A Play at a Harlem Funeral Home Confronts the Absurdities of Trump
Artist Rainer Ganahl's take on Alfred Jarry's wild satirical classic digs deep into the current regime's alternative reality.
Rainer Ganahl graphic for Ubu Trump. Courtesy of Rainer Ganahl
Threatening the President of the United States—or even threatening to threaten him—is a felony under United States Code Title 18, Section 871, but staging an utterly nonsensical play about the President of the United States in a Harlem funeral home remains perfectly legal. The latter is exactly what Austrian American artist Rainer Ganahl did with his one-night-only engagement Ubu Trump, named for and inspired by Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi. Jarry's scandalous 1896 work prefigured surrealism, modernism, Dadaism, and the theater of the absurd. It also so offended its audience with its relentless satirizing of governmental power and greed that it opened and closed on the same evening.
Ubu Roi features a hodgepodge of tried-and-true Shakespearean plot lines cobbled together in a manner anachronistically reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster: a king’s assassination and his plotting wife (Macbeth) meet a ghost and a rebellion (Hamlet) meet a rescinded reward (Richard III), topped off with a murderous bear (The Winter’s Tale). The incoherence of all this, exacerbated by shoddy and unspecific cardboard scenery is, of course, the point. It’s madness—not unlike the nightmarish political theater currently playing out in Washington. The opening word of Ubu Roi, uttered by the protagonist himself, is “Merdre!”—French for shit, with an extra r, uncannily presaging Trump’s serial misspeaking and misspelling.
Ganahl’s Ubu Trump substitutes Donald Trump as King Ubu: grotesque, absurd, and obscene. Why on earth would anyone choose to endure the dramatic results of this recasting, you ask? Perhaps it’s Ganahl’s fearless, sometimes-controversial facing down of our shared reality; this is the artist, after all, who had his work removed from a Tinder-sponsored cocktail deck at the Surf Lodge in Montauk last summer. Ganahl’s highway exit sign showed an arrow pointing eastward, with “Syria” inscribed on it in both English and Arabic, reminding beachgoers what was on the other side of the Atlantic. Outside the hotel, Ganahl flew a small flag reading “Sad!” in a neo-Gothic, Nazi-esque font, beneath a giant American flag, echoing Trump’s jejune Twitter summation of his many enemies. Both were taken down prematurely due to complaints.
If our Maniac-in-Chief can nonchalantly override truth, making fun of “fake news” all the while, Ubu Trump may well be—Hamilton notwithstanding—the theater our moment deserves. Might even the fact that it’s difficult to sit through Ubu Trump give us cause for hope? The production served as a gentle, even fun reminder of what we may yet have to endure. At least Ganhal’s political bad trip lasted just a couple of hours, and there were still some good bars down the street.