Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Savage God Was Nice To Children (Charles Terrasse's Account)

Alfred Jarry, Lithographic cover for one of three issues of Répertoire des Paintins, executed at the time of the 1898 marionette revival of Ubu Roi at composer Claude Terrasse's Théâtre des Pantins, Paris.

    I can still hear my mother telling me sadly:  “You know, my little one, he is dead, the poor man.”  And we really felt the hurt of it, it was my first real grief.  For he was a most charming companion to us children.

         I know nothing of Jarry the man of letters, whom so many others knew.  But the simple, kind and childlike Jarry, the friend to children, deserves to be remembered.   This was the Jarry I knew, the one who spoke to children with the heart of a child.


Alfred Jarry in 1903-4

    First of all, there was the Théâtre des Pantins, at 6, Rue Ballu, near the Place Blanche.  To the small children we then were, my brother Jean and I, this theater was a place full of enchantment, a forbidden paradise.  It was there, at the table, that I so often picked up and played with those puppets which represented Père Ubu, Mère Ubu, the Palotins, and especially, the Bear.


Pierre Bonnard:  Claude Terrasse and his two sons, Jean and Charles, 1903.  Bonnard, who designed the original Ubu Roi set and two years later with Jarry, its marionette cast, was Claude Terrasse's brother-in-law and uncle to his memoirist son.

    I often saw them sitting around this table, sorting out the puppets, or repairing them, or just talking.  Firstly there was Uncle Pierre, Pierre Bonnard, here the puppet maker but otherwise, because he was of course a painter, it was he who had decorated the theater.   Then my father and Franc-Nohain, Ferdinand Herold, and finally, he who I never heard called anything except Père Ubu, but whom I called, using the familiar “tu,” just plain Alfred:  Alfred Jarry.

 Pierre Bonnard, Self-Portrait, 1906.

     One night he provoked my father into a duel.  A duel with gruyere and red wine.  Who could finish first, eating three or four ounces of gruyere cut into tiny pieces, or drinking a glass of wine, both with a teaspoon.  Neither one of them managed it, they both laughed so much, the one at the sight of the other swallowing, the other because he could no longer swallow at all.

Another of the three issues of Répertoire des Paintins with Alfred Jarry lithographic cover, 1898.

    He taught me many things.  He remembered so much from his school days.  And it was he who taught me my first word of Latin, and, by repeating it the way he said it, I can still remember it the way he said it:  T-A ta B-E-R taber N-A  taberna C-U cu nacu bernacu tabernacu L-O lo culo naculo bernaculo tabernaculo R-U-M rum  lorum culorum  naculorum  bernaculorum tabernaculorum.  It has to be said all in one breath.

Alfred Jarry, Ubu letterhead design for Théâtre des Pantins, 1898.

    He always seemed the same, a kindly man, who rarely laughed, but who was never morose either, although he was sometimes a little sarcastic, but he always regarded me with a beautiful smile, and whenever I approached him he would always deposit on my forehead his little mechanical kiss.

Page from the original theatrical program for Ubu Roi, performed one time only on December 10, 1896.


1. “After us, the Savage God” -- William Butler Yeats,  after attending the premiere performance of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Théâtre de l’OEuvre, Paris, December 10, 1896, which resulted in a riot and the banning of the play.  

2.  Charles Terrasse's moving anecdotes above are excerpted from Alastair Brotchie's essential and highly recommended Alfred Jarry,  A Pataphysical Life , published 2011 by MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


  1. Moving indeed! Beautiful and telling.

    The sweet Bonnard connection news to me.

  2. Thanks a lot. Assembling this was more complicated than it seemed at first. The Brotchie book is really great. All sorts of unexpected information, voluminous, highly attuned both to the subject and the likely reader. Bonnard became an enthusiastic photographer for a while and you can find an assortment of really interesting and arresting images of his online. Curtis

  3. This is very lovely, Curtis. "Rarely laughed, never morose, beautiful smile, mechanical kiss." Wonderful. I saw a production of "Ubu Roi" in the gardens at St John's College Oxford on a summer night, with Mama Ubu and Papa Ubu played in pure Whitechapel accents, which worked perfectly. Will try to remember the "tabernaculorum" sequence. This reminds me -- free association -- of a sequence that actually works in Greek: "Napoleon apoleon poleon oleon leon eon on". It means something like "Napoleon, being the lion of the people, was destroying the cities by war."

    Just thought you'd like to know.

  4. I do. Up before being off to an unlikely (for me) "fraternal organization" activity. Possible the last in a series. I'm glad you liked this. The Brotchie bio is first rate and a very pleasant escape from what passes for reality these days. Looking for more of those. Curtis

  5. lovely work we can never be reminded too often of Jarry and UBU ROI.

  6. Anne: Thanks very much for your kind words, which were very nice to read before launching into what promises to be some really boring Sunday morning work. Afternoon activities are more promising. I visited your blog and Facebook page and liked what I saw very much and will visit again later. Please re-visit this space also. I think there are other things you may find interest you. Greetings from Tuxedo Park, New York. Curtis