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Ubu Roi ou les Polonais by Alfred Jarry

It begins with "Merdre," a nonsense word too homophonically close to "merde" for Parisians' comfort. Alfred Jarry's prose drama in five acts opened and closed on 10 December 1896, although this play, this performance, this author endure as the heralded advent of the avant-garde in art, anticipating the theater of the absurd and surrealism. Part of the legend of the evening was a scandalized and rowdy audience, which included William Butler Yeats. His reported response to the event was: "What more is possible? After us the Savage God."

The titular character parodies a tiresome physics professor, Félix-Frédéric Hébert (1832-1917), who taught at the Lycée de Rennes when Jarry, Henri Morin, and Charles Morin were students. The latter had written a satire about Hébert, entitled Les Polonais, which brother Henri showed to his friend Alfred. Jarry adapted the play for an 1888 performance with marionettes. The Morin manuscript has not survived, making the publication in June 1896 of Ubu Roi the remaining legacy of the schoolboys' antics. There is much to observe in this monograph, first and foremost the claim that it represents a second edition. Is Jarry acknowledging Morin's first version? Was there a different printing that year, perhaps the twenty numbered copies mentioned on the verso of the dedication page? Or is Jarry just playing a game with his consumers by making note of two limited printings on special papers when, in fact, no such runs exist?

Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) is not only the author but also the illustrator of the 1896 Ubu Roi. The owl is his signature for the portraits that appear in the book. Before Ubu Roi Jarry had contributed wood-cuts to several publications, including the review L'Ymagier and his own short-lived Perhinderion. Penn's recently-acquired copy of Ubu Roi--issued in paperback--was bound by its owner in a leather half binding with marbled paper covers, gilt top edges on the leaves, tooled gold lettering on the spine, and hand-stamped decorations on the inside covers and end papers. This contemporary binding suggests a well-to-do bibliophile. Without his name, we can only speculate whether he was prescient about the historical importance of the work and its author or merely a subscriber to the press, Mercure de France.

For a closer look at the book, request the item in the reading room of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Title page

Portraits of Père Ubu

First line
Closing advertisement

Inside cover, hand-stamped in red ink

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