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Reviewed by:
  • Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes
  • Loren Kruger
Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes. By Martin Puchner. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006; pp. xiv + 315. $60.00 cloth, $22.95 paper.

Published in Theatre Journal in 2002, Puchner's article "Manifesto = Theatre" gave readers a promising advance on a study of this emphatic equation and its serial rupture. Three years later, his book has much to offer on Marx and manifestos, but less to say about avant-gardes or theatre. Divided into five parts beginning with Marx, traversing the well-known terrain of the European avant-gardes, pausing to focus on the surrealists and the avowedly anti-surrealist Artaud, and ending with reflections on the 1960s and beyond, the book seems primarily to function as a textbook whose fourteen chapters neatly cover a semester, rather than the major intervention in the fields of theory, theatre, and translation as advertised by Princeton's Translation / Transnation series.

The book begins strongly with Marx's appeal to the "poetry of the future" (1) in The Eighteenth Brumaire as a starting point for a compelling analysis of the literary and theatrical power as well as the political force of The Communist Manifesto. Puchner is not the first to discuss Marx (the primary author) in terms of literary virtuosity—Marshall Berman among others has done so—nor the only one to note the astonishing number of translations and worldwide disseminations of this manifesto. He draws on Bert Andréas's edition of the 1963 French translation in chapters on the "history" and "geography" of the text, but goes beyond Andréas's study of translation to argue that The Communist Manifesto's impact has been so great as to "eliminate the original as a privileged point of reference" (55). Quoting his colleague David Damrosch's remark that "world literature is writing that gains in translation" (What Is World Literature? [Princeton University Press, 2003], 281), Puchner argues ironically that The Communist Manifesto speaks to a "global audience defined by the international market" (56).

Although Puchner gives a good account of Marx and Engel's anti-capitalist project, he misses an opportunity to analyze the capitalist exploitation of the manifesto during its 150th anniversary in 1998. This event may have passed unnoticed in the United States, but was celebrated in Europe by special editions such as Verso's "little red book" in a black cover with a red flag designed by market-savvy postsocialist artists Komar and Melamid. In Puchner's native Germany, The Communist Manifesto's anniversary was linked to the centenary of the birth of Brecht, whose maverick communism expressed itself in his attempt to versify Marx and Engels's prose. Puchner mentions this project briefly, but dismisses it as a "fun exercise" (53) rather than an occasion to investigate the capitalist recuperation of Marx and Brecht in, for instance, the curious publication of The Communist Manifesto as the program for the revival of The Measures Taken, when the prominent German publishing house Suhrkamp denied the Berliner Ensemble the right to republish the play.

Brecht deserves attention not only because of his versification of the Manifesto (which changes in language and tone as well as form) or the ironies of the double anniversary, but chiefly because his writings provide an illuminating contrast, in their parabolic sparsity, to the manifesto genres highlighted by Puchner, particularly the "heroic" proclamations of Marinetti or the visionary incantations of Artaud. As primary contender for the title "the most influential figure in twentieth-century theater" (197) awarded by Puchner to Artaud, Brecht wrote notes and parables as well as plays that dramatized a cunning and critical engagement with revolution that still influence theatre- and filmmakers across the globe. Artaud's influence has been more indirect because, as Puchner argues in the vein of Derrida, the theater of cruelty is a "theater against theater, dedicated to the impossible value of immediacy, directness and lifeness" (205), and is thus all the more compelling because it is unrealizable.

Artaud's articulation of this paradox and Puchner's account of it makes this chapter compelling. Between the heights of part 1 and Artaud, however, the...