“Young Marx” at the Bridge Theatre London: An Interview with the Writer Clive Coleman




FOR THE KARL MARX Bicentennial Forum, Jason Barker spoke to Clive Coleman, co-writer with Richard Bean of Young Marx, a play about Marx and his family’s early years in London. The play opened at the Bridge Theatre in London on October 27 and ran until December 31, 2017. It was directed by the Royal National Theatre’s former artistic director Sir Nicholas Hytner, and starred Rory Kinnear in the lead role, Oliver Chris as Engels, and Nancy Carroll as Marx’s wife Jenny von Westphalen.

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JASON BARKER: Many people will be familiar with your TV credits on The Bill and Spitting Image. How did you come to co-write a play about Karl Marx, which seems like a different proposition entirely?

CLIVE COLEMAN: As a writing partnership Richard [Bean, co-writer] and I go back a long way. We used to write comedy together in the mid-1990s. We wrote a sketch show called Control Group Six for BBC Radio 4, so we’d always been in touch. Richard became a well-known playwright and I went on to work for the BBC as its legal correspondent. We worked together on a play about phone hacking called Great Britain within five days of the verdict in the big criminal phone hacking trial in which Rebekah Brooks was acquitted and Andy Coulson convicted. [1] We worked on that in 2014 and wanted to do something else. Then Richard was approached initially to write the libretto for an opera about Karl Marx. That didn’t happen for various reasons but through talking to him about it we started reading around Marx — we read a number of biographies — and were just amazed by the fact that in 1850, as a young man, all the things you would never have imagined of this imposing figure — this bust in Highgate Cemetery — actually happened to him. He lived the most extraordinary life. All the incidents in the play actually happened. He did apply for a job on the railway as a clerk, he did have terrible boils on his backside, he fathered a child illegitimately with his housekeeper, and he lived in absolutely penurious circumstances. At one point the Prussian spy who was spying on him reported back to Berlin that Marx hadn’t left his Soho apartment for five days. Why? Because he’d pawned all of his own clothes; he was too poor to leave the house. So there was a ready-made door-slamming farce right there, with bailiffs banging on the door and his beautiful German wife fobbing them off while he hid in the cupboard. There was an amazing collection of ingredients that we thought would make a fantastic play. Initially we thought of it as a pure farce. Then we backtracked slightly because when you’re putting a genius on the stage farce is actually too slight a vehicle … That was basically it. I think we slightly fell in love with the young Marx because he was such an amazing character. Flawed but charismatic, energetic, crackling with intelligence, and the kind of person to whom things happened and who made things happen. So the character we found magnetic and fascinating.

I agree that farce is too slight a vehicle for Marx. But I could have imagined the play as an opera. You focus on a lot of material that lends itself to melodrama.

The producers were keen to have an opera with Freddy Demuth, who was Marx’s illegitimate son, grown up, but we fastened on 1850 as the play’s setting because it was a time when an awful lot was happening. We really wanted to focus on Marx as a young man, the one people don’t really know about. Some of the information has been hidden from the public …

Almost certainly a lot was censored by Marx’s daughters, maybe self-censored.

Yes. People are more comfortable thinking about him as an austere and iconic figure who gave birth to communism then Stalinism, et cetera. No one’s thought about lifting the curtain and looking at the life he was living, all the normal problems, so for us this presented an irresistible opportunity. No one’s written a play about Marx and put it on the English stage, even though he lived in England for the majority of his adult life.

In focusing on the young Marx you’re perhaps contradicting the audience’s expectations, both of the image of the man as well as Marxology. It’s easier to think of Marx as a great thinker when we’re presented with him as this sedentary old sage with a big beard in the way that all the Victorian sages are presented: Darwin, Dickens, et cetera. Did you deliberately set out to smash this image?

The thing that comes across if you read Marx’s letters, particularly those to Engels, is how funny he was; witty, funny, very well read. He would quote Shakespeare at length, he knew poetry, literature. He and Engels would ridicule their opponents, quite cruelly, actually. I’m not sure that this ritualistic side to Marx and this caustic wit ever really left him; I’m not sure he became so different to the way he was previously in terms of his sense of mischief and ribaldry. That bust of him at Highgate Cemetery — somewhat strangely — casts a long shadow. I happen to believe that lurking in the background there’s a real person. One of the things that draws you to him is this incredible intellectual energy he had. Maybe that magnetism is in some respect what makes him into a leader. If there was a room with five hundred people in it and he walked in you’d know he was there. He was someone who drew your attention. That energy was something that everyone found attractive. So in that sense I don’t think there was a deliberate effort to smash the image of him as an older man.

I’d like to come back to the question of farce. Young Marx is a very dynamic play and there’s a lot of outrageous physical comedy, like the fight scene in the British Museum, where Marx meets Charles Darwin (apparently without realizing who he is). But the mood of the play shifts with the death of Marx’s son, at which point it becomes a tragedy; Marx realizes the error of his ways and makes peace with the chaos. In reality, of course, when his son Guido dies in 1850, it turns out to be only the beginning of a long sequence of tragic events. In 1851 his wife Jenny gives birth to a daughter, Franziska, who only survives a year; then Edgar, his eldest son, dies in 1855. And for the next 15 years Marx is still persecuted much as he was before by bailiffs and landlords, and he doesn’t make serious headway on his “economics shit” for years. Even after Das Kapital is published in 1867 he complains to Engels that he’s never been in more dire financial straits and feels like he’s at death’s door. In 1860 he writes a work entitled Herr Vogt, which is this huge exposé of an obscure German activist who, years later in 1870, turns out to be a spy of Napoleon III. By this point Engels is almost tearing his hair out, imploring Marx to finish his book on capital. But he can’t. In this sense one could say that the farce is never-ending. Why did you decide to curtail the farce at the point you did, in 1850 or thereabouts, when in reality it had only just got going? 

In any piece of drama or comedy, when you’re dealing with such a full and eventful life, you have to bite off a digestible chunk. But you’re absolutely right, we compressed a lot. The Marxes lost several children, whereas we focused on Fawksey. In fact it was Edgar who lived up until just before he was eight years old, who Marx absolutely adored, and who was a brilliant Artful Dodger–type character. He would stand outside their Soho apartment and fob the debt-collectors off as well. All of that is equally great material but we wanted to get as much of his young life into as short a period as we could. So much happened in 1850; that year draws in all of the incidents that took place around it. You’ve only got two hours on stage. Had it been a box-set TV series we could have expanded it. You mention how he felt as if he was at death’s door. He was frequently ill due to a terrible lifestyle of smoking cigars and drinking far too much but also just getting through the run-of-the-mill everyday things of life. As writers, we had to make a decision about what a reasonable chunk of his life is, and if there were great things that happened outside of that then which ones we should try and work into that space.

I suppose the staging of the play might also have encouraged that compression. Young Marx is performed at the Bridge Theatre in London, a purpose-built brand-new state-of-the-art theater on the Thames at Tower Bridge. You have this fantastic revolving stage that allows the action to change locations in an instant, from Soho to Brussels, and which serves the piece very well. Did knowing you had that machinery at your fingertips influence the way you wrote the play?

It started quite raw. The Marxes lived in two rooms in London’s Soho in what’s now the Quo Vadis restaurant. We knew we wanted to have scenes in the Red Lion, where the Communist League met. We also knew that we wanted the duel scene, which actually took place in Antwerp, and where Konrad Schramm went to fight August Willich on Marx’s behalf. Schramm was grazed by a bullet, everyone thought he was dead, and then he turned up in Soho a few days later. But, actually, the truth is we wrote the play and Mark Thompson, the brilliant set designer, came up with this amazing revolving set. There were still a few scenes that the director cut. But we wanted the London of the time, which was a dirty, grubby Soho, awash with émigrés and revolutionaries from the 1848 revolutions in Europe. So we wanted this Dickensian pea-souper type of London together with this fetid atmosphere of revolutionaries plotting and planning. And also factions splitting. At least one of the communist factions wanted to spark revolution through pure violence. Marx never wanted that and believed things would happen through a historical process. It was all those things together that led to the way in which it was staged.

Whenever I fall into conversations with people about Marx, people always tend to express the same opinion. Armchair enthusiasts, people who haven’t read him much, or at all, usually start by insisting that while they admire Marx and agree wholeheartedly with his ideas in theory, they don’t see how they could possibly work in practice. I’m curious to know whether you’ve had similar conversations with people and whether you share the sentiment. The reason I ask is because that skepticism doesn’t come across in the play at all. Overall it ends up feeling optimistic and dispenses with the lunacy, along with the cliched idea that Marx is a utopian fantasist, irresponsible, nothing but a drunken raver, et cetera.

I’m someone who’s sympathetic to the man and his dilemmas. Marx was a young man married to a beautiful German aristocrat who was four years his senior. He was living in difficult, penurious circumstances, managing a young family and trying to hold a political movement together through the Communist League at a time when it was splitting up. So he had a lot on his plate! But can I answer the question in a slightly different way?

Sure.

Put it this way. A play about Karl Marx cannot avoid his writings. It would be absurd to try to do that. No one goes to the theater to have two hours of Marx’s theories rammed down their throat. That would not be a particularly entertaining evening. But we wanted to tackle his writings and we thought long and hard about finding ways and the right speeches in order for him to do that. So there’s a scene in the play where they’re making breakfast and Marx has an epiphany, and it’s through making breakfast that he manages to expound upon alienation. Something like alienation is a difficult concept to get across and we wanted to find ways to ground things like that in situations that might have sparked his imagination and enabled him to come up with them. And especially in those domestic situations. But I don’t think we ever took on or made a value judgment about whether these concepts were workable in practice. It was a moment in time. It was 1850. So no one had really put any of this stuff into practice. We were many years away from him actually completing Das Kapital. He’d been working on it for about five years and hadn’t done much, I think. So that wasn’t the focus of the play. I’ve slightly dodged your question there.

I think it’s fair to say that Marx in 1850 is an unusual character. At the time he was experimenting with communism and socialism, which were still fairly minority underground sects. He doesn’t know how things are going to work out, he’s grappling with it all; even though Marx’s “theory” is itself a practical undertaking. He’s not an abstract theorist.

There was one speech we put in the play and which I was very keen to have in. Marx had a great optimism that history would play out in a particular way and in the speech at the Red Lion he says there will be a time when the money’s eaten itself, banks will be bust, there will be no money to pay the police or the army and so we won’t need a revolution; we shall simply walk in and take over. There was also another speech we put in. Although he had this optimism, capitalism has clearly turned out to be hugely elastic and shape-shifting. It hits one crisis then it finds a way, whether through the invention of credit cards or state intervention to prop up banks. So in actual fact it’s proved to be a very powerful foe and perhaps more so than Marx imagined. So in the play he gives another speech when he’s at his nadir and in which he describes capitalism as a seven-headed hydra that can never be beaten. And I wonder whether he ever thought like that. Did he ever consider: What if I’m wrong about this? What if the enemy is more powerful than I thought? I take the view that anyone who believes so much in something must at some point reflect and think: what if the thing is more difficult to beat than I ever imagined?

It’s the Marx bicentennial this year and Marx’s ideas about class struggle and economic exploitation are still live issues. I wonder whether this explains why there have been so few TV or theater dramatizations of Marx’s life. Do you think producers are frightened, not so much of Marx, but of what he represents? Or do you think there’s a more innocent explanation? In passing I’ve heard it said that the Raoul Peck movie The Young Karl Marx has been struggling to secure an English distributor, which may go some way toward explaining why more Marx films don’t get made. Clearly it can’t be for lack of a good story, or one that’s worth telling. 

I don’t think there’s a big capitalist conspiracy to blunt any drama about Karl Marx. There have been lots of documentaries and books. I think it’s because people associate him so much with the writings and the history that followed it. And for a lot of people that’s a bit of a turn off.

But it’s still very visual. Your play has a great visual language in terms of the spies and all these archetypes you have in it. It’s interesting that the Marx story should remain so overwhelmingly on the page.

Well, having said that the Young Marx play has been on about a thousand cinema screens on National Theatre Live, so it has been seen in cinemas. There may end up being a film of the play. Who knows? You have these sleeping giants. For years and years, when I was writing sitcom, everyone said you cannot write a sitcom about people being in an office. People are in an office all day and they do not want to come home and sit for another half an hour and watch people in an office. And then Ricky Gervais wrote The Office. Sometimes you have a long period where people think things aren’t doable. Then suddenly times change, attitudes change, and those things become popular. So you never know. This may be a time when people are going to look again at Karl Marx. He certainly deserves a look.

And as a dialectical thinker of contraries he’s perhaps the greatest sleeping giant of them all. One should never say never with Marx.

Well, exactly. Maybe we’ve helped to start something new.

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Jason Barker is professor of English at Kyung Hee University, South Korea. He is the writer-director of the German documentary Marx Reloaded and author of the novel Marx Returns.

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[1] In 2011, it emerged that The News of the World, a mass circulation UK tabloid Sunday newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, had hired a private investigator to hack into the phone records of Milly Dowler, a young British teenager who went missing in March 2002, and whose body was eventually discovered six months later. In July 2011, it was reported that during the period of Dowler’s disappearance, during which the newspaper supported a public campaign to find her, the private investigator and journalists from the paper listened to voice messages left on her phone, and deleted others in order to free space for new incoming messages. This created the false impression that Dowler was still alive. Following pubic outrage the paper ceased publication in July 2011. In 2013, former editors of The News of the World, including Brooks and Coulson, were prosecuted for their involvement in the related phone-hacking scandal.


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