Thursday, June 30, 2011

Slavery is the only true freedom! - Jarry makes an argument, or so I do not argue

What I should do is make an argument about the Ubu plays. I should interpret them. I have read two different versions of the three plays, plus an additional volume of Jarry’s writing, plus a certain amount of background reading on Alfred Jarry and his world. I should be brimming with interpretive fervor.

I don’t know. Let’s see.

At first, before reading Ubu Roi, and maybe even after, I had thought that Jarry was a particularly imaginative and forceful example of the French bourgeoisie shocker. Not that these creatures do not exist, but I should have learned my lesson by now. Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Arthur Rimbaud – like Alfred Jarry, these writers could not have cared less about the so-called bourgeoisie, or they quickly found more interesting things to do with their talents, or both.

I do believe that Jarry was interested in shock, but his target was the avant garde, French Bohemia. He wanted to shake up, or provoke, or perhaps merely amuse, his own world, his own friends, his own audience of painters and poets and theatrical thrill-seekers and weirdos. He succeeded, I think; he stands right at the head of the explosion of conceptual art that was about to wash over Paris and the new century.

Whether his work was really at all a cause of the conceptual revolution, providing useful models or ideas, or merely a colorful early example of the rapidly changing, formally inventive art and anti-art created soon after by Stravinsky, Picasso, Tzara, and so on, who knows. Apollinaire was openly influenced by Jarry, and Duchamp has to have been, right? Otherwise, I have some doubts. I find it helpful to remind myself that the most openly outrageous Ubu play, the one I find the most shocking, at least, the toilet-obsessed Ubu Cuckolded was neither performed nor published until 1944.

The Ubu plays make a complicated and possibly contradictory argument for some sort of radical freedom. Jarry demonstrates his argument less in the content of the play than in its form. Thus, the puns and obscenities and nonsense, but thus, also, the move to a more controlled and coherent work in the third play, Ubu Enchained, the one where Pa Ubu repeatedly refuses freedom and demands slavery and imprisonment. As a result, he inspires the supremely free citizens of France to choose slavery of their own free will:

PISSWEET: Forward, comrades! Hurrah for freedom!... We are free to do what we want, even to obey. We are free to go anywhere we choose, even to prison! Slavery is the only true freedom!

ALL: Hurrah for Pissweet!

PISSWEET: In response to your pleas, I agree to take over command. Forward! Let’s break into the prisons and abolish freedom! (V.1., tr. Taylor)

Ubu Enslaved is full of scenes like this, many of them openly structured like gags. So this is the argument I would make if I had the energy to make an argument, that in the Ubu plays, Jarry was deliberately demonstrating different kinds of radical artistic freedom – freedom to be chaotic, freedom to use form, freedom to offend, freedom to reform. That Pa Ubu is not always working to the same purpose as his author shows how far Jarry was willing to push the idea.


  1. Oh, to be free! Yes, freedom is the only true freedom. Hurrah! And your thematic exploration was on point. I also think that there's a kind of dialectic between plays, where in Rex the overthrow of the king and the creation of a totalitarian regime demonstrate the usurpation of collective public freedom, in the political sphere. Cocu is about invasion of Achras's privacy, a form of deprivation of individual freedom. Enchained as a kind of 'solution' to the injustices introduced in the two plays. Subvert the structures of power. Level everyone off as 'free' slaves. Abolish the construct called freedom in order to breed a species called equality. Nonsensical, but nevertheless insidious and liberating. The wretched means and ends: what you call "radical artistic freedom".

  2. Ubu Cocu was performed in 1944? In France? Before or after the liberation? That might have something to do with questions of freedom (actual freedom to perform the play, for one thing.) You interest me strangely.

  3. The Ubu Plays, Grove Press, 1968, has a 1944 French publication date for Ubu Cocu. Roger Shattuck, in the introduction to Selected Works, Grove Press, 1965, says 1943. Neither mentions anything about performance or the venue of publication. So, Jenny, good questions!

    The manuscript was actually owned by Paul Eluard, how or why I do not know.

    Rise - I think that's it, that Ubu Cocu is some sort of extreme, while Enchained is some sort of solution - a synthesis, even, maybe, although that sounds unlikely, as if Jarry thinks like Hegel.

    What I do not know, or one of many things I do not know is the extent to which the liberty Jarry advocates or undermines is creative or artistic, or really meant for "ordinary" life. Jarry himself tried to merge the two.

  4. Jarry was deliberately demonstrating different kinds of radical artistic freedom – freedom to be chaotic, freedom to use form, freedom to offend, freedom to reform.

    Love it. Yay for the success of Ubu Week!

    You point about Ubu Cocu not being published or performed for so long makes me think of comments from earlier in the week about performing vs. reading plays. It certainly seems as if people were reading these unpublished, unperformed plays and fragments. From the timeline I've got in Tout Ubu, he looks to have been shopping them around, and the whole way the Ubu tradition was built up makes me think that Jarry was sharing these works, or at least their ideas, with his circle. So I think they could probably be pretty influential without ever being performed or published.

  5. That makes sense to me. Apollinaire had certainly read all of it. And as long as Jarry was alive, there was Ubu in the flesh.

  6. "Ubu Cocu" was based on a puppet play called "Onésime," which Jarry wrote and performed while still in school; it actually predates Ubu. Scenes from what later became "Ubu Roi" and "Ubu Cocu" were published in "L'Echo de Paris," "Mercure de France," and in Jarry's first two books, "Les Minutes de Sable Mémorial" and "César-Antechrist," before "Ubu Roi" was performed. So even though "Ubu Cocu" wasn't published until 1944, there were still substantial chunks in print.


  7. Doug, that explains a lot. Shattuck's anthology includes excerpts from Jarry's novels, but not either of those.

    Thanks a lot for reading the Ubu posts!

    1. Two years having past, I have now also read Ubo cuckolded and Ubo unchained. In my post on Ubo Rex I accepted Susan Sontag's classification of Jarry with Kafka and Sade as part of the literature of cruelty . Now I am starting to see a jarry as a camp figure. Maybe social,norms have evolved and made him camp but i do not see an intention to hurt in his works. He is not pure camp as he a self conscious artist.

    2. I think you hit it just right. Whatever the intent, modern audiences are likely to treat these cruel works as camp. And Jarry is far enough along in the tradition that he was perfectly aware of this.

      Jarry turned himself into an Ubu-like figure in real life, yet was not cruel.

  8. Those first two books are wild: Ubu passages are mixed in with over-the-top Symbolist prose poems and Jarry's primitive woodcuts. He doesn't seem like he's trying to shock; more like he's creating an intensely personal version of medieval folklore. Anyway, that's one reading...

    And thanks for writing the Ubu posts!