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Gintaras Varnas. Ubu and the Modern Day “Šėpa”

About eighteen months ago a war broke out in Eastern Europe. Could anyone imagine this three, five, ten years ago? Definitely not me. I thought I saw how the world was evolving in two directions, utopias, drawn by visionaries. The West – towards A. Huxley’s Brave New World and the East (Russia, China, North Korea) – towards G. Orwell’s 1984. Neither direction is a happy one, but I could not anticipate a real, terrible war break out in Ukraine, a country on the edge of Europe, which had clearly chosen the direction of the West. We all knew about the wars in Chechnya, Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and Donbass. Russia’s aggression has been apparent for a long time. And if we look back at the Soviet times or those of the Russian Empire – it was always the same, with greater or lesser exacerbations. And yet I could not believe that Russia would or could openly and shamelessly attack Ukraine and start a massive (not hybrid) war.

This existential shock made me rethink and rediscover a number of things. Parallels with Hitler’s rise to power and the war that he waged, WWII. The Russian fascism, murders, rapes, deportations, concentration camps. The same old story, only this time the perpetrator is not Nazi Germany, but our old neighbour and occupier, Russia. The same “spiritual” Russia, whose old art, literature, music, etc. are so loved and adored by the West (including Lithuania). Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Wagner and… Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky. The number of genius artists in a country does not prevent the country, worshipping its humanist geniuses, from becoming an aggressor ready to destroy its neighbours. Provided the country bears a moronic dictator, who takes pleasure in humiliating, maiming, and murdering. Hitler was a loser, but a loud one. Putin is a low life, a coward, a blatant liar. And a loser. One with an ambition to rule the world. Shakespearean plots.

Should the theatre talk about the war in Ukraine? If we believe the ancient Greeks, the originators of European theatre, yes, the theatre ought to talk about what’s important and relevant. The question is how to do it. The war is still ongoing, and it is too early to generalize. There have been numerous attempts, and it’s become almost “a must” for every theatre to stress that it supports Ukraine and is against the war. This turns into a kind of advertising campaign and is expressed through performances, readings, etc. But most of them fall into the field of quasi-documentary (testimonies, Ukrainian people’s tragedies told by them, etc.). It is obvious that in this regard, the theatre becomes inferior to documentary films – real and raw. This war is happening “online” – one can watch its horrors on the phone within the comfort of one’s home. We don’t need a theatre for that.

Another position is to ignore the war. Performances are created, Chekhov, so loved by everyone, is staged, life is happening, the audience is happy, applauding, everything is fine. “After all, the war is not here, we don’t feel it, it’s far away.” For Westerners, the hedonists and positivists of their almost “brave new world”, this war is like a thorn in the eye or a pain in the neck. An annoying intruder on their joys. Strangely, they do not realize that it may one day come to their streets and homes.

I’m not talking about little Putin’s repeated threats of “tactical nuclear strikes” or about the looming global nuclear annihilation. I find it very strange that the Western leaders seem to be seriously afraid of this. I see it as nothing more than a bluff of the nitwit, his way to intimidate the world. I am talking about the existential war that is taking place here and now and is countlessly repeated throughout the history of mankind, about the eternal struggle between good and evil. We’re witnessing the climax of Harry Potter – the great battle for Hogwarts. Voldemort-Putin vs. Harry Potter-Zelensky. Who shall win? Well, in Harry Potter, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry manages to hold out at the eleventh hour despite being seriously damaged and suffering many losses and casualties. Voldemort crumbles to pieces. Disappears. I assume that most people are wishing for the death of one person. Putin. He must be quite nervous if he has any adequacy left in him.

Well, I have already conducted a magical seance with Putin’s head in theatre. It took eight years, but it rolled off in the end (Juditha Triumphans by A. Vivaldi). That was a heroic genre, and now another magical seance will take place – a farce. Great villains abhor laughter, especially when they are the ones being laughed at. Well, if being compared to the great villains of history may be perceived as an honour, being reduced to a comic character, even more, a parody of Macbeth, is certainly not. The balding Russian twit shouldn’t find it appealing.

In the world of dramaturgy there once was a famous name – Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). It was his play Ubu Rois that brought him to fame, although he later wrote a few more plays about Ubu. His works combine satire, Dadaist nonsense, farce and grotesque. A. Jarry’s world centers around Ubu. Who is this Ubu, whose name is no less famous than Hamlet, Macbeth or Faust? Unlike the latter three, who were Personalities, Ubu is a wretched Mediocrity. André Breton made an interesting and accurate insight that Ubu embodies Z. Freud’s “Id”, “THAT” (as opposed to “ego”), most primitive human instincts – thirst for power, authority, wealth, and so on. At the same time, Ubu is a common denominator of the primitive type able to captivate the masses. Perhaps he is exactly what the masses need, because his primitive personality is very similar to them? Ubu also represents perfect adaptability: like a chameleon, he blends with the environment and, if necessary, becomes invisible. Doesn’t it remind you of the modern Russian tsar? No, this isn’t Shakespeare with his great villains and heroes. Jarry sees the world as a feast of mediocrities, as absurd. His Ubu is albeit inaccurate, but a parody of Macbeth. And Putin’s fate is very similar to that of Macbeth. Well, something between Macbeth and Richard III.

Once upon a time, in 1989-92, in Lithuania, there was “Šėpa” Theatre. Such a political buffoonery with puppets. Then life changed, the national liberation revolution was over and such a theatre seemed to have lost its meaning, so we discontinued “Šėpa’s” activity. Every now and then someone would urge us to revive the theatre. On several occasions, even Professor Irena Veisaitė tried to persuade me to do it. But I never felt like it. Until now, when I realized that this type of theatre, a political cabaret, belongs in wartime. Therefore, it makes sense to revive the tradition (which, by the way, is even older, dating back to 1939, when the Polish student Szopka Wileńska was active in Vilnius and even had a puppet of Hitler(!)), with new characters in this time of war in the 21st century.

The two stylistic “foundations” of the play consist of the world of Ubu, where Ubu-Putin lives, mucks about, screams, barks and sings with his gang, and the “Šėpa” theatre-closet, which will accommodate our “World” and its puppets from Macron and Orbán to Scholz, Biden and Zelensky. The West, whose mercantile and hypocritical relationship with the new Russian tsar has allowed him to thrive, to feel equal among equals and even to start military conflicts. With the West looking on and “expressing concern”, Ubu-Putin brandishes guns and in the end attacks a neighbouring country. The countries of the West get nervous. They express greater and greater concerns and resentments, but carefully, so as not to anger Ubu because who knows what’s in his head – what if he drops a bomb on us? Of course, we are against it, but… We, free people, the free world, are proud of our values and will defend them, but we’d rather not have to. This war is annoying – the prices are rising, it has become difficult to find a peaceful moment to enjoy champagne and oysters because now we need to express deep concern, to wave foreign flags, to discuss sanctions again and again and we’re fed up with it. We will give them weapons, but… not too many. So that Mr. Putin does not get angry. We’ll give you those weapons, next year for sure, but it would be much better if you started negotiating, maybe you could agree on something, and all this unpleasant situation would soon be over.

Puppets, masks, live actors, songs, dances and the world as a big absurdity. The world as “shrit” (to use Ubu’s lexicon). I hope it will be funny, though hardly fun.