By Rob Ascher, Dramaturg
“Thus, the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life… the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labor.”
- Karl Marx, Estranged Labour, 1844
The worlds of labor and the theater have been entwined for centuries. In his quest to shed light on the lives of the middle class, Anton Chekhov centered the divide between workers and landowners. In An Inspector Calls, J.B. Priestley illustrated the harm of the ruling class’ ambivalence towards those who make money for them. In A Plant, we see a world where labor is the sole defining characteristic, robbing workers of the slightest shred of humanity.
In 1844, Karl Marx wrote a manuscript on a “theory of Alienation,” or entfremdung, where he posits that “the devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things.” Marx’s concept is best distilled to say that, in a world where property owners hold all wealth, creators put their entire life into a product that they are never allowed to use. The world of A Plant depicts a laborer (Lab, pronounced “leyb”) in their first successful act of creation. The audience watches as the product, Andam, learns how to exist in a world that it will soon serve. Their interactions are a combination of child-rearing and machine learning. Lab’s work is now a paternal act, teaching Andam about history, culture, and etiquette. Marx writes that “the worker becomes a servant of his object” in exchange for subsistence and their sense of worth as a laborer.
Marx also found that working conditions turn workers into something less than human, their self-worth beholden to their output. As Lab mourns the “malcriados” (rotten specimens) their previous efforts bore, we see the worker’s proportional sense of self to the quality of the ill-bred product. When an unseen force delivers Lab and Andam their “bad-old sludge,” the exchange for subsistence is performed. Lab and Andam’s space and activities are sparse, limited to eating and sleeping. Otherwise, the work of creating or educating Andam is central to their time. Marx argues that a laborer only feels free in their most basic functions, and eventually, “what is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.”
Despite this animal behavior, the worker is distanced from nature. Lab’s limited interactions with nature are a cause for celebration; they wear their soiled work clothes with pride. Marx continues to point out that, the more a laborer works, the less acquainted they become with nature. One of Lab’s most genuine lessons to Andam is to “go out there… find dirt. Make a day of it.” Lab’s work no longer allows them to interact with nature, and their yearning becomes central to their relationship with Andam, the fruit of their labor. The pain of nature never embraced, is reinforced with the play’s recurring image of “a plant caged at the mouth.”
A Plant paints a world not of workers and employers, but of Knuckles, Wrists, and Digits. We are told a version of the Pinocchio story that asks what the dynamic would be if Geppetto’s work only served corporate interests. In a time when Amazon workers go on strike to demand bathroom breaks and proper protective equipment, our culture has to continue examining the ways the powers that be ignore the humanity of their workers. Built into that is the worker’s own distance from the success of their product. The story of Lab and Andam paints this disaffection and alienation in a poetic light, and asks us to see the truth of the worker.