By Michael Garval (Regular Contributor)
In this inaugural ball season, the scatological feast in Act I of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 Ubu Roi offers an apt parody of political festivities past and present.
In the play, the cruel, rash, greedy, childish, vulgar, vengeful philistine Ubu (Fig. 1) seizes power on a whim. His short reign proves disastrous.
Political interpretations of Jarry’s groundbreaking, iconoclastic work have varied over time. At first, Ubu seemed to embody 1890s anarchist agitation (Jarry called him the “perfect anarchist”), or absolute political mediocrity (painter Paul Gauguin described him as a quintessentially “vile,” “crappy” politician). In the twentieth century, Ubu came to be seen as an authoritarian despot, for example with painter Joan Miró ringing variations on Ubu to decry Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Of late, Ubu has resurfaced in critiques of US president-elect Donald Trump, with various Trump-inspired versions of Ubu Roi playing in Seattle, Minneapolis, Richmond, and Lubbock, Texas. The first such comparison even predates his candidacy (Fig. 2).
The play’s opening line scandalized the audience at its Parisian premiere. Ubu bellows “Merdre!”—adding an extra “r” to merde, or shit in French—a scarcely euphemistic coinage rendered in English as “pshit,” “shite,” or “shitsky.” In the play, this oft-hurled expletive also figures in the banquet as an ingredient. But how, and why?
Eat shit and die
Once “Mama Ubu” convinces her husband to overthrow King Wenceslas of Poland, they invite Captain Bordure and his partisans to dine, to enlist their help. Even before guests arrive, impatient, gluttonous Ubu sneaks pieces of roast chicken and veal. The meal’s long list of dishes apes festive dinners from the period: Polish soup, “drat chops,” veal, chicken, dog pâté, turkey rumps, charlotte russe, bombe glacée, salad, fruit, dessert, boiled beef, Jerusalem artichokes, and “cauliflower à la shitsky.” But this anarchic menu, served in no particular order, mixes refined banquet items with nonsensical and frankly revolting ones.
The dynamic at table is just as chaotic. Guests vacillate between disgust and delight; hosts between hospitality and hostility. In a particularly unsettling sequence Ubu leaves, then returns with a surprise as the guests are praising their hostess’s cooking with cries of “Long live Mama Ubu!” “And soon you’ll be shouting long live Papa Ubu,” he declares, heralding his imminent coup d’état while holding a dirty toilet brush, which he throws upon the feast. “Try a little,” he adds, and the stage directions note: “Several taste and fall down, poisoned.” Abandoning polite dinner party pretense, the scene pivots from whimsical merdre to noxious merde.
Ubu, like Trump, is a perplexing phenomenon. Politically, Ubu’s rise remains unimpeded by his disregard for others, even his ostensible allies. Gastronomically, Ubu short circuits the normal order of things, substituting output for input, as he serves up excrement instead of food (Jarry, who identified closely with his character, preferred eating meals backwards, from dessert to soup). And politics and gastronomy intertwine, as Ubu’s odious gesture at table presages his ruthless regime ahead. In colloquial English his message to the people would be “Eat shit and die.”
In France, the 1880s through the start of the Great War were what the title of Roger Shattuck’s landmark study called “the banquet years.” Paris in particular offered a metaphoric feast of spectacle, drama, agitation, and ferment across society, politics, and the arts, echoed by more literal banquets—elaborate, multi-course affairs, showcasing French culinary preeminence in the age of Escoffier.
The Ubus’ disconcerting dinner takes aim at this sort of extravaganza, and especially at the period’s frequent political banquets, like this 1903 French state luncheon hosting the King and Queen of Italy (Fig. 3). And US inaugural balls at the turn of the century emulated such Gallic models. For example, the 1901 supper menu for President William McKinley and Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural ball details a cornucopia of fancified dishes, in bad culinary French—Consomme de Volaille a’ la reine, Essence de Molusque, Homard farcis, Croquettes Exquises aux petits pois, etc. —though puritan abstemiousness governs the beverage options, with only Apollinaris water and coffee listed (Fig. 4).
These days, inaugural galas feature “heavy hors d’oeuvres” and carving stations, rather than endless sit-down dinners. But wining, dining, dancing, and schmoozing remain the order of the day. These events still offer a ceremonial interlude before the new regime swings into action, a time for anticipation and speculation. Politically, the Trump campaign and transition have prompted great apprehension; gastronomically, the prospects are worrisome as well, with Trump Grill recently described as “the worst restaurant in America.”
So, amid inaugural festivities, might there be further clues about the sort of merde to be served over the next four years?
Michael Garval, Professor of French and Director of the interdisciplinary Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at North Carolina State University, also serves as Associate Editor of the journal Contemporary French Civilization. His research interests include celebrity, visual culture, and gastronomy. The author of ‘A Dream of Stone’: Fame, Vision, and Monumentality in Nineteenth-Century French Literary Culture, and of Cléo de Mérode and the Rise of Modern Celebrity Culture, he is currently working on a new book project, Imagining the Celebrity Chef in Post-Revolutionary France.