A writer — and a reader, for that matter — must take prose in the context of the time when it was written, not the time in which it is being read.
Take, for example, this journal entry from my first year as a freelancer. I’ll share it first as I read it in 2023, then as I put it into the context of the times it was written:
… I put out 3 job applications, then got another lead in the Valley News about a part-time reporter position for a local radio station. Tonight I saw “King Uber” — a well-produced but very distressing show. Fortunately, I may be able to recoup my investment by writing a review + sending it to Marion Bratesman’s office. We’ll see. Pretty soon, I may be a very busy man!Journal, Volume II
5 May 1979
How’s that again? As a “very distressing show,” was “King Uber” something like “Taxi Driver,” which came out three years earlier?
No. In 1979, the founders of the Uber ride-hailing service were still in diapers. Even the prefix uber-, as in uber-important, didn’t come into common English usage until a decade later.
It was “King Ubu.”
“King Ubu” was a modern Dartmouth Players production of an 1896 French Theatre of the Absurd title, “Ubu Roi.” It’s a violent and pointless takeoff on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” in which the central character stages a coup and kills the King of Poland and most of the royal family.
The first word of the original French play, “merdre” — or “shit” in English — is used frequently throughout the show. As I recall, the recurring joke of the production is to shout the word “shit!” after which the rest of the cast would shout “-ski!”
Yeah, that’s a Polish joke. I’ve never cared much for ethnic humor, even before my daughter-in-law discovered this year that I’m descended from Polish royalty.
Hmmm. Like the ones slaughtered in the play?
How did I intend to recoup my investment in the ticket? Most theatrical companies would give complimentary tickets, or “comps,” for reviewers to catch the show. I was not on assignment, so I bought my ticket. My plan was to ask the publicity director of the Hopkins Center for reimbursement if I published it in the Journal Opinion.
The whole comp ticket deal is a little shady to begin with. Professional critics pay their own way, or their employer buys the ticket for them. That way they are not indebted to the theater. Asking the venue to reimburse me would have been … questionable.
“King Ubu” comes up again in a few days, so I figured I’d tell you about it here. I never did get much out of it except, perhaps, a convenient and somewhat droll new cuss word: “shitsky!”
3 thoughts on ““King Uber?” (1979)”
In the French original the opening is “Merdre!” so an English translation is true to the spirit of the original when it incorporates a word that is not actually “Shit!” but is deliberately bent slightly.
Battlestar Galactica (Edward James Olmos version, not Lorne Geeene version) did something similar with characters cursing, “Frak!”
The audience gets it; the censor lets it.
Shitsky, Mr. Gifford, you’re right! I’ve revised my post here to make that clearer. And your comment goes to my original point of reading a work in the context of the time in which it was written, not when it was read or performed. Still, this *was* a contemporary translation and production.
The -ski! suffix joke wore thin after the second use. If the producers wanted to remain true to the spirit of the original, they could also have used either the original “merdre!” or the English “shit!” instead. Frankly, I think I was more offended by the ethnicity of the humor than its obscenity.
My clip file is somewhere in the attic and I’d love to see what I thought of the play at the time of the performance. I’ll need to go on an archeological dig.