Servant of the Revolution: The Creative Art of Serving History and the Imagination

Article excerpt

Servant of the Revolution premiered at the Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre in Brunswick in 2009 (21 JuIy-I August). The play draws on the spare historical 'facts' about Helene Demuth, aka 'Lenchen', a loyal and long-time servant in the household of Karl Marx. The drama centres on Lenchen giving up to foster parents Marx's illegitimate son Freddy, who was born mid-1851. Subsequently Lenchen stayed in the Marx household as a servant after the death of Karl's wife Jenny and until he died. No image is more symbolic than the Marx family grave in Highgate cemetery, London, with his wife Jenny on one side and Lenchen on the other. The challenge of researching and writing creative non-fiction involving such material is the subject of this article.

First, the historical background of the intrigue of Freddy's parenthood is analysed. Second, the reasons for deciding that the relationship between Marx and Lenchen was significant are discussed. Then several challenges and themes are elaborated upon: how a political perspective arose; whose point/s of view that perspective implied; how the genre was determined for me; how I decided on which characters would take the stage, and a structure for the play; why I chose to set the drama decades after Lenchen had become pregnant and given birth, and pertinent points about the 2009 production.

Background: Freddy

Lenchen (1820-1890) left home and became a servant when she was around seven years old because her father, a baker, had died. A few years later Baroness Caroline von Westphalen (1814-1881), Jenny's mother offered Lenchen a position in their household, partly to fill the place of another daughter who had died. It was as if Lenchen had become a member of the family. At that time Jenny was a teenager. Later, Lenchen was handed on like a 'feudal gift'1 from mother to daughter to serve in the household of Jenny and Karl Marx (1818-1883) once they had children.

Once Karl died (around eighteen months after his wife), Lenchen became head housekeeper for his collaborator Frederick Engels, who had formally taken responsibility for the paternity of Marx and Lenchen's child. Henry Frederick Lewis/Demuth (1851-1929)- later nicknamed 'Freddy'- had been fostered out at three weeks old. This arrangement aimed to preserve the secret from Jenny, although her biographer Heinz Frederick Peters and her unfinished autobiography2 suggest that she had guessed the truth. Peters refers to Lenchen as 'a second mother for Jenny's children, and a second wife for Karl'. 3

When Lenchen became pregnant, Marx was married, one of his four young children had just died at ten months of age, and his wife was already a few months pregnant again. Indeed the financial pressures of a growing family and Karl's incapacity to support them prompted Jenny to search for funds in Holland, from Karl's rich relative Lion Philips, around the time Freddy was conceived.

In these circumstances one can only imagine the stress caused once Lenchen revealed to Karl that she was pregnant. Jenny had a strict code of ethics when it came to marriage. She so looked down on unrespectable arrangements that she had made a public affair of initially declining to be introduced to Engels' s first partner with whom he lived part-time. Jenny held that the loose habits of cohabiting socialists were a blemish on the movement as a whole. There are no indications that Marx held the same views. This led to the arrangement whereby Engels took the rap for Marx and Lenchen' s misdemeanour, a particularly ironic twist.

It took decades for the secret to be exposed as one of those kinds of 'agreed-upon facts' that Gore Vidal has referred to as 'the stuff of history'. 4 It was suppressed by Marx's loyal inner circle and later by Stalin. A noted biographer of Engels, Terrell Carver, still questions the veracity of the story, s However, among the vast majority who regard it as fact is one of Marx's most respected biographers, David McLellan. …