Four Years On: An Ubu Retrospective

The cast and co-creators (and real heroes) of Ubu Roy: An American Tale. From left: Alec Gallardo, Allison Tindall, Tyler York, Sara Skar, Charlie Schwieterman, and Janie Curl.

Four years ago today, I closed the show that altered the fate of a nation. At least, that’s what I like to apologize for from time to time.

The show in question was Ubu Roy: An American Tale, an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s proto-absurdist play about an egotistical maniac who overthrows the Polish government, only to lose his throne in a grotesque spectacle of ineptitude. In the version I created with the help of my cast – Tyler York, Sara Skar, Charlie Schwieterman, Allison Tindall, Alec Gallardo, and Janie Curl – Jarry’s Pere Ubu became Ubu Roy, who murders the Governator of Ticks-Ass and goes toe-to-toe with his widow, Harriet McClintock, for the Presi-dency, all while everyone from a lusty handyman to a gonzo version of Bernie Sanders threaten to play spoiler. Needless to say, it was not subtle. It was, however, one of many Ubu adaptations aimed squarely at the rise of Donald Trump, seemingly Pere Ubu in the flesh. To my knowledge, it is the only one commissioned by and staged at a community theatre in the conservative stronghold of West Texas, with the first and second weekends running either side of the election. It is also probably the only one to change endings following that fateful night, thanks to a promise made by its pretentious writer-director – on local television no less – that if Trump did win, the show would reflect that. At the time, it didn’t seem like much a risk: Clinton’s victory, which aligned perfectly with the original ending, in which Harriet McClintock defeats of Ubu Roy in a battle set to the theme from Mortal Kombat, was virtually assured. Now you see what I apologize for: flagrantly tempting fate.

I exaggerate the show’s influence, of course: barely a soul showed up to see Ubu Roy, seeing as how it ran at 9pm at the Community Theatre in Lubbock, Texas and everyone was already fed up with the election. It was always destined to be a blip on the radar. Still, like any show I pour my heart and soul into, it was The Most Important Show in the World. I would like to think my cast and co-creators felt the same way, because they certainly performed like it, even on the nights when they outnumbered the audience. And don’t get me wrong, it was fun. It’s hard not to have fun when there’s an overriding sense that you’re doing something deliciously naughty, in this case flipping the bird to the whole rotten, overblown system, and deep in the red heart of Texas, no less. Sure, we gave our Clinton stand-in the side-eye, too, but the target was always Trump. The mere idea of his ascension was too much, too ridiculous, too dangerous, too too. It was begging to be made fun of. And then, after Election Day, it wasn’t all that funny anymore. The new ending, in which the Ubus win the battle and the cast members remove their wigs while staring plaintively into an uncertain future, made that point crystal clear.

For all its bittersweetness, I have special memories of Ubu Roy and the people who made it with me. I still hold a grudge against nobody in particular that it never got the audience it deserved, and I still cringe at the nights I spent lying down between the back two rows praying for laughs to come roaring out of our teeny tiny audiences. Thankfully, and somewhat appropriately, the play has enjoyed a peculiar longevity among a small number of fans. Just last week, an old friend interviewed me in preparation for a research project she’s doing on Ubu and its many adaptations. Periodically, total strangers will interest in the play – even an actor and instructor in New Zealand tried to stage it at one point. The cast and I have often joked about a follow-up, including a Christmas special variously called Ubu 2: The War on Christmas or Ubu Saves Christmas, something like that. Just to have these conversations is an honor, really, but I always find myself hesitant to revisit the piece because it is so 2016. Seriously, we went out of our way to reflect everything we could in Jarry’s funhouse mirror. Even Ken Bone makes an appearance. By the time we assembled the first half for a festival performance in February 2017, the references were already achingly dated.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to look back now, four years and one (contested) election down, and wonder: what if it made a comeback? It’s a fun fantasy to indulge, but the problem is when I do look back, I see Ubu Roy as very much a history play, not just in that it presents a superficial snapshot of the times but in that it represents an outlook consigned to an uneasy past. It was always one of many Ubus in Trumpland, but now the whole concept almost seems too meager. The real Trump Administration, like Ubu’s Poland, really has been a kind of carnivorous circus, rolling through the unseemly, the absurd, and the appalling while devouring its own. The gap between that reality and Jarry’s brand of cynical tomfoolery has shrunk so much and the Trump Administration itself has become so repetitive that the notion of him calling foul and refusing after losing the popular vote by over 5 million is entirely predictable, almost shrug-worthy – and that is awful. What is even more insidious about this Administration is that it has not only normalized its own madness, it has made the old-fashioned politics it supplanted seem even more insidious, at least to the Trump adherents and their Republican enablers. For Trump and his ilk, the margin of his loss, the inadequacy of the his pandemic response, and the global resistance he has faced is evidence of nothing less than a multinational scheme to keep them down. It’s an astounding feat of cognitive dissonance, and yet it somehow has traction to the tune of over 72 million votes. That is the true success, if you can call it that, of the Trump Administration: that even in the midst of its own mess, it can still make itself a compelling alternative to the old status quo.

So, when I think back on Ubu Roy: An American Tale today and the prospect of revisiting it, I have to ask myself: how do you compete with this reality? What could a new production, even as a historical piece with the most modest of aims, expect to bring to the table? My fear is that it would inspire nothing more than fatigued exasperation. “Seriously?” I can hear someone muttering at Tyler in his oh-so-obvious Trump wig, while others sigh at Allison’s shadow-cast of the First Female President Who Never Was or scratch their heads and really wonder if we’re making a Ken Bone joke. There would probably be very little joy, even of the cynical and ironic variety, just a long slog through old jokes that portended a sad reality.

No, I think Ubu Roy: An American Tale as such has probably had its brief, provincial moment. Another version might come along someday as a sort of retrospective, less caught up in the duel of the election and more reminiscent of the President’s long wallow in narcissistic self-pity. After all, we always built the play to be agile, able to take on new material as necessary. Even then, maybe it’s best to wait, at least until the election results are well and truly settled this time. You know what? Maybe we just don’t hurry Ubu-as-Trump back to the stage anytime soon. As my research during the lead-up and follow-up showed, Pere Ubu has a habit of appearing in new guises all the time, almost always as an avatar of abuse and excess. The classics have a way of doing that: providing a deep well for inspiration while reshaping themselves to fit the vessel. Returning to that well with new productions, new translations, new adaptations keeps us in tune with the long history before us and sweetens our responsibility to wrestle with the present. The specifics will sort themselves out in the process. All we know is that Ubu will probably begin the play as he always has, exclaiming the same exclamation that has greeted every new low these past four years: “Shit!”

Editor’s Note: The author says all this but would change his mind tomorrow if the money was good. Also, kudos go to funder Herb Armstrong, techies Lo Gauna and Jessica Johnston-York, and the leadership of Lubbock Community Theatre for their support, endless patience, and generous laughter.

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