A Response to Versailles 2016 Via a Joke About a Polar Bear

Photo by Maria Baranova

Photo by Maria Baranova

Midway through my freshman year at the University of Minnesota, during an entry-level Culture Studies and Comparative Literature class led by a sexy-disheveled instructor by the name of Dr. Thomas Pepper (we were explicitly forbidden from calling him Dr. Pepper), my classmates and I were told a joke that none of us really understood.  Or, maybe, we kind of ‘got’ it but it didn’t seem actually funny.  Strangely, it’s stayed with me over the years – quick, try to think of a joke, any joke.  Difficult, right?  While I can’t summon many, I can always remember this one, even though I rarely tell it.  But there’s a time and a place for everything, and I am hoping – for once and for all – to come to a better understanding about certain things.  Okay, so, the joke:

A polar bear cub goes to his mother and asks, “Mom, am I a real polar bear?”
His mother looks him up and down and says, “Well, yes, honey, you certainly are.  You’re 100% polar bear, I promise.”  Unconvinced, the cub goes to his father and asks, “Dad, am I a real polar bear?”  His dad is a little less gentle with the response.  “What’s wrong with you?  Yes.  You are.”  So the cub goes to his grandfather and asks the same question.  “Granddad, am I a real polar bear?”  His grandfather pats him on the head and replies, “You look like a polar bear and you smell like a polar bear, so yes, of course you are.”  The cub then goes to his grandmother and asks, “Gramma, am I a real polar bear?”  The grandmother polar bear nods her head.  “Why, of course you are, dear.  We are all polar bears in this family.”  

And the polar bear cub stamps his little foot down in complete frustration and cries out,

“Then why am I so cold?!”

So.  Right.  Is it funny?  No one laughed in the room except for the instructor, who was the type of person to laugh at his own jokes anyway.  But he was also generally brilliant, and so I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Yet, although I got it generally – the little polar bear didn’t understand how it was possible to be cold despite being a polar bear – it just didn’t strike me as particularly comedic.

I’m coming around, slowly, to the point here.  While watching This is Not a Theatre Company’s production of Versailles 2016 hosted by En Garde Arts and Anne Hamburger in her striking and quite spacious house (which is for sale apparently, if anyone is interested in moving to Hastings-on-the-Hudson!), a new version of this joke started bouncing around in my head.

The show itself is described as ‘a play within a party,’ and ‘a ballet in a bathtub,’ both of which are generally accurate statements.  I gathered there, along with forty or so other guests, we drank wine, we witnessed (overheard) a passionate discussion on the sun porch between two young women on the merits of where to spring break best, and then we were welcomed by a performer to the main event, which was presented to us as “a new piece of choreography by the hot new Jonathan Matthews, which is to be performed in a bathtub!”  Meanwhile, so as not to get bored, the rest of us would be split into groups and take a tour of the lovely house while we awaited our chance to see the dance in the tub.  And so, of course, the ‘tour’ is the show, which does include a bathtub ballet but many other vignettes as well, specific to the room they are performed in.  In the bedroom where two men are on a first date, in the office where a young woman is undergoing her ‘leaving the house’ ritual, complete with Sephora eye liner and a heavy dose of narcissistic self-pity/loathing, the living room where one may refill one’s wine glass while participating lightly in a conversation about how it feels to be among the super privileged (world-wide anyway), and then the kitchen, where one is served – of course – cake.  The underlying theme of the evening (delivered in various ways, some more on-the-nose then others) is that we, here, at this party, are in fact living a better, richer, more luxurious life than Louix XIV did.  And that, um, maybe that’s not necessarily a good thing?  But even though we feel so guilty sometimes about having so much privilege, it still beats the alternative, right?  

The script, by Jessie Bear & Charles Mee, turns this idea around and around and gives us a few different entry points into thinking about both the event and its content.  (One of my favorite lines, delivered in the living room: “This is what they call immersive theater these days / we used to just call it / being at home.”)  The overall tone, to the credit of director Erin B. Mee, helps the show maintain a sort of ‘whistling past the guillotine’ balance between the obvious (yeah, we’re privileged, so what) and the unsettling (but we – us in this room – not just the bankers – are actually living the kind of life that can bring about a revolution from its underclass, which should perhaps cause us more concern than it does).  For me, the second point was the more interesting one – I tend to carefully position myself, within the spectrum of overall privilege, as being one of the uprisers, not the class to be overthrown.  Arguments I might make to help me defend that position include pointing out that I’m poor (but one can argue that I chose the poverty of an artist, which in a way is one of the most privileged acts one can undertake – a genuine pursuit of what you think makes you happy), and my being from the farflung Midwest as opposed to being part of the uber-connected East Coast pipeline of influence.  But, even with my relatively meager artist’s income, I’m still – according to data presented to me over cake in the kitchen – in the top one percent of income worldwide.  So, um, still Versailles.  

And then there’s the dance in the bathtub.  In some ways, it’s a perfectly abstracted restatement of all the content that surrounds it.  Wordlessly, tuxedo-bound, Mr. Matthews sprays himself with disturbing amounts of body spray while he dances a miniature tour around the edge of the tub, turning it effectively into an abyss of guilt, vapidity, and – in spite of all that privilege – inexplicable unfulfillment (think Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, overstuffed yet empty).  

Returning now to the joke – what if you replace ‘polar bear’ which some version of ‘person with privilege,’ and replace the punchline with… well, the choice is yours, I guess.  Then why am I so guilty?  Why am I so unfulfilled?  Why am I so common?  Why, despite having all that I need and most of what I crave, at least on a consumer-level, does it still feel like I’m not living up to the life that I desire?

That makes the joke super-hilarious, right?


Upcoming show dates & times for Versailles 2016 include:
Feb 20, 7pm and 9pm
March 4 at 7pm and March 5 at 7pm

Tickets can be purchased at https://www.artful.ly/store/events/8200

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