Literary daybook, Dec. 10

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published December 10, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Dec. 10, 1945, Karl Riemark is released from English POW internment.
-- "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" (1963)
By John le Carré

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1896, Alfred Jarry's "Ubu Roi" opened and closed in Paris. The play caused a near-riot in the audience, and a tempest in the press over the next days; it is now regarded as a landmark moment in the history of modern theater, or the absurdist branch of it. Biographically the play was conventional enough: Pa Ubu was based upon Jarry's high school mathematics teacher, the archetypal classroom tyrant. In Jarry's caricature, Ubu became a grotesquely fat megalomaniac, his symbol for all that was pushy and piggy about the bourgeoisie. The set, costumes and acting style took this further, becoming a slap not just at bourgeois values but at the well-made play. Jarry's characters talked in staccato, as if machines; they moved as marionettes through imaginary scenery, wearing masks and placards. When Ubu came onstage with a large target drawn on his belly, a toilet brush for a scepter and the play's opening line of "Merdre!" ("Shitre," perhaps -- some translate the play's title as King Turd), there was a 15-minute yelling and shoving match between the avant-garde and the rear guard. When things finally calmed down, and Ubu was able to say the second line -- "Merdre!" -- there was another. All this was so offensive that "Ubu Roi" would not be produced again for over a decade, until after Jarry's death. Nonetheless, the one night and attendant scandal left Jarry satisfied that he had given society "the sight of its ignoble double," a portrait of "the eternal imbecility of man, his eternal lubricity, his eternal gluttony, the baseness of instinct raised to the status of tyranny; of the coyness, the virtue, the patriotism, and the ideas of the people who have dined well."

Jarry's absinthe-and-anarchy lifestyle would kill him at the age of 34. His last years were spent as those previous -- carrying the Ubu story on to "Ubu Cuckolded" and "Ubu Enchained," refining his science of "pataphysics," roaming Paris on bicycle while wearing and waving his two pistols, dining on the fish he caught in the Seine, living in his midget-size rooms, created from a regular apartment cut in half horizontally ... In time, Symbolists, Surrealists, Dadaists and Absurdists would claim him as their own -- though W. B. Yeats, who had attended opening/closing night, and even shouted on Ubu's side, afterward had this warning about the end-of-era event:

"After Stephane Mallarme, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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