When great events happen words wombed in dusty classics burst forth with new energy and resume the urgency with which they were written. It is impossible, in the face of history-making, not also to be drawn to history already made. In the Rustbelt’s little world Shakespeare created the words and Marx assembled the script of our human drama. I’ve revisited both since the events in Egypt began forcefully intervening into history sixteen (only sixteen? it seems a year, at least!) days ago.
While it’s impossible not to feel some comparisons with the Commune and Cairo’s Tahrir, I’m not making any analogies (really, I’m not!). All I’m saying is that in times of revolution Marx’s Civil War in France becomes an even more remarkable read, no more so than now. Here’s something that passed my eyes on an early morning bus ride, where nearly every paragraph read before sparkled to life…
‘In their reluctance to continue the civil war opened by Thiers’ burglarious attempt at Montmartre, the Central Committee made themselves, this time, guilty of a decisive mistake in not at once marching upon Versailles, then completely helpless, and this putting an end to the conspiracies of Thiers and his Rurals. Instead of this, the Party of Order was again allowed to try its strength at the ballot box, on the 26th of March, the day of the election of the Commune. Then, in the mairies [city halls] of Paris, they exchanged bland words of conciliation with their too generous conquerors, muttering in their hearts solemn vows to exterminate them in due time.’
Among other overtly political themes, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus holds a cold mirror up to the despot’s visage only to reveal ourselves, or part of ourselves- those dark places where power becomes its own justification, where power panders and we pander power. There is a whole lot in this work, one my father wouldn’t let me watch as a kid because of its incredible, brutal violence, for leftists to ponder. Who could watch the play now and not see a little of Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarek in Caius Martius? Or in the Senators, the ‘people’s tribunes’, Egypt’s pretenders who, in their own power desires, propel themselves on the people’s hunger for justice in rebellion against a master they once served? Again, these are not analogies, just the reiteration that certain struggles of our species are…ongoing.
The above (Act III Scene III) is from an excellent 1984 RSC production with Alan Howard in the lead, it is out there and worth finding. Readers might also be interested in John Filling’s essay The Body, the Belly and Blood in Coriolanus: From Shakespeare to Brecht through Marx.