profile of Alfred Jarry ("Pere Ubu")
(from The Third Rose: a biography of Gertrude Stein by J. Malcolm Brinnin, 1959)

The dour darling of the early days . . . was the perverse, brilliant Alfred Jarry. At the Theatre de l'Oeuvre on December 10, 1896, Jarry's fiercely irreverent dramatic farce, Ubu Roi, had jolted Paris and, incidentally, evoked from the visiting young Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, the cry, "After us the Savage God!" Jarry's play, written when its author was fifteen years old, was a kind of literary monument to the sovereignty of ignorance and avarice, and struck its first audience with the force of a manifesto. Responding as if they had at last found a leader, if not a savior, young rebel artists made its author a living symbol. No one had so sharply dramatized their revolt against the pieties of the academies and the constraints of the petit bourgeois backgrounds from which most of them had only recently fled. The subject of Ubu Roi, who represents in literature a successor to Flaubert's Yuk, God of the Grotesque, is a king of license, lewdness and every other manifestation of foul human instinct. He represents, at the same time, a judgment upon the pretensions of society and a humiliating acknowledgment of the forces by which they are maintained. Catapulted into celebrity, twenty-three-year-old Jarry had soon himself been nicknamed "Pere Ubu." In the justice of an irony he may have been the first to perceive, he soon began to develop characteristics of his monstrous creation. Constantly propped up and imaginatively inflated by absinthe, his herbe sainte, Jarry maintained a cynical sovereignty over rebel art circles. He carried a pistol with him as he went about Paris and brandished it on any occasion that might serve to reinforce his reputation as a menace. But his real power over his friends was not a matter of firearms. Erudite and keen-witted, brutally insolent, he could hold any gathering for hours with talk that was at once learned and obscene. "Talking about things that are understandable," he said, "only weighs down the mind and falsifies the memory, but the absurd exercises the mind and makes the memory work."

Living in a kind of proud, dedicated poverty, he was guided socially by nothing but whim. Once he turned up at the theater dressed in a dirty white linen suit and a shirt he had made himself out of paper; on the shirt, in India ink, was painted a cravat. In Paris for a time he lived in an apartment which an ingenious landlord, apparently with midget tenants in mind, had divided horizontally in two. The whitewash on the ceiling was continually rubbing off on Jarry's hair as he moved about, but with two owls and a cat for companions, he was not otherwise discomfited. His famous pistol was merely an appurtenance of his cultivated disgust; he used it for taking pot shots at any object within range that piqued him. Once, when he was amusing himself shooting apples from the branch, his gun play came dangerously near to some children playing in the orchard. When the children's attractive mother upbraided him, he is reported to have said, "Do not worry, madame, I will replace them for you." On another occasion, it is told, he reached for his gun and quickly silenced some obstreperous nightingales.

Jarry's poetry, showing signs of fragmentary influences from Mallarme, combined strains of wild fantasy with perverse eroticism and the humeur noire of anarchy. Reality and unreality were mixed to his order. His favorite comment on any noteworthy occasion was "It was as beautiful as literature, wasn't it?" But this was familiar play in the era of les enfants terribles. Jarry's special distinction was his role as one among the rebels who had already achieved universal notoriety. Even comparatively sanctified precincts of literary Paris had to admit him or, at least, openly recognize the power of his presence. But by the time Picasso had met Apollinaire in 1905, Jarry's personal participation in the Rue Ravignan circle was over with. He was the hero of the Bohemians, and his Ubu Roi was still the most celebrated literary scandal in memory, but he had himself retreated to Corbeil. There he lived like a hermit in a converted stable, continually absorbed in hallucination. He died in 1907, at the age of thirty-four. "Jarry's life seems to have been directed by a philosophical concept," wrote the critic Gabriel Brunet. "He offered himself as a victim to the derision and to the absurdity of the world. His life is a sort of humorous and ironic epic which is carried to the point of the voluntary, farcical and thorough destruction of the self. Jarry's teaching could be summarized thus: every man 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."

When the clown-king of the Bohemians was dead, his scepter passed logically to his friend Guillaume Apollinaire. Through him the chimerical presence of the absurd and the anarchic was maintained in the creative life of another generation.