Comment: Entertainment at the Oxford Union

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I am not a member of the Oxford Union. Amid the blur of Freshers’ Week, I remember looking at the hordes of other Freshers rushing toward Frewin Court with their life membership forms, determined to check that box on their bucket list of ‘Oxford experiences’. Despite the alluring thought that membership would transport me into the hallowed chambers of ‘the world's most famous debating society’, and the prospect of hearing a long train of undoubtedly glittering personalities speak in the flesh, the thought of coughing up £190 was simply quite unappetizing. Besides, I surmised that the real appeal of the Union lay in the unmatched entertainment value of its bigger-than-Broadway antics, an appeal as easily appreciated from outside the aforementioned hallowed chambers as from inside.

Three years on, the entertainment value has, if anything, become even clearer. I was, for example, delighted when I chanced on the Union’s bold foray into multimedia, in the form of its Freshers’ DVD. This masterpiece of marketing, which can now be viewed on YouTube, features hilarious personal sales' pitches by three Union luminaries, who all achieve the miraculous feat of talking while maintaining implausibly wide grins. One of them even describes the Purple Turtle as an ‘exclusive nightclub’ with what sounds like utter conviction. But that is not all. As the video draws to a close and the telemarketing drone of the voice-over urges Freshers to sign up for membership, we are treated to a shot of Krishna Omkar leaving the Union in what appears to be the world’s shortest and whitest shorts. Initially, I thought the inclusion of this image was quite inexplicable, but I soon came to see it as the cherry on the top of this tour de force of postmodern ironic self-parody.

Which brings us, of course, to the latest twist in the thriller. After last term’s President and his Eine Kleine Nachtracismus, I would have thought that the antics would abate, if only temporarily. But it was not to be. For at Frewin Court, the show must go on. Of course, the ‘crisis’ surrounding the overturning of last term’s elections is old news now, but I’d like to draw your attention to some hidden gems in the story which you might have missed. I was enchanted to learn, for one, that an appeal had been lodged with the tribunal on the grounds that its decision was ‘founded on an error of law’ and breached ‘any of the principles of natural justice’. Like most of you, up to that point I remained unaware that the dress-up games at the Union included pretending to be arguing landmark cases before the European Court of Human Rights. But – aha! – apparently the tribunal that hears allegations of electoral malpractice always has one member who is a qualified lawyer.

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It seems these events are not in fact elaborate entertainments put on for our amusement, but Very Serious and Professional Matters. This unusual sobriety was reflected in the Returning Officer’s Jeffersonian declaration of principles: ‘The democratic election of Officers is a fundamental principle which underpins all for which this Society stands.’ It seems every term we learn of a new fundamental principle of this illustrious Society – once free speech, now democracy; these people are really fighting the good fight. To call this entertainment, then, would be flippant.

Yet a doubt still lingers. Surely when I had hoped for bigger-than-Broadway, my optimism was not unfounded? Surely this deluded sense of purpose and importance is the foundation on which this entire Theatre of the Absurd is built? The best thing to do, both for our own sanity and theirs, is to play along. As this ‘crisis’ rumbles on, the curtains at Frewin Court will still rise tonight, every night, sit back, relax, and don’t forget the standing-O at the end.

by Caleb Yong