Monday, 4 May 2015

Le Roi en Jaune

Thomas de Castigne (translated by Simon Bucher-Jones)
Le Roi en Jaune (1893)

Once again I find myself somewhat in the position of Homer Simpson required to present a dissertation on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment which, it should be noted, probably wouldn't be significantly more ham-fisted than my own fumbling analysis of Crime and Punishment some months ago.

Le Roi en Jaune or The King in Yellow is a lost play, one which has been alluded to in the works of a number of writers, principally Robert W. Chambers, an author of weird or supernatural fiction with whom I am entirely unfamiliar. It's a lost play through the stigma of having become a forbidden play, one which has the reputation of driving its audience to utter despair or even madness, a promise which  rarely ever seems to have much success at getting bums on seats in box office terms. That said, it should probably be remembered that whilst H.P. Lovecraft chalked up a fair old word count in discussion of that which must not be named, he dedicated at least some of that text to quite specifically naming that which must not be named, presumably so as to avoid confusion leading to anyone naming that which must not be named by accident through not knowing its name on account of it being that which must not be named. Jocularity aside, Lovecraft is of some minor relevance here given that he winks at Le Roi en Jaune in a couple of his own stories, it being the source from which Hastur is derived, later reinvented as an unspeakable elder God by Lovecraft and then Derleth to varying degrees.

Another more familiar name would be that of the servant Ubu, popularised by Alfred Jarry and remembered as having been the Sex Pistols of his day in terms of faintly scatological wit in the tradition of Rabelais, some sexual swearwords, having the plugs figuratively pulled halfway through the performance, and the play's brief spark of admittedly lurid genius becoming a formative influence on all which followed - meaning here Futurism, Dadaism and much twentieth century art rather than Sham 69 and the Exploited. The name Ubu is popularly believed to have derived from Henri Morin, Jarry's school classmate who had written a satire called Les Polonais in which Monsieur Hébert, his unfortunate physics teacher, was lampooned as Père Ebé; but Ubu is identified here as a diminutive of ubiquité or ubiquity, a representative of the common man:

I am a man. And as such are found,
Everywhere alike, I needs must be common.

These words are met by the Y'htill character asking Ubu if he has not perhaps been known as Falstaff under other circumstances; and it is possibly significant that Jarry's Ubu - essentially closer in spirit to Shakespeare's comically boorish knight - first appears in print in 1893 within fragments of an early version of Ubu Cocu reproduced in a literary review - not to horrify theatre goers for another three years, by which point his credentials as a modern Falstaff seemed more firmly established.

Anyway, the significant detail here is not so much the possible influence on Jarry as the play being aware of its being a play - as suggested by the reference to a character from another play - and of characters achieving an insight into the future given that the events of Le Roi en Jaune are purported to occur in ancient times, at least prior to the Biblical flood.

The narrative describes the coming of seven Princes of which one will be wed to the Princess Cassilda, just as soon as she's made up her mind which of their number is the least disappointing. Unfortunately everything goes tits up, the Princes all perish before the meeting can transpire, and reality itself seems to break down. Cassilda becomes her mother, the Queen, and the Queen is now to be wed to one of the Princes, and time appears to flow in reverse, not only as mother becomes daughter but as the child Thomas is directed to walk backwards across the stage, all seemingly returning to the notional point of Original Sin so that it may be undone - although there's a fair chance I'm getting my wires crossed here, Cassilda's line reputedly having descended from Abell and Aclima, the line which in Hebrew legend endures without the stigma of the murdering Cain. In addition to this, certain characters appear to revive from the dead, or else are experienced prior to death in scenes occurring later. The nature of the play was further exposed by the final scenes of the second act being staged in differing orders on different performances, regardless of the inevitable contradictions and loss of narrative cohesion. It sounds like a nightmare in production terms, but peculiarly I can see that it may have worked at least in so much as the written form isn't significantly weirder than, for example, the plays of Tristan Tzara which it doubtless inspired.

The confusion of the non-linear narrative not only emphasises the artificial nature of the performance, but also the artificial nature of the reality it describes, not least once the suggestion is made that the direction in which time flows doesn't seem to matter that much. One might take as a similar example Lovecraft's fabled Necronomicon, a book with no existence outside the lad's fiction, and the fiction he ultimately inspired, and yet which has come to take on such a profoundly convincing life of its own that the detail of its origin and historical legitimacy has been reduced to a vestigial irrelevance. So too is Le Roi en Jaune a play which generates its own existence in so much as it seems to reverse the traditional primacy of words and that which they describe, relegating reality to a creation of its own description; so no wonder it freaked everyone out back in 1893.

This is a slightly bewildering work, although partially because I'm somewhat out of my depth with this kind of thing, but it greatly rewards all effort put in. I've now read the thing twice, and it becomes more and more engrossingly peculiar each time. Simon Bucher-Jones has done a tremendous job of translation and annotation, and in case anyone cares, I can see how this may have fed into The Brakespeare Voyage, even to the point that it seems to be where Captain No-one came from.

Buy it here.

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