Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi's opening night -- and Chomsky

            That the "Banquet Years" were to a large extent the outgrowth of the French Anarchists isn't something one is permitted to lose sight of.  Probably, many in those days viewed the changes in art and music as progress.  But from our perspective, the years between 1885 and 1918 were at best a cul de sac to which one can go and appreciate a piece or two by Eric Satie, a few primitive paintings by Henri Rousseau . . . and something Alfred Jarry.  Jarry is the third of four artists Roger Shattuck decided to concentrate upon.
            Jarry was wild enough to satisfy the anarchistic tastes of that period.  Consider his Ubu Roi, the play Shattuck seems to be putting forward as Jarry's magnum opus.  Here is his description of opening night:
            "December 11, 1896, the opening night, is worth describing in detail.  There had been nothing like it since the wild premiere of Victor Hugo's Hernani in 1830 . . . ."
            "Before the curtain went up, a crude table was brought out covered with a piece of old sacking.  Jarry appeared looking dead white, for he had made himself up like a streetwalker to face the footlights.  Nervously sipping from a glass, he spoke in his flattest, most clipped tones, for ten minutes . . . In these earnest nonsense lines Jarry was already insinuating that the play is more than it appears, that the true setting of farce is (like Poland, a country long condemned to the nonexistence of partition) an Eternity of Nowhere, and that contradiction is the mode of its logic.  The speech did not exactly insure a sympathetic reception. . . ."
            "' . . . the scenery was painted to represent, by a child's conventions, indoors and out of doors, and even the torrid, temperate, and arctic zones at once.  Opposite you, at the back of the stage, you saw apple trees in bloom, under a blue sky, and against the sky a small closed window and a fireplace . . . through the very midst of which . . . trooped in and out the clamorous and sanguinary persons of the drama.  On the left was painted a bed, and at the foot of the bed a bare tree and snow falling.  On the right there were palm trees . . . a door opened against the sky, and beside the door a skeleton dangled.  A venerable gentleman in evening dress . . . trotted across the stage on the points of his toes between every scene and hung the new placard on its nail.  (Studies in Seven Arts.)'
            "Gemier, swollen and commanding in his pear shaped costume (but without a mask, despite Jarry's campaign), stepped forward to speak the opening line -- a single word.  He had not known how to interpret the role until Lugne-Poe had suggested he imitate the author's own voice and jerky stylized gestures.  The midget Jarry truly sired the monster Ubu.  In a voice like a hammer, Gemier pronounce an obscenity which Jarry had appropriated to himself by adding one letter.
            "'Merdre,' Gemier said.  'Shite.'
            "It was fifteen minutes before the house could be silenced.  The mot de Cambronne had done its work; the house was pandemonium.  Those who had been lulled by Jarry's opening speech were shocked awake; several people walked out without hearing any more.  The rest separated into two camps of desperately clapping enthusiasts and whistling scoffers.  Fist fights started in the orchestra.  The critics were on the spot, their reactions observed by both sides. . . A few demonstrators simultaneously clapped and whistled in divided sentiments.  Malarme sat quiet, waiting to see more of the 'prodigious personage' to whose author he addressed a letter the following dy.  Jarry's supporters shouted, 'You wouldn't understand Shakespeare either.'  Their opponents replied with variations on the mot of the evening. . . ."
            "Finally, Gemier improvised a jig and sprawled out on the prompter's box.  His diversion restored enough order to allow the action to proceed to the next 'Merdre,' when the audience took over once more.  The interruptions continued for the rest of the evening. . .  Pere Ubu and Mere Ubu use language more scatological than erotic . . .   The curtain rang down that night and the next on the only two performances of Ubu Roi until it was revived by Gemier in 1908.  For the Theatre de l'Oeuvre it was the catastrophe that made it famous.
            "Also present in the house was a young Irishman by the name of William Butler Yeats.  Despite a very limited knowledge of the language, his description of the performance is worth repeating.  'I go to the 1st performance of Jarry's Ubu Roy, at the Theatre de l'Oeuvre, with Rhymer . . .  The audience shake their fists at one another, and Rhymer whispers to me, 'There are often duels after these performances,' and explains to me what is happening on the stage.  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 a sceptre a brush of the kind that we use to clean a closet.  Feeling bound to support the most spirited party, we have shouted for the play, but that night at the Hotel Corneille I am very sad, for comedy, objectivity, has displayed its growing power once more.  I say, After S. Mallarme, after Verlaine, after G. Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after the faint mixed things of Conder, what more is possible?  After us the Savage God.  (Autobiography.)'
            "No event marks more clearly than this the close of one era and the imminence of another.  Yeats did not have to understand French to perceive the significance of Ubu, natural offspring of the turbulence of the nineties."
            COMMENT:   Most of us like a good joke, and perhaps this human characteristic stretches back to our beginning as a species.  But we have become so highly industrialized, sophisticated, and independent, perhaps we don't always realize that what we are watching or listening to ought to be viewed as a joke and not progress.  Some painters tried to imitate the "primitivism" of Henri Rousseau.   Shattuck doesn't imply that many tried to imitate Erik Satie; although, he tells us, he had an influence on many of the composers of his day.   And what of Alfred Jarry's influence?  I am only 211/360 through Shattuck's book and he hasn't said yet, but who can read of Pere Ubu without thinking of James Joyce?
            I wanted to pause here to consider the relation of what Shattuck says about Jarry's direction and Noam Chomsky.  Shattuck says of Jarry, "He left behind every standard, ethic, maxim, golden rule, and secret of success.  In the end his role implies new, almost nonhuman standards, and its most immediate significant aspect is the completeness of the transformation he wrought.   Everything in his universe had to yield to his power to change it.  Nothing escaped . . . ."   Some of what Shattuck says about Jarry must surely apply to Chomsky as well.  He has been fairly successful in his role as an anti-American anarchist; so he has been more successful than Jarry was, but Chomsky too has "left behind every standard, ethic, maxim . . . and Golden Rule."  And if one tries to take something Chomsky has said in attacking America and make it into a Kantian or Benthamite principle, Chomsky's attack can be seen for what it really is, illogical rant.
            Does this mean that Chomsky might be in sympathy with Jarry's desire to create his own universe and subject everything to his power?   Jarry didn't make the kind of money Chomsky does.  He couldn't afford good alcohol; so he resorted to ether which was a very inexpensive way to become intoxicated back then.  He died of influenza, but perhaps he wouldn't have if he hadn't been so weakened by poor eating habits and the ether.  And if he had gone on, as Chomsky has, would he not have been just as illogical, just as insistent on his own special view of the Universe?  He wouldn't have been anti-British back then, but I suspect he might have transformed himself into a pacifist if he had survived World War I.  Jarry attacked the Universe -- at least the part he was interested in -- as he found it.   The war became an easy target for the Anarchists, the intellectual Anarchists who filtered themselves through the Banquet Years, to oppose -- not so much that war that had just ended as any future wars.  We can see that sort of pacifism as illogical, but we have already seen that Anarchy is illogical almost by definition.  The pacifists who arose after World War I were not terribly worried by those who argued that their opposition to Britain's preparing for a new war against Germany, rendered their nation a serious disservice.  Anarchists, and anti-whatever-powers-that-happen-to-be, don't really care whether their nations are destroyed.  Like ee cummings who lived through this period, they can sanguinely let this Western World destroy itself because "Listen: there is a hell of a good universe next door.  Let's go."


Mike Geary said...

So much seems to me to depend on what one means by "anarchism." I can't fathom anyone seriously believing in no law or governance, but I can certainly imagine and support vehement opposition to a society's mores and even rebellion against a State if it uses its power to enforce those mores. I've never believed that any State has control of my conscience, quite the contrary, if it acts in violation of my conscience, I have a "moral" obligation to oppose the State. What that opposition might entail is dependent on many factors. The "absurdity" that Jarry brings to Western Culture was, I believe, a God send. Who can look at the history of humanity and not despair over the ruthless insanity -- but at the same time not marvel at "what a piece of work is a man?" The gap between what we see as potential and how monstrous we still are -- that's the mother of absurdity. Theater of the Absurd is a call to leave the foxholes and find some other employment. Since time immemorial the stupid exigencies of power -- political and religious have all ended in the trenches with human beings stabbing or shooting one another for some goddamn reason or another. THIS IS THE ABSURDITY. The Absurdists were the pragmatists: Get the fuck out of Dodge. Chuck this insanity.

I first read Ubu Roi some 40 years ago. It was one of the best days of my life. I celebrated it! Here's a man (Jarry) not afraid to call all Western Civilization a bloody murderous monstrosity. It has remained so, yes, even became more monstrous as the seekers of intelligent order marched across Europe. But here was one among us who said NO in thunder and I loved everything about it. Chomsky, I don't think is in any way an absurdist. I don't doubt he believes that many absurdities exist in the world of power politics, but I think he's one of the most rational critics of Western power that I've read. If he were an artist, no doubt he would scream absurdist words at the word and probly throw shit. But he's not. He argues very sanely. God love Jarry. God love Chomsky.

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