Opening night. Normally a time for nerves, for anxiety, for all kinds of personal crazy. Superstitious rituals, trying to remember shows that bombed, and what omens presaged disaster. But last night, I was calm, as my wife steered our car out the driveway and down the street. And perfectly cool five minutes later, when she turned the car around and went home, because I’d left our tickets on the kitchen table. And absolutely collected, when, for the second time, we headed off north. And even pretty mellow when I arrived at the theater, and realized I’d gotten the time wrong, and we were way way early.
So maybe I was a smidge nervous.
Wednesday night, we had a preview performance, attended by many friends from Sunstone. And one audience member said he was anticipating an evening about as exciting as a night spent watching bread dough rise. Because Clearing Bombs is a play about macroeconomics. And the track record for plays in which two guys in suits spend ninety minutes arguing economic theory is . . . actually, I don’t think there are any other plays that do this. Never heard of any, at least. But the prospect of it must seem pretty grim.
But that’s what I’d written. In 1942, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August Hayek spent a summer night on the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, protecting the building from German incendiary bombs. That fact, basically one sentence in Nicholas Wapshott’s book Keynes Hayek, had absolutely captivated me when I read it three years ago, and I’d turned it into a play, heaven knows why. Another audience member suggested that Clearing Bombs isn’t a particularly compelling or accurate title; I pointed out that my original title was Keynes and Hayek Argue on a Roof, so Clearing Bombs was a big improvement.
But here’s the thing: this is probably really egotistical of me, but I do actually think the play works. It was never my intention to write an economics lecture. I’m a playwright–I wanted to write an effective drama. I wanted to write a play that would engage an audience for an evening, that would be thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching, that would entertain. And, my gosh, I had wonderful actors: Mark Fossen, Jay Perry and Kirt Bateman can act in anything and everything I write for the rest of my life, as far as I’m concerned. And boy was the scenic design, by Randy Rassmussen minimal and spare and evocative and great. And Phillip Lowe’s costumes perfectly captured the age and the characters. And Jesse Portillo’s lighting design is mysterious and quietly powerful.
And Cheryl Cluff’s sound design was simple perfection. Okay, so, two links to the sound: this, from the pre-show music; quite possibly the sickest song from the 40s. (And yes, I do know that Eminem has a “Run Rabbit Run” song too; which also works for my show, actually). And, again from the pre-show music: this gem. The song is Vera Lynn, but the imagery is from Dr. Strangelove; the final bomb montage. I’m completely serious: Cheryl Cluff is a genius.
So I had great support. Great cast, great team of designers, world’s greatest stage manager, Jen Freed. None of that guarantees that the play will work. I directed it; if it fails I have no one to blame but myself. But I do think it works, and after last night, I think it works even more. As one very kind elderly woman told me as she left the theater, “it’s better than Downton Abbey!” High praise indeed!
But if it works, and I do think it might, it works because ideas matter. Because we human beings, irrational and emotional and arbitrary and prejudiced and foolish and biased and culturally blinkered though we are, are sometimes, every once in awhile, capable of thinking at a very high level, and expressing quite profound ideas in prose that crackles. And ideas can change the world. And Keynes and Hayek were thinkers on that level.
In the 1940s, everything seemed to be in flux, and it seemed impossible to imagine what the outcome might be. Two great totalitarian ideologies, Hitler’s National Socialism and Lenin/Stalin’s Communism were literally slugging it out to the death. Of the 70 million deaths caused directly by World War Two, 30 million of them took place in the fighting on the Eastern front, many of them civilian deaths. Unimaginable slaughter outside Stalingrad, unendurable suffering in the death camps in Poland and Eastern Europe.
To many in the West, the events of the 30s, including the world-wide economic catastrophe we call the Great Depression sent a clear message: capitalism was doomed. Market economies could not provide for even the most basic of necessities. Winston Churchill gave a focus to British energies–the task at hand was to defeat Hitler. Do that first, and we’ll sort out the rest of our problems afterwards. Excise that evil, and let’s see what good might result.
Keynes’ great insight, in the midst of the horror and bloodshed of war, was to embrace irrationality. What is money? he theorized. A necessary convention. It didn’t need to rest on any foundation, it didn’t need to rely on anything. It’s a convenient fiction, a game we all play, and embue with a meaning it actually lacks. So we can pump ‘money’ into an economy and if we do. we’ll create something tangible–prosperous businesses and households. At Bretton Woods in ’44, Keynes even proposed a new currency: the ‘bancor’. Close enough to ‘bitcoin’, I think.
But if money is nothing, if ‘money’ describes nothing tangible, then what’s to prevent unscrupulous governments from manipulating currency (as Hayek had seen Austria do), and quietly use a central bank and economic planning commissions to seize power? And so Hayek sounded an alarm. He tried to resurrect a ghost that Keynes thought he’d exorcised; he tried to re-constitute laissez-faire.
Keynes thought investors were crazy, full of ‘wild animal spirits’ and that that was a good thing, very much to be encouraged. (Part of me wonders how Keynes would have responded to the drug-fueled, excessive, exuberant, misanthropic animal spirits on display in The Wolf of Wall Street). Hayek thought monopolies and trusts and the super-rich would still be sufficently guided by enlightened self-interest to allow wealth to trickle-down, and that anyway regulating their businesses was the first step towards tyranny. But Hayek believed that, because he’d seen it; the spectre of Hitler shadowed his thought. Both men were trying to figure out what could or should come next, when the shooting stopped and the blood soaked fields of German and Poland and France and Russia and Austria finally found rest.
What did result was something neither of them really anticipated and neither would really have quite approved of; the ramshackle, jury-rigged, inefficient, fabulously productive combination state; half free markets and half socialist. The modern social welfare state, as found (with small but significant differences) in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Poland, Great Britain, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and the list continues. A kind of state without progenitors or theorists, one that just happened, delivered by parliamentary governments, and still resisted in the US, because of the built-in and intentional inefficiencies of our Constitutional checks and balances, which always will give conservatism (caution, prudence, patience, leery fearfulness) a political advantage.
But what Keynes and Hayek did achieve was remarkable. They defined what the issues would be for the next seventy years. They, together, wrote the agenda. And since politics is really just economics dressed up with balloons and parades and brass bands and slogans, they remain at the center of our political debates even now.
I lucked into a great subject for drama. I lucked into the perfect producing entity, the perfect design team, and the perfect cast, to carry it out. If the play works, it’s more by luck than design. But we playwrights have to embrace good fortune when it comes our way. Dionysus is, and always was, an untrustworthy deity.