A December Eve's Visit with Frederick Demuth
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
August 8, 2008
There is a lot to the historical reality of the father of Communism fathering a child with his maid outside of his marriage. This fascinating hypocrisy is not made enough the focus of A December Eve's Visit with Frederick Demuth. I felt Frederick's desperate longing for a relationship with his father as he imagined a past where Marx told Frederick and his other children the nativity story on Christmas. But, I was only partially transported from the personal to the political. Frederick is seated in a red arm chair, reads passages from a red bible, and waits for a red tea kettle which never boils, but these are not a replacement for a coherent political metaphor. He claims to be a Socialist and angrily decries the misinterpretation of Marx on the part of Russia, yet Frederick never expresses any of his own socialist thoughts or interpretations of Marxism. The intention of this omission may be to show a Marx-lover's obsession with his ideas without fully understanding them, like many adamant believers. Or the focus of the piece is not on Karl Marx as philosopher, but Marx as man.
In this regard the production is well accomplished. Ralph Pochoda gives a performance oozing with desperate sadness, and sprinkled with feeble attempts to laugh at the past amidst his anguish. Sylvia Manning's writing holds an audience's attention with very little action occurring on stage. She describes it as "a show done on a shoe string, like the character." But I felt the set had everything necessary to accomplish the modest requirements of the story. A lamp's cord stretches across the stage, a little distracting from the centered stage area (with the exception of the tea kettle up right), but never manages to get turned on. Similar to the tea kettle, it strongly implies the possibility of a burst of change which never occurs. A revolution maybe?
Marx was no ordinary man, so metaphors such as a tea kettle for a revolution must be the intention of this play. By nature of being a philosopher Marx represents his philosophy. Otherwise, why is Frederick Demuth's story being told?
There is an intelligent neglect of facts in many of Frederick's stories. We hear the imagined tale of Marx telling Christmas stories without hearing how his family was in fact destitute and starving. This suggests a comment on Communism appearing on paper as the Utopia where "...from each, according to his ability; to each, according to his need" stands as the golden rule and the reality which consists of an impoverished multitude. But does it? Of course the play wants to avoid being heavy-handed with its metaphors, but I was left a little unsure about how much the play was about Karl Marx's family, and how much the play was about Marxism.
Although incredibly intelligent in conception and well put together, the play may only function to its full intent for a viewer with the volumes of Das Capital by their bedside. Even as someone reasonably familiar with Marx, I found myself unable to fully realize its implications. Without more Marxism in the story, Frederick Demuth is not nearly as much of a tragedy.