I was set an essay this week by Claudia
Bosse, a brilliant Vienna-based theatre director with whom I
worked a decade ago on Aeschylus’ Persians in Braunschweig, the city
that gave A. Hitler German citizenship. Now she’s put on an astonishing production
of Seneca’s Thyestes, which I attended with Vienna Latin Professor/Brexit
victim Professor Peter Kruschwitz. But I felt like an undergraduate again
because she has integrated a recital from Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, and
asked me to make sense of the connection.
|With (Former) Reading Uni Latin Professor|
Although Marx was classically educated
at Trier Gymnasium and Bonn University, and he mentions practically every Greek
and Latin author somewhere, Senecan tragedy (as far as I know) never features. 19th-century
Germans all believed A.W. Schlegel, a specialist in ancient drama,
who thought Seneca’s tragedy was an abomination--unperformable, tasteless bombast
with zero dramatic, poetical or moral value. Schlegel should have seen Bosse’s
Marx did engage with Senecan philosophy.
His doctoral dissertation was on the Epicureans, but he had intended to write a
post-doc thesis, a Habilitation, which discussed Stoicism as well. He
did not like Stoicism for the same reasons I don’t: he thought it under-estimated
the power of human agency and over-estimated Fate; he also (like Hegel) thought
Stoicism heralded the dominant, subjective, individuated ruling-class male ‘I’
of western identity which alienates humans from one another.
|5-Stong Chorus, also takes roles of Thyestes, Atreus, Fury, Tantalus, Messenger|
Marx loved theatre, constantly quoting
Shakespeare (especially the pound-of-flesh scene in Merchant of Venice
and Timon’s realisation that money corrupts) and near-obsessing on Aeschylus’ Prometheus
Bound. And he frequently uses the classical metaphor of cannibalism, on which
theme Seneca’s Thyestes is one long variation.
His inaugural speech to the historic First International (1864) at Long Acre discussed the
campaign of British workers to restrict the hours of labour, a campaign which
had been bitterly opposed by industrial capitalists: they, ‘vampire-like, could
but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood, too.’ Industrial Kapital devours the bodies of
workers, even child labourers, draining them of their life blood in order to perpetuate
its dysfunctional production and consumption.
Marx was intimate with the legend of the family of
Tantalus, who cannibalised his son Pelops, whose grandson Thyestes ate his own
children, and whose great-grandson Agamemnon sacrificed his girl-child. Marx
once wrote that the hordes of British soldiers dying in the Crimea were suffering
all the pains of Tantalus without his guilt. On another occasion, when deriding
the supposed reforms of bourgeois liberals, he wrote that Lord John Russell, ‘when
he amused the House with a Reform Bill which he knew would prove another
Iphigenia, to be sacrificed by himself, another Agamemnon, for the benefit of
another Trojan War. He performed the sacrifice indeed in true melodramatic
style, his eyes filled with tears’
|Prometheus/Marx being tortured by Capitalist Censorship|
Most importantly, Marx understood
the ancient dramatists’ fascination with ignorance in connection with atrocity
(Thyestes does not know what he’s eating any more than Oedipus knows whom he’s
marrying) as expressing the idea of false consciousness. We all suffer
delusions about the economic system we live under. They enable us to tolerate the
atrocities it entails.
So I ended my essay with one of my favourite sentences
in world literature. In Rheinische Zeitung Marx wrote, ‘Ignorance is a
demon which will, we fear, be responsible for many a tragedy yet; the greatest
Greek dramatists were right when they depicted it, in the terrible dramas that
deal with the royal families of Mycenae and Thebes, as tragic fate’. This is a significant reason, I believe, why ancient
tragedy still resonates so much today, as the Vienna performance emphatically shows.
|Claudia's 2008 Persians with mass chorus of local citizens|