Ubu Roi

What better way to celebrate the madness of our present time than with the work of art that started it all? Ubu Roi premiered, as a French play, in December 10, 1896, and the world hasn’t been the same since. Ubu Roi ushered in modernism. It is punk rock a century before punk rock came to be, and the great Pere Ubu takes its name from this play’s overbearing protagonist. Ubu Roi is anti-establishment- before surrealism, before Dada, before Burroughs, Duchamp, Beckett or anything absurd or insane that ever graced a canvas or a stage.

Ubu Roi caused a riot at its debut and pissed off audiences and critics everywhere with its crass, vulgar satire of the rich and powerful. It was banned after one performance, even though the entire story is just silly nonsense being spouted by goofy characters the entire time. It’s basically burlesque theater, but no one had ever seen anything like it, and their minds were truly blown.

Jean-Christopher Averty’s 1965 adaptation for French television probably won’t offend you, but it’s still a visual assault, full of fascinating and compelling camera tricks and zaniness to keep the nonsensical storyline alive. It’s a delight to watch; he plays with the format of the tv screen itself- the boxes, the frames- turning the camera into yet another element of the madness. It’s a total trip, worthy of Alfredy Jarrry himself (Ubu Roi‘s mad, brilliant playwright.)

Apart from being a fun, entertaining trip, Ubu Roi has an important lesson for 2021 and beyond: art has always been, and should continue to be, button-pushing. It’s not there to make us feel good, but to challenge our notions of what is acceptable. It might seem hard to believe that this silly play could actually piss someone off, but just look around: from comics like Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle making fun of white liberals to the French magazine Charlie Hebdo angering Muslims to JK Rowling invoking the ire of the LGBTQ community for expressing her point of view, ideas are still making people feel threatened (and angry.) The pen is clearly still mightier than the sword.

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