Paris has long specialised in the succès de scandale, new works which present a way forward in art but leave the audience unsure if it’s ready to follow. The premiere of Victor Hugo’s Romantic drama Hernani in 1830, Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini in 1838, Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps in 1913, Satie’s Parade four years later; they all polarised the public, triggering pandemonium as spectators divided into opposing camps. Differences of opinion were not infrequently settled by duel after the curtain fell.
One work surpassed all, both in the uproar it created and the influence it exerted: Alfred Jarry‘s Ubu Roi, which premiered on this day in 1896 in Paris’s Théâtre de l’Œuvre.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the crude, grotesque, insanely ambitious Père Ubu and his homicidal route to the Polish throne. Jarry’s most famous work was actually scarcely his, having been written in collaboration with classmates while he was still in school, and first acted by marionettes. It started as a ribald fantasy about an unassuming teacher, unremarkable but for his girth. Jarry’s genius, however, was to recognise how apt the coarse violence of a schoolboy’s imagination was to the study of power and its pursuit, and he thus accidentally provided a prototype for the boorish despots of the next century.
Like Parade, which brought together Satie, Cocteau, Picasso, Diaghilev and choreographer Léonide Massine, Ubu gathered some of the most significant talents of the day, including the artists Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Édouard Vuillard, who all worked on the sets. On opening night Jarry himself came out to address the audience, lulling them into submission, even boredom, with a rambling, sometimes absurd monologue, but one which gave no hint as to what was to follow.
Once Jarry cleared the stage, the violent cultural disruptions dotted like bonfires across the landscape of the 20th century — Dadaism, Surrealism, Theatre of Cruelty, Absurdism and Situationism — were lit at the moment when Firmin Gémier, an actor from the venerable Comédie-Française, stepped forward in a grossly distended costume and uttered the first word of the play: merdre. It’s a made up word notoriously impossible to translate into English, but its derivation from merde is clear. It was certainly clear enough to the audience, who erupted on hearing this unprecedented obscenity and carried on for 15 minutes before the performance could continue. Whereupon the word was repeated, and the merde hit the fan once more.
This was nothing like the ritualised outrage which might greet an overly modern production of Tosca at Covent Garden, for example — a chorus of boos in Home Counties accents. Loudly voiced opinions were backed up by physical violence as the audience took sides, the old guard and the avant-garde in very real conflict. Denouncing the play were now-forgotten conservative critics and their followers; Jarry’s corner boasted the likes of English critic Arthur Symons, Irish poet Yeats, and the French writers Stéphane Mallarmé and Rachilde.
The debate would continue in the city’s newspapers in the ensuing weeks, Jarry became a household name, but as a succès de scandale, Ubu Roi was all scandale and no succès. It played once more the following night and was only revived a year after Jarry’s death, eight years in to the 20th century which was its rightful home.