Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

The Karl Marx Play presents a human figure behind the political icon. By placing Marx’s economic and political theory in the context of his life and the demands placed upon him by those in his household, the play presents a Marx who is, in his own words, “doubled and tripled and shattered into a hundred fractures of Karl Marx!” The action of The Karl Marx Play, appropriately, depends to a great extent upon oppositions which are internalized within Marx himself. For much of the play, these oppositions lead to stasis—writer’s block. For Marx to write Das Kapital, he must be forced out of time, out of the oppositions fostered by the demands of his family and friends in Victorian England, to meet, in Leadbelly, the future and his destiny.

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To a great extent, the characters and their concerns establish the oppositions in the play. Jenny has little interest in Marx’s theory except insofar as it will provide bourgeois comforts for her family and aristocratic husbands for her daughters. Frederick Engels, Marx’s “collaborator,” is no less mercantile in his responses to Marx, providing money so that Marx will write the book that will in turn give him fame and philosophic prominence. Marx himself struggles with his religion. He proposes to destroy religion and to replace it with his philosophy, but he can never fully escape his own Jewishness; he prays to Yahveh for the strength he needs to mount an assault on religion. It falls upon Leadbelly, a symbol of the future, of racial struggle, of the revolutions to be engendered by Das Kapital, to lead Marx to his greatness. Leadbelly attacks Engels and Jenny for their myopic, bourgeois concerns; he adopts the persona of Rockefeller to expose the parasitic nature of established religion; he uses the force of revolution—violence and threats of violence—to compel Marx to write his masterwork.

Also set in opposition are the mind and the body, the philosophical and the physical. Marx’s physicality is made vividly evident in the play’s opening moments, when his entrails are exposed and examined and when his heart, the “heart of a man” and not a heart emblematic of “poetic mysticism,” is produced by Leadbelly. This physicality becomes a major impediment to his writing. The poverty of his family and the recollection of the starvation of his first son torment him. His boils make it painful for him to sit and write. The momentary delights of eating pickled beets provide a pleasant distraction. His sexual delight in his wife, particularly his obsession with her breasts, becomes a method of escaping the strain of his inability to write and the demands everyone places upon him. It is thus through both the denial and the exploitation of Marx’s physicality that Leadbelly forces him to bring his theory to print. Leadbelly denies Marx “suck-titty from Jenny” and then ignites his exposed intestines to force him to action.

Perhaps the most important opposition is suggested by Marx’s continual reference to his description of the class struggle as his “theory.” It is, for him, an academic exercise created in philosophic coffeehouse discussions, and it is to this coffeehouse environment that Marx longs to return. He is a poet and a philosopher rather than a political activist. For Leadbelly, however, Marx’s theory cannot remain theory. It must come to fruition to liberate Africa and provide African Americans with the means to escape oppression. Before the word can become flesh, the idea must first become the word; theory must become text so that action can follow. As a representative of the future and a man of action, Leadbelly can see, as Marx cannot, the implications and significance of the theory. Marx’s poetic and philosophic genius and Leadbelly’s demand for action become the dialectic which culminate in Marx’s creation of Das Kapital. Marx’s theory, calling for an upheaval of culture and society, must be born in violence. Leadbelly acts by literally lighting the fire in Marx’s belly, and “with a surge of superhuman energy” Marx rushes offstage to write Das Kapital. As Rochelle Owens notes in a preface to the play: “They, Marx and Leadbelly are the synthesis time has held in the making these hundred years and more.”

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