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...

(The entire section is 1172 words.)