America’s Ubu Confronts Iran

Jean-Martin Bontoux, King Ubu


A Chris Hayes’s podcast interview  with playwrights Tony Kushner and Jeremy O. Harris alerted me to an absurdist play which captures the nightmare currently unfolding between Trump and Iran. Think of Trump as Ubu Roi, “the shit king.”

Alfred Jarry’s play came up when the playwrights were asked what drama best captures the GOP’s utter capitulation to Trump. One of them (I can’t remember which) mentioned that Republicans were behaving like the townspeople in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, a point I myself have made in the past.

The other, however, argued they were like Ubu’s followers, which I agree works even better. In the version directed by Peter Brooks, Ubu’s generals blindly run into a wall when he orders them to.

Ubu Roi grew out of a high school farce attacking an unpopular teacher. With references to Macbeth, Hamlet, and other classical plays, it features a gluttonous, cowardly, miserly, sadistic narcissist who is more a satiric grotesque than an actual individual. Ubu overthrows the King of Poland, kills his family (except for the youngest son Bougrelas, who escapes with his mother), raises everyone’s taxes, betrays his supporters, is attacked and defeated by both the Russians and Bougrelas, and in the end escapes. He has a grotesque wife (Madame Ubu), throws around obscenities (the first word in the play is “merdre” [shit]), eats everything in sight, runs away whenever there is danger, is gutted a couple of times (but always recovers), and in the end runs off to Spain.

The more I describe him, the more he sounds like a certain American president. I am currently watching in horror the news out of Iran as Trump boasts of his destructive capacities, promises to destroy world heritage sites, and trades taunts with Iranian leaders. What kind of a leader does this?!

Ubu possesses both Trump’s bragaddocio and his cowardice. Here’s the battle scene:

PAPA UBU. Let’s go, gentlemen. Let’s take up our positions for the battle. We’re going to stay on this hill and won’t commit the blunder of descending to the bottom. I will hold the middle like a living citadel and the rest of you will circle around me. I recommend that you put in your rifles as many bullets as they’ll hold, because eight bullets can kill eight Russians and that’s a few less I won’t have on my back. We’ll put the infantry at the bottom of the hill to receive the Russians and kill them a little, riders behind to throw themselves into the confusion, and the artillery around the windmill here to fire into the heap…
OFFICERS. Your orders, Lord Ubu, will be executed.

Incidentally, I played the role of Bougrelas in a Carleton College production of the play. I still remember my stilted speech as my mother dies in my arms (in the snow, no less) and, Hamlet Sr.-like, the ghost of one of my ancestors delivers me a sword with which to enact vengeance. I provide the dialogue to further convey the farcical nature of the play:

Bougrelas: Ah, it tragic to see oneself, alone at 14, with a terrible vengeance to pursue.

(His ancestors appear)

THE GHOST. Learn, Bougrelas, that I was during my life Matthias Lord of Koenigsberg, the first king and founder of our house. I place upon you the responsibility of exacting our vengeance. (He gives him a big sword.) Let this sword not rest until it has caused the death of the usurper.

(All disappear, and Bougrelas rests alone in an attitude of ecstasy.)

Ubu Roi (1896) had a major influence on Surrealism, Dadaism, and the Theater of the Absurd. In a number of ways, it captures the Trump drama more effectively than realistic theater might, especially the president’s utter lack of accountability.

Observations by South African playwright and academic Jane Taylor help us understand the allure of both Ubu and Trump. The two pull their followers down to their own infantile level. Their supporters get to act out their infantile rages and indulge in infantile desires without taking responsibility.

Taylor describes Ubu as “notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification.” While the responsible part of us is shocked, a more primitive part takes a secret delight:

There is a particular kind of pleasure for an audience watching these infantile attacks. Part of the satisfaction arises from the fact that in the burlesque mode which Jarry invents, there is no place for consequence. While Ubu may be relentless in his political aspirations, and brutal in his personal relations, he apparently has no measurable effect upon those who inhabit the farcical world which he creates around himself. He thus acts out our most childish rages and desires, in which we seek to gratify ourselves at all cost.

Jarry was targeting stodgy middle class respectability, as were the Surrealists and Dadaists. I have to say, however, that such stodginess looks pretty good when contrasted with rampant irresponsibility. We elected an entertainer as a president when what we needed was a responsible adult, no matter how dull. Hillary didn’t excite, but she would have been competent.

We chose to live in an Ubu world and the results look worse all the time.

Further note: After some googling, I see that Charles Simic compared Trump to Ubu in a 2016 New York Review of Books article. Ubu is the only literary character who comes close to Trump, Simic argues. Simic’s examples remind us how extraordinary Trump seemed in his first year and how we must struggle to refrain from normalizing such behavior:

Since Trump became president, every time I told myself this man is bonkers, I remembered Ubu, realizing how 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. Everyone, I imagine, is familiar with the spectacle of his entire cabinet taking turns telling him how much they admire him. “The greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to the president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” Mike Pence said. After every member of his cabinet was through slobbering, and he himself had stopped nodding in agreement, he took the opportunity to heap additional praise on himself, declaring that he is one of the most productive presidents in American history—with perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt coming close—and everyone present concurred.

Even more Ubu-esque was that scene of a dozen pastors who came to the Oval Office to lay on hands and pray for the president, supernatural wisdom, guidance, and protection. “Who could ever even imagine,” one shaken participant said afterward, “we are going to see another great spiritual awakening?” Or how about that touching moment when the president signed a bill into law rolling back the regulation for people with mental illness to purchase guns? Or the spectacle of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and the White House economic adviser, Gary Cohn, pledging to American people that the wealthy are not getting a tax cut under the president’s plan?

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