Monday, 15 October 2012

marx in soho (w. howard zinn, d. juan tocchi)

Zinn's text is a curio. He wasn't primarily a playwright. He was a political historian. As such, what the audience watches when they see his play is the work of someone whose ambition is less to create drama than to convey to his audience a didactic understanding of a historical subject. In this case, Karl Marx. The result is a play which is part biography, part philosophical/ historical treatise and part, because the premise of the play is that Marx is far from dead, commentary on our contemporary existence.

It's perhaps this last aspect which is the most powerful. When the bearded Troncoso talks to the Verdi's audience of how, in spite of capitalism's gizmos, there are still people sleeping on the streets, the inference is crystal clear. Society might be a changing, but too many things remain the same. And, according to the writer's interpretation of Marx, shall continue to do so, so long as we inhabit a capitalist universe. There's so much Zizek in Zinn's Marx that it's almost as though he was conceived by this play, originally written in 1999. For a Londoner abroad, the text also offered a convincing description of that city in its mid nineteenth century guise, when notions of third world and first had yet to be developed.

The play is also an intriguing examination of the dramatic medium. Zinn's Marx tells us that his wife, Jenny, criticised him for not writing in a language the workers could necessarily understand. This past week I've discovered the cinema of the Bolivian filmmaker Sanjines. Who might describe himself as a Marxist, something which Marx in Soho has the philosopher reject as a concept. Sanjines' film, The Courage of The People employs a pared down narrative style, which some might accuse of being overly simplistic. However, he adopted this structure in order to ensure that the people about whom he was making cinema, (the miners and indigenous people of the Bolivian altiplano), felt included as spectators. Interestingly, his 1989 film, La Nacion Clandestina, made largely in Aymarac, employs a narrative structure which is so rooted in the Aymarac philosophy that it overlaps with the outer reaches of innovative modern narrative theory (time becomes non-linear; the past and the present co-exist). The screenplay might have been written by Nolan. At the same time the film still has a highly 'accessible' feel, as it takes the viewer into indigenous Bolivian culture in a way no other film I've seen even begins to.

Zinn's mission was to de-Marxify Marx, to shed him of the historical baggage which Marxism has appended to his work and his name. Whether Marx in Soho entirely succeeds in doing this depends to a large extent on how the play transcends its own origins in order to engage with the audience which Jenny championed, for example. With this in mind, it's a play which seems to come up against the buffers which insulate Western culture. Within the division between high and low culture which helps to consolidate the (capitalist) status quo, Marx in Soho quite clearly pertains to the high end of the spectrum. Quite how the dramatic artist/ writer breaks out of this straightjacket is hard to say, but perhaps the work of Sanjines offers some clues.

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