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Alfred Jarry (September 8, 1873 – November 1, 1907)

A precursor of surrealism and credited with having invented the Theater of the Absurd, Alfred-Henry Jarry included homosexual characters and themes in most of his works.

Jarry was born in Laval (Brittany) on September 8, 1873. His mother, an eccentric, headstrong woman who strongly influenced her son, left her husband when Jarry was six, taking her children with her and moving first to Saint-Brieuc (1879) and then to Rennes (1888). Images and material from Jarry's Breton childhood would later appear throughout his work.

He moved to Paris in 1891 to attend Lycée Henri IV and began publishing in 1893, when two of his works were awarded prizes. His success gained him entrance the following year to the group of writers affiliated with the newly founded Mercure de France.

From 1893 to 1895, he enjoyed a brief but intense relationship with his reputed literary collaborator, the future poet Léon-Paul Fargue, a fellow student at Henri IV. Though Jarry jested often about his homosexuality, this is his only known relationship, and it provided the material for his semiautobiographical play, Haldernablou (1894).

Jarry, at twenty-three, reached the height of his literary fame in December 1896, when the premier of Ubu roi (King Ubu) at Lugné-Poe's Théâtre de l'Oeuvre caused a riot with its opening word, merdre (loosely translated as "shee-it"). The play closed after the second performance.

Jarry continued to write over the next eleven years, but he gained little or no recognition. A heavy drinker given to eccentric extremes of behavior, he died on November 1, 1907, at the age of thirty-four.

Credited with having invented the Theater of the Absurd with Ubu Roi and his theories of staging, Jarry was also a novelist, poet, and journalist. His work is characterized by a love of paradox and by bizarre juxtapositions of images, which led the surrealists to claim him as one of their precursors. His quick wit and keen sense of the absurd came together in pataphysics, his science of imaginary solutions.

Sexuality in all its excess and perversity provides the subject matter for much of Jarry's work. But even his most outrageous novels reveal a curiosity marked more by innocence than by prurience.

Although the semiautobiographical Haldernablou (in Les Minutes de sable mémorial [Minutes of Memorial Sand, 1894]) is his only work to deal exclusively with homosexuality, homosexual characters and themes appear in other works, particularly Les Jours et les Nuits (Days and Nights, 1897), L'Amour en visites (Love Goes Visiting, 1898), Messaline (The Garden of Priapus, 1899), and Le Surmâle (The Supermale, 1902).

In 1903, Baron Jacques d'Adelsward-Fersen, a second-rate poet and minor aristocrat, was charged with recruiting lycée students to participate in black masses and orgies "in the greek style." Jarry wrote about the affair in three articles ("L'Ame ouverte à l'art antique" ["Opening the Soul to Ancient Art"], "Littérature," and "Héliogabale à travers les âges" ["Heliogabalus Through the Centuries"], all collected in La Chandelle verte [The Green Candle, 1969]), which, though not directly supportive of the Baron, satirize the bourgeois perception of homosexuality's threat to family values by relocating the threat from the supposed pederast to the legal system itself.

Like Jarry himself, his characters are often marginals, struggling to maintain a sense of their own identity in a world that refuses to understand them. Though these struggles invariably end in destruction, we find in them representations of the homosexual actively attempting to assert and to create himself at a time when homosexuality was becoming increasingly pathologized.

Citation Information
Author: Brown, A. Mitchell
Entry Title: Jarry, Alfred
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2002
Date Last Updated July 24, 2006
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/jarry_a.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date November 1, 2012
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates

Further Readings:

Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life by Alastair Brotchie
Hardcover: 424 pages
Publisher: The MIT Press (September 16, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0262016192
ISBN-13: 978-0262016193
Amazon: Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life

When Alfred Jarry died in 1907 at the age of thirty-four, he was a legendary figure in Paris--but this had more to do with his bohemian lifestyle and scandalous behavior than his literary achievements. A century later, Jarry is firmly established as one of the leading figures of the artistic avant-garde. Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Philip K. Dick, Paul McCartney, DJ Spooky, Peter Greenaway, and J. G. Ballard are among his many admirers. A community of scholars and artists maintain a posthumous dialogue with Jarry's ideas through the Collège de 'Pataphysique in Paris (named after the "science of imaginary solutions" he conceived), while a steady stream of books on twentieth-century drama pay tribute to his absurd and grotesque play, Ubu Roi. Even so, most people today tend to think of Jarry only as the author of that play, and of his life as a string of outlandish "ubuesque" anecdotes, often recounted with wild inaccuracy. In this first full-length critical biography of Jarry in English, Alastair Brotchie reconstructs the life of a man intent on inventing (and destroying) himself, not to mention his world, and the "philosophy" that defined their relation. In short, Brotchie gives us the narrative version of what Jarry himself produced--a pataphysical life. Drawing on a wealth of new material, Brotchie alternates chapters of biographical narrative with chapters that connect themes, obsessions, and undercurrents that relate to the life. The anecdotes remain, and are even augmented: Jarry's assumption of the "ubuesque," his inversions of everyday behavior (such as eating backwards, from cheese to soup), his exploits with gun and bicycle, and his herculean feats of drinking. But Brotchie distinguishes between Jarry's purposely playing the fool and deeper nonconformities that appear essential to his writing and his thought, both of which remain a vital subterranean influence to this day.

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Tags: author: alfred jarry, gay classics, literary heritage
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