Two Stages of Economic Development

timeline theatre’s enron & steep theatre’s love and money.

How does one dramatize the impact of economic forces upon individual lives? This is, of course, a long-running dilemma given new life by the recent implosion of capitalism worldwide. The question is, in part, one of scale: how does art connect the macro to the micro, the structural to the personal.

Last spring, both Timeline and Steep Theatre explored the cultural dimensions of the moment when a capitalist boom goes bust. The two companies, however, chose quite different forms to explore the same topic. Timeline’s Enron sought to bring the now familiar tactics of the documentary film exposé to the stage; Steep’s Love and Money, by contrast, pursued the psychic underpinnings of compulsion that support consumer capitalism. In the end, both plays shared the goal of uncovering a certain kind of irrationalism that not only skitters across the surfaces of economic life, but may in fact be at their very core. Mad men (and women) indeed.

Timeline pursued the unlikely and intriguing dramatic possibilities of modeling a play after they rhythms and feel of a documentary film. Before there was Enron the play, of course, there was The Smartest Guys in the Room, a 2005 documentary film. The question that Timeline director Rachel Rockwell and her cast asked was how a stage production might present personal dreams and delusions through the “feel” of a documentary movie? The production used video footage, references to the 1990s, and a focus on the main “players” in the Enron scandals to tell the story of speculation. Within this context, the play offered up the story of Enron as something in between a Greek tragedy, with the infamous Jeff Skilling’s hubris causing his own downfall, and a simple portrayal of self-delusion as a fundamental part of the dark magic that makes capitalism function.

There was an intriguing quality to the treatment of recent events as history: as worthy of the spectacle of a staged play. The sounds and fashions, the whole tenor of the late 1990s now feels vaguely familiar yet a world away. It’s a kind of shell out of which more recent life putters along confusingly. Enron caught this weird, dreamy quality of a moment receding into the past, not quite history but no longer current events. But in the end the main characters were just not worthy of the respect with which the play treated them. Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, Kenneth Lay, and other Enron officials did not have complex or compelling enough inner lives to warrant Enron‘s portrayal. Thus the play offered its audiences overvalued commodities, big and bold but in the end signifying nothing. Did they truly believe their own hype about a new economy with unprecedented rules? In the end it’s hard to care. The real story of Enron is that anyone else ever believed them.

In bringing the British playwright Dennis Kelly’s Love and Money to Chicago, Steep Theatre went deeper into the micro-levels of economic life than Timeline. The play was a more typical kind of overheated family drama, but in being so it accessed dimensions of economic life that Timeline was unable to touch with its more historical quasi-documentary view.

Love and Money bent and warped the sequencing of time compared to the effort to give it historical coherence in Enron. Moving backward in disjointed scenes, the play chronicled the failed marriage of a man downsized to a corporate job straight out of The Office, far below his educational accomplishments and, more crucially, his aspirations. His wife, meanwhile, is a compulsive shopper. The pressure placed on their lives by debt, then, powered the plot of this bleak play, much as with the story of Enron. But the real force in Love and Money was neither word in its title, but another word that at once transcends both and is, in the end, utterly, often obscenely, connected to them: death.

In the final scene of Love and Money, finality itself is shown to be not the end, but the beginning of how economic forces intersect with personal desires. It is not the hedonistic pleasures of a limited but happy mortal existence, but rather the death instinct—the human urge for complete transcendence—that haunts the living within capitalism. Death, Love and Money suggested, is not the transcendence of consumer capitalism, but instead the motivating force behind market forces. The urge to consume with complete satisfaction, Love and Money proposed, hides the fantasy of only being satisfied when consumed completely.

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