Written by: Howard Zinn
Preformed by: Brian Jones
Venue: University of Melbourne Student Union
Reviewed by: Joel Cosgrove
“Don’t you wonder why it is necessary to declare me dead again and again?” asks Brian Jones in his performance as Karl Marx in Marx In Soho, a part of the Marxism Conference at Melbourne University.
The premise of the play is that Marx has been granted an hour to return to earth from heaven to argue his case and clear his name against over one hundred and fifty years of confusion and bastardization of his ideas by both supporters and opponents of his ideas. The twist being that instead of returning to Soho, London, he ends up in Soho, New York. With as much reflection on the 21st century as much as the 19th century that Marx inhabited.
Sitting on the sparse (but smartly laid out) stage, Marx reflects from his desk “Is there anything more boring than reading political economy? Writing it.” And proceeds to give an exposition of his ideas and his life. Drawing on being deported across Europe stating: “It seems the police develop an international consciousness long before the working class” as he ends up in London.”
Living in poverty, in part a result of Marx’s focus on writing (apart from occasional journalism assignments the only job Marx ever had was as a rail clerk, but he wasn’t offered the job when it became apparent that his handwriting was illegible.). Jones as Marx details the struggles his family went through, the deaths of a number of his children, the anguish and pain is something felt dearly from the stage.
This is a play that on one hand has a dense yet accessible account of Marx’s politics, but the heart of the play is a personal humanizing reflection on the relationship between Marx and his wife Jenny. Jenny Marx is someone who is often left out of discussions of Marx and Engels. Yet here figuratively she takes centre stage. Jones as Marx rages at their arguments, lauds her for her piercing intellect and studious work transcribing his illegible notes and is honest about his flaws and the struggles that he put her through. A key aspect of the play that makes it so enjoyable is the strongly feminist aspect, an almost defence of the role of Jenny played, subtly but clearly critiquing what is often labeled on the internet as ‘brocialism’.
The two aspects of the play which come together so beautifully are Howard Zinn’s excellent script and Brian Jones’ consummate performance. Zinn, a prolific radical writer and educator, best know for his bestselling work A People’s History of the United States produced in 1999 what is a deep and intelligent portrayal of Marx the political theorist and Marx as an individual, that gets across a dense amount of information in a surprisingly accessible and absorbable manner. Like the best theatre (or episode of Sesame Street), it teaches and informs without the audience realizing necessarily realizing. Primarily it is funny and entertaining.
In an interview speaking about his experience performing the play, Jones had the following to say:
“The secret: Zinn has a deep respect for his audience, and they know it. You feel it instantly when you meet him. He speaks and writes not to impress, but to stimulate. He never talks down to you, never writes in language you can’t understand to make him seem smarter. Making complicated ideas clear as glass, rescuing socialism from Stalin, and, yes, giving us a vision of Karl Marx that actually makes us laugh…these are the products of Zinn’s excellent method.”
It is Brian Jones who takes Zinn’s script and completes it as a live performance. It is Jones, 25 when he first started performing the play (he has been performing it since Zinn wrote it with him in mind in 1999), an African-American who so deeply embodies the eccentricities and humanism of the German revolutionary Marx.
The audience was the perfect one for this play. Densely layered with jokes and asides about Marx, Marxism and the wider history that Marx’s ideas inhabit. You don’t need to know all these intricacies, but it definitely helped on the night!