London: Greed, hubris, vast fortunes erased at a stroke—the financial crisis is dramatic gold dust for writers.
One of Britain’s leading playwrights, David Hare, is tackling the world of toxic securities and subprime mortgages in his new play at the National Theatre in London. Author Sebastian Faulks has a new best-seller about a swashbuckling hedge fund trader. And the BBC has made a TV drama about the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
You may think stocks, derivatives and collateralised debt obligations are not the natural stuff of drama. Think again, says National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, who commissioned Hare’s play, The Power of Yes.
“The people who suffer this recession will not be the people who caused it,” Hytner said. “And there you have the beginnings of a play.”
A year after Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, artists on both sides of the Atlantic are grappling with the causes and effects of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Michael Moore stormed the Venice and Toronto film festivals with Capitalism: A Love Story, a documentary screed against financial fat-cats and corporate profiteers.
A central character of Faulks’ novel A Week in December—riding high in British best-seller lists—is a hedge fund manager plotting an audacious deal that will make him a fortune, and bring down a bank.
The BBC has just aired The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, a docudrama that starred James Cromwell as then-U.S treasury secretary Hank Paulson, refusing to intervene as the venerable investment house imploded under the weight of its huge debts.
In a touch of irony, the fictional account was filmed in Lehman Brothers’ real—and now empty—high-rise offices in London’s Canary Wharf.
It’s fascinating, if unfamiliar, terrain for writers, who are seeking to use the arts where economists failed and answer the pressing question: How did we end up in this mess?
“You can bring a freshness to it if it’s not your area of expertise,” said Craig Warner, the US-born, UK-based writer of The Last Days of Lehman Brothers.
“Before writing this I knew there was a subprime mortgage crisis, I knew they were giving mortgages to people with a bad credit history, but I didn’t know why or what the connection was to Wall Street.
“As soon as I learned how those things were connected, I wanted that knowledge to be imparted to the world.”
Evidence suggests the world is eager to know. Enron, a play at the Royal Court Theatre about the 2001 demise of the American energy giant, was sold out weeks before opening, and will move to a bigger West End playhouse this winter and to Broadway next April.
More broadly, the recession doesn’t seem to have dulled the public’s appetite for the arts. London theaters had a record year, cinema takings were up in 2008 and book sales are booming.
Hytner said evidence from past downturns suggests arts and entertainment are “one of the very last things people stop paying for.”
“When times are tough, it is a reassuring touchstone of people’s common humanity to sit with 1,000 other people and have a common experience,” he said.
In the story of how capitalism became unbalanced—“too much greed, not enough fear,” in Hare’s words—writers are finding humor, tragedy and irony.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there’s more sorrow than anger in their accounts.
The Power of Yes, which runs from 29 September, looks at the way government subsidies were used to bail out the rich while ordinary people lost their jobs—a sort of socialism turned upside down. But Hytner says “those looking merely for a caricatured banker-bash” will be disappointed.
The writers acknowledge the allure of corporate “masters of the universe” like Lehman Brothers’ hubristic CEO Richard Fuld and Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling.
Enron writer Lucy Prebble—whose play charts the energy company’s 2001 collapse as a result of widespread accounting fraud, a foreshadowing of the current crisis—told The Guardian newspaper she thought it was important “to try and create a tragic hero within whom you may not agree, but who is dramatically magnetic.”
Warner said Fuld, a domineering figure whose nickname was “Gorilla,” has “all the hallmarks of a tragic hero.”
The events being depicted in these works are still headline news. That adds to their immediacy—but does it lessen their impact as art?
Some reviewers found Warner’s Lehman Brothers movie less dramatic than a BBC documentary on the same subject aired the next night, in which the real bankers proved more mesmerizing than their fictional avatars.
Hytner is warning people in advance that The Power of Yes is “not so much a play as a narrative in response” to the crisis.
“Those looking for Death of a Salesman will not find it,” he said.
“Probably the great play about this crash and its consequences will not come for a few years. A play written in the white heat of the moment might not have the reflectiveness of great works of art.
“But,” he added, “it might.”