Bruce Norris’s play skewers the failings of capitalism, but ignores some sensitive and nuanced debates
In broad terms, I’m sympathetic to the central theme of this play by Bruce Norris. From 18th-century America to today, he examines the idea that capitalism has failed as a model of human advancement – that it’s just led to a “greed is good” culture. If we look at the last 20 years, I can’t disagree – something has gone badly wrong, not least with the role of banking and the City. But Norris’s position is too black and white: the reality is a lot more complex.
Churchill famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried”. It’s the same with capitalism: yes, something has gone wrong, but it has still led to huge leaps of prosperity. Look at the Soviet Union: not only did it collapse in chaos, it revealed huge levels of poverty and disparity. If you took a straw poll, I don’t think anyone watching this play would want to return to 18th-century standards of living.
The play is also a bit too hard on its narrator, Adam Smith: we see Jim Trumpett, a passionate advocate of the free market, inspired by Smith’s writings about the “invisible hand”, and the way that market interference can be bad for society. Smith did write about this in Wealth of Nations; but he also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is much more about cooperation – the need for a “helping hand”, as Gordon Brown put it in 2010.
Norris tries to marry Trumpett’s rise and fall with what’s going on today in the eurozone. To me, this felt glib and clunky, and I was frustrated by the fact the play didn’t really consider how we can get out of today’s crisis. There’s a line about handing the keys back to the driver after the car has crashed. That’s a bit trite – and it ignores the sensitive, nuanced debate that’s going on between today’s economists about the negative effects of capitalism, and of excessive austerity.
I did enjoy the play, though – and I appreciate that many of these flaws are down to the necessary constructions of theatre. You wouldn’t want to go out on a Friday night to watch a lecture about how we can get out of this economic mess. That would make for dull theatre.