On Friday, December 1, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty in federal court to lying to the FBI, becoming the latest member of the Trump campaign to admit guilt in the midst of Robert Mueller’s investigation. The next evening, the artist Rainer Ganahl stood in front of a small crowd in a room at the Daniels Wilhelmina Funeral Home in Harlem, and described the genesis of his new play, Ubu Trump, which stars many of the individuals involved in the nation’s ongoing legal drama. Ganahl, who was wearing a Christmas-y red and green sweater vest over a checkered shirt, began by talking about Alfred Jarry, the French author whose absurdist theater piece Ubu Roi (1896) inspired his new work.
“He’s a very interesting character. I have been obsessed with for many years,” said Ganahl, who has a fan website of sorts called I Wanna Be Alfred Jarry (iwannabealfredjarry.me), which lauds the author as “not only an amazing writer, avant-garde figure, inventor, and pataphysician” but as a “fabulous bicyclist.” (Ganahl is also an avid biker and can regularly be spotted at art events around town wearing the kind of bright reflective jacket that crossing guards don.)
“First I knew him from school—we had to read his texts, and that was maybe not so exciting, but later I learned that he was read in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire,” Ganahl continued. “I was interested in the relationship between Lenin and the Cabaret Voltaire, because Lenin lived on the other side of the Cabaret Voltaire at the same time, during World War I, and he was for sure part of all these kind of soirées, these Dada evenings.” That fact led to Ganahl’s first adaptation of Ubu Roi, about ten years ago, with Vladimir Lenin and Nadezhda Krupskaya in the main roles of the play, which, very loosely speaking, is a kind of nonsensical Macbeth.
During the presidential campaign, Ganahl told the audience assembled in New York, he started hearing Trump on the radio (mostly on NPR; he doesn’t own a TV), and, “I really thought, Wow, this guy is amazing. He’s so entertaining. So I redid it.” And so began his work on Ubu Trump, which, after months of writing, was presented on December 2 in conjunction with White Columns.
Three large white paintings stood at the front of the room, each with versions of a drawing of Jarry’s ridiculous, rotund, cowardly protagonist, Père Ubu. One was upside down with the faces of Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump (or maybe Kellyanne Conway), and Vladimir Putin on his belly. In another, Ubu had morphed into a Ku Klux Klan hood, with President Trump emblazoned on its front. Two volunteer actors recruited by Ganahl—Whitney Alexander and Nickolas Calabrese—sat behind a poster, ready to read various characters in the script, and before the artist took his place behind one painting, he had made a final announcement. “I have to apologize up front for the vulgarity of the language,” he said.
The play begins at Trump Tower, with a little kerfuffle between Ubu Trump and Ubu Ivanka.
“Shit!” Ubu Trump cries.
“Oh! Such language!” Ubu Ivanka responds. “Papa Ubu Trump, what a pig you are!”
Almost immediately, Ubu Ivanka tries to convince Ubu Trump to seize power in the United States and Poland, but he is hesitant. “By my green dick,” he says (this turns out to be a common verbal tick for him), “I’m content. After all, I’m Counselor to King Wenceslas, Knight of the Red Eagle of Poland, and close advisor to the U.S. president. I am also in possession of Trump Towers, golf courses, casinos, Trump University, and a flourishing suit business. Also, I’m hosting TheApprentice and stage all major beauty contests, where ugly women like you don’t belong! What more do you want?”
But Ubu Ivanka persists, saying, “And what about the American presidency after Obama had humiliated you at his correspondents gala? Don’t you think grabbing pussies at the White House is sexier, you dirty old shit?”
“If I were in your place,” Ubu Ivanka continues, “I’d want to plant that ass on a throne and, as your supremacist supporters suggest, in the White House. You could make lots of money, fly Air Force One, and shit on the world.
This seems to convince Ubu Trump, and soon enough he is off scheming. The King is murdered in quick order, and Ubu Trump assumes the throne of both countries, but Madam Chelsea flees. Ubu Trump tosses gold to the masses, who fight viciously for it.
“Look, how they squabble,” Michael Flynn says. “What a battle over this gold!”
“It’s truly amazing,” Ubu Trump concurs. “There’s even someone with his skull cracked open. This is more exciting than Syria.”
“Let’s repeat this more often,” Jared Kushner says.
At the risk of giving too much away, Ubu Trump also features a spirited orgy, appearances by George Zimmerman, Anthony Scaramucci, “Czar” Putin, and various senators (most of whom Ubu Trump promptly murders), and a scene that involves Ubu Trump proposing that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas organize a “new department for the propagation of misogyny and sexual assault.” There were more than a few gasps and nervous laughs during the unrelenting 45-minute performance, which was made even more discomfiting by its venue, a place of remembrance and reflection made over into a site of satirical violence and debauchery.
And yet, the strange unreality of the present political atmosphere in the country means that lines that would seem overwrought in any other era carried the awful force of truth. “Papa Ubu, all is very well, but we have to economize, take money from the poor, and hand it to the super-rich like us,” Ivanka Ubu says at one point. “Otherwise, we lose their support.”
There were, thankfully, instances of, if not quite hope, then at least good sense prevailing. “Ubu Trump is awful and his family abominable,” a peasant says at one point. Though the peasant adds right after, “He hates Harlem in particular and tweeted how he wants to flood morgues with bodies.”
The play ends—spoiler alert—with Ubu Trump dying while having sex with Putin in a morgue.
As everyone applauded, Ganahl popped up from behind the painting that had shielded him during the reading. “Thank you for coming,” he told the crowd, which had grown larger as late comers had straggled in. He seems touched by the turnout. “A lot of you came!” he said, before inviting everyone to a party at his house down the street.
The day after the performance, President Trump took to Twitter to say that the FBI’s reputation is “in tatters.” The next day, he endorsed an alleged pedophile for Senate, and two days later he returned to one of his favorite lines, tweeting once again, “MAKE AMERICAN GREAT AGAIN!”