Summary: Lucy Kaufman’s new play about Eleanor Marx (the daughter of Karl Marx who was an important artist as well as activist), which will soon open in London—along with a 2014 biography of her by Rachel Holmes—makes this a valuable moment to re-examine the life and thought of this important revolutionary socialist feminist. The article includes a long passage by Kaufman — Editors
Eleanor Marx changed the world. Foremother of socialist-feminism, trade unionist, internationalist, her father’s first biographer and editor of his key works, she had left a colossal heritage in many spheres of life. Rachel Holmes, in her extraordinary Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury, 2014), gives us a glimpse into Eleanor, the woman. She was called by her family and friends Tussy (Holmes tells us, her parents said, to rhyme with pussy not fussy; cats she adored, fussy she was not). She loved Shakespeare, both Shelley’s, good poetry and bad puns; white was her favorite color and champagne her idea of happiness. (She was in fact the first champagne socialist!)
Holmes’s new biography of Eleanor Marx was a major intervention in the field of historiography and feminist theory on the left. Since Yvonne Kapp’s monumental two-volume 1970s biography, Eleanor had not received significant scholarly attention. Holmes’s book captivated minds and hearts around the globe. Eleanor’s formidable work touches upon so many realms of life and Holmes’s intervention allows her for long overdue recognition; the GMB, the trade union she help founded (as the Gas Workers Union), now celebrates Eleanor Marx Day on Tussy’s birthday, January 16; and gives away the Eleanor Marx Award to an outstanding woman campaigner at its annual congress. Tara Bergin wrote a multiple award nominated poetry collection, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx,” in which she explores the life and death of this formidable woman in an art form Tussy cared about deeply. (It was Eleanor who first quoted from Shelley’s eponymous Masque of Anarchy, later recited by millions of young people after the Labour Party Leader followed in her footsteps in the 2017 election campaign.) It is apt that Tussy gets a tribute in the art form she cared about so much. Since she produced and wrote about theater throughout her life, the effects of the book would not be perfect until Tussy got her play.
Eleanor Marx was very busy around 1886-1887. She wrote and published the first two enunciations of socialist-feminism in the English language, “The Working Class Movement in America” and “The Woman Question (from a Socialist Point of View)”. She also translated the first-ever English edition of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and put on the first ever production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
Through all these actions, as Holmes argues forcefully, Eleanor intervenes in debates over [what was then called] the “Woman Question.” Like her friend and comrade Clara Zetkin, Eleanor argues in the essay, “The Woman Question (from a Socialist Point of View),” middle-class bourgeois feminism treats the symptom, not the cause of inequality between men and capitalist structure hence answers to the woman question are based in economics. At the same time, she critiques her comrades who argue that socialism will remedy the woman question in time; she shows forcefully that the Woman Question as a socialist question must be attended to here and now. The patriarchy isn’t a necessary structure of society, just as capitalism is not, writes the woman who grew up with Das Kapital.
Writing and producing a play on Eleanor Marx is an important, radical and timely intervention in her legacy and her writings. Eleanor Marx understood early on, before bourgeois poets discovered their politics while sitting in cafes, that there is no such thing as art which is disengaged from life, and life cannot be separated from the ethics and politics that underpin our humanity. In Eleanor Marx’s political program, theater—its writing, production, and education—was significant; her pioneering work on Ibsen as well as her translation of Madame Bovary need to be examined together with her groundbreaking text “The Woman Question (from a Socialist Point of View).” It is not just that Tussy loved the theater; she understood its force and wanted to mobilize it for the good. Holmes reads Nora Helmer and Emma Bovary together with the “Woman Question” as essential to understand socialist-feminism, an intervention which is forceful for our understanding of politics in theory and practice. Thus, the work on the play is a much-needed intervention into our contemporary world also; a world in which the radical force of art is being silenced so often; and the categories of elitism or populism are being exploited by a hegemony that tries to propagate hatred and division. Tussy worked for a just world out of love and faith in humanity; thus, a play on her life is a hugely significant double gesture; reminding us of the radical force of the theater as well as recognizing her oft-neglected legacy within the world of dramatic arts.
Eleanor Marx put on the first reading of A Doll’s House in her front room for her 31st birthday. George Bernard Shaw as well as Edward Aveling acted opposite her. A Doll’s House was her favorite Ibsen play. If Tussy had come to have a wander around her beloved London theaters, we might not think she’d be too delighted. Yes, there was plenty of her favorite, Shakespeare—the Marx family bible. And yet, there were numerous shows that seemed to be motivated by merchandise and commercial interests. New writing by women, as we mentioned, is very rare; more than a century after the foremother of socialist-feminism pioneered Ibsen’s plays in London, the life of woman (in theater) still does not coincide with that of men. We still see productions of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Saint Joan in the 21st century, but we must ask whether the two plays would fare so well if they were new today, or if they had been penned by a woman. Walking the streets of theaterland with Tussy teaches us how much we have compromised and yet how much radical history London has for us to draw on.
In a cultural climate where the stories of men dominate (The Young Marx was the inaugural play at the brand-new Bridge Theatre, London) and the British film industry churns out movies mainly about the British aristocracy and royalty, and the majority of dramas include only small speaking parts for women, it is the place of fringe theatre to offer an alternative. In London over the past few years, theatres have been criticized for programing plays by mainly men—some theatres programming plays only by men—as well as the tendency for theatres to produce work by women in their smaller studios rather than main stages. A few years ago, it was reportedly only 17% of all plays produced were written by women, now that paltry figure has apparently been reduced to 8%. Anger at this from female creative artists, along with frustration at sexual harassment claims brought to light in the #MeToo campaign, has led a collective of women to take matters into their own hands, by crowd-funding in an attempt to buy Theatre Royal Haymarket as a “women’s theatre.”
Also in London, actresses who suffer from a lack of decent parts are tackling the issue in their treatment of the classic plays. All-female Shakespeare is now common, as is the hijacking of classic male roles in otherwise straight versions of Shakespeare. One of the women who auditioned for the play is currently playing Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar, she is also playing Romea in a gender-bending twist on the romantic tragedy, in “Romea and Julian.” Yet new roles for women, roles of substance, are few and far between. In order for a new substantial role for a woman to be produced on the West End stage, the woman depicted would have to be a household name, such as Judy Garland, or the Queen.
[This section is by the Lucy Kaufman]
“My first encounter with Eleanor Marx came in 2014 when I was rehearsing a community play in Sydenham, South London, and a member of the choir thrust a political pamphlet under my nose, pointing at a thumbnail of Holmes’s newly published book. She told me Eleanor had lived and died at 7 Jews Walk, in the next road to where we were rehearsing, and that I should write a play about her. I investigated the house, which was marked by a blue plaque, and immediately purchased and devoured Rachel Holmes’s biography. The book was as page-turning, rich in detail and darkly Gothic as the best Victorian novels; and in Eleanor Marx I discovered the inimitable Tussy, only it felt like a rediscovery of someone I had known all my life. Tussy the campaigner, writer, translator, political theorist, actress and pioneer feminist had much to teach me and inspired me to “go ahead.” I felt compelled to dramatize how this powerful female voice—one that could have gone on to make further indelible marks on history—was silenced forever.”
“Eleanor Marx is not a household name in Britain and before Rachel Holmes’s book was not widely known even in academic circles. To put Eleanor, a virtually unknown socialist feminist, center stage is a radical act in that she is immediately elevated to high status. In the recent film Suffragette, it was Emmeline Pankhurst who was given credit for galvanizing the activism in the East End of London and not her more factually deserving socialist daughter Sylvia Pankhurst. By creating a play for Eleanor Marx and, rather than pitching it to mainstream London theatres, placing it far from the West End, in the actual location where she lived and died, I have bypassed the frustrating limitations and sexual politics of London theatre. Somehow I have done what I want to do (create a fitting drama for Eleanor in the place most appropriate for it) rather than what I am permitted to do.”
“From a playwright’s point of view it is a political act, even in 2018, to devote a play to a central female character, let alone a middle-aged one and one who self-identifies with a non-Christian cultural heritage. As a character, Eleanor is center stage both figuratively and literally, with Tussy given the most lines and scenes of any of the characters. On top of this, rather than see Eleanor as she is known best, in her usual public setting, we see her in her domestic setting for the entirety of the play, in her private space, dealing with the mundane (dressing her husband’s abscesses) as well as responding to the pressures and demands of her external political life. We are reminded that the person cannot be separated easily from the political theorist, heightening the tension between her assertions about the ‘Woman Question’ and the apparent contradictions present in her most intimate relationship with Aveling.”
“The style and content of the play are also responsible for elevating Eleanor to the status she deserves. My play is no local-interest biopic, summarizing her entire life into two hours for a purely local audience, but rather an intense Ibsenesque drama, set in one location and spanning only the last few chapters of Holmes’s book.”
“As soon as I had read the biography, I knew I had to write the play with more than a nod to Ibsen. Tussy’s strong links to Ibsen—A Doll’s House in particular— (and the content of her own story, not least her quick downward spiral to a tragic end, made her the perfect parallel to Ibsen’s heroines (a point that, had Tussy lived to tell the tale, would no doubt not be lost on her.)
“Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), the groundbreaking Norwegian playwright, is best known for his naturalistic issue-based plays and is therefore referred to as the ‘father of realism’. Indeed, the plays he has come to be best known for revolve around particular laws or societal double standards that constrain women in particular. Rather than seeing women as victims of their biology, as was the popular view at the time, Ibsen demonstrated how women are at the mercy of a man-made world, his radical views therefore very much in line with Eleanor’s view of the ‘Woman Question.’ In A Dolls House and Hedda Gabler, Ibsen creates two central female characters whose humanness defies convention (and law) for women at the time. Notable features of Ibsen are the single interior setting, the short timeframe of the unfolding of the drama, the devastating revealing of truths (often through the interception of letters) that are the undoing of the central character and (in the case of Hedda) the heroine’s tragic end.
“In my play, Eleanor is given equal status to Nora Helmer and Hedda Gabler—a tragic heroine who stands for herself but also for all women. In my play, though, the character of Tussy has elements of both types of Ibsen’s women, rolled into one person. She is the human Nora and Hedda first and foremost, seeking freedom and authenticity and envisioning a better designed world where men and women have equity, while at the same time also shares aspects of Ibsen’s ‘angel’ women: self-sacrificial women who serve men and love them unconditionally. It is, perhaps, Eleanor’s contradictions—so well brought to the fore in Holmes’s book and dramatized in my play—that make her all the more human, that the same woman who wrote so radically in ‘The Woman Question’ seeks to be the perfect loving wife to her abusive husband Aveling, preferring to leave the world rather than leave him. But these contradictions and presence of human flaws or frailties in Eleanor therefore place her back in the former category of Ibsen’s women, alongside Nora and Hedda. When Tussy performed A Doll’s House in her front room in the first performance in Britain, she played Nora to Aveling’s Torvald. In a pleasing twist of fate, the actor we have cast as Aveling has played Torvald in a production of A Doll’s House.”
“When casting Tussy, it was clear from the responses to the callout that this is no usual part for an actress. First of all, it is new writing, and a huge rôle for a woman, as well as a highly challenging one. Even more rarely, it is a part for an actress in her forties, not twenties. What was notable in the auditions was not only the level of enthusiasm for the play and the rôle of Tussy in particular, even though most of the actresses had never heard of Eleanor Marx, but also, after the auditions, the extent of interest in the play by the unsuccessful candidates. Many of the actresses not cast in the part have said they will still come and see the play, with some avidly retweeting my posts about the play on twitter. This highly unusual behavior is testimony to my belief there is something special about Tussy, both the character and the real person.
“Since researching and writing the play about Eleanor Marx, I have become aware of the number of people who have also taken Tussy to their hearts. On April 6, 2018, at a pre-play educational event, ‘Eleanor and Friends,’ some of these friends of Tussy will be coming together to lecture on various aspects of Eleanor as an often-neglected figure of historical, local and global importance. Alongside lectures from Rachel Holmes, local historian Steve Grandlay and ourselves, poet Tara Bergin will be reading from her Eleanor-inspired shortlisted collection of poetry ‘The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx’. Dana Mills will speak about Eleanor in the context of her work on radical Jewish women.”
Lucy Kaufman’s play resonates with Tussy’s legacy strongly. Eleanor Marx was a self-styled “Jewess.” Proclaiming herself as most close to her Jewish heritage of all her family, Rachel Holmes argues that the starkest difference between Tussy and her father was their relationship to their Jewish origins. But Tussy’s “I am a Jewess” exclamation is not a sentimental cultural nod; she reclaims her Jewish roots in the context of the new Trade Unionism of the UK of the 1880s/1890s and the enunciations of antisemitism towards Jewish workers. She understood the need to stand in solidarity with people who are blamed for pressing wages down, which in turn creates hate and division in communities; it is not immigrants of any sort who take away jobs and create pressure on communal welfare systems; it is capitalism itself. Internationalist through and through, Eleanor knew the only answer to capitalism comes through socialist international organization; and at the same time she reminds us that we must be aware of creating an “Other” blamed for suffering caused by the capitalist- patriarchy. Multilingual Eleanor taught herself Yiddish and organized in the East End, where she said she had her “happiest moments among Jewish working people.”
It is heartening and indeed inspiring to see Rosa Luxemburg grace the heading of this website, as well as take a place of honor of which she deserves in this publication. Rosa Luxemburg, the groundbreaking theorist and organizer, resonates strongly today in our international world; her contributions too numerous to cite here, and yet her work within the legacy of Eleanor’s father has done much to save it from various reductions and interventions.
Luxemburg and Eleanor Marx were two powerful voices in the Second International. Both were committed to the theory of Marx without its watering down by Edward Bernstein—it was Bernstein’s revisionism that motivated Eleanor to edit and publish her father’s text Value, Price and Profit, and it is her clear thinking and editing that has given us this significant text. In turn, Luxemburg’s response in the form of Social Reform or Revolution?, is central to her canon and to socialism more broadly.
Nether woman can be reduced to a single narrative; both were hugely prolific writers and organizers. They were two huge figures of the left, who have left us a legacy and a calling to persist in the fight against injustice. But they have also left us a question about our attitude towards women on the left. As Eleanor eloquently puts in her “The Woman Question (from a Social Point of View),” and following Engels’s work, we must insist on gender equality at the same time as working for socialism. Patriarchy and capitalism go hand in hand. At the same time, both women do not receive the place they deserve in our historiography; both are, to use Sheila Rowbotham’s phrase, too often hidden from history. Bringing Eleanor Marx and Rosa Luxemburg center stage enables us to think of sexism on the left of our times; of the absence of figures like them who are able to lead the fight against patriarchal capitalism. Tussy and Rosa shared more than socialist convictions; Rosa’s cat, Mimi, features in many of her letters, as do Tussy’s cats throughout her life. We wonder whether when Rosa attended the socialist international in London in 1896 she met Eleanor’s cat, Minnie?
Eleanor Marx has left a monumental legacy for us to consider in 2018 internationally. “Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk” is a significant intervention in the worlds of theater and Marxism both.
Lucy Kaufman’s play: “Eleanor Marx: the Jewess of Jews Walk,” produced by Spontaneous Productions, will be performed in London, Weds 18 April- Sat 12 May 2018 at the Sydenham Center. See http://spontaneousproductions.co.uk/events/eleanor-marx-the-jewess-of-jews-walk-from-weds-18-april/
“Eleanor and Friends,” an evening with Eleanor Marx biographer Rachel Holmes, and others, in celebration of the opening of Lucy Kaufman’s new play and commemorating 120 years since Eleanor Marx’s death will be upstairs in the Sydenham Center on the 6 April. See http://spontaneousproductions.co.uk/events/eleanor-and-friends/