- Père GyntMendacity for the 21st Century
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States missed by a mere few weeks the 120th anniversary of the opening night of Alfred Jarry's Ubu the King (10 December 1896). Numerous similarities between the 45th US president and the character that inaugu--rated the theatrical avantgarde didn't go unnoticed. The poet Charles Simic wrote that the "story of his presidency and the cast of characters he has assembled in the White House would easily fit into Jarry's play without a single word needing to be changed" (Simic 2017). British author Rosanna Hildyard had the same idea when she published her translation and adaptation of Jarry's play under a tell-all title: Ubu Trump (2017). And early in 2018, Paula Vogel organized a "National UBU ROI Bake-Off" in which she invited playwrights to compose skits featuring key "ingredients" from Jarry's play. So, on Presidents' Day (19 February 2018) theatres across the country performed pieces that ranged from a farce about Trump and Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly and scandalously held the position of White House communications director, to a monologue by an actor playing Melania Trump, to Ubu's funeral. More recently, in late February 2020, an advertisement from Verso Books for Hal Foster's new book What Comes after Farce? landed in my inbox. The blurb is spot on:
If farce follows tragedy, what follows farce? Where does the double predicament of a post-truth and post-shame politics leave artists and critics on the left? How to demystify a hegemonic order that dismisses its own contradictions? How to belittle a political elite that cannot be embarrassed, or to mock party leaders who thrive on the absurd? How to out-dada President Ubu?(Verso 2020)
Jarry's Ubu is the Count of Sandomir, a low-ranking noble in line for the Polish throne; he is base, greedy, cruel, treacherous, vengeful, stupid, foul-mouthed, cowardly, and shameless. He is also a caricature of imperial expansion. Resembling a cone-shaped spinning top, he is constantly on the move—from England, to Aragon, to Poland, to Denmark, to France—blasting geographical and literary boundaries that are in his path. If it was to be staged right now, how could anyone miss the relevance of his march through Ukraine and his inadequacy in the face of the Russian army? But, there is another, more important peculiarity about King Ubu: he is indestructible. During the melee that follows the assassination of King Wenceslas, young Buggerlas rips open Ubu, who then picks himself up and proceeds to take the throne (Jarry  1997:80). And in the battle with the Russians, a soldier fires a pistol at him from a close range. Ubu starts screaming and yelling, "Ouch! I've been wounded, they've filled me full of lead, they've perforated me, I've had my last rites, I'm dead and buried." But then he changes his mind ("Well, but really! Aha! Got you!"), and instead of dropping dead "he tears [the soldier] to pieces" (116). From his improbable run for presidency, to the Mueller report, to the impeachment by the US Congress and acquittal in the Senate, to his handling of a national health crisis plagued with mistakes caused by his political opportunism and crass selfishness, to [End Page 8] hiding in his bunker while riot police brutalize peaceful protesters in front of the White House, and heading toward the 2020 elections, the 45th president marches on.
Like its title character, the play itself is loose and chaotic, and as a result it easily accommodates all kinds of adaptations and directorial interventions. I can recall a number of memorable productions of Ubu. In 1992, Bosnian director Haris Pašovic; staged a version in which all kinds of abusive and vulgar types milled on a platform that resembled a combination soccer field and king-size bed. Amazingly, this unflattering portrayal of the ethical landscape that led to the war in Bosnia premiered the night before the war broke out. Then there was, of course, the famous rendering of Jarry's play by Jane...