The play that starts with “shit”

Celebrating the anniversaries of two literary blockbusters: Ubu Roi and Huck Finn.


The play that starts with “shit”

Celebrating the anniversaries of two literary blockbusters: Ubu Roi and Huck Finn.

The play that starts with “shit”

Celebrating the anniversaries of two literary blockbusters: Ubu Roi and Huck Finn.

Lunar Observer records upcoming dates of interest: holidays, birthdays, best day to cut hair.

The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a classic time for a blockbuster. People are hanging out with their families more, desperate for something to do together that doesn't involve sitting around talking. Home Alones 1 and 2, Gremlinses first batch & New, and Dies Hard & Harder all dropped around this time to great effect.

For recorded music (AKA "albums") you usually see a stranger distribution of trends in December — it's pretty much too late to get on a "year's best" list, but also it's prime time to make holiday sales. So December releases tend to be either wig-twisting, oversized dynamos uncaring of critics; savvy pop investments more interested in money than critical acclaim; or scheduling errors.

Literary blockbusters tend to disperse a little more regularly throughout the year, but this Saturday, Dec. 10, we celebrate the anniversary of two literary blockbusters, or proto-blockbusters. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was published on this day in 1884, and Alfred Jarry's absurdist bellwether play Ubu Roi opened and closed on this night in 1896. Both of these works are groundbreaking, fun, good, classic, oftentimes banned, and certified best-sellers.

I think you have to let teens come to their own satire.

I read Huckleberry Finn in school. Probably more than a few readers did too. It's regularly banned or threatened to be banned from schools due to its use of racist language, but it seems like Mark Twain also didn't want it taught, though for a different reason — it seems like he just plain hated school.

I remember my English teacher reading aloud from the intro: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." I was familiar with this sort of self-denigrating level-setting preamble from Mad magazine and other sources, but it was a foundational insanity to realize that my teacher, probably once nice but now bitter and insane, a classic lazy, tenured, spiteful, senile, pinched-face archetype prone to paranoid hallucinations, was just flopping this defeat on the table. Hiding in plain sight I guess.

Ubu Roi, or King Ubu.

Ubu Roi, or King Ubu.

Ubu Roi will never get the high school treatment — it was a big, big noise in its time, forging a path for Dadaism, Surrealism, and the Theater of the Absurd, but the very first word is SHIT, if not in all caps then in an all-caps feeling, and there's no avoiding or defending that.

Ubu Roi's eponymous main character is definitely still relevant, as he has been for basically every minute of recorded history: a childlike dictator with no self-awareness; ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, and dishonest (see also Home Alone 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and Die Hard (the first one)). But maybe it's for the best that you can't get it in class. Ubu Roi is based directly on a bad teacher that Jarry had as a kid, and while it's important, as a kid, to learn strategies to navigate or mitigate the effects of irrational actors who have some control over your agency, I think you have to let teens come to their own satire. Or am I only saying this because Dada didn't age well and contemporary satire sucks? Anyway, RIP Vine.

Another cultural product that debuted Dec. 10 is the Mighty Mouse Playhouse TV show. I'll leave it for someone else to tie this in with Huck Finn and Pere Ubu, but if you want a meditation for the day, you could do worse than Mighty Mouse Playhouse.

Birthdays on the 10th include mathematician and programmer Ada Lovelace, composer Olivier Messiaen, writer Clarice Lispector, and musician J Mascis. The best day to cut hair this week is the 11th.

Olivier Messiaen - Quartet for the End of Time

Dinosaur Jr. - Bug (full LP)

Sit, Ubu, sit (Latin for "this also is Ubu")

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The play that starts with “shit”

Jacob Khepler is the main writer and publisher of Mothers News. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.