Alfred Jarry, as played by Annette Robertson in Ken Russell’s Always on Sunday (1965)
by Henry K. Miller
Fifth in a series of monthly posts by Henry K. Miller from the Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project based at the University of Reading.
There were projects that Dwoskin was never able to realize, and others which mutated so far out of recognition that their origin was obscured. Further and Particular (1988), arguably his last feature film – though few if any of his films easily fit this category – is one of these. One of its tributaries was an unrealized television film, planned for Channel 4 in its early years, that was intended to explore the work of Alfred Jarry and in particular the pseudo- or parody-science he devised in the 1890s, ’Pataphysics. This in turn sheds light on Dwoskin’s roots in the New York underground of the late 1950s and early ’60s.
The debut of Jarry’s play Ubu Roi in 1896 – one of two performances it had in his short life – is one of the celebrated events in the history of the avant-garde, a cause célèbre in the French papers at the time, subsequently described in numerous memoirs including those of W. B. Yeats. The event is recognized as a forerunner by the Dadaists and Surrealists, and eventually brought into the secondary literature on modernism. Dwoskin most likely came to learn about it – and about Jarry more generally through the work of Roger Shattuck, whose book The Banquet Years was first published in 1958, when Dwoskin was a design student at Parsons. Subtitled ‘The Arts in France, 1885–1918’ in the US, The Banquet Years is a group biography of four figures, three of them deemed to be eccentric outsiders, but for Shattuck decisive: Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Satie, and (a slightly different case) Apollinaire, poet and publicist.
When Dwoskin and Rebecca Dobbs, a producer who had worked on Dwoskin’s Outside In (1981), got to work on their proposal for a television film about Jarry, in the early 1980s, they drew heavily on The Banquet Years, and on the special issue of Evergreen Review which Shattuck had helped put together in 1960, titled ‘What is ’Pataphysics’. What is it indeed? The film was to be based largely on Jarry’s ‘neo-scientific novel’ Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician, written in 1898 published four years after Jarry’s death, in 1911, and translated into English in 1965, the year after Dwoskin arrived in England; it was in this book that Jarry is said to have turned what was a jest into a system. To give a flavour, Dwoskin and Dobbs’s proposal gives us this citation to work with:
There was much more of this; ’Pataphysics was to some extent a put-on or in-joke, but it did contain something that was meaningful to Dwoskin. ’Pataphysics, they continued to quote, ‘will be, above all, the science of the particular (despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general). Pataphysics will study the laws which govern exceptions’. It’s not difficult to see in Dwoskin’s interest in this idea a reflection of his experience as a disabled artist.
’Pataphysics aside, the avant-garde Jarry inhabited served as an inspiration to Dwoskin and his peers both in New York and in London. One of the governing ideals of Dwoskin’s day – hence him being hailed as ‘Mr Transmedia, 1969’ – was that of expanded arts, subject of a special issue of Film Culture, the leading New York film magazine, in 1966. The avant-garde conjured up in The Banquet Years was an especially privileged moment in the long history of this idea. The legacy of Satie, the composer who according to Shattuck ‘subjected himself almost exclusively to non-musical influences’, became central for John Cage, ‘whose philosophical and physical impact’, wrote Dwoskin, in turn, ‘was undeniably one of the greatest influences on the post-war generation’.
The Channel 4 Faustroll, pitched as part of a series by a production company Dwoskin was involved in, Spectre, was to have been a kind of essay-film; others in the proposed series included episode by Anna Ambrose, Vera Neubauer, and Simon Hartog, among others. As in the book, the titular doctor undertakes an epic journey of discovery (though without leaving the studio), accompanied by a process server and his baboon, Bosse-de-Nage (bottom-face). ‘Faustroll can at one time be within the “narrative” and at the next minute to addressing himself directly to the audience in the same way that Groucho [Marx] talks to the camera’. It was not to be, but the project was clearly important to Dwoskin. Apart from Further and Particular, in which Faustroll appears, albeit briefly, Bosse-de-Nage’s catchphrase, “Ha, ha!”, would become the title of a book of photographs he published in 1993, subtitled ‘la solution imaginaire’.
This is the fifth in a series of monthly posts from The Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project, based at the University of Reading and supported by the AHRC. Follow its progress on Twitter: @DwoskinProject
Henry K. Miller is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Reading, and editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat.