by Tarnel Abbott
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat a strange turn of events that I, one of Jack London’s great-granddaughters, find myself about to perform one of Jack London’s own favorite and politically radical works in the presence of an intellectual community which largely ignores or downplays his intense, life-long political dedication.
A dramatic adaptation of London’s The Iron Heel will be performed Friday, October 31, 2014, at 6:00 p.m. by the Iron Heel Theatre Collective at the Berkeley City Club, an iconic Arts and Crafts-era hotel designed by architect Julia Morgan.
The venue and timing is no accident. The Iron Heel is being staged during, and in the chosen venue of, the prestigious Jack London Society’s Biennial Symposium where scholars from around the world will gather to discuss all things Jack London. [See www.jacklondonsociety.org/symposium-2014/]
The Iron Heel is a political novel which serves as both a warning about the horrors of fascism and a hopeful vision of the eventual success of a utopian socialist era — “The Brotherhood of Man.”
Regarding The Iron Heel, Jack London wrote to his friend Cloudsley Johns in 1906: “It is a socialistic-capitalistic novel. The Iron Heel is the oligarchy of the master capitalists. The period covered is between 1912-1932…”
The novel is purposely written as an unfinished manuscript and includes a “Forward” and footnotes by the character Meredith, a historian from the future during the year 407 B.O.M. (Brotherhood of Man). Some editions of the book are published which omit this critical forward. Presumably, the publishers or editors have not understood that it is an integral part of the novel.
Jack London’s humanitarian and radical political bent suffused my family life. My grandmother, Joan London, was his eldest daughter by Jack’s first wife, Bess Maddern. Joan was 16 when her father died, and she and her sister, Becky, never benefited from his estate.
Joan made her own way as an intellectual, lecturing and writing. As an adult, she adopted her father’s socialist ideals, yet abhorred Stalinism, and along with my father, became a Trotskyist. She authored two books about her famous father: Jack London & His Times: An Unconventional Biography (Doubleday, 1939, University of Washington Press 1968) and Jack London & His Daughters (Heyday Books, 1990) unfinished at the time of her death.
Joan London also wrote So Shall Ye Reap: The Story of Cesar Chavez & The Farm Workers’ Movement, with co-author Henry Anderson (Crowell, 1970). For 20 years, she was researcher and librarian for the California Labor Federation and was eulogized by the California State Legislature as a “Warrior for labor.”
I have vivid memories from my earliest years of political discourse at my grandmother’s dining room table. With my parents and my siblings, I participated in many demonstrations during the tumultuous era I grew up in: Ban the Bomb, the Free Speech Movement, The Poor People’s March, the Civil Rights Movement, the Farmworkers Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement and so on.
When I was 13, a John Birch Society newspaper photographed me with my father at an antiwar demonstration with a caption that read something like, “Jack London’s communist grandson Bart Abbott and his daughter.” As a result I was branded a communist at school. I read a simple dictionary definition of the word and was not ashamed to be so labeled. Years later, I did actually read The Communist Manifesto and came to embrace the ideals of socialism.
With this background, it should not surprise anyone that many years later I was in Oakland marching in support of the Occupy Movement on the night of October 25, 2011. Along with other nonviolent demonstrators, I was assaulted by the Oakland Police Department with tear gas and flash grenades.
I wrote, “I looked at the Jack London oak tree in front of City Hall and felt possessed by the spirit of the great man. I thought of him standing there on his soap box making socialist speeches and getting arrested because he didn’t have a permit. I thought of him writing Revolution and Other Essays, The People of the Abyss, and The Iron Heel.
“I felt that I was witnessing the Iron Heel of fascism being challenged. I knew that I too had to resist it. Something came over me so that I was completely unwilling to be bullied into leaving.”
My full account of this experience was published online: The Story of an Eyewitness at Occupy Oakland.
Because of this piece of writing, I was contacted by Ayhan Yuzubenli of Ankara, Turkey, an organizer of the Ankara Ethos International Theater Festival, and asked to perform The Iron Heel. Assured that I could have complete artistic freedom, I recruited my son, Devin O’Keefe, and my friend, the artist Regina Gilligan, to work with me.
A few months later, in April 2012, we were in Ankara where we performed the first version of my adaptation of The Iron Heel which combined my experiences during Occupy Oakland. We used poetry, a few props including protest signs in Turkish, readings from the Iron Heel and a film about Occupy (“Rise Like Lions”) which was projected without sound during the performance.
Ayhan did a simultaneous translation into Turkish and the British troupe, Sign Dance Collective, animated parts of the reading with dance and movement. The audience was welcoming and enthusiastic and we were invited to return.
When I was interviewed by a young reporter, my statements advocating for the freedom of speech and the rights of journalists were published, along with my photograph which appeared on the front page of a national newspaper, Hurryet Daily News. Turkey has an abysmal record of suppressing and arresting journalists.
In 2013, Turkey went through its own rebellion similar to Occupy in the United States. Sparked by the government’s plan to turn a public park into a shopping center, people took to the streets in the thousands. But this movement was also protesting government corruption and the current regime’s perceived threat to secular government.
The Erdogan government cracked down with brutality. Thousands were injured and eight people were killed by the government forces. Again, the scenes are reminiscent of the fascistic state depicted in Jack London’s The Iron Heel.
We created a new show for the March 2014 Ankara International Theater Festival. This time, we recruited David Solnit, a puppeteer and street theater artist, to help us create a new work based on The Iron Heel. It was a readers’ theater with puppetry and cantastoria.
We worked on a script and, with David’s help and suggestions, Regina and I created giant mask/puppet heads for the characters and a series of beautiful cantastoria panels, four-feet-by-six-feet paintings (mostly Regina’s work), to illustrate the story. While David did not go to Turkey with us, his influence gave us a new way to present the piece.
Devin, Regina, and I were joined by Nina Ruymaker, who performed the role of Meredith. We did have the assistance of two young Turkish women who helped us with the cantastoria. We gave two performances, once in a café and once in a theater.
Meanwhile, in Richmond, Calif., the city I live in, a battle for the city council election was shaping up with a progressive slate, “Team Richmond,” who do not take corporate donations, challenging Chevron-backed candidates.
Richmond, home to Chevron’s oil refinery and California’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has been run by Chevron for most of its history and has long been known as a “Company Town.” But for the last ten years, a serious challenge to the power structure has been made with the election to City Council, and then to the office of mayor for two terms, of Green Party member, Gayle Mclaughlin.
Termed out as mayor, McLaughlin and two other progressives, City Councilmember Jovanka Beckles (up for re-election) and Planning Commissioner Eduardo Martinez, are engaged in a David-and-Goliath-type struggle against this powerful multinational corporation which thus far has spent $1.6 million to defeat them in their race for council seats.
The unbridled domination of this industrial giant in local politics is a threat to the democratic process. To support our Team Richmond, we performed the third version of The Iron Heel, as a fundraiser in May of this year. [See “Activists Stage Jack London’s Radical Iron Heel” by David Solnit in Street Spirit, July 2014.].
This more robust performance included four people in giant puppet heads and wonderful musical accompaniment by Betsy Stern and Dennis Calloway.
What is happening in Richmond is a microcosm of what is happening all over the United States and around the world. The recent Supreme Court ruling in the “Citizen’s United” case has signaled the collusion of government and business. The dominance of large corporations, the militarization of the police, and the massive surveillance of ordinary people by the government are all chilling harbingers of fascism.
This is why The Iron Heel remains relevant today and resonates with people around the world. How prescient Jack London was in 1906 when he predicted the rise of fascism.
The public is invited to join us on October 31, 2014, when the Iron Heel Theatre Collective performs Jack London’s The Iron Heel in the Ballroom at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley. This Readers Theater adaptation, with animated mask performance and music, features Jack London’s great-granddaughter, Tarnel Abbott, and Jack London’s great-great-grandson, Devin O’Keefe, and an introduction by author Jonah Raskin. The performance is directed by Artistic Director Regina Gilligan, Puppetry/Mask Director David Solnit, and Reader’s Theater Director Alicia Littletree Bales, with Andres Soto on saxophone.
Proceeds beyond expenses support The Richmond Progressive Alliance and the Sunflower Alliance’s fight to protect our climate, and the health and safety of East Bay communities threatened by big oil and building a sustainable economy.
The Iron Heel
6:00 p.m., Friday, October 31, Berkeley City Club Ballroom
2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley
To order tickets:
Or www.brownpapertickets.com and type in “iron heel”
Or, at the door, a $10-$20 donation is requested, and no one will be turned away for lack of funds.