How a 19th-Century Absurdist Playwright Accidentally Predicted Trump

Ubu Roi is newly relevant, thanks to our president.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

Poster for Ubu Roi in France, 1896.

Pulitzer Prize-win­ning play­wright Paula Vogel issued drama­tists around the world a chal­lenge for Pres­i­dents’ Day: Write a five-page sketch plac­ing the Trump admin­is­tra­tion in the land of Ubu Roi, an 1896 French absur­dist play about an idi­ot­ic, pow­er-hun­gry king.

The titular figure of Ubu, popularized by anti-fascist artists in the 20th century, is experiencing a sudden afterlife in the age of Trump with its timely—and timeless—themes of greed, narcissism and violence.

The tit­u­lar fig­ure of Ubu, pop­u­lar­ized by anti-fas­cist artists in the 20th cen­tu­ry, is expe­ri­enc­ing a sud­den after­life in the age of Trump. Vogel says Ubu Roi drew her because of its time­ly — and time­less — themes of greed, nar­cis­sism and vio­lence. She also notes the strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties between King Ubu and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, includ­ing their over­sized per­sonas and odd use of lan­guage. Ubu’s first line is a mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion of merde (French for shit”), and Vogel encour­aged play­wrights to include the word cov­fefe.”

Since 1984, Vogel has orga­nized play­writ­ing bake­offs” around the coun­try, giv­ing writ­ers of all skill lev­els a set of ingre­di­ents” to write a short play in 48 hours. But this year’s bake-off was Vogel’s first nation­al endeav­or, and arguably her most political.

For Vogel, res­ur­rect­ing Ubu is a way to inject pol­i­tics back into Amer­i­can the­ater. In the 20th cen­tu­ry, the­ater rec­og­nized the extrem­i­ty of world wars and geno­cide and hideous strife and polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty,” says Vogel. Amer­i­can the­ater [now] is pro­duc­ing liv­ing-room com­e­dy and dra­mas. We insist on real­ism as being the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the way the uni­verse runs. Ubu does not.”

Ubu Roi is about as far from real­ism as it gets. When Alfred Jarry’s play was first staged in 1896, its sheer bizarreness induced a riot. Sur­re­al­ism was still new to Paris the­ater-goers and the audi­ence was offend­ed by the foul lan­guage and the depic­tions of an orgy and graph­ic mur­ders. Scuf­fles broke out between fans and detrac­tors, and the first run end­ed after open­ing night.

A scat­o­log­i­cal par­o­dy of Mac­Beth, Ubu Roi depicts Père (Pa) Ubu and his wife, Mère (Ma) Ubu chart­ing a bloody course to pow­er in Poland. Ubu dis­patch­es his polit­i­cal rivals with a feces-cov­ered toi­let brush, kills the king (who returns as a ghost) and seizes the throne. The greedy Ubu then mur­ders many of his cit­i­zens to lay claim to their land. When he tries to imple­ment finan­cial reform, he real­izes he has killed all of the gov­ern­ment work­ers and must go door to door to col­lect tax­es. Even­tu­al­ly the Ubus are run out of the coun­try by a people’s revolt and escape on a ship, head­ing toward Paris, where Ubu aspires to become Min­is­ter of Finance.

Jar­ry died of tuber­cu­lo­sis at age 34 in 1907 with­out ever again stag­ing the play, but not before pop­u­lar­iz­ing his tyrant king through wood­cuts in L’Ymagier, the art mag­a­zine he co-edit­ed. The bul­bous roy­al with a cone-shaped head and a swirl on his stom­ach became a short­hand for Euro­pean fas­cism and inspired work by Dadaists and Sur­re­al­ists from Max Ernst to Mar­cel Duchamp. Pablo Picasso’s 1937 com­ic strip The Dream and Lie of Fran­co” depicts Gen­er­al Fran­cis­co Fran­co as Ubu, rap­ing and pil­lag­ing Spain. Picas­so was so tak­en with Jar­ry that he copied the playwright’s con­ceit of car­ry­ing around a Brown­ing revolver (in Picasso’s case, loaded with blanks, which he would fire at peo­ple who asked irri­tat­ing ques­tions about his work).

Most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, Jarry’s Ubu Roi set the stage for the The­ater of the Absurd, which, as crit­ic Mar­tin Esslin put it, uses the­ater to shock its audi­ence out of com­pla­cen­cy,” and is asso­ci­at­ed with play­wrights like Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beck­ett, Eugene Ionesco and Dario Fo. Mod­ern per­for­mances of Ubu and oth­er Jar­ry-influ­enced works have tar­get­ed all man­ner of author­i­tar­i­an and cor­rupt regimes, from post-com­mu­nist Poland to apartheid to the mil­i­taris­tic gov­er­nance of George W. Bush.

With the elec­tion of Trump, pro­fes­sion­al and ama­teur troops around the coun­try have rein­ter­pret­ed Ubu Roi with the pres­i­dent in the cen­tral role, and his fam­i­ly and advi­sors as the sup­port­ing cast. In Decem­ber, Aus­tri­an-Amer­i­can artist Rain­er Ganahl staged a read­ing of Ubu Trump in a Harlem funer­al home. The inter­pre­ta­tion end­ed with a dying Trump, in a morgue, beg­ging Vladimir Putin to pen­e­trate him one last time.”

Hun­dreds of play­wrights respond­ed to Vogel’s call, and venues across the Unit­ed States show­cased their Ubu Roi-inspired shorts Feb­ru­ary 19. At Chicago’s Vic­to­ry Gar­dens, most of the nine play­wrights pre­sent­ed humor­ous sketch­es, like Ben­nett Fisher’s imag­i­nary email exchange with one-time White House Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor Antho­ny Scara­muc­ci. In RE: The Mooch, Fish­er has an increas­ing­ly heat­ed con­ver­sa­tion with Scara­muc­ci, who is intox­i­cat­ed at a club and strug­gles to use his phone’s dic­ta­tion func­tion. Although the audi­ence erupt­ed in laugh­ter, the piece takes a per­son­al turn at the end, with Fish­er reflect­ing on his rela­tion­ship with his uncle, a Trump-sup­port­ing busi­ness­man not unlike Scaramucci.

In every­thing I write, I want the audi­ence to feel com­pas­sion for peo­ple they’re poised to hate,” says Fish­er. I feel there’s very lit­tle artis­tic val­ue in com­ing out of a play believ­ing what you believed going in.”

Oth­ers struck a more somber tone, such as Jas­mine Hen­ri Jordan’s funer­al for Pa Ubu and Nora Leahy’s mono­logue from Mela­nia Trump as Ma Ubu. Leahy was inspired by Jarry’s orig­i­nal stage direc­tion: Set in Poland, which is to say nowhere,” a line not unlike Trump’s com­ment on immi­grants from shit­hole coun­tries.” In Leahy’s work, Ma Ubu yearns for Slove­nia, the First Lady’s home coun­try, and ques­tions her marriage.

Many pieces also touched on the Park­land, Fla., school shoot­ing, cast­ing politi­cians who val­ue their gun indus­try dona­tions over human lives as Ubu-like slaugh­ter­ers of their own people.

Despite the dark themes, Vogel hoped the whim­sy and escapism would draw audi­ences from across the ide­o­log­i­cal spectrum.

The truth of the mat­ter is, the most effec­tive tool for despots and tyrants is ridicule,” says Vogel. The most suc­cess­ful tool is com­e­dy. Com­e­dy stings more, I think, than tragedy. I think this is the time for us to get out our clown shoes and our pup­pets and our mar­i­onettes and mock, mock the king.”

Han­nah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chica­go-based free­lance writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Her work has appeared in the Chica­go Tri­bune, Atlas Obscu­ra, Bitch Media, the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review, JSTOR Dai­ly and Paper Mag­a­zine, among others.
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