Depending on your politics, Zinn is either one of the best historians of our time or a man who plays fast and loose with the facts in his drive to trash America.
Zinn, now a very active 77, has published hundreds of articles and authored or edited close to 20 books on radical American history (including his recent memoir, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train). By the same token, quite a bit has been written about him?his activism, his controversial interpretations of history. But very little, it seems, has been said about his work as a playwright. I was surprised to discover that his new play, which premieres in New York this Friday, wasn't his first.
"I'm really surprised that people haven't heard of my other great works," Zinn said, chuckling. "I'm not much of a playwright, but I've written two plays before this."
His first play, Emma (about Emma Goldman), was Boston's longest-running play in 1977. It was performed in London and Tokyo and New York. And, the day after I spoke with him, Zinn was going to Arkansas, where it was being staged again.
The new play, Marx in Soho, was written in the late 90s. At the time, he didn't seem to think much would happen with it.
"I had a reading [of the play] in Boston about two years ago," Zinn told me. "In the audience was the editor of South End Press, and he liked it so much that he asked me if they could publish it as a book... Then, somehow, he and a little group of dedicated socialists in the International Socialist Organization?young, very energetic people?took it up as a cause to produce it around the country. It opens in San Francisco in May. It's been done in Chicago, Berkeley, a bunch of other places. And one actor is doing most of it. Young guy, who's playing Marx in his 50s?Brian Jones. He's a wonderful actor. It's a one-person play, so...the whole play falls or rises on the acting ability of the performer."
I asked Zinn what attracted a radical historian to the theater. I was expecting to hear something about the role theater has played in social movements throughout history, etc., etc., but that's not what I got. The answer he gave me was actually much simpler than that, and made perfect sense.
"My wife acted, my daughter acted. My son has been in theater nearly all of his adult life. I was always interested in theater, but never got a chance to do anything about it?I was too busy writing history stuff, and being socially active. I think when the war in Vietnam ended, I finally got a chance to breathe. I decided I wanted to write a play."
And that's where Emma came from.
"I'd gotten interested in anarchism," he said. "And I think the 60s made anarchism more interesting as a political philosophy, as people turned away from the Old Left?the communist movement, Stalinism. Anarchism, being opposed to all that and yet being radical...really attracted a lot of people."
What he discovered in putting Emma on the stage was that a theatrical production was, in a way, its own little socialist exercise.
"I discovered from that something very interesting about playwriting, which is very different from writing books on history. And that is, when you write books, it's a very lonely occupation. When you write something for the theater, as soon as it's taken over by a director and actors and set designers, this whole group of people is suddenly associated with you in a joint project. It's a wonderful feeling to be a part of a group project, where all these people are as concerned about it as you are."
It's of course no surprise that, like most of Zinn's writings, Marx in Soho is a socialist commentary on history. Unlike most such things, however, it also has a sense of humor.
The play is a bit of fantastical speculation, concerning what would happen if Marx were given a second chance by the forces of the universe, and returned to Earth for a bit, just to take a look around. Unfortunately, due to a "bureaucratic error," instead of finding himself in London's Soho district, where he lived, he finds himself, well, here, in the present day.
The big question I had for Zinn was the most obvious one: Why unearth Marx now, in a world that, in the minds of so many, seems to have proven that socialism was a mistake, a grand experiment that failed horribly and cost millions of lives in the process?
"That's exactly why I wrote the play," he began. "That's exactly why, in the play, Marx returns in the present. And he returns to the present, as he tells the audience, 'To clear his name.' The Soviet Union disintegrates and people say, 'Well, that means Marxism is dead.' And Marx is onstage to explain that no, Stalinism is dead, and Soviet bureaucracy is dead, but that was not socialism. That was not [Marx's] ideal of a good society... At the same time, he strikes out against those who see the end of the Soviet Union as a triumph of capitalism, and then points out how his critique of capitalism remains relevant today. That's why I have him return, not to the Soho in London...but Soho in New York, so he can comment on the United States, which is the preeminent capitalist country in history, and point out how the Marxist critique of capitalism still applies to this very rich and presumably successful country."
As Marx himself puts it in the play, "Did I not say, a hundred and fifty years ago, that capitalism would enormously increase the wealth of society, but that this wealth would be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?"
Of course how, exactly, that will sit with Broadway audiences?who happen to control much of the wealth he's talking about?remains to be seen.
Marx in Soho, April 7-9 & 14-16 at the Producers Club Theater, 358 W. 44th (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.). Tickets are $22 ($16 for students) and are available through SmarTix, 532-8887.