Practical criticism: boys in the banks

If we can all put to one side the dread making itself at home in the hollows of our stomachs, it's time to begin looking at world events like a critic. Not a critic of economics or politics, mercy no. But a drama critic.

Yes, my friends, we're looking (nervously, through our fingers) at images from the world's stock exchanges and banks, and using our experience as theatregoers to read the crisis. You'll probably have way more insights than I do (what does a monkey know?), but here are a couple of thoughts to begin with. I'm talking costume, and I'm talking a facial expression that doesn't often get attention.

You don't often see the global financial system on stage. Its bottom-feeding level - unsympathetic landlords, rent-collectors, commission-hungry salesmen - stipple classic American drama from Miller to Mamet. But the big beasts of the banking sector usually pull the strings way offstage (or, in 1920s plays like Treadwell's Machinal or Rice's The Adding Machine, we see the system embodied in expressionist style). To find a pack of slavering stockbrokers, you must look back to Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, written in delirious rhyming couplets at the helium height of the 1980s. This was also the era of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, and neither film nor theatre have subsequently sealed portraits of feral finance that are even remotely as memorable.

The city-boy's braces (red for brazen emphasis) were the uber-emblem of the 80s, but the current crisis wears grey. Men and women, whether clinging to their banking jobs or just shown the door, wear suits in black, grey, charcoal, slate and grey. If the defining images of boom showed people gesticulating madly on the trading floor in implausible bright jackets or hot-hot-hot shirtsleeves, the current financial is about people in sober suits. They cluster like walking shadows in the fallout of Lehman Brothers. They form dark puddles of smokers, trading rumours outside their offices.

What can we make of them? Join me after the click:

Anne Hollander's Sex and Suits (1994) remains a primary text tracing the development of the suit - from dandy's black through to the signifier of conservative masculinity. It is so pervasive in the current news footage, however, that it becomes bound up with the crisis: as if we all put too much faith in the suit, that if we dressed like credit-worthy individuals, then we would slot into an accompanying life. And we trusted the guys in suits too, as if financial nous and responsibility were conferred by the dark sleeves and discreet buttons. Now, all those suits on the streets whenever the camera crew arrives at another institution in crisis seem incongruous, responsible clothing that masked irresponsible time, a uniform for a disbanded army.

As for the principal emotion on display? Dismay. It's an emotion rarely foregrounded on stage, which prefers showier stuff. Though just last week I watched it spread over Jocasta's face (as played by Clare Higgins, looking like a battered jaguar) in the National Theatre's Oedipus. Listening to her son-husband scrabble for the truth of his origins, unable to dissuade him, she's transfixed by dismay. It's a still, silent emotion, a growing response to a situation beyond your control, and it's on a lot of finance faces on the news. People worried about their jobs, worried about their futures, waiting without optimism. It isn't tragedy, but something more troubling - people who don't know whether or not their lives are ruined but who suspect the worst.

As for banking choreography, that's still too. Not the jabbing, windmilling frenzy of the 80s. Merely people looking baffled on the City of London pavement, or traders staring dumbfounded at their screens as if willing the graphs to change direction.

Okay, that wasn't the most upbeat beginning to this series. And, since you ask, I don't feel any better now. But what has the monkey missed? What else should a critic see in scenes from the crisis? Over to you...

October 21, 2008 9:05 PM | | Comments (6) |

6 Comments

Vera, fascinating notion about our constant exposure to performance. No wonder we can barely recognise an emotional state that isn't broadly enacted. As you say, the stage rarely foregrounds passivity (did those 18th-century books which illustrated the codes for theatrical behaviour have a set of gestures for numb dismay?). Waiting on external events you're powerless to affect (Godot, anyone?) demands a helpless stoicism - perhaps one that is more concerned with making of sense of things for oneself than communicating (let alone telegraphing) emotion to the wider world.

Hex & Why, I have to admit that I'm more convinced by cock-up than conspiracy when it comes to explanations of history. But you're right, there's a backstage story to be told about the current crisis. Is it the Jacobean-tragedy-meets-the-Sopranos you suggest?

the stage expects action, or the intention of action, in tragedy, even if that action is internal to the hero's mind and soul, and even when that action is useless against fate/destiny/events. we've all been trained in expectations by watching acted fiction (never in history have so many people spent so many years of their lives watching professional performers at work). the weirdness of now is that the vocabulary of active, often physically active, emotion that we've been taught signifies drama doesn't relate to the grief, numbness and uncertainty being felt. nobody's raging, striding, flinging their arms to heaven, and only the US treasury secretary henry paulson went down on his knees -- half in jest -- to the power in congress. nobody has yet improvised an active public performance mode for meltdown, and what we can see on the news is unacted. looks passive.

David,

You've critiqued the "show", but you've described only a few of the "actors" whose roles were written long ago.

Now it's the medias' turns to speak their parts. But the more interesting scene is backstage, where the space is owned by a silent partner, international organized crime.

The feds have promised a more thorough review of the show, which may reveal the probable-fact that policies and laws (of *competing* businesses and corporations, banks, and governments) have undergone *simultaneous* changes over time *worldwide*, impossible to make happen without an outside organized and organizing (manipulated) influence.

But this won't reveal the base-"n" math systems being used by them to generate the "financial" numbers and whether the numbers represent "pools" (which can make base-2 math look like regular base-10) or whether the numbers represent mean-averages of the pools, or totals of pools.

Even making the top layer transparent for Congress - as Palosi wants to do - won't change the underlying layers which criminal money-managers have special tax-law permission to keep, using other base-"n" records for credits or debits, or both, depending on their situations...Then it's their choice whether to accurately translate the numerical records to base-10, or to fragment the number-history into "forgettableness" by a series of data "collections" from one employee-actor to others, to final-expression as the wrong numbers...then to call any error "a mistake" if found out.

Hex & Why

Mel, that's a brilliant thought about the city barlife. Along with the trading floor, scenes of braying conspicuous consumption - guffawing, exactly - were our default images of good-times banking. And, again, a supremely noisy, frenetic one. Now that people aren't splashing bonuses around, we're thrown back on uncanny silence. I realise that I'm making the crisis sound less like a stage play and more like a dystopian zombie movie...

Incidentally, I've just remmebered a rare recent dance work that delat with this environment. "Quick!" by Nina Rajarani won the Place Prize for new contemporary dance in 2006. The piece sends bharatanatyam into the hectic energy of the contemporary office, following a quartet of city boys from the morning train, through heated meetings and into a night on the lash. It was all stress, fractious assertion, busy busy busy. I didn't see it, but Aletta Collins' "Lap Dance", a finalist for this year's Place Prize, was apparently a zippy solo for an office drone in thrall to a bossy laptop computer.

And Sanjoy, you're very very kind...

I am seeing the whole god awful money mess anew. There is a strange but forbidding beauty in it and I must say its much more manageable this way.

But you also got me thinking. I wonder what scenes would be found in the city bars and pubs? Is the Barrow and Banker, London Bridge the same guffawing jungle it once was? Are restaurants like Oxo and Vertigo, once the showy havens for city boys and client dinners left bereft with just the faintest echo of the champagne corks once popped...?

Your prose knocks me sideways. Kerplunk, I just hit the floor.

Now I'm going to watch the news with a renewed interest, scanning the scenes of trading floors, looking at commentators' clothes and faces. Their words may be "on message", but surely gesture and couture will say what words don't...

Please do some more of these. I want to see the world with fresher eyes.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on October 21, 2008 9:05 PM.

No time for jet lag was the previous entry in this blog.

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