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Alfred Jarry was a French playwright, poet, novelist, and journalist whose work prefigured Dadaism and the Theatre of the Absurd. His best known work, the five-act play Ubu Roi (1896), was scandalous, surreal, and full of despicable characters. After the play's debut, he began to take on the persona of Ubu, becoming increasingly bizarre and developing an absurd philosophy he dubbed 'pataphysics. Despite his difficult public behavior, Jarry gained a cult following among younger artists of his day, becoming a hero to such people as Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso.
Born on 8 September 1873, Jarry began developing the character of Ubu as a young student in Brittany. He and his friends routinely joked about a teacher of theirs, Hébert, who evolved in their imagination into the truly grotesque figure of Père Heb, the original of Ubu. The group wrote a marionette play starring the figure, called Le Polonais, which Jarry would later rework into Ubu Roi.
Jarry moved to Paris at the age of 17, after passing his baccalaureate, in order to prepare for higher education. Though he was not accepted, the city offered him the opportunity to begin a writing career, and he published his first book, a volume of poetry, in 1893. His parents died the same year, and Jarry, who had recently discovered absinthe, quickly ran through his inheritance.
He was drafted into the army the following year, though he did not last long. There were no uniforms small enough for him, and he looked so odd wearing the ones they gave him that his fellow soldiers dissolved into hilarity at the sight. He was regularly excused from drills and finally discharged for medical reasons.
Back in Paris, he continued to write, collaborating with Symbolist writer Remy de Gourmont on a journal of art criticism entitled L'Ymagier. He also wrote novels and plays independently, culminating in Ubu Roi in 1896. The play, with a profanity as its opening line and no attempt to convey any type of clear meaning or to follow theatrical conventions, closed after opening night. Nonetheless, it cemented his fame, particularly among the young Parisian avant-garde.
He was vehemently eccentric, riding a bicycle and carrying loaded pistols everywhere, perpetually intoxicated and dressed in black biking gear. He lived in an apartment that had been divided in half horizontally, forcing everyone besides him to stoop. He ate his meals backward, dessert first, and adopted the nasal, monotone speaking style he invented for Ubu, enunciating every syllable equally and referring to himself in the royal "we." He also used laboriously roundabout phrases, such as "that which rolls" for his bicycle.
He also developed and lived by the absurd pseudo-philosophy of 'pataphysics, which is no more sensical than his plays. 'Pataphysics was delineated in the posthumously published Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician.
With his habitual alcohol and ether abuse, Jarry was not long for this world. He fell ill from tuberculosis in 1907 and had himself photographed as a corpse for postcards to send his friends. He died on 1 November that year, at the age of 34.
After his death, Ubu Roi was restaged and grew in popularity, and his two other Ubu plays, Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu Enchained, were published. He was immensely influential on later artists of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso idolized him and often carried his pistol. He also owned many of Jarry's manuscripts and a drawing of the author.
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