Practical criticism - other people's money
It's the mild-mannered schlub you should beware. As the case against Wall Street trader Bernie Madoff continues to assemble - his lawyers are this week protesting a move to deny him bail and return him to prison - the head-scratching continues. Madoff doesn't look much like a financial Mephistopheles. But then, what would that look like?
Swindlers in drama tend to be small-scale, street-sized. Wise guys and grifters, sharp-talking Jacobean city boys or scamps who spot a miser in Molière. Large-scale fraudsters are less frequently spotted. Perhaps because we need to follow their gradual reputation-gathering rise before the shockingly abrupt fall, fat 19th-century novels are most on the money (sorry) when it comes to crooked financiers. The florid Augustus Melmotte in Trollope's The Way We Live Now, say, or the near-anonymous Merdle in Little Dorrit.
The latter, Dickens' most debt-obsessed novel, has been my dramatic touchstone of the season of bad news in its BBC tv adaptation. Merdle is as much an idea as a character, but Anton Lesser found the perfect note of sick-at-stomach to embody a financial maven in way over his head, piling up delusory investments in the hope that together they might somehow cover each other's tracks. And, as novelist Thomas Mallon suggests, Madoff too seems a rogue out of Dickens: 'even his name is sort of Dickensian. Made-Off. It sounds so perfect.'
For the play that best nails a thoroughly respectable swindle, join me after the click:
Ballet, sadly, has little to say on this subject - so few sylphs or swans bother with a checking account. Theatre does tell us that respectability is an immaculate front for deception. The most telling mirror of the Madoff affair and its repercussions is Harley Granville-Barker's great 1914 play The Voysey Inheritance. As if as an omen this drama about a principled son landed with running his late father's fraudulent investment practise, was revived on both sides of the Atlantic in 2006: at the National Theatre in London, and off-Broadway by Atlantic Theater in a version by David Mamet (Mamet's own plays are also familiar with the bluster and tactics of cheating, the business of maintaining a strong front).
Voysey senior, who dies half-way through the play, is no self-effacing Merdle - he's a formidable paterfamilias who refuses opposition at both home and office. But he also represents the play's crucial dilemma - Edward, who inherits the business, both exposes the fraud and is charged with extricating both its innocent and its hypocritical victims without ruining them (Dominic West, playing the role in the London production, nicely riffed on his role as Officer McNulty in The Wire, another man frequently finding himself acting wrongly in order to do the right thing).
Incidentally, I recently interviewed Alison Chitty, the designer of the National Theatre production. Her designs are beautifully spare, but all the stuff that is on her stages truly matters. She reported an actor's delight that the drawers of the Voysey home were crammed full of things, and I love the idea that this wonderful theatre artist paid such respect to what is real and material in a play about a financier who plays blithe games with imaginary moolah.
Madoff leaves a raft of devastation in his wake - the futures market suddenly seems a chillingly real concept. For some, of course, there is a perverse prestige in being ripped off. What, you didn't have enough money to be cheated by Bernie? As Joan Rivers begged in a New York Times interview this weekend, 'I'm pleading with you, please say, "She lost a bundle with Bernie Madoff"... everybody is walking around now saying that, and that shows that you used to be very rich.' Perhaps stage versions of fraudsters are relatively rare because playwrights, like the rest of us, go so blank when trying to think about investment. As James Grant observes, 'Insofar as there is a lesson in history, it's that human beings are not good with large sums of money - anything over $136.'
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