The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Karl Marx Play begins with four visual images. Three photographs, each dissolving into the next, serve as a prologue: a formal family portrait of Karl Marx and the rest of the characters of the play, the famous portrait of Marx in full beard, and an “austere fourteenth century Gothic representation of Marx.” The play itself opens with the fourth image, Marx holding “a mass of entrails over his arm like a jacket,” which some of the other characters investigate. As the images suggest, the Karl Marx dissected in this play is a man of many faces. He is a family man, he is the author of a revolutionary theory, and he is, above all, an exposed and vulnerable human unsure of exactly who he is. The opening scene reveals further some of the ways in which the needs and desires of the other characters create conflict in Marx. Frederick Engels taunts Marx about his Jewish heritage, complains about paying his bills, and goads Marx to write Das Kapital (1867) so that he can share in his fame. Jenny von Westphalen, Marx’s aristocratic wife, is more concerned with obtaining money to buy food for the family and to provide dowries so her daughters can find rich husbands. For his part, Marx seems less interested in dowries or Das Kapital than in Jenny’s breasts, at which he peeks through keyholes.

Marx’s principal antagonist is Leadbelly, a black representative of Africa and the modern United States, who demands with violence and threats of violence the manifesto that will inspire revolution. Leadbelly’s influence is pervasive enough to be felt even when the play shifts to the past, as it does in two instances. As Engels piously theorizes to Marx about the revolutionary potential of the problems faced by American “Negroes,” Leadbelly seemingly materializes in the coffeehouse, where Engels treats him condescendingly as an ignorant savage whom Engels will help to liberate. The action quickly shifts back in time, showing Marx and Jenny as young lovers. Marx is the poet who has given up poetry for the truth of economics; Jenny is the aristocrat concerned about their differences in class and religion. When Marx professes his belief in cultural equality, Leadbelly again appears and delivers a long oration, envisioning a “real” revolution in which Africa, the source of communal living, violently destroys white European culture. Leadbelly’s challenges appear to draw battle lines. Leadbelly vows to “wage the war of vengeance.” Jenny laughs at Leadbelly’s emotionalism and responds by dancing seductively. Marx defends the superiority of his German philosophy and of European culture and retreats in his mind to the pleasure he felt at the university when his theory was a philosophical issue discussed in coffeehouses.

However, Marx cannot escape his fears and anxieties. Contrasted with a song his daughters sing on...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As the opening moments demonstrate, The Karl Marx Play makes extensive use of highly theatrical and visual images. While the portraits reflect some of the identities and demands placed on Marx, his exposed entrails graphically suggest his physicality and immediately establish him as a human being rather than as a political symbol. Owens’s return at the end of the play to the same visual image—to suggest the force required to bring Marx’s theory into existence—indicates the flexibility of her use of image. The visual images are often accompanied by songs—Leadbelly singing a political spiritual as the last of the portraits is presented, Jenny singing and dancing seductively when she becomes Salome. The sound of jazz and a howling wolf are heard as Marx struggles to write. Owens’s mixture of theatrical devices contributes to the presentation of a play that presents a central character who is at once splintered, human, and superhuman.

Rochelle Owens is an established poet as well as a playwright, and in The Karl Marx Play she works as a poet. She argues that the “story is told as much by its imagery and tonal ’meanings’ as it is by its plot.” It is through the juxtaposition of poetic images and themes rather than through a narrative sequence of action that the play is constructed. This approach to the dramatic action is evident in the larger structure of the play, in characterization, and in the use of language. The play is episodic, moving easily from the present to the past and back to the present, and shifting between dialogue, soliloquy, direct address to the audience, song, and dream sequences. While this structure achieves many of the goals associated with epic...

(The entire section is 701 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Berkman, Len. “Parnassus (NYC).” In Modern American Drama, 1945-1990, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Goulianos, Joan. “Women and the Avant-Garde Theater.” Massachusetts Review 13 (Winter/Spring, 1972): 257-267.

Marranca, Bonnie, and Gautam Dasgupta, eds. American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981.

Shragge, Elaine. “Rochelle Owens.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Young, Karl, ed. “A Symposium on Rochelle Owens.” Margins 24/26 (1975): 76-135.