ENRON – the show

Hot from ENRON, the dazzling show at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva Theatre, one realises that it was a romp with next to nothing useful to say. I imagine it will go down a storm when it transfers to the Royal Court.

By all means grab every chance to to see this show. It is thrilling.

I think you’d be greatly mistaken if you thought this might be an account of the moral or legal issues which lay behind Enron’s fraud and failure. It tells us little about capitalism either. I think it intends to, though. Lucy Prebble, the show’s writer, seems pretty content that Enron – in all its works – is a metaphor for modern capitalism, whose recent disasters probably seem to her to be well-deserved and sympomatic of a failed system.

I am not saying the play was a tedious tract. Actually, one had to wait for about half time for it to turn usefully dark. That in itself is irritating, of course.

There’s a deeper probem. Lucy Prebble seems to want to build real characters and she succeeds. Her cast of nerds, alpha-males, gladhanders and monsters, especially the monster she makes of Jeffrey Skilling, Enron’s CEO, are all engrossing and great fun. Of course one likes them, like liking Tony Soprano, or Huff’s lawyer friend, or House. God stand up for bastards, and all that.

In the first half, we get lots of testosterone and general malarkeys as traders and dealers make loads of money and rude remarks. We get introduced to “mark to market” (an accountancy procedure) which we are told allows hypothetical future profits to be treated as though they were real now. We get hints that the firm posts huge successes whilst not making real profits. Without checking, I couldn’t tell you whether this was part of Enron’s illegality, or just the general scuzziness we are being introduced to. Up to this point, this is capitalism as a romp, and it was all quite fun.

Just before the interval, we get the introduction of the idea that Enron’s huge losses can be hidden in shadow firms. So far as I know, this was the bit of Enron behaviour which was illegal and turned it into a Ponzi. But Prebble gives us no indication that this activity crossed a special boundary. Rather, the implication is that it is of a piece with the firm’s aggressive use of multiple innovative techniques, just like capitalism in general.

Around now we are also introduced to the idea that Enron is longing for a Bush presidency because “W” will allow deregulation of electricity markets. Audiences everywhere know a pantomime dame when they see one, and Bush needs no introduction or even exploration. (To be fair to Prebble, Clinton doesn’t get off scot-free either.) Actually, it’s worth remembering that Enron liked the un-Bush idea of climate change regulation, which would have produced yet more tradeable energy entities.  Anyway, the back half of the play concentrates on the damage Enron’s traders did in the deregulated California energy markets. Again, I don’t think this was what brought Enron down, and in any case only makes the case that regulators need to be clever when there are capitalistic sharks about. The point here (not Prebble’s of course) is that capitalism works by deploying sharkiness (amongst many other human qualities). We all know that, and it poses interesting problems. But it doesn’t speak against sharkiness or capitalism.

Naturally, we get vignettes of outside analysts, bankers, politicians, accountants and legal firms all rolling over to Enron’s blandishments and threats as the firm puts its smokescreens in place. The media is shown as typically lazy and hypocritical. Fair enough: all these custodians were indeed often duped and were sometimes complicit in Enron’s malfeasance.

So. Prebble tells us, and we believe her, that Enron was hyper-aggressive and manipulative. We know that at some point, and Prebble doesn’t tell us where, this behaviour toppled over into illegality. Instead of helping us get a feel for the merits and demerits of  scuzziness (which we badly need to know), or where illegality starts, Prebble lets us wallow in the general idle satisfaction of well-heeled theatre audiences that the world’s a bad place, with capitalists rather nastier even than politicians and every other supposed guardian of society.

In short, beneath the wit and glamour of this show, and even the furtive attractiveness of many of the characters, it is a pretty standard indictment of the American way.

The play’s argument is that Enron was aggressive, duplicitous and corrupting and got caught. But Prebble tells us that the tricks it invented (trading in derivatives and so on) are going on now and years after the Texan debacle have brought down mighty banks which had to be bailed out to the tune of billions. In short, in Prebble’s world, Enron’s collapse and the recent failings in the financial system  are very similar.

Well, that’s a bit true. We are only just learning how to get better and clearer information out into the marekt place so that it can perceive risk better. But we can’t have the advantages of innovation without risks. No-one has ever understood capitalism’s latest wheezes. Historically many fraudulent bubbles have begun with exciting new financial innovations which were put to criminal use but then went on to be highly respectable. (Joint stock companies lay behind the South Sea and Mississippi bubbles, for instance.)

In our times, trading in derivatives, and hedging, have become complex and peculiar. But they are not going to be banished. They are useful. The issue is, of course, to find ways of using these innovations which create wealth and if possible avoid the worst excesses of “irrational exuberance”. We can’t quite say we want stability, but we certainly want growth which is not wildly unstable. The point about the banking crisis is that it was caused by almost everyone believing that some new techniques had increased safety when in fact it was risk which had been increased. This was a genuine cock-up, and a huge pity. 

But it has rather little to do with Enron, which collapsed because its conspiracy to fraudulently hide its feebleness was exposed. Some of its innovations may have looked a bit like the innovations which brought down the banks, but that doesn’t remotely mean that innovation played the same role in both cases.

Leave aside the horrible paucity of anything useful to say about its subject, the play was useless about characterisation too. It’s true that West is brilliant as Jeffrey Skilling. (The whole cast are extraordinary.) We do get sucked into a feeling that Skilling was so arrogant and clever that he had no sense of right or wrong. He is a good monster.

But I think it is too convenient to make him articulate a generalised take on the amorality (or is it the  immorality?) of capitalism and its corruptions. 

The play decides that Skilling is wholly self-deluding and maybe evil with it and it is hard not to believe that this is Prebble’s take on capitalism in general. She gives him a soaring last speech:

“I’m not a bad man. I’m not an unusual man. I just wanted to to change the world. And I think there’ll come a time when everyone understands that ….

“Every dip, every crash, every bubble that’s burst, a testament to our brilliant stupidity. This one gave us the railroads. This one the internet. This one the slave trade.”

He says that everything’s the same, whether it’s saving the planet or getting married, all are done or will be done in bubbles and madness (irrational exuberance), in a “state of extreme hope and trust and stupidity”. He looks at a graph of the world’s share prices or growth or something and says:

“All our creations are here. There’s Greed, there’s Fear, Joy, Faith … Hope …

“And the greatest if these … is Money.”

Prebble’s Skilling believes there is no good or bad – or legal and illegal – in market activity or vigour – that vigour is all there is. He is a sort of fascistic post-modern economic transformative nutter. He is a man of Foucault’s dreams.

The real-life Skilling may be those things or not. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that there are many people who believe this is the stuff of the capitalism they dislike.

Sure, we hardline “liberals” see a great deal of brutal beauty and even moral quality in the Darwinian harshness of the market. We are even quite keen on a bit of exuberance. But the idea that it is silly to have a moral compass is not remotely standard issue capitalistic faith.

It would have been far more interesting to make a play called NORTHERN ROCK or RBS. That would have forced Prebble to address the problem that for all its huge benefits, capitalism really does pose interesting issues. Indeed, the problems posed by law-abiding capitalists are far more interesting than the problems posed by criminal ones. Quite nice or honest people screw up capitalism in a far more interesting way than crooks.

It took only a few moments for the US to pile in and expose and shut-down Enron. Of course, a cycnic would argue that the alacrity of regulators at that point was a matter of scapegoating a bad apple so the merry show could motor on. There is something in that, of course. The difficulty for honest people, though, is that so far as most of us can see, keeping the show on the road really is vital. Worse, the system can’t be made into a nursery school.

I find it infuriating that the modern theatrical world finds it impossible to take on any of this complexity. Harley Granville Barker or GBS (and Prebble remarks Shaw as a hero)  would have.

This was a play for babies.

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Publication date

01 August 2009


Mind & body