There are a number of events that have been said to bring the modern era into being. The 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring in Paris generated a riot (or at least vigorous hissing, accounts vary). Virginia Woolf located modernity’s birth a little earlier. “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” Woolf wrote in her 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”

A third candidate is another premiere: Ubu Roi, an anarchic, mystifying play by Alfred Jarry, had its debut in Paris in 1896. The play featured Ubu Roi, “King Ubu,” a caricature of one of Jarry’s high school instructors and various other petty dictators and bureaucrats in everyday life. The characters are distinguished by their rollicking, anti-social antics, and puppet-show-on-drugs costumes. Think South Park by way of absinthe-drunk Paris. It’s a profane, absurd, pre-Dada prototype of what was later called the “theater of the absurd.”

In a 1932 account of Jarry, critic Herman Schnurer describes the writer’s ambiguous legacy: “Jarry belongs to that odd class of men whose conduct is subordinated to their aesthetics.” We tend to be more interested in the lives of artists, especially live-fast and die-young type bad boys like Jarry, than their work. It’s the outrageous personal anecdotes that last. Jarry was famous for his unpredictable behavior, like brandishing pistols at literary parties, as well as general public drunkenness. It’s the grace of history (and the sympathetic critics who write it) that allows this sort of thing to be charming and not sociopathic. According to Schnurer, poet Guillaume Apollinaire credited Jarry with being entirely literary, “His antics, his smallest action, everything in him, was literary.”

This is meant as a compliment, but sounds like a rather exhausting way to live. While it’s something that may have began with Jarry or Arthur Rimbaud, we know it better today as it mutated via Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and James Dean, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain, to create the brooding Kanye-Drake idiom that dominates hip hop today. The idea is that your artistic vision consumes your personal life to such a degree that there’s little permeability between them. Your life is your art, man. It certainly runs contrary to another famous French dictum, this time from Gustave Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

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The Sewanee Review, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1932), pp. 350-353
The Johns Hopkins University Press