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Jarry, Alfred (1873-1907)  

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.

A. Mitchell Brown


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Apollinaire, Guillaume. "Feu Alfred Jarry." Oeuvres en prose complètes. vol. II. Pierre Caizergues and Michel Décaudin, eds. Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléïade, 1991.

Arnaud, Noël. Alfred Jarry d'Ubu Roi au docteur Faustroll. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1974.

Beaumont, Keith. Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Rachilde. Alfred Jarry ou le Surmâle des Lettres. Paris: Grasset, 1928.

Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years. The Arts in France, 1885-1918. London: Faber & Faber, Ltd., 1958.

Stillman, Linda Klieger. Alfred Jarry. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.


    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  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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