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The Iron Heel Review: Jack London’s Socialism Returns

With the Bernie Sanders campaign removing the taint connected to the word “Socialism” for a new generation of American voters, it seems an inspired time for Edward Einhorn’s stage adaptation of Jack London’s “The Iron Heel.” The novel, written by London in 1908, is a fascinating and dense hodgepodge of science fiction, dystopian fiction, adventure, romance, melodrama, astonishingly accurate prophecy, and socialist propaganda. The adept theatrical version reflects the spirit of socialism – the show is free or “pay what you can” (depending on the venue), we are offered free drinks, and we are handed a booklet of lyrics so that we can sing along with the rousing union anthems that punctuate the narrative. The show winds up an intellectually stimulating oddity rather than an emotionally stirring manifesto, but it does transport us simultaneously to three different time periods – the first half of the 20th century, the middle of the 27th century, and the present day. (“Who controls the government?” the revolutionist asks at one point, in one of many political diatribes. “The Plutocracy, a mere quarter million, the top nine-tenths of one percent in wealth. There is no Democratic Party. There is no Republican Party. There are only lick-spittlers and panderers, creatures of that top nine-tenths.”)

London, who died exactly a century ago, was a best-selling novelist whose most familiar works, including “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” are still widely read today. He was also a committed Socialist (having seen at age 18, as he wrote in “How I Became A Socialist” , “sailor-men, soldier-men, labor-men, all wrenched and distorted and twisted out of shape by toil and hardship and accident, and cast adrift by their masters like so many old horses.”)

In “The Iron Heel,” he imagined  historians from the socialist utopia of the 27th century having recovered a manuscript written by one Avis Everhard about her experiences and that of her husband, the “revolutionist” Ernest Everhard, in battling the Iron Heel of the 20th century (so-called because the society of oligarchs was an iron heel that crushed the people.)

In the stage play, Antonia (Yvonne Roen) is the historian of the future who narrates the story of seven centuries earlier, while a group of actors from the future perform the manuscript. We see the actor playing the fiery Ernest Everhard (a fiery, earnest Charles J. Ouda) meet Avis (Victoria Rulle), the privileged daughter of wealthy, well-meaning Berkeley professor John Cunningham (Kevin Argus) in their family’s house during a party. Everhard entered uninvited. “I saw the food and drink, and I was hungry,” he explains.

“Then you are no more than a common thief,” says one of the (oligarchic) guests.

“You clearly have more food than you can eat yourselves. Would I be less a thief if I waited for your scraps at the garbage, so I could partake of them then?”

Everhard soon wins over Avis to be his wife, and awakens her to the necessity of socialist revolution (in much the way that London was awakened – by meeting a working man injured on the job, then discarded by his employer.) He also influences both Cunningham and the good Bishop Morehouse (Craig Anderson) to side with the people against capitalism, with disastrous results for them; they are crushed under the Iron Heel (represented by various villains portrayed by Travis SD.)

Things don’t go well for London’s 20th century characters, but they – and he – were encouraged by their certainty that better days were ahead, even if it would take several centuries of struggle.

As with their past work (especially The Money Lab) Einhorn and his Untitled Theater Company #61 (“Theater of Ideas…”) prove again a master (but a benevolent one) in turning intellectual matters into engaging stage shows.

 

 

The Iron Heel

From the book by Jack London
Adapted and directed by Edward Einhorn

Costume/prop design: Ramona Ponce
Sound design: Chris Chappell
Stage manager: Blake Kile

Cast: Craig Anderson, Kevin Argus, Fred Backus (on Governor’s Island only), Charles Ouda, Yvonne Roen, Victoria Rulle, and Trav SD

 

 

 

Remaining performances:

Thu August 18 7:30pm (South Oxford, Pay What You Can)
Fri August 19 7:30pm (South Oxford, Pay What You Can)
Wed August 24, 7pm (Judson Church, FREE)
Fri August 26, 6pm (Jackie Robinson Park, FREE)
Sat August 27 7:30pm (South Oxford, Pay What You Can)
Mon Sep 5 5pm (West Side Community Garden, FREE)

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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