The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1172

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...

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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 the joy and wonder of life is his memory of the death of his first son by starvation. Marx recalls the child looking into his soul, absorbing his suffering and absolving him from his sins, but in his song of mourning, Marx recalls his failure to say “magic words” to his son as he watched him die. At work, Marx is beset by other imagined demons: images of a black child who he asserts is the future; visions of his Jewish grandfather whom he vows to eliminate through his “philosophical mind,” Yahveh (God), who he claims does not exist, yet whom he vows nevertheless to destroy. The vacillations become wilder and more strained; a magazine that would give his theory prominence gives way to romantic and sexual thoughts about Jenny, which in turn give way to a restatement of his theory of the destruction of society in procreative terms. Just when Marx appears to have worked through his anxieties, the thought of his family’s poverty returns to crush his hope.

Marx’s torment in writing brings first Jenny and then Leadbelly to his study. Mutual antagonists, their need to have Marx write his book for their own very different reasons further torments Marx. Jenny is envisioned as the sexual temptress Salome, holding Marx’s head and making him promise (without his seeing the irony) to write the book that will bring wealth and a bourgeois lifestyle to her family. Leadbelly counters Jenny’s embodiment of the seductive power of women with a sexual and savage energy derived from American jazz and African rhythms that is frightening to her. Leadbelly needs Marx’s book to destroy the wealthy, and in the longest speech of the play he becomes John D. Rockefeller to expose the parasitic activity of those with wealth and power. Leadbelly’s Rockefeller is obsessed with sucking milk from the breasts of oppressed women and upholding his role as the “savior-profit” who controls religion and culture. The Rockefeller mask falling away, Leadbelly reveals that the poor are infected by dreams of a millionaire and pleads with Marx to liberate them from themselves and their oppressors. His plea apparently goes unheard, however, as the Marx family dreams of the wealth that Marx’s book will bring and decides to have a party.

There is little enjoyment in the party which begins the second act. Marx stands against the wall eating pickled beets, looking happy only while he chews them; the rest of the household complain about the lack of food and about Marx’s failure to write the book. Pressured, Marx again cannot control his thoughts. He speaks demoniacally of dethroning Yahveh, of clinging to Europe, of being Africa and Asia devouring Europe. He fears the Jews, the Russians, and the Chinese, has faith in the Germans, and condemns workers as a stupid mob. He exalts his theory, again imagining it as a vehicle that will bring wealth and food for his family and fame and power for him. Confronted with the poverty of his family, however, Marx’s grandiose vision collapses. He retreats to a Greek statue of a nude man and begins to suck on its breast, painfully reciting fragments from the book he is yet to write. His boils inflamed from sucking the plaster of the statue, Marx turns to Jenny and his children to console him.

Leadbelly’s “righteous anger,” however, will not allow Marx to escape his destiny. He orders Marx and Engels to write the manifesto, and when Marx complains that his boils and his poverty have sapped him of the desire to write his book and suggests that the revolution will come without his intervention, Leadbelly throws Marx’s entrails in his face. Hearing his family now singing that they lack faith and confidence in him, Marx goes to Jenny’s breasts to give him sustenance and strength, but Leadbelly denies him this comfort as well. He then acts as the hand of fate and applies a torch to Marx’s intestines, driving Marx off the stage to write Das Kapital and to become, as the cast sings in the final song, the man who “Will change the destiny/ Of the world!”

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701

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 theater, it also serves in this play to present the “shattered” identity of Marx and to underscore the connection and disconnection of Marx’s theory to the future.

Characterization is as malleable as dramatic structure, as characters often take on different identities and roles. In a dream sequence, Engels believes that he is dancing with his love, Mary Burns, only to discover at the end of the sequence that she has again become Lenchen, Marx’s housekeeper. Jenny becomes Salome, envisioning Marx’s Jewish head upon a silver platter and dancing seductively for Marx and Leadbelly. Leadbelly, however, may be Owens’s most remarkable creation in the play. A man from the future, the voice of racial and political struggles, he is also, in Owens’s words, “the burning motive inside Marx, the future generations calling him inexorably to release his greatness for their sake.” He also takes on another character, becoming his antithesis in John D. Rockefeller, perversely glorifying the values of capitalistic power and oppression. These shifts in characterization not only enable Owens to introduce and dramatize many of the central issues of the play, but they also reflect and emphasize Marx’s character. Marx is philosopher, poet, husband, father. His numerous vacillations and contradictions, and his difficulties fulfilling these roles provide the essence of his character.

Images are juxtaposed poetically throughout the play, producing complex and often contradictory effects. Breasts and the sucking of breasts make up a recurrent image complex suggestive of many different meanings. Marx’s attitudes toward Jenny’s breasts are at various points in the first act comic, poetic, and engagingly sexual. With Leadbelly’s John D. Rockefeller and Marx’s sucking at the statue’s breast and attempt to suck Jenny’s breast, however, the activity is suggestive of dominance and escapism, the perversion of healthy attitudes and behavior. The image complex leads less to simplistic symbolism than to a reinforcement of the oppositions within Marx and within the play. Another example of Owens’s poetic use of language occurs when Marx is struggling to write. As his mind shifts between his theory and Jenny, he begins to think of his theory in procreative terms; “Force is the midwife of every society pregnant with a new one. . . . The midwife is approaching, the revolution of oppressed classes.” It is thus in the language of the play rather than in its central character that Owens presents a unified vision, the shattered pieces joining into an artistic mosaic.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 74

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.

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Critical Essays