirror…  in which the depraved saw themselves with dragons’ bodies, or bulls’ horns, or whatever corresponded to their particular vice.

Jarry basically said, “Fuck thumb tacks or spitballs, I’m gonna immortalize this teacher as the personification of evil.”  I guess he didn’t like his teacher.

7.  Jarry was a hipster before there were hipsters.

So, if he was a hipster 100 years before there were  hipsters, that makes all current hipsters invalid, because they’re way too late to the party.  That alone should be a win for Jarry.

But he was a badass hipster.  For real.  His two most prized possessions were his racing bicycle…

Look at this fucking hipster right here.
Look at this fucking hipster right here.

… and his BULLDOG REVOLVER.  Which he used to threaten people at dinner parties.

Say one more bad thing about Bon Iver, motherfucker.  I dare you.
Talk shit about Bon Iver, motherfucker.  I dare you.

8.  And when he would get drunk and brandish his gun, he was still so goddamn charming that people only referred to him as “eccentric.”

No, for real.  Check out this passage from André Gide’s The Counterfeiters, about Jarry:

When you get to know him, I assure you he’s charming, said Olivier.

I’d rather not.  He has a violent look about him.

He puts it on.  Passavant thinks he’s very gentle in reality.  But he’s drunk a huge amount this evening; and not a drop of water, would you believe; nor wine: nothing but absinthe and strong liqueurs.  Passavant is worried that he’ll do something eccentric.

… “Eccentric.”  At which point, Jarry announces that it’s that time in the evening where he’s gonna FUCKING KILL SOMEONE.  And then he shoots a dinner guest.  But his gun is full of blanks.  And he rolls on the floor laughing while the other guy excuses himself, no doubt asking the host for a new set of pants.

9.  His life was basically a Spike Jonze movie.

Jarry was barely over 5 feet tall, and he lived in a little apartment that was only a few feet tall, like the offices in Being John Malkovich.  Even he had to stoop to walk around his own apartment.

Not only that, but the whole theme of puppetry in Being John Malkovich was part of Jarry’s entire artistic vision: Ubu was originally a play for marionettes, and Jarry wanted his actors to be living puppets.

And the Craig puppet looks like Jarry.  Weird.
And the Craig puppet looks like Jarry. Weird.

10.  Every day was Halloween in his apartment.

In addition to the cramped conditions, his apartments had names such as “Calvary of the Massacred Soldier.”  And he decorated them with owls (that some people say were alive, and others say were stuffed), a creepy puppet theatre, and skulls with candles in them.  Like Vincent Goddamn Price or something.
Oh, and apparently, there were blood-red handprints adorning the walls of the stairwell that led to his apartment.

But hopefully this guy wasn't hanging out in the corner of the basement.
But hopefully this guy wasn’t hanging out in the corner of the basement.

11.  He was a great dinner host.

At a dinner party, among the likes of Picasso, Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and a bunch of other artists and writers of some not insignificant importance, the host brought out a beautiful wild duck for dinner.  Jarry said, “I’m an expert at carving these birds,” and offered to do the honors.  He then proceeded to tear the duck apart with both hands, shredding it into pieces.

12.  He was a loving son.

Among the various things he has said about his mother was that she was “a creature of a slightly different sex,” and that he liked her only because “he had to approve [of her] before he had a choice in the matter.”  Someone call Hallmark, we’ve got some new ideas for Mother’s Day cards.

13.  Women wanted him.

One woman in particular was apparently relentless, and didn’t quite get that Jarry was batting for the other team.  He could have just said, “No thank you,” to this nice lady, but Jarry was not one to avoid a chance to make someone the butt of a joke.  So he wrote her into one of his works, where he makes her say:

I’ve changed my dress in front of you five times, and you haven’t looked.  I have dresses split up the side, so that my yellow pants can be seen underneath, and only a single hook needs to be undone for the whole dress to slide off.  And I had them made especially for affaires.

I never wash except with Vaseline.  I buy it on the cheap from a back-street chemist, who also supplies me with anti-herpetic ointment.

That’s how I’ve kept my skin in such good condition.  Oh!  Don’t look at me in the light like that.  Those are only little red spots.

And you thought Groucho had barbs.


Jarry wasn’t a big fan of women in general: he wrote in his notes that he opposed the tradition of having a woman play the young boy in Ubu, a point he emphasized by writing his disgust that women produced milk.  The horror.  And he wasn’t even lactose intolerant.

14.  He knew how to insult like Wilde.

At a dinner party, Jarry offered a toast; the host stopped him, saying that toasting is only ever done in vulgar company.  To which Jarry replied, “That’s why I’m doing it.”

Oscar Wilde was a friend of his as well, and referred to Jarry as one of the most interesting people he knew.  And that’s saying a lot, considering Wilde was the one who, when going through customs, said he had “nothing to declare but my genius.”

15.  He could catch fish where there WERE NO FISH.

He would fish in spots that were known to be devoid of fish, and then return with a whole pile of fish.  Nobody knows how he did it.

Jeremy Wade should be jealous.
Jeremy Wade should be jealous.

16.  Speaking of fish, he also drank like one. 

This was his day:

Jarry began the day by imbibing two litres of white wine; between ten and twelve he would down three absinthes, then at lunch he would moisten his fish or his steak with red or white wine, alternating with more absinthes.  In the afternoon there would be cups of coffee together with liqueurs of various types of alcohol, whose names I forget, then at dinner, after other aperitifs of course, he would take at least two more bottles of any vintage, regardless of the label.

But that didn’t really do it for him:

He drank alone and methodically, without ever managing to get drunk and without any possibility of ever becoming what is fashionably known today as an alcoholic: his doses were so vast that they slipped between his cells like a vanishing river, as it filters through the eternal and indifferent sand: otherwise [he] would have long since been dead.

And you thought Hemingway drank a lot.

Gin?  That's cute.
Gin? That’s cute.

17.  He invented the “Useless Science,” ‘Pataphysics, which you’ve probably never heard of, but it’s everywhere.

According to his novel, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, ‘Pataphysics is:

the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.

Basically, that’s a fancy way of saying it is an imaginary science about imaginary things.  But it’s totally serious.  And it’s also a big joke.

It’s also a big Fuck You to metaphysics:

Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously will describe a universe which can be–and perhaps should be–envisaged in the place of the traditional one.

He then goes on to say that because we’re so used to our universe, it “possess[es] no longer even the virtue of originality.”  Or, in simpler terms, our known universe is way too mainstream.

Look at this fucking pataphysical hipster.

Do you realize what this means?  Fringe was basically a big exploration of ‘Pataphysics.  For real.

Yeah, I don't really understand it either, Olivia.
Yeah, I don’t really understand it either, Olivia.

18.  He outlined ‘Pataphysics so that once you are aware of it, you see it everywhere, but there’s no fucking way to describe it.

Andrew Hugill says

To understand pataphysics is to fail to understand pataphysics.  To define it is merely to indicate a possible meaning, which will always be the opposite of another equally possible meaning, which, when diurnally interpolated with the first meaning, will point toward a third meaning which will in turn elude definition because of the fourth element that is missing.  [Pataphysics: A Useless Guide, 1]

Basically, think of it like this: this computer (or phone) that you’re reading this on is a computer (or phone) because it’s not a lamp.  But it’s also a lamp, just in a way (or universe) that we can’t really see or understand.

So enjoy reading this on your lamp.

19.  A lot of famous people are pataphysicians.

Besides a lot of authors, some of whom even predate Jarry (Lewis Carroll is one), we also have: Eugene Ionesco, Marcel Duchamp, the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, David Lynch, just to name some of the more well-known figures.

Oh, and The Beatles.  Yeah.  Because once you’re aware of ‘Pataphysics, you’re a pataphysician.  And you’ll find it anywhere.  You know that song, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”?  The one about a kid who MURDERS PEOPLE WITH A HAMMER?  Well, his first victim is a pataphysician:

Joan was quizzical, studied pataphysical science in the home.

Late nights all alone with her test tube, oh oh oh.

Good ol’ Max calls her up for a date, and then shows up and murders her.  Like a gentleman.  Never mind that she’s studying a philosophical science with a test tube, but that’s how ‘Pataphysics works, people.

Fuck the rules.

There’s even a College of ‘Pataphysics, with courses such as “Applied Alcoholism,”  “Crocodilology,” and “Applied Mental Alienation and Psychiatry.  Complementary Course in Occultism, Demonology and Astrology.”  And when one Mr. Jean Paulhan published an article saying the founder of the college was a fictitious individual who didn’t really exist, the College had hundreds of cards made up that just read, “JEAN PAULHAN DOES NOT EXIST” and mailed them across the globe.  Basically, the College is like the mafia, but one that takes out existential hits on its enemies.  Which might be worse.

20.  He managed to unite all of Paris through ‘Pataphysics.

Jarry made friends everywhere and with everyone.  Cabarets, Montmartre, symbolists, Rosicrucianists, Satanists, occultists, scientists such as Lord Kelvin, writers such as H. G. Wells and Oscar Wilde, artists such as Picasso, anarchists, romanticists, poets, fishermen, laborers, farmers… you name it, he befriended it.  And he learned each one of their crafts.  And he put that all together to come up with ‘Pataphysics.  The symbol he chose to represent this merger was the spiral.

“So what?” you say.  “I had a spirograph as a kid.  That’s not weird or badass or anything.”

Except when you remember that in addition to the headier meaning of a series of overlapping and endless identities or worlds (the grotesque and the sublime, for instance), the spiral is also found on Ubu’s stomach

The spiral is, above everything else, Ubu’s intestines.  And, also, a big spiraling pile of poop.  Yup.

You want to get a feel for Jarry’s sense of humor?  Check out Tim and Eric‘s “Diarrhea.”

21.  He was Christian, but he had no qualms about making fun of Christianity.

He wrote about “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race.”  Fucking hipster.

22.  Speaking of religion, Jarry was God.

No, hear me out on this one.

After Ubu Roi, Jarry started referring to himself as “Ubu,” signing his letters as the character and dressing up like him and getting drunk and riding around Paris on his bicycle.

Then, take this passage from Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician.  Faustroll declares at one point that he is God.  Then he goes on to say that “The Reverend Father Ubu, of the Society of Jesus, ex-king of Poland, has written a great tome entitled Caesar-Antichrist…”

Caesar-Antichrist is Jarry’s earliest major published work (so Ubu is also Jarry, remember that).  In it, a character muses, “I can see all possible worlds when I look at only one of them.  God—or myself—created all possible worlds, they coexist, but men can hardly glimpse even one.”  This idea is the core tenet of ‘Pataphysics, of being a pataphysician.  So the main character can be looked to as being either Ubu, or Faustroll, Jarry’s two main pataphysicians, who both claim to have discovered the pseudo-science.

So Jarry wrote Caesar-Antichrist, and Faustroll says that Ubu wrote Caesar-Antichrist, which is about either himself or Ubu.  So, Jarry is Ubu, Ubu is Jarry.  And since Faustroll is based, in part, on Jarry’s own experiences in Paris (Joyce’s Ulysses is to Dublin what Jarry’s Faustroll is to Paris), and Faustroll and Ubu are both the creators of ‘Pataphysics, we have: Faustroll = Ubu, Ubu = Jarry, and Faustroll’s earlier declaration that he is God.

And by extention, Jarry = God.

But that’s not all.  Jarry devotes the last chapter of Faustroll to explaining God through math.  By proving “the surface of God,” Faustroll/Jarry/Ubu also destroys the thing so essential to belief in God: faith.  Proof destroys faith, so they basically destroy God.  Which means Jarry destroyed himself.

Did that just happen to you?

… and all Nietzsche said was “God is dead. “

(Side note: Jarry was pissed that he lived to be 34 instead of 33, because he wanted to die at the same age Jesus died.)

23.  Speaking of his death…

He basically drank himself into poverty and disease, and died in a tremendous, stinking pile of his own crap.  Appropriate, perhaps, since being intentionally full of shit was his artistic creed.

His last request was, apocryphally, for a toothpick.

25. He is one of the most significant queer artists in history.

But nobody ever really talks about him as a queer artist because they’re too distracted by the fact that he dressed up like a clown and shot people at parties.


3 thoughts on “25 Reasons Alfred Jarry is the Merdre

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