“I did describe religion as the opium of the people, but no one has ever paid attention to the full passage. Listen.”
This line of dialogue, spoken by Howard Zinn’s “Karl Marx,” exemplifies his approach to depicting the (in)famous philosopher in his one-man show, Marx in Soho. Zinn’s Marx highlights a fully formed representation beyond a catch phrase often used out of context to paint Marx as vehemently anti-religion.
As we discover throughout the performance, the truth is more complex.
Marx, performed by Brian Jones on March 6 at New York City’s Ethical Culture Society, appears to us after having accidentally ended up in Soho, New York City, instead of Soho, London. This Marx invites the audience to look beyond – deeper into the ethos surrounding Marx’s renowned socialist political theory within a contemporary context.
Jones is an exceptional actor and activist in his own right, successfully operating as a moderator of Marxist ideas (proclaiming throughout the piece, “I am not a Marxist!”) as opposed to inhabiting a documentary-like representation of the man. Though Jones performs a monologue, he uses his words to actively respond to audience reactions, effectively producing a sense of discourse rather than a one-sided presentation often found in solo theater pieces.
Zinn writes of his own first experiences in theater in the forward of his collection, Three Plays: the Political Theater of Howard Zinn: “There was a passion binding all of you together in a collective effort to bring your words to the stage in the most dramatic, most compelling way possible.”
While Marx has been performed throughout the country since 1999, this most recent occasion was billed as a tribute to Zinn, the historian-activist raised in Brooklyn who passed away suddenly after suffering a heart attack in January. The gathering felt more progressive revival than performance, since none other than muckraker Amy Goodman introduced Jones. Her heartfelt anecdotes of their friendship delivered a touching eulogy that created a makeshift memorial service with Zinn as Artist.
I attended the performance with two intentions – to see the performance, and alas, to publically grieve someone who was for me a substantial figure of political leadership and conscience. Like most of the audience, I was there for community.
For Zinn, writing plays provided a much needed “break’ from his usual isolated occupation as historian, and a new opportunity to educate. Therefore, Marx is written by a progressive, for progressives – take for instance the long stretches of narrative regarding Marx’s relationship to Bakunin, his contemporary and a substantial figure of anarchist thought. While one need not know the background of their relationship, there is a great advantage to anyone who understands the nuance and infighting that has, and continues, to transpire between the various sects of leftist ideologies.
Even as Marx employs our preconceived ideas of the man, we are given new information – Marx was a committed family man who suffered an impoverished life, lost several children, and shared a profound partnership with his wife, Jenny. This serves to remind audiences that Marx is not a religion – that his ideas were born of his individual experiences in his time.
Zinn’s humorous, compassionate depiction of this abstract political divinity, coupled with Jones’ well-honed acting chops were apparent throughout the piece, and compelled the audience to reflect on their own relationship to their understanding of Marxist theory, as well as the life narrative that inspired it.
During a time when our centrist president is pronounced a socialist, misunderstanding of Marx’s ideas abound. While the mainstream lacks consistent space in which to explore progressive thoughts and ideas, Marx in Soho provides a much-needed reflection on the reality of an ideology where many misconceptions pervade.