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“By My Green Candle” — The Aesthetics of Green

A Dig Deeper Article by Production Dramaturg Zhuohao Li


The colour green pervades Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi. It is repeated throughout in the phrase “par ma chandelle verte,” meaning “by my green candle,” by the main character Père Ubu. It is also remarkably applied to the uniform colour scheme described in each act. The pervasive use of green colour can be traced back to the decadent aesthetics of the 1890s.


Bernhard Hanakam, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Mickeal Mcateer navigates the use of the colour green in his analysis of the influence of Ubu Roi on W.B. Yeats’ The Green Helmet. According to Mcateer, green was prominently used by pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabrielle Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones, in particular, applied green to “almost every aspect” of his 1868 painting Green Summer. Linked to the use of green in Burne-Jones' painting, the symbol of the green carnation had also become a hallmark of 1890s fashion associated with Oscar Wilde. Wilde initially mentioned that the sinister nature of the green colour was related to the writer and poisoner named Thomas Wainerwright. For Wainerwright, green in individuals is, “always the sign of a subtle artistic temperament,” and also denotes a laxity in nations. The “little green flower” in Wilde’s Salome (1896) presumably indicates a “perverse desire,” and at the premiere of Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), Wilde established the green carnation as his own personal symbol to presumably draw attention to his decadent lifestyle. In 1894, the green carnation was also identified with the delirious effect of absinthe in Smythe Hichens’s novel The Green Carnation, also linked to the delirium induced by absinthe in Ubu Roi. Another possibility is that Jarry draws his meaning from the connection to the green carnation from the nineteenth-century French word for carnation — oeillet — which also means “little eye,” a french slang for “anus.” The connotation of this usage may relate to the obscenity conveyed in the play. It is not surprising that Jarry was described as a “surrealist in absinthe” (Mcateer 61). From 1901 to 1904, Père Ubu’s repeated reference to his green candle became the title of Jarry’s review collection. Since then, the light of his green candle has represented the Ubu-esque perspective that Jarry brought to many other “disparate contemporary events and musings” (Arrivé 273).


References

Arrivé, Michel, editor. Œuvres Complètes, by Alfred Jarry, Gallimard, 1972.


Beckson, Karl. “Oscar Wilde and the Green Carnation.” English Literature in Transition, vol. 43, no. 4, 2000, pp. 387–97.


Mcateer, Michael. “Ubu Roi in W.B. Yeats’s The Green Helmet and The Player Queen.” Modern Drama, vol. 65, no. 1, 2022, pp. 52–72.


Wilde, Oscar. “Pen, Pencil and Poison: A Study in Green,” The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, edited by Richard Ellmann, Random House, 1969, pp. 324.

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