“Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short”

Helene-Demuth
Helene Demuth

From Yours, In Struggle

Act Three

Scene Two

Engels arrives at the flat.

HELENE
Herr Engels.

ENGELS
Helene.

HELENE
Please, sir. Come in.

ENGELS
(entering)
I don’t need the “sir”, Helene. I’m nobody’s master.

HELENE
Of course, sir. Herr Marx has just stepped out for some tobacco and asked that you make yourself comfortable. May I bring you a cup of tea?

ENGELS
No, thank you, Helene. You have enough to do.

HELENE
It’s no trouble, sir.

ENGELS
How is Mrs. Marx?

HELENE
She is very strong, sir…

ENGELS
But?

HELENE
But this latest confinement– She is quite tired, sir. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this tired.

ENGELS
I see. And, if I may inquire, without imposing upon you, of course… How is Frederick?

HELENE
He is very well, sir. Thank you for asking.

ENGELS
Do you see him often?

HELENE
Whenever I can, sir.

ENGELS
How often is that, Helene?

HELENE
Well, sir, I have my duties here, of course. And in winter, without proper clothing…it’s…

ENGELS
It’s not possible.

HELENE
No, sir. But he’s well looked after, thanks to you, Herr Engels.

ENGELS
Helene. You do realize, I hope, that Herr Marx’s financial circumstances may not improve substantially for some time. If ever.

(Silence.)

ENGELS
(continued)
I’m sorry… What I mean to say is– What I’m trying to explain– As I am sure you are aware, Helene, there are countless well-to-do people in London – or in Manchester, where I live – who could use the services of a competent and loyal servant and who are capable of paying a decent wage on a regular basis. You would be paid regularly, have proper clothing, your own quarters, a regular half day off… I would be most happy to provide you with an excellent reference.

HELENE
Herr Engels. Has Herr Marx asked you to dismiss me?

ENGELS
No, Helene! No. Of course not. And I would never do such a thing, even if he asked me to do so, which he has not – and will not. I have only your best interests in mind.

HELENE
And what would they be?

ENGELS
Forgive me Helene. When you told me you had so very little free time– And no winter clothing to speak of– I– I know how very loyal you are to the Marxes, and how fond you are of the children… But– What about you, Helene? What about you?

HELENE
Herr Engels–

ENGELS
Please. Speak freely, Helene. For God’s sake.

HELENE
Would the position in Manchester that you speak of enable me to be a mother to my son?

ENGELS
I am afraid not. Frederick would remain with his foster family.

HELENE
And would the clothes and private quarters and the money that await me – would they take the place of being known and valued as Helene Demuth?

ENGELS
You would be valued, Helene. Trust me.

HELENE
My skills would be valued, no doubt. But I would remain faceless, nameless.

ENGELS
Not necessarily, Helene. In time, there would be the possibility of advancement.

HELENE
Herr Engels. You praise my loyalty in one breath and ask me to forsake Frau Marx in the next. May I remind you that I have delivered three of her children. I have nursed her daughter, taken food off my plate for her son. I have held her while she grieved for two dead babies. I have comforted her when she was sick, as she has comforted me. I have no desire whatsoever to live my life in the stifling rooms of a middle-class house, a faceless, nameless soldier in an army of complacent servants. Surely, Herr Engels – surely you know me well enough by now to understand this.

ENGELS
Yes, Helene. I do. Except that, at times it seems that the price you have paid is too great.

HELENE
And you, sir? If I may? Have your sacrifices been worthwhile?

ENGELS
I am not sure that I have made many sacrifices, Helene.

HELENE
No?

ENGELS
If anything, I feel that I should have made many more.

HELENE
I read your book, sir.

ENGELS
(slight pause)
You did?

HELENE
You wrote it before you met Herr Marx.

ENGELS
Yes, I dare say that I was full of youthful enthusiasm in those days.

HELENE
What’s wrong with that?

ENGELS
Well, nothing, except that, thanks to Herr Marx, we now have a science of capitalism and of history.

HELENE
Science?

ENGELS
Indeed.

HELENE
Herr Engels, you know that my son will no doubt become an English worker.

ENGELS
Yes. It is highly likely.

HELENE
You talk here of limbs being torn off and machines breaking every bone in a young person’s body.

ENGELS
The mills are very dangerous places, Helene. However–

HELENE
You talk of strikes and slums and alcoholism and debauchery to dull the pain of a joyless life. You say here that
(reading)
“thousands of industrious and worthy people – far worthier and more respected than all the rich of London – find themselves in a condition unworthy of human beings; and that every proletarian, every one, without exception, is exposed to a similar fate without any fault of his own and in spite of every possible effort.”
(continues reading)
“Hence it comes, too, that the social war, the war of each against all, is here openly declared… people regard each other only as useful objects; each exploits the other, and the end of it all is that the stronger treads the weaker under foot, and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains.”
(pause)
I ask you, Herr Engels, from the standpoint of the worker, how is Herr Marx’s “science” better than this?

ENGELS
Well now. How do I explain? You see, Helene, I only wrote about what I could see and hear and smell. Herr Marx writes about what we cannot see. That is his genius–

HELENE
You talk to me about the sacrifices I have made to stay with this family. If you will allow me to say so, I think you sacrificed your passion to Herr Marx’s intellect.

ENGELS
If so, Helene, it was a most valuable tradeoff. No one can argue with science.

HELENE
No, but they can ignore it. Passion, it seems to me, is less easy to dismiss.

ENGELS
Helene. While other well-meaning socialists have devised utopian schemes and created inspiring slogans, Herr Marx discovered a law of history. A law of history, Helene. Even if his work is ignored by men – and I shall endeavor to ensure that it is not – history cannot ignore it. The working class is not a group of people to be pitied, but rather a historical force with which to be reckoned. The revolution will come, Helene. And that truth is more powerful than all the moral outrage a naive and idealistic youth new to industrial England could muster.
(pause)
It has been an honour to serve Herr Marx. A rare privilege.

HELENE
Indeed, it has been.

Marx enters.

MARX
(furious)
A man cannot even obtain a can of tobacco without a struggle! Helene, did we not pay that imbecile? I had to restrain myself from challenging him to a duel at sunrise. Friedrich! Have you been waiting long? I hope not. The more impatient you are the more you will nag me about my book. Helene, what are you standing there for? You look like you’ve had some kind of seizure or something. What is it? Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?

ENGELS
I was just suggesting to Helene that she take a post in a house with more financial stability.

MARX
What? Our Helene?! Polishing silver for some pillar of the establishment? Stitching lace on some lady’s evening gown? Or perhaps washing the wine glasses after a banquet? Friedrich, sometimes you seem to be somewhat removed from the push and pull of everyday reality. But then, you are the victim of your upbringing, as are we all. Helene. Pay no attention to this capitalist. He means well. They all mean well! Well? What is everyone looking at me for?

A child begins to cry in the street.

HELENE
Excuse me, sir. Herr Engels.

Helene exits.

MARX
(shouting out the window)
Girls! Girls!! What’s all the fuss about?
(pause)
Well, take it back then, if it’s yours. She what? All right, then. Better wait for the reinforcements. Helene is on her way down. There she is. All’s well now. (turns back to Engels) Have you gone insane?

ENGELS
I am a sane as I ever was, which may not be saying much.

MARX
Need I point out that my wife is struggling to feed, clothe, keep clean, and educate three children in conditions which any peasant woman would find intolerable – and here you come, from the luxury of your capitalist world, suggesting that her only source of support – and a loyal source at that – resign and obtain employment in more optimum conditions. What in the name of all that’s holy has gotten into you?

ENGELS
You haven’t finished your work, have you?

MARX
No, I haven’t. I have pus oozing from three carbuncles on my back, my liver is enlarged and I cannot see. I have four creditors threatening suits by Monday if I do not pay, my wife has been disfigured by smallpox and is ill once again with grief and worry, the cholera is raging through this slum and I fear for the health of my children – oh! – and I forgot to mention: I have been worried lately that Helene is not fulfilled in her present employment!

ENGELS
(picking up some papers)
What is this?

MARX
I have been studying mathematics.

ENGELS
Mathematics?

MARX
Yes, as a matter of fact. And integral and differential calculus. It relaxes me.

ENGELS
It relaxes you.

MARX
Don’t start, Friedrich! I’ve been up for two nights!

ENGELS
So what? You always work at night!

MARX
I wasn’t working! I wasn’t working because I was busy with other matters!

ENGELS
Such as what? Discussing the relevance of Leviathan with your housekeeper?!

Silence.

ENGELS
(continuted)
I’m sorry…

MARX
Edgar is not well.

ENGELS
What?

MARX
Edgar. He is quite ill.

ENGELS
Jesus, Karl. Why didn’t you just say so?

MARX
I have not admitted this to Jenny, of course, but I must tell you that I fear the worst. At night he cannot sleep for the weight on his chest. He rests sitting up, in my lap.

ENGELS
(reaches in his pocket)
You must contact the doctor.

MARX
What can he do?

ENGELS
(puts money on the table)
Karl, listen to me–

MARX
He cannot put coal in the stove or food on the table. He cannot remove the soot from the sky or the damp from the air. He cannot give the boy a heartier constitution.

ENGELS
There must be something. Medication, treatments…

MARX
He is spitting up blood now. Helene tends to him as discreetly as possible, for Jenny’s sake. She is expecting again you know. Oh, Friedrich, he is the heart and soul – the life blood – of this family and I just don’t know–
(wipes his face with his handkerchief)
Did you bring the articles for The Tribune?

ENGELS
Yes.

MARX
Good. Very good, Friedrich. Did anyone offer you a cup of tea? Helene?

ENGELS
I’m fine, Karl.

MARX
Helene!!

ENGELS
Karl, leave her be! I don’t want any.

MARX
We shall not alter our course. Things may take a little longer – but we shall stay the course. Yes?
(pause)
If I had known, Friedrich, I would not have married. I have loved her my whole life, from childhood, but if I had known, I would never have allowed her to suffer this. There is nowhere to go, nothing we can do. We have exhausted all possibilities. We have begged and borrowed from relatives, we have sought advances on inheritances, we have sold anything and everything, we have run up accounts everywhere and there is no way to rectify the situation in the foreseeable future.
(pause)
I think of you every day in that factory.

ENGELS
It is nothing.

MARX
It is a complete waste of your talent and you know it!

ENGELS
It is nothing! Karl, listen to me. We do what we must. We, at least, are conscious of our choices. We accept the consequences–

MARX
I don’t accept them! I don’t! First Guido, then Franziska. And now Edgar.

ENGELS
We will get help. Karl–

MARX
(overlapping Engels)
I cannot– I will not– I– I–
(collapsing)
Friedrich– Friedrich–

ENGELS
(embracing Marx)
Karl, for God’s sake. For God’s sake.

Engels holds Marx.

MARX
I’m all right.

ENGELS
Come and sit down.

MARX
I’m a little dizzy, that’s all.

Engels helps Marx to a chair. Helene enters with tea.

HELENE
(to Engels)
What happened?

ENGELS
It’s all right.

HELENE
Herr Marx?

ENGELS
He’s all right.

HELENE
Sir?

MARX
I’m all right, Helene. I– Just… see to the children.

HELENE
(puts tea tray down; kneels by Marx)
Sir?

MARX
(takes her hands)
I’ll be fine. I will.
(kisses her hands)
Go on now. Do as you’re told.

Helene does not move and Marx does not let go.

[from Yours, In Struggle.]

© Elizabeth Anne French 2017

Featured image is Helene Demuth, servant to the Marx Family. 

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