Sunday 6 October 2019

When Karl met Lucius Annaeus: Seneca & Marx in Vienna

Claudia Bosse

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 production.

5-Stong Chorus, also takes roles of Thyestes, Atreus, Fury, Tantalus, Messenger
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.

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.     
Prometheus/Marx being tortured by Capitalist Censorship
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’

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. 

Claudia's 2008 Persians with mass chorus of local citizens
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.

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