Everywhere we turn on media outlets, we cannot escape commentary by political party pundits. Depending upon one’s proclivity, the trolls or the marketers ply their brainwashing slogans and shore up posts by online adherents countering or supporting “logical” arguments about each candidate. Jack London with uncanny insight viewed the political spectacle and the cultures that supported it through a sardonic, prescient lens in The Iron Heel.
The work is what many consider the first dystopian novel about the propaganda of “isms” and the danger of being engulfed by them to the exclusion of rational thought and critical analysis. Edward Einhorn, a fascinating playwright, director, writer and ironist about the absurd contradictions of the times we live in, takes London’s dark satire and with circumspect cleverness and balance adapts The Iron Heel into a play with humorous yet chilling, thought-provoking results.
The play is at times comedic and hyperbolic, with “in-your-face” reminders about our current social battles for prosperity against an economic/political/social system which, unless checked by democracy’s critical mass, appears to kowtow only to the wealthy. It is part musical, part historical echo of a not-so distant past, replete with songs about the working man caught under the “iron heel” of business and industry.
On another level The Iron Heel is profoundly disturbing because it recalls many of the issues we confront today surrounding global industry’s perpetual attempts to control. Indeed, we have witnessed their hegemony blossom into an oligarchical network of governments in collusion with corporations whose chief purpose appears to oppress, then consume, the little people in their maw.
The play’s setting is the 27th century. Its dynamic is a frame within a frame: we are watching actors from the future present a found “Everhard Manuscript” from the 20th century about a socialist hero, Ernest Everhard (Charles J. Ouda), penned by his wife Avis (Victoria Rulle). The versatile players act out the manuscript; they wear costumes like those worn in the 20th century, some similar to those we wear today, and the show is interactive. We are encouraged to sing along, join in the festivities and empathize with attendant sorrows.
The action flashes back to the past as the actors reveal the story of the social revolution in the early 20th century (many events generically alluded to occurred). The fictional leader Everhard, who heads up a large socialist party, attempts to overthrow first by election then by other means the oligarchy and its candidate. At times there is a break in the continuum, a hyperdrive into the future as actors in their 27th century personas include their viewpoints about the events they portray in the past or ask questions about events that happened centuries ago. Then they pick up their storytelling, flashing from present to past.
The actors transcend time’s limitations as they step in and out of character portrayals as 27th century persons. The idea of shifting identities is fascinating and reflects our own dualities: We “do” our every day activities, and “observe” ourselves doing them. We are in the immediate present, yet are future/past observers continually analyzing our condition. Thus, in the play’s action, we sense that though these actors are in the future, the past runs alongside simultaneously. In this Einhorn emphasizes a theme of London’s: Though certain elements of existence move forward in time, there is much that stays the same in human civilizations so that the past is inherent in the present during humankind’s struggles.
All the storytelling flashbacks are linked by a historian narrator (Yvonne Roen), who guides us through the time switches of the play and grounds us with her salient commentary. And all is ironic, especially the notion that we are watching the barbarous troubles of the 20th century, the labor movement struggling toward revolution, from the lens of the 27th, when the “Brotherhood of Man” arrives after centuries of bloodshed, suppression and the tyranny of the oligarchy.
The twisting irony of the play is that even in the future, the actors are driven to present this play about the past to celebrate and reveal how “far” they’ve come: thus, the past is in the future where we know conclusively that the struggle is over, the oligarchy is gone and there is a “Brotherhood of Man.”
The time parallels are juxtaposed to make us think and to bring a “tragic” relief. We understand that though “all comes out all right in the end” in the future, we as watchers are in the midst of the struggle (today, in various countries this is a matter of degree). Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, politically and economically, global cultures have not together achieved a “Brotherhood of Man/Woman” where peace reigns and all have economic wellbeing, as London and Einhorn pose happens by the 27th century in The Iron Heel. From the perspective of our current times (and in the play, the darkest failures of the socialist movement and takeover by the oligarchy in the 20th century), the likelihood of a “brotherhood/sisterhood” appears bleak, a convoluted irony.
The actors play the important characters of the socialist struggle against oligarchy, faithfully following the Everhard Manuscript. Thus, we watch ourselves empathize with them in the 27th century’s future freedoms through the mirrors of the past – which is our oppressive, unfree present. The effect is that the audience is churned into emotional turmoil, staggering in stasis, for we are not in the future. We are in the present time of struggle that the storytellers enact in flashback. Indeed, we are the flashback, an absurdity.
The production is a double whammy. It dangles the hope of a future where human civilization is able to “get along” without social and political stratification, without domination and the misery and torment created when one group exerts its will over another. It also starkly reminds us of the hopeless alienation we experience when groups revolt against quasi-democratic systems that they believe thwart their own control and domination. But when isms fight isms, the oligarchy takes over – the greatest danger, as London and Einhorn point out.
Finally, Einhorn’s adaptation even takes a swipe at the current election cycle in the U.S., though today’s personalities are even more hyperbolic than the play could ever suggest. Nevertheless, the similarities are rather devastating.
There is a final blow, albeit a good-natured one that the play smoothly delivers as entertainment. We are prompted to question ourselves: Where do we stand along the journey of struggle? Do our impulses strive with the socialists, unionists and laborers who stand up to their oppressors as they vie for their place in the sun? Or do we seek to be oligarchs and align ourselves with their narcissistic, tyrannical, amoral and unethical values? If it is the latter, are we not self-hating? Are we not obviating our own identity by despising and demeaning our own “lower” social/economic caste? Are we not “the manipulated,” unwittingly internalizing self-oppression?
This well-acted, cleverly executed production is a mind-bending tour de force of ideas, as only Einhorn can deliver, with darkly twisting humor and swaths of realism thrown in to perplex. I saw the production in a fitting venue: the Socialist’s Freedom Hall in Manhattan in a one-time performance. The production is touring like venues across the city to “spread the concepts” and travel in revolutionary fashion.
The play’s schedule may be found on its website. It is a must-see if you enjoy flirting with a confluence of ideas humorously cast in an absurdist framework, and if you have fun being ejected from your philosophical and political comfort zones.