Jack London is perhaps better known as the author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang, but he also gave us this early example of dystopian fiction about an oppressed working class, titled The Iron Heel. This new adaptation of the same name comes to us from director Edward Einhorn and Untitled Theater Company No.61 as a three part audio drama, available as a podcast through your music service of choice.
It broadly follows the plot of the book, albeit heavily condensed down. The story is told via the framing device of a manuscript found centuries after the action takes place being presented to the audience by a re-enactment group. Each episode features musical performances, showcasing songs taken from “The Little Red Songbook” of the I.W.W – The Industrial Workers of the World, an international labour union with heavy socialist leanings.
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Episode One is titled ‘Romance’ and sets the scene, introducing the main character of Avis Everhard and her first introduction to the man who would eventually become her husband, the socialist activist and factory worker Ernest, who has bluffed his way into a society event to take advantage of the free food. The rest of the episode focuses on his growing relationship with Avis, convincing her of the virtues of the socialist agenda he espouses. The episode ends with an interview with Doctor Erik Loomis, an expert on the history of labour.
Episode Two is titled ‘Rhetoric‘, and the story continues with Ernest clashing with the mill owner Wickson, and Bishop Morehouse preaching some distinctly controversial topics to an audience that has no interest in listening to some “revolutionist” claptrap. The tone of the story also begins to turn more towards violence as the balance of power between the workers and the Oligarchy begins to shift. There’s also some out-of-character shenanigans between the actors, and an interview with Deborah Shaffer, director of The Wobblies, a documentary which chronicles the rise and fall of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Episode Three, ‘Revolution’, opens with a debate between Ernest and Wickson which ends in violence. Ernest is imprisoned and Avis must go into hiding and assume a new identity to escape the crushing oppression of the “Iron Heel”. The episode ends with the events of the unsuccessful first revolt against the oligarchs, the ultimate fates of Ernest and Avis left nebulous at best. The final interview is with Jack London biographer Jay Williams.
This story is – well, it’s heavy going. While the company’s previous endeavour, the tale of Brinkley and his goat glands, could and did veer into political commentary and debate, it was still buoyed along by the larger-than-life character of Brinkley himself. Here, though, there is no respite. No relief. No light. There is only the crushing weight of the iron heel and talk of socialism and revolution, even in this heavily abridged version of the tale.
In that respect, this story most definitely benefits from repeated listens. On my first listen it was a somewhat overwhelming affair and I found it difficult to keep track of who was who. When I listened again it was much easier to identify everyone and how they fit into the story.
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One of the biggest issues on display here is the fact it was all (of necessity) recorded remotely. The audio quality on display, while all fine to listen to, is distinctly variable, with some actors sounding more muffled, or their sound filled with more pop than others. It doesn’t massively detract from the story, but sometimes it can jar you out of the moment when the quality suddenly shifts.
While not as accessible as The Resistable Rise of J.R. Brinkley, this is another solid effort from Edward Einhorn and Untitled Theater Company No.61, and it’s great to see that even pandemics and lockdowns won’t stop them from trying to entertain and inform.
The Iron Heel is out now from Untitled Theater Company #61.