Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 601

There are at least two contexts in which The Karl Marx Play can be examined. One is that of a subgenre: biographical plays focusing on the lives of pivotal historical figures. Other plays of this type, for example, would include Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo (pr. 1943), John Osborne’s Luther (pr., pb. 1961), and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (pr. 1960). One of the aims of all these plays, The Karl Marx Play included, is to put a human face on the political and social struggles faced by a protagonist whose persistence in the face of adversity changed world history. Common to all these plays is a concentration on the protagonist’s internal struggle, his weaknesses and self-doubts, even as he challenges the authorities and dominant social structure. However, The Karl Marx Play differs from most plays of this sort. As the title suggests, Owens is more interested in presenting a “play” than in accurately depicting the life of a historic figure. Her play draws upon “the circumstances and events, factual and imaginary, of the life of Karl Marx.” It is a biographic play that does not seem biographical. Marx’s principal interactions are with his family and an imaginary person from the future.

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While The Karl Marx Play does explore the struggle between the individual and society, society is a force within Marx rather than an external force opposing him. Finally, Marx’s great contribution, his theory of dialectic materialism, is not a central element of the play. Marx talks about his theory often, but only in the most general terms, and rarely using the language that later appeared in his book. The Karl Marx whose writings spawned revolution is nearly absent from the play. In his place is a fallible, confused, and indecisive man whose personal struggles nearly obliterate his historical significance.

The use of a biographical structure enables Owens to explore and control many of the themes prevalent in her other plays. Sexuality and sexual attitudes often play a role in Owens’s plays, both as healthy animal delight and as sadistic, exploitative domination. Conventionally, as in Futz (pb. 1961, pr. 1965) and The String Game (pr. 1965, pb. 1968), social and cultural forces attempt to repress the healthy, if nonconventional, sexual attitudes of others. In other plays, Istanboul (pr. 1965, pb. 1968) and especially Beclch (pr. 1966, pb. 1968), sexuality often becomes the violent and destructive imposition of power over others. The Karl Marx Play brings both of the attitudes together and unifies them in the character of Marx, who delights in Jenny and, like Leadbelly’s Rockefeller, tries to gain strength from her through sexual dominance. Consolidated within the character of Marx, these contrary responses attain the complexity that makes them unmistakably human.

As is also evident in The Karl Marx Play, Owens explores the desire somehow to escape from or transcend the human. This, too, is a concern evident in her other plays. In Kontraption (pb. 1971, pr. 1978), the two central characters escape by creating visions which then materialize before them. In He Wants Shih! (pb. 1972, pr. 1975), the central character abdicates political and social responsibility to become both male and female, thus escaping the role determined for him by his sex. Marx, however, is reluctant to leave the world with which he is familiar and comfortable. He is finally transformed, but it is through supernatural intervention by Leadbelly, a vision embodying what is yet to come. Owens’s play occurs in a timeless world, a world unaffected by the constraints imposed upon historical biographies, a world that can both celebrate sexuality and allow—even demand—that characters transcend this human desire to attain greatness.

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