Ichheymoto’s new production is an unusual Marxism-made-easy-in-90-minutes capsule that dramatizes what many critics of Marx wished he had done—namely, lectured to the proletariat in their language about the ideas he put down on paper. Thus, the playwright Dhrubojyoti Chakraborty imagines a dialogue (or dialectic) between Marx and a Bengali common man named Mantu, through which the latter begins to comprehend the basics of Marxist theory.
But how can Ichheymoto reach the many Mantus out there? They don’t see theatre or have the money to buy tickets for a show, and even if they did, they would spend it on something else. Ichheymoto needs to strategize how to take the production to spaces frequented by this target audience, perform for free outside auditoriums or in the open to draw passers-by. Otherwise, Mantu o Marx becomes an academic exercise, and a case of preaching to the converted (the left-leaning majority of spectators in theatre halls).
To accomplish that goal, debutante director Kushal Chattopadhyay should ditch the paraphernalia-heavy proscenium design applying Ichheymoto’s USP of cluttered realism. He places the text in a typical demi-monde liquor den, adding a couple of secondary characters for verisimilitude. We can accept these insertions, but not others that strike us as gratuitous: an unused cycle, unnecessary smoking (does the cast drink real booze?), excessive punning, irrelevant dialogue on cricketers’ wives, and uncritical appropriation without comment of Hindi-film songs that exemplify capitalist entertainment at its worst. The group must ask themselves what purpose do these serve?
Textually I have few other complaints, except for one line by Marx, where he says “We want people’s (mānusher) ownership over the whole world.” This dangerous anthropocentric view of life, giving man full rights to own the earth, has caused most of the crises facing the planet today. Fortunately, Chakraborty modifies it by making Marx voice ecological consciousness towards the end of the play, but Chattopadhyay should consider rephrasing that offending sentence.
Chattopadhyay takes too long at the beginning to get to the point. Working-class or middle-class, no viewer has patience nowadays for such wastage of time. But Saurav Palodhi and Apratim Sarkar act their parts distinctively, Palodhi giving Marx a mannerism of repeating lines that works well, while Sarkar creates a plausibly incredulous Mantu. Ironically, however, Palodhi’s costume (overcoat, jeans, shoes, flashy watch) glaringly identifies Marx as belonging to the privileged class, an image contradicting the ideology he expounds, and which he should surely take pains to avoid.
This raises a related issue. In a gesture I appreciate, Ichheymoto presented me a copy of the printed play, reminiscent of old times when companies published their scripts for theatregoers to procure as mementoes. The author has an epilogue there, which ends with the outdated call of class struggle. If we took it seriously, we would rebel against Marx’s personage here just by virtue of his costume, and the group would eject members who come from comparative privilege. We don’t do that anymore. We realize that revolutionary thought crosses all human boundaries, including class.
Chakraborty also starts his epilogue by saying that he cannot locate where Marx wrote his famous motto, “Doubt everything”. As a young CPM leader, he knows much more about Marx than I do. But I suggest that he look up Marx and Engels’s Collected Works volume 42 (1987), pages 567-68. Marx inscribed those words on his daughters’ questionnaire as part of the popular pastime “Confessions”. Of course, Marx could not claim the credo as his own: the original Latin goes back via Kierkegaard to Hegel’s reading of Descartes.
Questioning supposed truths, including Marx’s (as demonstrated by the failure of so many Communist governments that couldn’t practise what he preached), is our best tribute to him and perhaps the only way humanity can improve.