Summary: A review of the new play, “Eleanor Marx: the Jewess of Jews Walk,” which has just opened in London — Editors
The play, Eleanor Marx: the Jewess of Jews Walk, is written by Lucy Kaufman, and produced and directed by Jonathan Kaufman for Spontaneous Productions.
Runs: 18 April – 12 May 2018 at The Sydenham Centre, London SE26 5QF (except 26 April and 3 May; extra shows 24 April & 1 May)
In 1892, the aging Friedrich Engels celebrated the election to Parliament of Labour Party founder Keir Hardie. Engels, writing to his old comrade, George Julian Harney, enthused over the prospect of a real socialist movement being built by the “grandchildren of the Old Chartists.” But the Old Chartist Harney was not impressed; he saw the trade union leaders as just as “greedy” and “selfish” as the capitalists, and replied to Engels: “You are the Prince of Optimists… My sight is not so good, nor my hope so sanguine. Least of all have I any belief in the Trades Union chiefs and Labour leaders. To not one of them at present before the public would I give a vote…”
Engels, let it be said, had good grounds for optimism. During the 1880s, socialist agitators had organised masses of workers into the New Unions, and had led successful strikes, notably in the docks and sweatshops of London’s poverty-ravaged East End. One of the most celebrated agitators was none other than Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl. Lucy Kaufman’s play dramatizes the final, tragic days of Eleanor’s life at 7 Jews Walk, Sydenham, in 1898.
After a blast of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the stage lights go up on a Victorian kitchen, complete with William Morris wallpaper. Centre-stage, a dead dog covered by a sheet is laid out on the kitchen table. It’s a bad omen. The dog, Eleanor Marx’s beloved pet, has been euthanised with chloroform and cyanide because he got too old to enjoy his dog’s life. Eleanor is beginning to feel the same way about her own life and the great cause she has devoted her life to. Having translated Ibsen’s The Doll’s House and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, she ominously identifies with the protagonists of the these great works, Nora Helmer and Emma Bovary, both of whom were lumbered with bad husbands and had suicidal tendencies. Now, aged 43 and childless, Eleanor reflects that her best days may be behind her and that she has become surplus to requirements. The guiding spirits of socialism, Engels and William Morris, are now dead. (George Bernard Shaw has defected to the Fabians.) And the movement itself seems now to be going in a direction nothing like what her father would have wished for.
In Kaufman’s play, the political is personal; and Eleanor (played by Sarah Whitehouse) has a serious problem trying to span the two in the form of her husband, Edward Aveling (David Sayers). Eleanor’s misfortune is that she has married a monster, and after years of denial (for “the good of the cause”) she is only just beginning to realise it. The tribulations of the relationship are brought to life in the sparky but chilling dialogue between the two. Aveling, an accomplished popularizer of Darwinism, atheism and a somewhat bowdlerised version of Marxism, is also (among other bad things) an embezzler, adulterer, liar, cheat and (just maybe) a potential murderer with his greedy eyes on the money left to Eleanor by old Fred Engels.
Kaufman’s play isn’t the first dramatisation of Eleanor Marx’s downfall, but what makes it original is that the playwright has dragged from obscurity a “minor” character in the Marx family saga, namely Freddy Lewis Demuth, given him a voice and placed him centre-stage in the drama. Freddy, the son of the Marx family maid, Helene Demuth, is also, as Eleanor learned from Engels on his death bed in 1895, her own half-brother, the offspring of a brief affair between Karl and Helene back in 1850. The cover-up of the affair involved fostering-out Freddy to a poor family in the East End for the duration of his childhood. Freddy has had a hard life, receiving no proper education and having to work as a lathe-operator in a factory. Eleanor feels that Marx and her mother Jenny, in collusion with Engels, have let Freddy down badly, and that the “betrayal” cannot be reconciled with great Marxian ideals.
For his part, Freddy (played by Simeon Oakes) harbours no resentment. The only part of the estate he wants to inherit is his father’s battered old armchair (“this chair wrote Capital,” he says). Freddy comes over as the archetypical decent, socialist-minded worker who will throughout the following century have to suffer the betrayals of social democracy and Stalinism. Freddy makes an impassioned plea to Eleanor to dump her “scoundrel” of a husband and survive him by just living and being loved by her real friends. If Freddy comes across as one of our contempories, so do the other characters. Parts of today’s “left” are still infested with Edward Avelings. In fact, the five characters in the production come across collectively as a kind of abbreviated cross-section of late-Victorian British society that still resonates in Theresa May’s Rip-Off Britain. Dr Henry Shackleton (father of Ernest, the intrepid Antarctic explorer, and played by Robert Maskell), who treats Aveling for kidney disease, is the enlightened, critically-minded bourgeois. Gerty Gentry, the long suffering but devoted cockney servant girl (Kirsten Moore), who stoically insists she “knows her place,” nevertheless springs into life in a Yiddish knees-up song-and-dance routine with Eleanor and Freddy.
It seems fairly clear from Kaufman’s narrative and Rachel Holmes’s biography of Eleanor, that Aveling obtained cyanide poison in full knowledge that Eleanor would probably use it to take her own life. As Eleanor has discovered that Aveling has secretly married under his nom-de-plume (Nelson!), she has decided to change her will and deprive him of the inheritance. Did Aveling destroy the new codicil? Was she suffering from a “temporary insanity” as found by the inquest jury, in a verdict which allowed Aveling to walk away with Eleanor’s money and property? Such questions arise and are dealt with in this riveting and well-timed production, which certainly deserves to be toured and given a West End run.