The power of yes – a playwright seeks to understand the financial crisis

Image: John Kotze
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By PRISCILA MATSUNAGA*

Considerations about David Hare's play

It is not usual for theater critics to be interested in money as an analytical category, although playwrights begin great plays by mentioning its importance for the construction of characters. In the first scene of The merchant of Venice, Antônio, the merchant, narrates his sadness and his friends Salarino and Solânio promptly say that they would be equally sad if they had so much riches on the high seas – “Salarino: (…) But no, don’t answer me; I know that Antônio is sad from thinking about his merchandise” – however Antônio denies that the reason for his sadness is related to business; equally sad is Macha in The seagull by Chekhov who, like Antônio, denies that the feeling is related to money, although Midviedienko tells her that the issue is always money, or rather, the lack of it.

The two plays, 400 years apart, concern very different worlds and their themes are in no way similar. What unites them is the genre indicated by the authors, comedy, and the tragic oscillation between the society of commodities and human aspirations. If in Shakespeare's play Venice flourishes amid business, including usury, Chekhov's Russia records the bankruptcy of artists and the collapse of the aristocracy. What unites them is the infiltration of a “minor” subject, money, which could be of interest to a materialist reading of the plays.

What arises when we think about money and its function in a play is how to analyze it: money could be read as a social category arising from the position of the characters or in their economic structure, as a category arising from value and capital ? This question appears in a comment by Fredric Jameson in the article Culture and financial capital about a certain “laziness” of Marxist literary criticism.

Fredric Jameson identifies that for more or less 70 years, between 1917 and 1980, in intellectual production, Western Marxism developed a complex analysis of ideology leading to more or less critical theories. The author's diagnosis of the time – the text is from 1997 – is that ideology has become much more transparent, meaning that the problems of ideological analysis do not need major elaborations. At the end of the XNUMXth century, the most objective problem was expressed by money: how was it possible for the economy to be based on the stock market – along with the food and entertainment industries – and where did the money come from if new industries were not forged?

The suspicion, confirmed today and published in Giovanni Arrighi's book, The long twentieth century, Jameson's starting point, was that we were living in a new capitalist period, capitalism that develops in a spiral way. “In this way, the system is considered as a kind of virus (this figure of speech is not used by Arrighi), and its development as something similar to an epidemic (or, better still, as an eruption of epidemics, an epidemic of epidemics )”.[I]

Throughout the text, the author uses Giovanni Arrighi's theory for cultural and literary interpretation, specifically for “understanding the historical or structural sequence of realism, modernism and postmodernism, which has been an object of interest to some of us in the last years. For better or worse, only the first of these – realism – has been the subject of serious critical attention in the Marxist tradition.”[ii] For Fredric Jameson, the Marxist critique of culture fixed the analysis around realism, a cultural expression read in terms of class and money as a social category, and left less dense analyzes – with exceptions – to modernism or post-modernism.

In a second moment in the text, Fredric Jameson proposes thinking about capitalism and its radically new forms of abstraction. To this end, he revisits the historical change of what was considered “fragment” since the Schlegel brothers to the image contents of the fragment’s rhetoric amalgamated by television (talk shows or clips). If the “poetics of the fragment” produces meaning, it is because something of its deautomatizing, or shock, function no longer exists and we magically maintain the narrative thread while disregarding it: the example given is a financial news program that alternates with advertising for a transport company.

The fetishistic dynamic operates in any cultural activity and, in this case, the investment of images promotes the investment of capital. The fragment clearly has the function of homogenizing the content, without distinguishing between news and propaganda based on an undetermined narrator (the investor, obviously).

Two questions caught my attention when reading Fredric Jameson's text. The first of them, naturally, is the poke at Marxist literary criticism that seems to be comfortable, even today, with the analysis of the “bourgeoisie” and its emerging culture. The second question concerns how we can take money as an economic category, that is, thinking about objects in terms of value and capital.

This question reverberates in the following passage: “It is necessary to make an exposition of the abstraction in which the new post-modern deterritorialized contents are to the previous modern autonomization, just as global financial speculation is to the previous forms of banking and credit operations, or from the stock market frenzy of the eighties to the Great Depression. I'm not interested in introducing the topic of the gold standard here, which inevitably leads to the idea of ​​a really solid and tangible value, as opposed to the different forms of paper money or credit cards (or information on your computer). Or perhaps, the topic of gold would only become relevant again if it was also perceived as an artificial and contradictory system. What is necessary to be able to theorize is a modification in the very nature of cultural symbols and the systems in which they operate.”

In the article “You don’t have to die to see God”[iii] I sought to analyze Medea, by Euripides, from the fetishistic dynamic, taking Jean Gernet's mythical notion of value. Contrary to what Jameson points out, between an Attic tragedy and the Romance of Inconfidence, by Cecília Meireles, or the photographs by Sebastião Salgado de Serra Pelada, the theme of gold changes little as a cultural symbol, although the protagonists of poetry or epics do not possess the metal, unlike in tragedy. In the article, I argued that the character Medea herself can be considered “gold incarnate”. In the three examples, we could think about whether gold presents itself as an “artificial and contradictory system”, a dynamic of the fetish itself.

If in the first exercise I tried to read a tragedy, here I intend to present some brief notes on The power of yes, a playwright seeks to understand the financial crisis, by David Hare. I think of it as a contribution to the reading of money as an economic category based on Fredric Jameson's provocations.

Money is subject: the power of yes

1 price

At first, the stage is empty. The next moment the whole company appears, sparkling. There is a younger woman and an older woman, but apart from the two of them, they are all men in suits – rows of them. The author, a tall man in his early 60s, speaks.

Author: This is not a play. It's a story. Or rather, it is a piece, only in parts. It is more properly a story. And what a story! About how capitalism came to a violent halt. Where were you on September 15, 2008? Do you remember? You noticed? Capitalism stopped working for four days. That summer I stopped to try to understand what happened.

2 price

Music. Many things happen at the same time. Jon M., a bushy-haired man in his early 50s, pushes his chair back with his back, trying to find a more or less horizontal position. David M., with his tie over his shoulder, rests his elbows on the table. George, a bright man in his early 70s with a slight Hungarian accent, goes to get a sparkling water. A man in his early 60s (Mortgage Company Director) with a problem with his legs gets up and starts shaking them. Harry, a man in his early 60s, is sitting. A woman in her early 30s (Financial Times Journalist) gets up and gets a coffee. Scott, an American in his late 40s, wearing jeans and a blazer, takes several cell phones out of his pocket. David F., a short man in his early 60s, puts his hands behind his head. A tall man, Ronald, in his 60s, elegant, begins to walk around the room. A man wearing a Jermyn Street shirt, in his early 50s, Paul, takes a few golf swings. Howard, a bald man in his early 50s, taps his computer key with his fingers. The Author has a black notebook. He writes sometimes, but most of the time he listens.

John M. – I have been thinking about how to make a play about this and, if you want to contribute to my creativity, you will be very welcome.

David M. – When your piece is ready, this whole thing will be over.

George – I think that, as a playwright, your problem is that it is an important but abstract episode.

David M. – The banking crisis will be interesting from an anthropological point of view, that’s all. For example, how are you going to bring things like debt securitization into play?

George – Anyway, I leave this problem to you.

Author - Thanks. At least someone trusts me.

director of – Please don’t write a play where the bankers are shit.

Company – Because you’re going to say what everyone already thinks and so on.

Mortgage – become a very boring piece.

David M. – You can see it’s going to be difficult.

director of – To tell people what they already know? What is the intention of this?

companhia

mortgage

Author – There is no specific reason.

Harry – I watched your other plays, It's Things That Happen and The Same Old Way, and okay, you might even say, people died in Iraq and on the railways. But this time no one died. Although there is still a long way to go.

David M. – I wrote a book about the euro and personally I think it's an incredible story, but I haven't managed to convince people that it's as interesting as I think it is.

Harry – We have not even begun to absorb the most important financial catastrophe in British history.

George – Alan Greenspan. Now he is an interesting figure. You could write an entire play just about him.

David M. – Greenspan is a wonderful villain; There's a great villain for you...

George – Did you know he’s obsessed with Ayn Rand?

Author - I did not know.

George – Ayn Rand? The novelist? He's crazy about her!

Journalist – If you need a villain, you won’t get anyone better than Fred from Financial Goodwin.

Times

Scott – Damn Fred Goodwin! What a jerk! A very abused guy! What a nerve! A shame! A shame!

Paul – To me, it's obvious that Gordon Brown should be the villain in this story. It all happened under the Labor Party government. Not in a Conservative Party government.

Harry – We won’t get out of this before 2025. Can you imagine?

John M. – For me, Brown is the captain of a ship who, after hitting a rock, quickly jumps into a lifeboat. Then, when a hole appears in the boat, he says, “I know what to do”, and sticks his thumb in the hole. Quite frankly. I think he behaved unethically, absolutely unethically.

director of – If it’s a play, then it’s a Greek tragedy. You are immersed in a dream,

Company – then the goddesses Furies arrive and wow, they wake you up in the greatest violence”

mortgage

Ronald – Everything is completely screwed up.

Howard – I see everything as a Shakespearean tragedy and, like all great tragedies, it ends with bodies scattered all over the stage.

Ronald – No heroes.

Paul – If you are going to write a play, it is better to write a comedy. If it's something serious, it'll just be another piece of crap about politics.

“That side is right.” “No, the other side is.” Nobody wants to see that. Make it a comedy, because it's funny. Tragic, of course, but funny.

Howard – (Shows some sheets of paper) I wrote all this here for you. You can use it if you want.

David M. – I see that everyone wants to say it's a story about greed and fear.

FT journalist – And it's about greed, isn't it? Pure greed.

Harry – People have gone completely crazy out of greed.

director of – Fear and ambition drive capitalism. Capitalism works when

Company – fear and greed are balanced. This time they lost their balance.

Mortgage – Lots of greed, little fear. Were you shocked? Are you shocked? So, do you prefer another system?

David M. – Everyone wants to turn bankers into villains. But are they really?

Howard – The bankers were not the villains, they were just a hamster spinning a wheel.

Author – Honestly, we're not going to get anywhere if you insist on writing the play for me. You have to give me the material, not the part.

David M. – Well, I suddenly realized how difficult it was going to be.

Author - I know it's hard.

David M. – I didn't want to be in your shoes. It's really very difficult.

Author - I know it's hard. I'm taking care of it. You just need to tell me the story.[iv]

And money objects count. The first two scenes of the play function as a commentary and already introduce the audience to its subject. As said by Paul Hammond (financial market talent scout), the best approach is comedy. It's as if he were saying: everyone knows who the culprits and reasons for the 2008 crisis are. Better to laugh than cry. But it could be in the style of an Attic tragedy, with destinies being traced by the Gods, or even Shakespearean, without heroes.

Between tragedy and comedy, perhaps the only genres that really exist, the playwright used the resources of verbatim theater, a type of verbal theater, which seeks to re-edit political and satirical theater, and which establishes a connection between theater and journalism, and managed to create, according to Michael Billington, “several strategies to make the topic presented thought-provoking, including creating questions that all viewers would like to know the answers to, building interesting informants and producing unexpected flashes of humor.”[v]

David Hare interviewed those involved in the 2008 financial crisis to fulfill a commission from the National Theater in London, hence his subtitle – a playwright seeks to understand the financial crisis. The play was successful and received its first translation in Brazil in 2019 and, unless I am mistaken, it was not performed. The playwright is recognized for his interest in political and economic themes, responsible for numerous plays and film scripts.

The first difficulty of the power of yes, given the aridity of the theme, is present in one of the statements: how to stage an “important but abstract episode”? The episode is the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers bank and all its implications. I outline some issues that are discussed by the characters themselves in their metatheatrical inspiration, that is, according to the categories long known in literary analysis: villains, motives and assumptions.

From the first point: the villains would be the bankers, who, in the words of the president of the Financial Services Authority, are hamsters spinning a wheel, but, as we know, they make money, that is, they speculate, using money that does not belong to them. Villains, still, could be the Harvard professors who established a mathematical formula for calculating risk in investment funds that, “unfortunately”, did not predict losses and the financial crisis. Or even politicians such as Gordon Brown, who in 1997 as Minister of Finance separated the regulation of financial transactions from the Bank of England, leaving the Bank's responsibility for monetary policy and the regulation of transactions to the FSA (Financial Services Authority), which was abolished in 2013.

From the second point: the characters' motives would be determined by the fear and ambition that drive capitalism and capitalists, as the Director of a mortgage company wants. And the third point, the assumptions: the financial system has become something so inaccessible and seductively mystical that we assume our ignorance and grant it authority.

The lines in the play are explanatory and the reader, or spectator, learns about debt securitization, leverage, quantitative easing, financial derivatives. Its form, created to give coherence to the episode, is based on clichés in a game that begins with financial explanations and progresses to a moral exposition of those involved in its supposed satirical-anti-moralist claim. On the one hand, a financial education class, on the other, presupposition, the report of deregulation. Scene 9, the final one, is the song of regret: the death of an idea, because “since the 1980s people have said that the market was decent and wise. Now we know he’s not,”[vi] which involves overcoming – “my greatest pride is having left the banking sector with health, assets and a wife. Very few people can say that.”[vii] – and leads to the cynicism of George Soros, one of the biggest investors in the world, when reporting what he said to Alan Greenspan “the people who end up paying the price are never the same ones who enjoy the benefits”.[viii]

The form given to abstraction is intelligent, known and self-referential. “Everything is well explained, with a complete narrative message, absorbing the content and projecting it in a kind of instantaneous reflection.”[ix] The play mimics the very constitution of money: reality and fiction, substance and function, and it is the subject-narrator himself responsible for the action, giving consistency to the contemporary cynical rationality of so what (?).

The first question that prompted me to find out a little more about the play was the title. I didn't understand the power of yes and I was looking for the answer in the play itself. I found it in Hernán Borisonik's book, “the convention that makes money ignore the grammar of no”[X].

In its self-referentiality, the power of yes it makes content and form coincide and entangles the reader in a cycle that seems inescapable, reaffirming the yes to clichés, cynicism and money as an absolute convention. If at first glance it seemed that crime and guilt would be the individualizing and structuring elements, similar, perhaps, to the Shakespearean scheme, the formula adopted starts from the “abstract episode”, which is interesting from an anthropological point of view, to end with a speech from Soros himself reiterating that the financial crisis is nothing abstract, with concrete consequences that, however, are not on stage.

 Contrary to what is said at the beginning of the play, capitalism did not stop working for four days. It was just another turn of the screw, in an advance that seems unstoppable and demanding increasingly greater sacrifices from life forms.

the power of yes would it hold any truth? In other words, what is alive in the play? The immediate answer is nothing. For a political playwright, David Hare is very far from Brecht's stance, for example, for whom “telling the truth can often be equivalent to formulating criticism. But the complete truth encompasses the new proposal.” But in its form, the piece still causes discomfort because it contains a true image of our time: the fragility of the forms of “no”.[xi]

*Priscilla Matsunaga is a professor at the Faculty of Arts at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

References


BORISONIK, Hernán. Support: the use of money in the visual arts. Translated by Joaquín Correa and Natalia Pérez Torres. Florianópolis: Culture and Barbarism, 2019.

HARE, David. the power of yes: a playwright seeks to understand the financial crisis. Translated by Clara Carvalho. São Paulo: Editora Temporal, 2019.

JAMESON, Fredric. Culture and financial capital. In: JAMESON, F. The culture of money: essays on globalization. Translated by Maria Elisa Cevasco. Petrópolis: Voices, 2001.

SHAKESPEARE, William. The merchant of Venice. Translated by Beatriz Viégas-Faria. Porto Alegre: LP&M, 2011.

Notes


[I] Jameson, 2001, pp. 146-147.

[ii] Jameson, 2001, p. 152.

[iii] Matsunaga, P. S. (2020). You don't have to die to see God. Black Room20(1), 69-100. https://doi.org/10.11606/issn.2238-3867.v20i1p69-100

[iv] Hare, 2019, pp. 28-33.

[v] Hare, 2019, p. 17.

[vi] Hare, 2019, p. 130.

[vii] Hare, 2019, 133.

[viii] Hare, 2019, p.138.

[ix] Jameson, 2001, p. 171.

[X] Borisonik, 2019, p. 43

[xi] The text derives from the research The forms of debt, financed by FAPERJ (JCNE)


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