PREFACE: Following Karl Marx’s death in London in 1883, the ‘heir apparent’ to his ideological legacy was his youngest daughter Eleanor (Sarah Whitehouse). Known within the family and close friends as ‘Tussy’, she settled in Sydenham in 1895, along with her married partner (but not to her) Edward Aveling (David Sayers). In some ways, this ‘unorthodox’ arrangement is the sort of freedom that Mary Wollstonecraft – the 18th century ‘godmother of feminism’ – wished she could have pursued with her original (and married) coeur d’amour, Henry Fuseli. But for Eleanor this has not been ideal at all – and as the play shows, there’s more to this informal arrangement than meets the eye…
Written by Lucy Kaufman and directed by Jonathan Kaufman, Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk takes place during her last days in SE26. Still a relatively young woman (43), Eleanor was in her prime in terms of her influence among the European intelligentsia. If Wollstonecroft was the first to put pen to paper regarding the education of women and their inherent rights, Eleanor put this ideology into practice and saw the intersectional value of women’s rights with the rest of the working class.
The play begins with the death of her dog, who has been ‘put to sleep’ by family friend and physician Dr Henry Shackleton (Robert Maskell). Because of the dog’s pain and poor health, this euthanasia is thought of as a ‘kindness’, though its presence on the kitchen table still unnerves all that see it. In many ways the dog’s fate foreshadows the play’s end, much as Chekhov’s Three Sisters begins with the remembrance of the General’s death and concludes with the death of Baron Tuzenbach.
As the ‘glue’ of the play, servant Gerty Gentry (Kirsten Moore) is the first to meet Dr Shackleton and through her, we have an insider’s view of Eleanor Marx. Having given Gerty the benefit of her wisdom, the servant is much more knowledgeable about a great many things – including the pros and cons of marriage. As if to back up her argument, Eleanor cites the revolutionary ‘new play’ A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. Bearing in mind what Nora Helmer, the protagonist does in A Doll’s House and what Eleanor with her principles decides to do in this play, there is in hindsight an echo and divergence of these narratives – an irony not lost on the observant.
As the titular character, Whitehouse brings a natural gravitas to the role, much like a member of royalty who is aware of their own status and that of their lineage. However, the arrival of Freddy Demuth (Simeon Oakes) shows a softer, more open side to her personality. We can ascertain from their behaviour they’re ‘close’, but what is the true nature of their relationship..?
While Eleanor talks with authority about principles and the rights of others, we see on the matter of her ‘husband’ there is an ‘ethical blind spot’, which she freely admits. As the bearer of ‘bad news’, Freddy has the unenviable task of informing ‘Tussy’ what her social circle thinks of Edward’s most recent behaviour and how it impinges on her own professional reputation.
One of the big, reoccurring themes in the play is the discrepancy between the ideology of the ‘big thinkers’ and their private morality. While Eleanor defends her father’s work and tries to set the record straight with regards to erroneous assumptions, she exhibits a similar ‘weakness’. Much is made of Marx’s questionable behaviour in private and of family friend Friedrich Engels. As a consequence, ‘Tussy’ has to separate their thoughtless actions from her feelings for them as people. Alas, we see how this ‘unconditional’ predilection to be always ‘patient and understanding’ has led to her unrealistic assumption she can rehabilitate Edward’s ‘moral sickness’ with her love.
While Edward is the epitome of caddishness, Sayers manages to get beneath the skin of this ‘morally flexible’ man and show that because he has been leading a double life for so long, he has even managed to convince himself that it is Eleanor’s fault that he is the way he is, because of the way she’s indulged his behaviour over the years. While his behaviour is unequivocally reprehensible, there is a grain of truth to his assertion, which for Eleanor makes the situation all the more tragic.
The early part of the play touched on Ibsen’s A Doll House and in the second half we clearly see that it’s Eleanor herself who has a life-changing decision to make regarding her ‘marriage’ and ‘husband’. The other literary allusion mentioned was something that Eleanor had translated – Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Alas, just like the novel’s protagonist, her unhappiness pushes her to consider the unthinkable. As a romantic at heart, she feels just like the wheels of history, that her fate is inevitable. While the play forces the audience to consider the ‘validity’ of her feelings, however extreme or ill-conceived, the play challenges us to consider the unlikely possibility that Edward is capable of ‘love’ – even if it isn’t for Eleanor.
While some knowledge of Eleanor Marx and the 19th century certainly helps with the enjoyment of The Jewess of Jews Walk, it’s not a pre-requisite. The play is very much rooted in relationships: between fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, and ‘man’ and ‘wife’. How they overlap is part of the play’s interwoven tapestry – impossible to unravel separately, but frayed emotions felt in every direction.
© Michael Davis 2018
Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk ran at Sydenham Centre from 18th April – 12th May 2018.