Perhaps it was an entire row of bankers who walked out of the auditorium during Mother Courage and Her Children at the National Theatre in late October. Perhaps they could not stomach what they had seen. Who would blame them?
PERHAPS IT WAS an entire row of bankers who walked out of the auditorium during Mother Courage and Her Children at the National Theatre in late October. Perhaps they could not stomach what they had seen. Who would blame them?
Brecht’s 1939 play features a woman (Fiona Shaw storming the stage) who drags her caravan of provisions to sell across the battlefields of the Thirty Years’ War, accompanied by her children, who are gradually conscripted, raped or killed. She sells because she wants to and because she has to, and every move she makes takes her closer to safety and to ruin. Her choices are impossible, and we feel pity, anger, grief and love at the same time. It is a complex masterpiece.
Why this should have upset bankers — or perhaps they were just not fans of Brecht’s boisterous Epic Theatre — is plain. Mother Courage is rather too like derivatives pioneers: with some knowledge of the danger, they kept going. Perhaps that is too kind to the bankers — most people would propose that they had no knowledge of the danger (which gives Mother Courage one up on them).
A person who risks their own safety and that of others for profit, breaking new ground in the name of money when regular society is urging caution, is going to ring a (funeral?) bell. To see yourself and your peers vilified on stage after seeing it in the newspapers and on the television could well be a prompt to leave.
In another auditorium in the National, theatre-goers can see Sir David Hare’s instant docudrama, The Power of Yes, in which the playwright tries to understand the causes of the financial crisis. According to one member of the Spear’s staff, ‘It isn’t even really a play — more of a documentary.’ Hare interviewed prominent financiers, regulators and ministers to try and answer some simple questions about complex issues; the drama is rather simple too. (One of his interviewees writes about his experience here.)
Invidious as it is to try and weigh two pieces of art in the critical scales, it seems that the play which tackles the financial crisis head on has a lot less to say to us about it than the German drama of the nineteen-thirties when derivatives weren’t a twinkle in J.P. Morgan’s eyes. The financial crisis, like many other contemporary events, is not necessarily seen best through a clear prism: it is distance, refraction and reinterpretation which make both drama and argument sing.
If Mother Courage’s ultimate fate is to be avoided by bankers – she is bereft, alone and hopeless – they ought to look around before deciding that forward is always best.