A week that features Bernard Madoff denouncing people for being greedy, and Moammar Gaddafi delivering a sermon on love, can only be encompassed by a return to that ur-text of our time, Ubu the King .
Ubu 's first performance, in Paris, in 1896, touched off a battle in the audience between people who couldn't get enough of fat, savage, moronic Ubu, and people outraged that anyone could have conceived, let alone staged, such an obscenity. A travesty in the key of Macbeth, Ubu Roi celebrates the stinky scheming regicide Pere Ubu, and his equally stinky wife, Mere Ubu. Mere gets the idea to kill the king:
Who's stopping you from slaughtering the whole family and putting yourself in their place? ... You could increase your fortune indefinitely, have sausages whenever you liked, and ride through the streets in a carriage.
Ubu explains his plot:
We should simply poison the King by sticking some arsenic in his lunch. When he starts stuffing himself he'll fall down dead, and then I'll be King.
Once he's "killed the King good and proper," Ubu taxes the hell out of the people and gives nothing in return because "I want to get rich, and I won't part with a sou." When challenged on ethical grounds, he says "Isn't it just as good to have wrong on your side as it is to have right?"
Advisors caution Ubu, who's killing property owners and taking their houses and land, that he's "too bloodthirsty."
Huh! I'm getting rich! I'm going to have MY list of MY property read. Clerk, read MY list of MY property.
As the remaining nobles of the kingdom are slaughtered in front of him, Ubu tells the executioner, "Hurry up quicker, I want to make some laws now."
Ubu explains his political program:
I've changed the government and I've had it put in the paper that all the existing taxes must be paid twice, and those that I shall impose later must be paid three times. With this system I shall soon have made my fortune, and then I'll kill everybody and go away.
He explains his philosophy of life:
Disembrain them, killen them, cut their earens off, seize their cash and drink yourself to death.
Cowardly ("Soldier: Courage, Pere Ubu! Pere Ubu: Hell! I'm doing it in my breeches."), physically disgusting, morally cretinous, Ubu has a vast nonsensical unstoppable linguistic energy. He understands language's deep structure:
I have it on the highest authority: Omnis a Deo scientia, which means: omnis, all; a Deo, knowledge; scientia, comes from God. That's the explanation of the phenomenon.
Thinking he's been shot, he shouts:
Ow! Ouch! I'm wounded, I'm holed, I'm perforated, I'm administered, I'm interred!
When one of his men dies, Ubu delivers a eulogy:
As the poppy and the dandelion in the flower of their age are scythed by the pitiless scythe of the pitiless scyther who pitilessly scythes their pitiful mugs, so little Rensky has played the role of the poppy...
Jarry's Ubu, pursued by the king's avenging army, escapes across the border to plot more greed and slaughter. Yet the cultural punch of Ubu has proven inescapable: There's Pere Ubu, the experimental band, and Ubu Productions. We couldn't have had the robotic self-presentations of David Bowie and Klaus Nomi without him. The word ubuesque has become part of French political discourse, and, more broadly, the word ubu has assumed the same universally absurd value as dada, though with an added dollop of violence.
Indeed it's his bestial greed and beaming butchery that give Pere Ubu a leg up on the passive Vladimirs and Estragons of the world. Maybe Ubu is Godot, the leader for whom those losers wait. Vlad, Estragon, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern - these characters are us, out there in the audience, getting ripped off and then killed by Ubu/Godot.
Ubu gestures toward the peculiar charisma of our most notable postmodern thought-leaders, our authorities on greed, love, and Living (surely Martha, only recently released back into the community, has a small place here): Weird, without remorse, swaddled in their bright baby clothes, romping over the global Romper Room.
Bernie: Up to the moment of his arrest, a respected trustee of Yeshiva University.
Moammar: The founder, with his son, of what people are now calling the Libyan School of Economics.
Dead from self-neglect in his thirties, Alfred Jarry had just enough energy to eke out his masterpiece. He died of the same disgust that birthed Ubu.