Cosmography Politics

Marx Sells Out

Cover of "Marx in Soho: A Play on History...
Cover of Marx in Soho: A Play on History

A moment before he walked on stage I was gripped by an unexpected fear. Can professors of sociology actually act?

Sure, they can act in the sense that they can get things done; the guy who lectured me is President now. They can certainly talk – well, the good ones can. But playing a role is a whole other proposition, and the notion of an actor-professor suddenly seemed very incongruous. Were we about to sit through a thinly-disguised lecture on a dry historical figure?

I worried needlessly. Jerry Levy is an actor, and Karl Marx – in the script by Howard Zinn at least – a warm, living, mischievous human being.

And, just a man. A thinker, a writer, an honest man angered by injustice of course. But no colossus and no antichrist, not the towering figure envisaged by both his followers and his detractors. A person, by turns kind and foul-tempered, drunken and diligent, who achieved much yet whom we might hardly have heard of if he hadn’t befriended Friedrich Engels or fallen in love with Jenny von Westphalen. Zinn’s play, among many other things, illuminates the fact that great lives are really just ordinary lives with unusual consequences.

Marx In Soho is in a lot of ways a simple play. You could almost call it predictable – until you remember it was written in 1999. Back then it would have seemed overly pessimistic to say an unchallenged capitalism would become less constrained by democracy, ever more greedy and unjust. Now that seems obvious.

But this was almost a passing observation. The larger point was that the divisions between people are mostly false dichotomies, artificial distinctions drawn between countries, religions, classes, ideologies, even right and left. The only real division is that between justice and the absence of justice. And there is no justice where people do not have the basic things they need to live.

In the second play of the double bill – The Fever by Wallace Shawn – we go from the broad and theoretical to the immediately personal. How do you live in an unjust world? 8.30 tonight in the Town Hall Theatre. Book nowMarx In Soho sold out.

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