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Puppetry and Pataphysics: Populism and the Ubu Cycle

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 January 2009


Many partisans of Alfred Jarry's work have discovered Ubu roi and the ‘science’ of pataphysics via a study of the Parisian avant-garde, and the play has been discussed for a hundred years in this context. Kimberly Jannarone also assesses Jarry in the context of the world of rural puppetry – for, like many other avant-garde artists at the fin de siècle, Jarry came to Paris from a small town, and brought with him such formative experiences as the makeshift puppet shows he saw as a child. Bringing the rural puppet into focus in a discussion of the Ubu cycle, Kimberly Jannarone exposes Père Ubu's identity as a class hybrid, whose maddening and elusive nature stems from the fusion of popular and elite forms. Further, she reveals that Jarry's use of puppet forms is radically different from that of the Symbolists, who conceived puppets as theoretical figures within a fully formed aesthetic doctrine. By contrast, Jarry used puppets for their very incompleteness – their makeshift nature making them ideal catalysts for the audience's imaginations. She sees Pataphysics as a model of the avant-garde itself: a system that focuses less on products than on effects. Kimberly Jannarone has taught at the University of Washington School of Drama, and is about to take up an appointment as Assistant Professor of Theater Arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She received her MFA and DFA from the Yale School of Drama, where her dissertation examined the historical avant-garde through the works of Jarry and Antonin Artaud.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2001

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Notes and References

1. For the most engaging accounts, see Shattuck's, RogerThe Banquet Years (New York: Vintage, 1955)Google Scholar and Rachilde's, Alfred Jarry, ou le surmâle de lettres (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1928)Google Scholar. Also see Beaumont, Keith, Alfred Jarry: a Critical and Biographical Study (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1984)Google Scholar.

2. It constantly equates the two, as in ‘Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions’, from Jarry, Alfred, Selected Works of Alfred jarry, ed. Shattuck, Roger and Taylor, Simon Watson (New York: Grove Press, 1965), p. 86Google Scholar.

3. Since ‘the truth…exists in several different versions’. See Selected Works, p. 86.

4. The Russian Futurists and the French Nabis leap to mind as other avant-garde artists who mined methods of creative activity that seemed to hearken to a simpler or purer tradition – an impulse that has clear foundations in Romanticism. Both the Romantics and the Nabis will surface again in the course of this examination.

5. And in the rest of Europe: see McCormick, John and Pratasik, Bennie, Popular Puppet Theatre in Europe, 1800–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)Google Scholar for an overview.

6. Guignol is so representative of French puppets that his name now generically signifies puppets and puppetry: ‘un guignol’, ‘en guignol’, etc.

7. Fournel, Paul, Guignol: les Mourget (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1995), p. 27Google Scholar. All following translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

9. For a detailed examination of the singular status of Paris in France at this time, see Charle, Christophe, in Paris fin de siècle: culture et politique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1998)Google Scholar.

10. Delannoy, Léopold, Théâtres de marionnettes du Nord de la Prance, ed. Groshens, Marie-Claude and Soulier, Pierre (Paris: G.-P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1983)Google Scholar.

11. In the early nineteenth century, the majority of travelling marionette shows in France ‘functioned almost entirely within their own region or immediately adjoining ones’. (See McCormick, p. 34)

12. Delannoy, p. 41. ‘Il ne faudrait pas croire que les propriétaries de théâtres de marionnettes, qui existaient dans la seconde moité du XIXe siècle, étaient des spécialistes et qu'ils se contentaient de donner des représentations pour gagner leur vie. Ils faisaient ce métier…en dehors de leurs occupations habituelles’.

13. McCormick, p. 29.

14. Ibid., p. 30.

15. Delannoy, p. 44.

16. McCormick, p. 73.

17. Ibid., p. 75.

18. Fournel, p. 27.

19. McCormick, p. 28.

20. As the documents of Delannoy demonstrate, perhaps unintentionally. The accounts of the conditions of the theatres and the hardships the performers and audience members endured are recounted not with an acute political awareness, but with an attitude of fond reminiscence and an attempt at precision in regard to the facts.

21. Delannoy, p. 72.

22. Delannoy credits these editions with the inspiration for the puppetry repertoire in Lille. ‘Les auteurs classiques de notre pays, ceux de l'étranger traduits en français, étaient à la portée de toutes les bourses modestes, sous forme de petits livres…publiés sous le titre général de ‘Bibliothèque nationale’, vendus à raison de vingt-cinq centimes le volume’ (Delannoy, p. 72).

23. Delannoy, p. 97.

24. Delannoy, p. 71. This resembles the practices of the commedia dell'arte more than any other dramatic form, and shares a few significant factors, including the use of scenarios instead of memorized lines as the basis for any individual performance. The comparison is not purely formal: both, of course, shared economic and social status, and plied their trade more for profit than for pleasure, for an audience of equals.

25. Delannoy, p. 97.

26. Fournel, p. 109.

27. Delannoy, p. 97.

28. Ibid.

29. The term ‘castelet’ is one of several European versions of ‘little castle’, a term for a one-man portable puppet booth. The term orginates in fourteenth-century Flemish puppetry, which hid its manipulators within the scenery itself, which often included a castle. See Jurkowski, Henryk, A History of European Puppetry, two vols. (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1996), Vol. 1, p. 60–1Google Scholar.

30. Delannoy, p. 51.

31. The history of puppet conventions often considers marionettes and puppets together (a marionette as we understand it in English can be included in the general category of ‘puppet’ as a puppet with strings). Throughout this discussion, I use ‘puppet’ as a default referent for hand puppets, marionettes, and rod puppets. See McCormick, p. 127–47, for precise delineations.

32. McCormick, p. 88. The authors also note that the scenes might be painted on cloth from sacks of flour or sugar, if (as was often the case) the puppeteer could not afford to buy new cloth.

33. Delannoy, p. 27.

34. Ibid.

35. See Jurkowski's chapter on Romantic interest in marionettes in History, Vol. I, p. 246–90, and Segel's, Harold B. section on Kleist's essay in Pinocchio's Progeny: Puppets, Marionettes, Automatons, and Robots in Modernist and Avant-Garde Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 1417Google Scholar.

36. Translated by Gollub, Christian-Albrecht in German Romantic Criticism, ed. Willson, A. Leslie (New York: Continuum, 1982), p. 244Google Scholar.

37. Ibid.

38. In a letter of 1893, quoted in Plassard, Dider, L'Acteur en effigie: figures de l'homme artificiel dans le théâtre des avant-gardes historiques (Lausanne: Editions l'Âge d'Homme, 1992), p. 28Google Scholar.

39. These ideas reach a height of radicalism in the later (1911) formulations of Edward Gordon Craig, who objects to human actors on the grounds of their independence: ‘The whole nature of man tends towards freedom; he therefore carries the proof in his own person that as material for the Theatre he is useless.’ See Craig, Edward Gordon, On the Art of the Theatre (London: Heinemann, 1968), p. 56Google Scholar. Of course Craig was English and appeared on the scene later, but he exemplifies the desire to replace the human actor, and his ideas found solid support in Paris. This was also happening in Italy and in Zurich on an even more dehumanized scale, but the experiments of the Italian Futurists and the Dadaists are beyond the scope of this essay.

40. Plassard, p. 28.

41. Quoted in Plassard, p. 35.

42. Ibid.

43. In spite of Lugné-Poe's plan to do so in 1893. In a parallel occurrence to the 1896 Ubu roi performance, Lugné-Poe had agreed to produce Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande with puppets, but in the end he used a live cast. (See Henderson, p. 126.) Another interesting note is that, much later, the author claimed never to have intended his plays to be performed by non-human performers. In a 1931 letter, found in Sibbald, Reginald S., Marionettes in the North of France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1936)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Maeterlinck protests: ‘Comme je n'avais à cette époque [1894] aucun espoir de voir les petites pièces représentées par des acteurs, sur un théâtre normal, je m'étais, un peu ironiquement, résigné à les destiner à un théâtre de marionettes. Mais je n'avais songé à les écrire pour les marionettes. Je me suis reste fort peu occupé de marionettes’ (p. 4). This may well suggest an exaggerated indifference: however, the facts remains that his plays were never performed en guignol and his treatises were always theoretical.

44. See Jurkowski, Vol. II, p. 13–19, and Segel, p. 79–86.

45. Translated in Jurkowski, Vol. II, p. 19.

46. Ibid.

47. From Margueritte, Paul, Le Petit Théâtre, 1888, quoted in Henderson, John A., The First Avant-Garde, 1887–1894 (London: Harrap, 1971), p. 123Google Scholar.

48. A role which Bouchor himself was eloquent in elaborating: ‘Marionettes…are above all lyrical, and the ideal place of their action cannot be other than that of poetry; all the gates of dream open before them; the highest speculations are naturally familiar to them, and these strange figures move comfortably within the systems, beliefs, and symbols of all times and peoples; everything that is distant, fairylike, and mysterious, is particularly suited to them’ (translated in Segel, p. 83).

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. Bensky, Roger-Daniel, Structures textuelles de la marionettede langue française (Paris: Librarie A.-G. Nizet, 1969), p. 44Google Scholar. Bensky, however, emphasizes the transgression of the traditional rules of puppetry.

52. Ibid. Plassard emphasizes the dual nature of the performers of the premiere of Ubu roi (half-human, half-puppets) as essential to this ‘retournement’.

53. As Rachilde refers to Jarry/Ubu (see Rachilde, p. 29).

54. When Guignol went to Paris in 1866, he had a tremendous initial reception, even playing at Les Tuileries, but his theatre lasted only a year:

55. Fournel, p. 50.

56. Jurkowski, Vol. I, p. 382.

57. Bensky, p. 45.

58. Ibid., p. 55.

59. The most concentrated of which are found in Jarry's posthumously published novel. See Jarry, Alfred, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, trans. Taylor, Simon Watson (Boston: Exact Change, 1996)Google Scholar.

60. Jarry, Faustroll, p. 21.

61. Ibid., p. 23. ‘Why should anyone claim that the shape of a watch is round – a manifestly false proposition – since it appears in profile as a narrow rectangular construction, elliptic on three sides; and why the devil should one only have noticed its shape at the moment of looking at the time? – Perhaps under the pretext of utility.’

62. Jarry, Alfred, Oeuvres complètes d'Alfred Jarry, ed. Arrivé, Michel (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), I, p. 342Google Scholar.

63. See Béhar, Henri, Jarry: le monstre et la marionnette (Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1973)Google Scholar, and Jurkowski, Vol. I, p. 15–17, for an overview of the emerging thinkers whom Jarry read.

64. See the extensive notes to Faustroll for Jarry's specific application of these and other scientists and mathematicians.

65. As shown by Jarry's response to a friend who confronted him after a lecture at the Salon d'Automne in 1903. The friend confessed he hadn't understood a word of Jarry's speech. Jarry replied: ‘That was precisely my intention, because recounting comprehensible matters serves only to dull the mind and confuse the memory, whereas the absurd exercises the mind and makes the memory work hard.’ (See Taylor, Simon Watson, ‘The Magnificent Pataphysical Posture’, Times Literary Supplement, 3 10 1968, p. 1133.)Google Scholar This apparently worked; Rachilde writes that Jarry's constant defamiliarizing in speech ‘compliquait la conversation’ (Rachilde, p. 149).

66. Delineated in his letter to Lugné-Poe, Oeuvres complètes, p. 1042–4.

67. Selected Works, 70.

68. Jarry, Oeuvres complètes, p. 400–1.

69. Ibid., p. 1043.

70. Selected Works, p. 71.

71. Jarry had previously suggested heraldic decor in the stage directions to his unproduced drama, Césarantechrist (1895).

72. Selected Works, p. 67.

73. Ibid, p. 71.

74. Ibid.; Tout Ubu, p. 141, emphasis in the original.

75. See the discussion of scenic confusion in the puppet theatres in Lille, above.

76. Symons, Arthur, ‘A Symbolist Farce’, Studies in Seven Arts (London: Constable, 1906), p. 373Google Scholar.

77. Painters of the curtain included Bonnard, Ranson, Sérusier, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, and Jarry himself.

78. Marvin Carlson has described this process of subjective reading as latent in the nature of theatrical performance in his Signs of Life (1990). He describes a ‘psychic polyphony’ created by the complex array of signifiers on stage, which provokes ‘an unique and individual’ reading by the audience member.

79. Selected Works, p. 71.

80. Jarry, Oeuvres complètes, p. 406.

81. Ibid., p. 171.

82. This speech has its precedent in Guignol himself: Fournel describes the speech of the Lyonnais puppets as an accent ‘qui valorise quelque peu les syllables non accentuées’. See Fournel, p. 114, and for many references to Jarry's habit of accenting even the unaccented syllables, especially Rachilde, op. cit., and Gide, André, ‘Le groupement littéraire qu'arbritait le Mercure de France’, Le Mercure de France, 298 (07 1940–December 1946, No. 1000)Google Scholar.

83. Selected Works, p. 68.

84. Jurkowski, Vol. I, p. 48, 110, 140.

85. Jurkowski, Vol. I, p. 113. And McCormick and Pratasik point out that in the nineteenth century ‘few companies were complete without one or two animals’ (McCormick, p. 109).

86. Symons, p. 376–7.

87. Ibid., p. 376.

88. Remarked after watching the premiere of Ubu roi. See Yeats, William Butler, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1926), p. 348–9Google Scholar.

89. Symon's phrase. (See Symons, p. 371.)

90. The Ubu Plays, ed. Taylor, Simon Watson (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 104Google Scholar.

91. In César-antechrist, Père Ubu takes over the role of Anti-Christ in the continual oscillation from God to Anti-Christ, which Jarry portrays as a cycle as natural and eternal as that of day to night.

92. Bensky, p. 45.

93. Jarry, Oeuvres complètes, p. 399.

94. Selected Works, p. 82.

95. Ibid., p. 80.

96. Jarry, Oeuvres complètes, p. 1044.

97. Ibid., p. 412.

98. The Supermale, trans. Gladstone, Ralph and Wright, Barbara (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 10Google Scholar.

99. The epigraph from Kleist; Willson, p. 240.