Theater archives

Iron Deficiency: A Dystopian Depiction of Class Struggle Is Anemic Rather Than Rousing


Though best known as the author of rugged adventure books like The Call of the Wild and White Fang, Jack London was also a devoted socialist. In his 1908 novel The Iron Heel, he envisions an American dystopia in which ruthless plutocrats unite to crush the proletariat. (Sounds like something from the Koch brothers’ vision board, doesn’t it?)

In the book we hear about it through the first-person account of Avis Everhard, a Berkeley professor’s daughter who is radicalized by her husband, Ernest. The latter is a revolutionary who spends the first half of the novel delivering long, humorless lectures on Marxist thought before becoming a leader of the resistance in the second half. Avis worships him and London declines to shape him with any of the contradictions or human failings that make a character interesting. “When he called me his sweet metaphysician,” Avis reports, “I called him my immortal materialist.” This is what passes for pillow talk.

In bringing the story to the stage for Untitled Theater Company No. 61, adapter-director Edward Einhorn starts with the futuristic conceit (also present in the book’s introduction and footnotes) that the days of the oligarchy are several centuries in the past, having been replaced, well after the events in the story, by the socialistic, strife-free paradise foretold by Ernest. The audience has gathered in a communal hall for a re-enactment based on Avis’s diary.

Stationed around a table draped in red cloth and topped with props, a narrator (a genial Yvonne Roen) and five actors recount the doomed efforts of Avis (Victoria Rulle) and Ernest (Charles J. Ouda, who does manage to convey some anguish beneath his character’s smugness) to fight the powers that be. Though they fail, their bravery lays a foundation for the series of popular revolts that will eventually topple the wicked.

While telling their story, the players pause occasionally for a labor-anthem sing-along or to explain obsolete concepts (Wall Street, prizefighting). This device also allows Einhorn to insert some ambivalence about London’s blithe embrace of violence as a means of overthrowing capitalism — as, for example, when the re-enactors break character to wonder aloud whether a peaceful resolution to class struggle truly is impossible.

But the script’s reliance on hectoring speeches, manifesto-thin characterization, and narration in lieu of rousing action ultimately make for an inert production. As with London’s book, it demonstrates how something can be red and colorless at the same time.

The Iron Heel
Adapted and directed by Edward Einhorn
South Oxford Space
138 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn
Through September 5