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Why I’ve been thinking about 4-decades-old Minneapolis theater production for the last four years

Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s 1980 production of “Ubu For President” premiered in Minneapolis two weeks after Ronald Reagan was elected president.

Cast photo of Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s 1980 production of “Ubu For President.”
Cast photo of Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s 1980 production of “Ubu For President.”
Courtesy of Barbra Berlovitz

Almost every day over the last four years I’ve thought about “Ubu For President,” a farce so steeped in the wisdom of tyrannical intercontinental history it seemed to promise audiences, “Sure we’re living through the plague and despot times, but someday we’ll all look back on this and laugh.”

Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s 1980 production of “Ubu For President” premiered in Minneapolis two weeks after Ronald Reagan was elected president. It didn’t have a long run. It enjoys no latter-day posterity on the internet. But anyone who saw Jeune Lune co-founder Vincent Gracieux’s turn as playwright Alfred Jarry’s big-bellied tyrant had to be reminded daily over the last four years of just how prescient a play it actually was, in tone if not reportage.

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Born at the dawn of punk rock (with which “Ubu” shares a certain freewheeling and purposeful va te faire foutre  to the rich and bloated, and not for nothing is the pioneering punk-art band Pere Ubu named for Ubu), the short-but-spunky production struck me and stuck with me as that rare work of art that has the ability to show us the future — in this case via an off-the-rails tale of a power-mad king-buffoon-clown who lusts for fame at all costs, despises his minions, rolls around in his own self-made egoic slop and feces, and whose campaign slogan is “A vote for Ubu is a vote for Ubu.” 

“Ubu, it appears, is Trump — but, this time, he is real,” wrote Tablet Magazine’s Bernard-Henri Levy in his 2018 piece “King Ubu, Trump’s Dadaist Precursor.” “The same Ubu — irascible, scatological, conspiracy-minded, and tyrannical — that Alfred Jarry invented but whom no one had to take seriously because he was confined to the stage has come to life as Donald Trump.”

As a newbie theater goer, Jeune Lune’s “Ubu” stayed with me probably because it was the first time I’d been introduced to the idea of despot as cartoon character, the kind of emperor-has-no-clothes figure that our generationally hardened and more learned European brothers and sisters have lampooned and ridiculed as a matter of course and means of survival. On the face of it, “Ubu For President” was little more than a bunch of artists, dancers, singers, acrobats and insane asylumers taking the piss out of power. But underneath it all was the feeling that its genesis was as a vehicle of hope in dark times; the very writing and performing of it an act of resistance and a way to stay sane and human in the face of so much insanity and inhumanity.

“Ubu” theater program graphic.
Courtesy of Barbra Berlovitz
“Ubu” theater program graphic.
“Ubu For President” was less diatribe or polemic and more Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” spiked with lots of fart and poop jokes that hit like a pre-“Idiocracy” and -“Borat” warning about human nature, greed, dictators and lemmings and ultimately served as a small but significant gird-the-loins warm-up for the Trump years.

“I’ve thought about it often, and when Trump was elected I thought we should be doing it again, but a couple weeks after the election, once the circus started, I thought, ‘It’s too close, it’s too much reality. It wouldn’t be funny,’” said Jeune Leune co-founder Barbra Berlovitz, who now teaches at Augsburg College.

“It’s uncanny how close it was. Trump is this larger-than-life character who doesn’t excuse his behavior, and that was Ubu through-and through,” said Jeune Lune co-founder Bob Rosen, who now teaches at Macalester College.

“When I think of Ubu I think of Vincent, who was just fabulous. It was one of his finest roles,” said Berlovitz, who directed the encore run of “Ubu” in 1988 and played one of Ubu’s henchwomen, The Palcontents. “I picture him taking off his hat and hitting people, and to me that was probably what’s happening in the Oval Office. Whether he’s actually striking out at people and hitting them I don’t know, but he does have that knee-jerk reaction. You know, ‘I’m the leader, I’m the Best.’ That’s the line that Ubu says: ‘I’m the Best.’ Then there was the character of The Conscience, played by Josette Antomarchi, and The Conscience would keep popping up at different times and say, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do this,’ and he finally threw her off the stage.”

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In his 2017 piece “Year One: Our President Ubu” in The New York Review, Charles Simic wrote: “Recently going over some pieces I’ve written for the Daily since 2015, on the Republican primaries and debates, and the presidential election, I remember thinking of Ubu while watching Trump back then. Even in the company of such awful human beings as Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Carly Fiorina, Trump stood out with his boorishness and malevolence — as when he announced to rapturous cheers of the audience that he would bring back waterboarding and make it a ‘hell of a lot worse,’ or called out to his followers to beat up a heckler at one of his rallies where those of our fellow citizens who miss the days of public lynchings came to hear their champion. ‘I hate everyone you hate,’ was his message over and over again, and these numbskulls who can’t even tell the differences between an honest man and a crook nudged each other, knowing exactly whom he had in mind.

Mike Steele preview for the 1988 re-staging of “Ubu For President.”
Photo courtesy of StarTribune archives
Mike Steele preview for the 1988 re-staging of “Ubu For President.”
“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.”

“Yes. I thought about [Ubu often] the last four years,” said Dominique Serrand, co-founder of Jeune Lune who now works as co-leader of the local theater group The Moving Company. “It was the election of Ronald Reagan. That was the reason. Can you believe it now? At the time it was, ‘How can it be such a joke that we elect some actor, some Hollywood star, who had nothing to say to our times besides the fact that he was famous and a perfect tool for the Republican Party at the time?’ We thought he was a very dangerous man. That was the reason for the show.

“Reading the original script (written in French by Didier Maucort and translated by David Ball), the mocking of the main character would still fit. But I do think that one of the reasons why we never remounted — we thought about it, but we never remounted it — was because I think Trump was closer to a [Bertolt] Brecht play. A very dangerous, not funny character. But Reagan was somewhat of a funny character; something we could laugh at. I did laugh at some of Trump’s atrocious stupidity, but when we realized how calculated it was, that’s something that does not exist in the original ‘Ubu.’ Ubu is more a farcical character, a buffoon who has no respect for anyone, including himself.”

It was November, 1980. At the time, Minneapolis supported two daily newspapers, the evening Star and morning Tribune, and employed two fulltime theater critics, Peter Vaughn and Mike Steele.  Of “Ubu For President,” Vaughn was unconvinced, and in his tepid review of the show dismissed it as “pretentious.” But in his rave November 19, 1980 review, Steele wrote of “Ubu”’s opening night:

Why, WHY are we laughing? There’s a presidential election in which the two leading candidates are disgraceful choices, loathed by the people. The campaign is a merry-go-round of gobbled-gook signifying nothing. The name of ‘The People’ is thrown out at every turn in the bright, loving tones, yet the candidates can barely tolerate the smelly masses, which doesn’t make too much difference because The People don’t believe what the candidates say anyway. This ritual is called Democracy, and it’s laughable.

Coincidental relationships to any past, present or future American elections notwithstanding, we are talking here about a play, an extraordinary new work called “Ubu For President.” It’s being presented by Theatre de la Jeune Lune, that doughty little theater made up of American and French actors, dividing its year between Minneapolis and Paris… The power of this work lies in that world between the enormity of the events portrayed and the utterly farcical way they’re perceived. We’re watching the downfall of a civilization, the degradation of the political process, and we’re laughing ourselves silly. Strange and strangely effective.

“The premise was Ubu discovers Democracy, doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t know what to do with it or how to deal with it. Which now is like, ‘Hello?,’” said Rosen. “He’s this big buffoon who knows everything better than everybody else, who is the leader, who is Number One, who basically just says and does what he wants.

“And then when they decide that the finances of the country are in bad shape, he has to start a war to beef up the finances. And then everything is wrecked, everything is destroyed, and Ubu is sitting by himself and along comes Democracy in a dream. He doesn’t know what it is, but Democracy tells him that he has to get The People back and out of hiding and he promises they will hold elections. But then Ubu doesn’t like that there has to be a second candidate, so everything is rigged after that, Ubu holds a kind of violent campaign, they hold an election where only votes for Ubu count, Ubu wins, and at the end in the midst of a wild celebration the country splits apart and breaks off and goes floating away into the ocean and off to France, where Ubu intends to run for Minister of Finance.

“And while the country’s splitting, he’s blaming college professors, the media, and everybody else. I mean, for me, [Trump’s presidency] was just a four-year version of Ubu.”

Ubu today

I fondly (weirdly?) recalled Ubu last October, when covering the Trump campaign rally at Target Center.  The bouncing baby Trump balloon, wearing diapers and a pout, had landed on the roof of First Avenue. From my perch across the street, the big baby looked for all the world like Ubu.

“Ubu For President” was remounted by Jeune Lune for one last encore run in 1988. Over the past four years across the country, a small but renewed relevance to “Ubu” has sprung up on college and community stages, including a 2016 election-week version of  “Ubu For President” created by Four Humors Theater at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis,  and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s 2018 “National UBU ROI Bake-Off,” an invitation to dramatists the world over to write a five-page sketch that puts Trump in Ubu’s world. Playwright Rainer Ganahi’s “Ubu Trump” was staged in Harlem and Berlin; “Ubu King President” played to sold-out crowds in San Francisco; “King Ubu” flopped in Chicago; Ubu was updated as Trump in “In America, That is to Say No Where” at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival; and artist Richard Kraft produced a series of Trump-Ubu works that classically marry the madmen in two-tone propaganda prints.

Trump balloon on the roof of First Avenue, October 10, 2019.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Trump balloon on the roof of First Avenue, October 10, 2019.
Rosen’s theater students nearly staged a pre-pandemic “Ubu For President” at Macalester, but in the end decided to create something of their own time and making. Still, as the volcanic ash of the Trump years continues to settle over America and the faint sound of laughter can start to be heard through all the chaos, death, sorrow, and widespread political corruption, the truth-telling Ubu lurks and looms.

“It was a very controversial play when it was first created,” said Serrand. “A lot of theaters refused to produce it, even as late as the ’70s and ’80s, because they were afraid that the play would shock a lot of people. And that, obviously, was its point.

“If we did a version today it would have been about Trump and his cabinet and the Republican party and all these people who followed him in an atrocious way. Think of it! Some things that have been done are absolutely criminal, and nobody’s talking about creating a special court so justice can be done and nobody’s talking about going after these people. I think there are similarities but there are big differences, and I think if I would have remounted it in the last four years, it would be not so much about the character himself but about the surroundings and his cabinet.”

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While the late-night talk shows, Instagram/TikTok comics, and the occasional SNL surprise have attempted to lampoon Trump, nothing over the past four years has captured the visceral feeling of being in a theater, surrounded by loony binners reacting physically and hysterically  in real-time to their dictator and all his poop, pomp and circumstance. “Ubu” was Johnny Rotten screaming, “No future” to his fellow knowing suckers; an old school hardcore punk rock mosh pit meets Cirque du Soleil. And while I’m sure much solid satire was produced during the Trump years, nothing haunts me quite like “Ubu” from 40 years ago does.

Serrand: “It might be my own ignorance, but it begs the question: Where are the writers [of satire like ‘Ubu’ today]? That spirit is alive. I wish it was more. And you know, when I realized that 70 million people voted for Trump, I realize now we live in Part Two. Before we had the guys in his cabinets and now we have his society. We’re going to have to live with that.”

“I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad the show closed,” said Rosen, wearily, referring to Trump’s presidency. “This act, anyway.”