Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Pere Ubu and a talentless fool

This piece reassesses Alfred Jarry and Ubu Roi. It begins
On December 10 1896 at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre in Paris, an actor named Firmin Gémier strode down to the front of the stage, looked out over the mincily sophisticated Parisian crowd, and shouted at the top of his voice, "Shit!" (Or "Merde!" to be precise.) Many would have us believe that theatre was never the same again.
He was playing the lead in a new play, Ubu Roi, by a peculiar young malcontent from the west of Normandy, Alfred Jarry.
It goes on to describe how Jarry and a school mate concocted embarrassments and agonies for their physics teacher.
It's a standard schoolboy tactic - take a loathed authority figure, make him behave in the most degrading manner possible, and simultaneously drench him in shame and blood and shit. Ubu is one of the first examples of a student prank being translated into something considered a major work of art.
The description of Jarry's talents goes
He had a remarkable lack of ability as a playwright - no ear for speech, no complex psychology, no sense of texture, no narrative purpose. His ability to spin his one gift, for wilful outrage, into a passable imitation of genius is the reason why he is the patron saint of the talentless. Any of the many 20th-century writers who can't write, but can manufacture studenty confections that other begrudging folk will talk up as art, has Alfred Jarry to thank.
So, how much was Pinter inspired by Jarry?

The piece ends with praise for iconoclasm:
Artistic rebellion at a certain pitch of courage - or produced by folk so steeped in absinthe they don't know what courage is any more - provides its own reward. Simply forcing the door open into the modern, and being the first to walk in new rooms, creates an energy. Ubu is full of that delirious freedom.

The punk desire to howl the house down shouldn't create anything enduring, but it does. Will Never Mind the Bollocks stand up in 500 years' time, if there are enough cockroaches left around to pogo to it on their mini-iPods? For all that it's a pile of naive, posey, opportunistic twaddle, the answer is still undoubtedly yes. And will they enact Ubu with puppets on their blasted waste-grounds? Probably.
Just one real criticism. How can you discuss Ubu Roi and its legacy without mentioning these guys?

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