BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro-based professor, sociologist, actor, author, musician, and playwright Jerry Levy celebrates the 10th anniversary of his performing Howard Zinn’s “Marx In Soho,” and the premiere of Levy’s play, “The Third Coming: Marx Returns,” the weekend of Nov. 20 with special performances of both works at the Hooker-Dunham Theater.
All proceeds from the shows will benefit The Commons and its parent organization, Vermont Independent Media.
Embodying the persona of Karl Marx is an easy leap for Levy, a recently retired sociology professor at Marlboro College. The likeness between the two is uncanny, especially when Levy is in costume.
The similarities don’t end there: the teachings of Marx were a regular part of Levy’s curriculum as he focused on how social movements, bureaucracy, and economic factors influence everyday life.
Much of Levy’s teachings addressed the personal, political, and social burdens of the rising capitalist system, and were greatly informed by Marx (and Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen).
Levy explains that performing “Marx In Soho” more than 250 times in the last decade has given him special insight into the iconic social and political thinker:
“In the process I probably learned more about Karl Marx than in the over 40 years I taught his work as a sociologist.”
The one-man, one-act play, which Zinn published in 1999, imagines Marx appealing to “the Committee” in the afterlife to send him back to Earth — to London — in part to answer the question Marx, in the play, asks: “Don’t you wonder: Why is it necessary to declare me dead again and again?”
As Zinn says in the foreword to “Marx in Soho: a Play on History”: “Karl and Jenny Marx had moved to London after he was expelled from country after country on the European continent. They lived in the grubby Soho district.”
Because of a bureaucratic error, instead of being sent back to Soho in London, Karl Marx arrived in New York City’s SoHo district, circa 1991, providing the sociologist an ideal venue from which to comment on the injustices of capitalism.
“By 1991, the Soviet Union had fallen and everyone was saying Marx and Communism were dead,” Levy said. “‘Marx In Soho’ was Zinn’s answer to that.”
By the early 1990s, New York City’s SoHo, a once-thriving low-rent industrial and arts district, had spent about a decade devolving toward its current status as hyperactive grid of conspicuous consumption, driving all but the most commercial of artists out.
What better setting to demonstrate the effects of what Marx had warned against 150 years prior: the continual movement of capital (money) from the hands of those who actually do the work into the pockets of ownership/ruling class, and the individual’s alienation from the self, the work (or art), and from life that results from “the despotism of capital.”
“Marx In Soho” (South End Press) isn’t just one long lecture: Marx’s lively, engaging observations on his era and the modern world are often seen through the lens of domesticity. As Zinn said of his play, “That imagined scene — Marx at home, Marx with his wife, Jenny, with his daughter Eleanor — fascinated me.”
Continuing on the themes Zinn raised about Marx’s relationship between his ideas, life, and character, Levy recently completed “The Third Coming: Marx Returns.” The play imagines Marx convincing “the Committee” to send him back to Earth again, but now to modern-day Brattleboro.
“A lot has happened in 23 years. What might Marx have to say about Vermont?” Levy asked.
A helping hand
With the completion of “The Third Coming: Marx Returns,” Levy said he saw an ideal opportunity to premiere the play, help a local resource, and celebrate the 10th anniversary of his performing “Marx In Soho.”
Community pressure provided another impetus.
“People keep asking me when I’m going to do [‘Marx In Soho’] again,” Levy said.
These events are part of The Commons’ annual fundraising appeal, and Levy, a founder of the newspaper, says that “every penny [from the box office] is going to The Commons.”
Levy appreciates that The Commons — an independent media resource supported only by memberships, advertising revenue, and grants — is free to the public.
“I think The Commons has become a wonderful paper,” Levy said. “It has the most wonderful diversity of community news and articles coming from all persuasions. It’s part of Vermont’s attempt to define its own way of life and I want to support it.”