In The Share Club (1987) and After the Crash (1988), New Zealand’s most commercially successful playwright Roger Hall examines a group of suburban neighbours swept up by investment fever during the share market boom and subsequent collapse in October 1987. There is an intriguing contradiction in the fact that the income from The Share Club and After the Crash created economic stability for theatres, yet the plays themselves parody middle-class avarice and financial naivety. Is it possible to read these commercial comedies against the grain to find a valid critique of middle-class society and the Western economic systems on which it is based? This paper explores these questions through a textual reading of Hall’s plays, which he himself states were written to expose “folly and greed”.
“comedy did escape notice in the beginning because it was not taken seriously” (Aristotle 1967, 97)
As the world economy struggles with the most catastrophic recession since the 1930s, it is timely to reflect on two plays by New Zealand’s most senior playwright Roger Hall, written in response to the mid-1980s share market boom and its subsequent collapse in October 1987. The Share Club(premiered in 1987) explores the phenomenon of suburban share clubs in the mid-1980s where amateur investors pooled their cash to speculate on the rapidly rising value of stocks and shares. Following the 1987 share market crash Hall revived the same characters for a stage sequel After the Crash (premiered in 1988), and a television series Neighbourhood Watch. There are ironic parallels between the themes of these plays and Hall’s own playwriting career. As McNaughton has noted (1998, 368), Hall’s strike rate of box-office successes dropped off in the 1980s, but his fortunes were revived by the runaway success of The Share Club which broke all previous attendance records at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre. Alison Quigan, former artistic director of Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre says “The Share Club just saved our bacon” (Welch 2001, 22). Hall notes ironically in his autobiography, “I modestly claim to be one of the few people to have made money out of the New Zealand stockmarket crash” (Hall 1998, 238).
Roger Hall: An Economic Base for New Zealand Theatre
Maintaining a professional theatre structure in a country with a small population has always been a struggle. Following the collapse in 1960 of the nation-wide professional touring company The New Zealand Players, a new model was established when Downstage Theatre was founded in Wellington in 1964 (Smythe 2004, 17-31). Downstage created a fresh vision for regional professional theatre with strong roots in its local community, and this model was replicated around the country. At the peak of professional theatre activity in the late 1970s, there were theatres in Auckland, Tauranga, Wanganui, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, all funded by central government through the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (QEII), as well as by local councils and private sponsorship. In 1975 these theatres formed the Association of Community Theatres to represent their joint interests (Smythe 2004, 170). However the implementation of New Right, market-driven economic policies by Roger Douglas, Minister of Finance in the Labour Government elected in 1984, led to massive cuts in government spending (Kelsey 2-5). Economic policies branded as “Thatcherism” in the U.K. came to be known in New Zealand as “Rogernomics”, acknowledging Douglas’s ideologically driven tactics designed to open up the formerly protected New Zealand economy to the global marketplace (Kelsey 5-6). Subsequent reductions in government arts funding were particularly catastrophic in the labour-intensive field of theatre. Of the provincial professional theatres only Palmerston North’s Centrepoint survives today, and in the main cities Christchurch’s Court Theatre is the sole theatre maintaining a substantial infrastructure including a regular acting ensemble, scenic workshop, and wardrobe. The large Auckland companies The Mercury and Theatre Corporate are long gone, replaced in 1993 by the much leaner infrastructure of the Auckland Theatre Company (Smythe 2004, 346), a company without a theatre venue or a regular acting ensemble. Theatre Corporate was “dissolved” in 1986 (Smythe 2004, 293), followed by the shock closure of the Mercury in 1992 when staff, actors and crew were evicted from the theatre:
A 24-year-old theatre that had grown to provide fulltime employment, training and development for some 50 people was allowed to die. As the inevitable stages of anger, grief and soul-searching played out, the surviving theatres were keenly aware of their own mortality (Smythe 2004, 328).
Smythe notes that the Mercury’s requests for emergency funding to the Auckland City Council and the QEII Arts Council were turned down (2004, 328) In effect these theatres were victims of the same cuts in government funding in the 1980s that Hall critiques in his share market comedies.
Today Downstage is a mere shadow of its former self, struggling on reduced government funding to maintain a presence as a venue rather than a producing house. The company’s image as a fully-functioning professional theatre took many blows, from the axing of Stagetruck, its excellent Theatre-in-Education company in 1980 (Smythe 2004, 220-1) to the wholesale sell-off of its wardrobe, props and lights in 1995 (Smythe 2004, 368). In January 2009 the Dominion Postnewspaper reported on “a bitter backstage funding stoush” between Downstage Theatre and the national funding organisation Creative New Zealand, noting that “last November, CNZ announced it was cutting continuing funding from June 30, 2009” (MacDonald 2009). Downstage’s central place in Wellington culture has been overtaken by its rival Circa, a theatre co-operative founded in 1976 by Wellington actors disaffected with Downstage’s increasingly hierarchical management structure which gave the artists no share in decision-making (Smythe 2004, 164-5). Significantly, Circa’s first major box office success was Roger Hall’s first full-length play Glide Time (1976), a satire on the public service (Smythe 2004, 173). The unprecedented financial success of Hall’s work enabled Circa to purchase the seating for the original Circa building in Harris Street (Reid & Jeffrey 1996, 100), replaced in 1994 by a two-auditorium purpose-built building in a prestigious location on Wellington’s waterfront adjacent to Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum (Reid & Jeffrey 1996, 102-5). Unlike the former Association of Community Theatres establishments, however, Circa Theatre does not have a regular acting company or a technical staff and does not pay wages to artists as employees. Rather, actors, technicians and designers are engaged for each production on a profit-share basis, taking a cut of the income and enabling the theatre to survive because the artists, not the company, take the financial risk (Reid & Jeffrey 1996, xi-xiv). The Circa co-operative system has become the model for many professional productions operating out of smaller venues like Wellington’s BATS Theatre, where the majority of premiere productions of New Zealand plays are staged. Without the artists taking the financial risk, most New Zealand plays would never be performed at all. The regular exceptions to this unfortunate reality are the plays of Roger Hall.
Since the success of Glide Time alerted theatre managers to the economic viability of locally written comedy, Hall’s plays have consistently spelled box office success for theatres throughout New Zealand, and the income from Hall’s comedies have on several occasions saved struggling theatres from going bust. Veteran theatre critic Denis Welch wrote in 2001:
Almost single-handedly he has kept at least two major theatres in existence, and substantially propped up the rest. Without him there would be a yawning gap between the imported crowd-pleaser and the risky local drama (2001, 20)
Despite Hall’s prolific output, however, there has been very little academic attention paid to his work, possibly because it is considered too insubstantial for serious discussion. David Groves draws a parallel between Hall’s early work and “the cosiness of Auntie BBC’s Light Programme Comedy shows”, concluding that it is “regrettable that plays quite so conformist and intellectually timid as Roger Hall’s last two should have been written from a university”, referring to literary fellowships held by Hall at the University of Otago (Groves 1978, 63). As Groves’ comment indicates, Hall is beloved of audiences but not of critics. Welch notes that
his work is written off by some as ‘just comedy’ and therefore not ‘proper theatre’. His autobiography is punctuated with retaliatory stings and stabs at people who, in his view, have dismissed him as lightweight (2001, 21).
Theatre directors like Quigan have often staunchly defended Hall’s literary reputation, but they also have a strong vested interest as the income from his plays keeps the professional theatre economy in New Zealand viable.
All of the major theatres (including Circa) depend on the reliable box-office income of a new Roger Hall comedy and often a Hall Christmas pantomime as well to make their annual programme viable. Hall is often compared to Britain’s Alan Ayckbourn and Australia’s David Williamson as a safe bet at the box office, a non-offensive comic craftsman who chronicles the anxieties of the middle class citizens who make up the bulk of the theatre-going public. In the same year that The Share Club premiered, Alister McDonald wrote,
Hall Is New Zealand’s best known and most commercially successful living dramatist, the local equivalent of David Williamson, Alan Ayckbourn or Neil Simon. … The plays repeatedly touch on marriage, politics and education, and through them Hall has held a mirror up to the New Zealand middle class, reflecting the ways in which that group’s mores, opinions and obsessions have changed (or not, as the case may be (1987, 14)
Hall’s career features over thirty plays most of which have had multiple productions in New Zealand. Some have made the leap to international success, most notably Middle-Age Spread(1978) which played in London’s West End for three years, and Conjugal Rites, a play adapted for two television series produced by Granada in 1993 and 1994. During the 2009 recession, Hall’s latest play Four Flat Whites in Italy filled theatres all over New Zealand. As Welch indicates, there is a common perception that Hall’s plays are reliable cash cows which cross-subsidize more risky, serious drama, although in the Auckland Theatre Company’s programme forFour Flat Whites, playwright Fiona Samuel argues that “the piercing sadness of unfulfilled longing is what gives Roger’s comedies, even the most side-splitting, their distinctive tone of melancholy and regret” (Samuel 2009).
Art and the Marketplace
As we have seen, Hall’s plays have often been dismissed critically because of a belief that artistic integrity cannot co-exist with popular success, reflecting a long history of debate about the relationship between art and the marketplace. In “The Author as Producer”, Walter Benjamin suggests that a commercial artwork cannot have a critical function:
the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication can assimilate astonishing quantities of revolutionary themes, indeed, can propagate them without calling its own existence, and the existence of the class that owns it, seriously into question (1986, 229).
The Share Club and to a greater degree After the Crash feature extensive debate about the merits and demerits of capitalism in the context of Rogernomics, and several characters blatantly criticise the market-driven government economic policies of the 1980s. Benjamin’s analysis suggests that Hall’s success within the “bourgeois apparatus” of New Zealand theatre dilutes the impact of any subversive or revolutionary potential in these debates. Yet, as Terry Eagleton reminds us, the boundaries between art and industry are not clear-cut: “Literature may be an artefact, a product of social consciousness, a world vision, but it is also an industry” (1976, 59). Even as Hall’s plays make a theatre industry in a thinly populated country viable, their themes have catalogued middle-class social consciousness in New Zealand over three decades, from the suburban neuroses ofMiddle-Age Spread to the geriatric rest home portrayed in his recent hit Who Wants to be 100?(2008). Few of his plays are overtly political, a notable exception being The Rose (1981), a thinly-disguised critique of then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon whose increasingly dictatorial style was highly disturbing to middle class liberals like Hall. Howard McNaughton notes that,
The play made considerable use of caricature and was scripted for its immediate (perhaps ephemeral) impact, but it indicated the commitment to serious themes that has always existed alongside Hall’s remarkable skill as an entertainer (1998, 368).
Such serious themes emerge in some later Hall plays, including Market Forces (1996), his sequel to Glide Time, which laces the comedy with often bitter critique of the 1980s economic reforms that recalls some of the arguments in The Share Club and After the Crash (see O’Donnell 2003, 4-8). I argue that despite their success as commercial comedies, Hall’s share market plays also make a contribution to debates about New Zealand’s economic direction in the 1980s, drawing attention to flaws in capitalism as a system and considering the negative impact of a market-driven economy on average New Zealanders. In order to pursue this argument further, it is necessary to consider the politics of comedy more closely.
In an article analysing the effects of political comedy in the United States, David Paletz suggests that political humour can be graded on a “spectrum of acceptability”, from humour that is supportive of political authority (for example Bob Hope) to radical subversion (for example Lenny Bruce). Paletz notes that
With rare exceptions, the more acceptable a piece of humor, the less subversive it is. Conversely, daring and outrageous humor tends to be spurned, rejected, or just ignored (1990, 486).
Given their popularity with middle-class audiences, Hall’s plays clearly score highly on the scale of “acceptability”. Following Paletz’s analysis, this suggests they cannot be viewed as radical or subversive. Yet, between the poles on his spectrum, Paletz includes two other categories of humour, the “benign” and the “undermining”. The themes of Hall’s share market plays are not “benign”, they tend towards the radical end of Paletz’s spectrum, consistently undermining the status quo, their “acceptability” to audiences interacting with a more subversive dialectic. A textual study of The Share Club and After the Crash reveals themes that are darker and more challenging than the commercial veneer that attracted mass audiences to theatres in the 1980s.
The Comedy of Economics in The Share Club and After the Crash
As the “acceptability” barometer requires Hall to remain bound by the conventions of psychological naturalism, characterisation is the key to his comedy. Both plays focus exclusively on the same eight characters who are members of the Keynes Avenue Social Club. All are neighbours in a mythical, typical suburban avenue, the name of which is an ironic reference to John Maynard Keynes, the British economist who advocated interventionist government policies to reduce the impact of recessions. Brian Easton, a New Zealand economist who has been one of the foremost critics of Rogernomics, quotes Keynes to discredit the ideological foundation of the 1980s New Right economics: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist” (Easton 1997, 245-6) Through the share club phenomenon, Hall depicts these New Right ideologies filtering into the homes of suburban families. In order to show the broad impact of these policies, Hall creates characters ranging in age from late twenties to sixties, and from a variety of income brackets. Victor, a periodondist, has a relatively large income, as has Charles, a university lecturer. Both men are single, as is Agnes, a schoolteacher on the verge of retirement. At the other end of the scale are Maureen and Warren, bringing up three children on Warren’s meagre income as a taxi driver. This gives ample opportunity for the playwright to create comic conflict arising from economic disparity, and Hall furthers the potential for debates on the shortcomings of capitalism by aligning three characters with financial industries. Charles lectures in economics, Miles is an executive in a finance company, and Garth works in a bank. Financial arrangements within the family also come to play an important role in the conflicts. Maureen appears to be content to be a wife and mother, whereas Miles’ wife Zena eventually rejects her domestic role. The Share Clubis structured around four meetings of the club, in which the club’s investments gradually disappear due to financial naivety and poor judgement. After another disappointing result, Maureen enquires cynically, “Is the idea that we keep investing till it’s all gone?” (Hall 1988b, 15) The play therefore questions the notion that active participation in the marketplace will inevitably lead to financial gain.
In the sequel After the Crash, the Keynes Avenue social club meets to re-assess its position after the catastrophic 1987 crash. Miles has been made redundant from his position at the finance company, reversing his former high status as a financial insider and highlighting the reality that the loss of employment during a recession undermines the economic base of the family. This redundancy however, liberates Zena from her domestic role, as she becomes a real estate agent and displaces her husband as the family breadwinner. Warren, representing a working class perspective, articulates disillusionment with the now discredited finance industry:
What did they do with their millions? For humanity? I never saw it. … In the old days guys like that set up museums and art galleries and medical schools. What did this lot do? Bought Judge shares. Some vision, huh? Some dream! (Hall 1988b, 22)
Warren’s speech contains nostalgia for a more benign capitalism in the “old days”, motivated less by individual greed and focussed towards the good of the community. While Warren may well be romanticising the motives of the wealth-brokers of New Zealand’s colonial past, he articulates a clear ethical position, and his notion that the market frenzy of the 1980s has been antithetical to humanity reflects a growing question about the benefits of the reforms in the late 1980s. Kelsey argues that,
Unfortunately, the Rogernomics experiment … failed to work for the two terms that Labour was in power. The OECD conceded that, after six years of declining economic performance and concentrated pain, there was very little apparent gain (1997, 5-6).
While Warren’s views reflect this wider disillusionment, Hall builds dramatic irony as the characters continue to be complicit with the marketplace. Despite his rejection of the ethics of market-driven economics, Warren is enthusiastic about Zena’s proposal that the club revive their shattered budgets by purchasing a run-down old house in their street, renovating it rapidly and selling it again for a profit. Therefore the neighbours are quickly drawn into another scheme that promises financial gain, based on near-instant profits from the marketplace. Their failure to learn their lesson from the share market losses highlights the fatal allure and complex strategies of market-driven ideologies. After the Crash is set entirely in the sitting room of the old house, which could be interpreted as a metaphor for the New Zealand economy, with the promise of financial gain undermined by the reality of its out-dated décor and rotten timbers. The play suggests that the notion that instant profits can be derived from market speculation is a myth promoted by unseen powers, with an implication that these authorities will profit from the inexperience of the neighbourhood investors. In the climactic scene, a burglary in the empty house alerts the neighbours to the fact that the house is becoming a liability. Zena fails to find a buyer, and when Garth reveals that they are all liable to pay off the bridging finance at the end of the month, most of them are faced with financial ruin. Once again the market has failed to provide. Faced with a common problem, the banker Garth falls back on individual responsibility rather than a communal solution. He advises the poorest couple, Warren and Maureen, to take out their own loan to cover their share of the debt:
I appreciate it might be difficult to put our hands on that sort of money straight away, but that is the situation. You do have some time to make arrangements (Hall 1988b, 64).
Faced with the consequences of their actions, the neighbours turn on Garth, when it transpires that he signed the loan document on behalf of the others. Garth’s position is suddenly reversed, as he goes from being the aggressor, to the fall-guy who carries the responsibility for the whole group. Ultimately, however, a call to return to a sense of common purpose comes from Agnes, who proposes that the house be auctioned and that the group split the loss equally amongst them. While this means a financial loss for all, it reinforces their humanity, opening up an alternative to the individualist market-based philosophy and restoring a sense of community.
The Share Club and After the Crash could be viewed as simple morality plays, warning against the perils of avarice. Yet viewed in the context of the social turmoil of the 1980s, the characters represent a wider critique of social forces beyond their control. The Share Club exposes the lack of ethics in capitalist enterprise, as we realise that this cross-section of suburban characters are motivated primarily by greed. Miles tells fantastical anecdotes of colleagues who have made tens of thousands of dollars in profit on re-selling shares financed by bank loans: “All for one phone call. Never had to hand over a cent” (Hall 1988b, 13). Regardless of financial status, the clubbers are initially uniformly enthusiastic about investment and the market. Agnes announces that she has been reprimanded for teaching capitalism to new school entrants by a “wishy-washy” principal: “I believe that in school, as in life, effort should be rewarded … capitalism is in our nature” (Hall 1988b, 28). The counter argument is advanced by the working-class character Warren on learning that Maureen’s solo flutter on the share market may cost them their house. After initially blaming Maureen, he acknowledges his complicity, “They all tell you how much money they’re making. I thought, why should we miss out? … It’s a disease” (Hall 1988b, 44).
The “disease” is illustrated most strongly by the impact on Zena’s and Miles’ family. In his essay “Laughter”, Henri Bergson discusses the comic technique of “inversion”: “Picture to yourself certain characters in a certain situation: if you reverse the situation and invert the roles, you obtain a comic scene” (1911, 94). In After the Crash, Hall creates comedy by reversing the conventional marital roles: Zena has become a successful businesswoman while her husband remains unemployed and is resigned to domestic duties. Bergson gives several conventional examples of comic inversion, including “A termagant of a wife insists upon her husband doing all the housework” (1911, 94-5). Thus Hall takes this well-worn convention and twists it to present a view of marriage as an institution dominated by economics, a system of power play and exploitation. In The Share Club, we learn that Miles claims to pay Zena for tax purposes although she never receives any money (Hall 1988b, 25). In the sequel Miles acts as Zena’s unpaid receptionist as a tax dodge noting wryly “I used to pay her in the same way when I had my job” (Hall 1988b, 27). The marriage partners are thus complicit in cheating the system, yet they also cheat each other of power and status. Comic situations are derived from Zena’s relish in her new position of power, but this turns to petty self-interest when it is revealed that Miles misses out on a potential job because Zena deliberately fails to pass on a message for him. While Hall uses this reversal of fortunes to create comic situations, ultimately the optimism of communal reconciliation at the climax of After the Crash is offset as Miles abandons his sons and his wife, exclaiming bitterly to a tearful Zena, “No future here, have I. And I can’t face being one of the unemployed any more” (Hall 1988b, 66).
In counterpoint to this crisis, the play concludes with the two conservative older characters, Agnes and Charles, agreeing to marry purely for financial reasons. Charles tells Warren,
I thought Agnes because … well, it makes … economic sense. Now she’s hard up, if she sold her house and moved in with me … she’d have a better standard of …[living] (Hall 1988b, 43).
As one marriage based on economic disparity ends, another one begins, with Agnes recognising the financial benefits: “You are a mean old bugger, Charles; you have no idea about modern women; and you are an old stick in the mud. I think we might suit each other very well” (Hall 1988b, 69). The comedy is thus laced with bitterness and expediency, the ending displaying a potent cynicism towards marriage. Marriage is seen as a mere business arrangement, an emotionless system of exchange, which cannot flourish without a sound financial basis.
In categorising certain types of comedy, Bergson uses the analogy of the marionette:
There are innumerable comedies in which one of the characters thinks he is speaking and acting freely, and consequently retains all the essentials of life, whereas, viewed from a certain standpoint, he appears as a mere toy in the hands of another who is playing with him….our seeming freedom conceals the strings of a dancing-jack, and …we are, as the poet [René Sully Prudhomme] says, “humble marionettes “The wires of which are pulled by Fate” (1911, 77-79).
The puppet-master in Hall’s plays is capitalism, an invisible force that controls the lives of all of the characters. Even when the market is soaring, the amateur investors fail to succeed in gaining riches, as Agnes notes: “This year the market’s gone up 96 per cent. It was actually harder to pick shares that went down, but this club managed it” (Hall 1988b, 43). After the crash, the blame is attached to the financiers who took the biggest losses like Sir Francis Renouf and Bruce Judge, described by Agnes as “Two of the pricks that burst the South Sea bubble” (Hall 1988b, 8). The characters are slow to see their complicity in the crash, though when proposing the communal solution to the financial crisis at the climax of After the Crash, Agnes recognises that the share market has “turned us into a nation of shits” (Hall 1988b, 66). In suggesting that his suburban characters are puppets of capital, Hall highlights the conflict between advances the debate between capitalism and community. In The Share Club, Miles implies that the club was set up primarily for altruistic reasons:
it was set up with the best of intentions … to make money of course, but also for what I believed would be the best of social intentions … getting together as a neighbourhood. Well it hasn’t worked out that way, and I’m sorry. It’s a pity (Hall 1988b, 50)
This implies that any attempt to reinforce a sense of community will fail if based on self-interest and avarice. This is highlighted even further in a scene in After the Crash where Miles arrives with a carton of fresh produce from his family’s farm. The neighbours assume that the produce is a gift, but as they eagerly take lemons and meat from the carton, Miles requests payment (Hall 1988b, 50-1). Thus an apparent act of altruism leads to a financial transaction, resulting in further conflict. Warren immediately assumes that Miles will pocket the money, but Miles protests that the money is to be sent back to the farm. Although the play has an urban setting, this reminds us that the removal of protectionism during the Rogernomics period also resulted in the slashing of government subsidies in the rural sector. In considering the social impact of economic reform, Kelsey notes that “The farming community bore the brunt of the removal of subsidies, tax concessions and concessionary loans in the first two years of re-structuring”(1997, 78). The economist Charles supports these cuts, arguing for economic efficiency, “If certain governments had listened to what economists were telling them for years and years, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today” (Hall 1988b, 51). Charles’ support of the Rogernomics regime contrasts with Miles’ argument that farmers are suffering as they are “working and not getting paid” (Hall 1988b, 51). The authority of Charles’ argument is undermined by Garth’s reminder that his own financial security rests on his state-funded job as a university lecturer: “Wait till they start making real cuts in the universities, like Maggie Thatcher’s done in Britain. See how you like it then” (Hall 1988b, 46). Hall thus makes the point that the economic reforms affect every sector of society. As Charles argues in favour of the financial reforms, the former financier Miles makes a strong challenge: “What do you contribute to the nation’s productivity? More Fascists for Treasury!” (Hall 1988b, 51). The development of Miles’ character from supporting authority as a corporate financier, to raising strong questions about the country’s economic direction, symbolises the thematic journey of the two plays.
These themes align Hall’s works with a group of British plays which also critique the market-driven policies of the 1980s. Two notable examples are Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, premiered in London in March 1987, three months before the first production of The Share Clubin Dunedin, and David Hare’s The Secret Rapture, first produced in London a month before the debut of After the Crash in 1988. Both of these were later produced in Wellington in 1990,Serious Money at Downstage and The Secret Rapture at Circa. However there are also significant differences in Hall’s approach. Churchill focuses her satire on the share traders, stockbrokers, bankers and dealers of the city of London, and Hare directly targets those in power through the character of the ruthless junior Tory cabinet minister Marion French. Although Hall also includes characters who earn their living from financial industries, the politicians are absent, and the suburban setting together with the amateur nature of the share club’s investment strategies suggest that he is less concerned with those in power and authority than the effects of economics on “ordinary” women and men. Like Hare, Hall uses a naturalistic, character-driven dramatic structure, a far cry from the vivid stylisation of Serious Money with its rhyming verse and, as Geraldine Cousin notes, “deliberately two-dimensional characters creat[ing] a world which is dazzling, speedy and relentlessly shallow” (1989, 102) Hall’s characters are also initially “dazzled” by the promise of substantial economic benefits from investing in the share market, and it is only later that they realise that the shallowness of this quest erodes their own relationships and sense of community. Churchill’s more cartoon-like characters never experience such revelations. As Amelia Kritzer observes, “intoxicated with an illusion of power and wealth,Serious Money‘s characters continue to embrace a cleverly disguised form of enslavement” (1991, 164). As Hall makes clear, the proliferation of suburban share clubs in the 1980s illustrates how effective market-driven policies were in expanding this “illusion” and “enslavement” to corporate greed into the homes and families of average New Zealanders.
Set during a period of radical change in New Zealand politics, in his share market comedies Hall created a dynamic synchronicity between drama and social realities not achieved in New Zealand since the first productions of Greg McGee’s landmark play Foreskin’s Lament coincided with the mass protests against the South African rugby tour in 1981. As David Carnegie observes,
When the Guardian newspaper in Britain published a full-page article in 1981 on the effects of the Springbok rugby tour on New Zealand, it quoted Foreskin’s Lament as a central expression of the country’s dilemma (1990, 203).
Similarly, the themes of Hall’s The Share Club were referenced in the press in the context of the share market crash. John Smythe recounts how The Share Club was playing at Downstage Theatre on the night of “Black Tuesday”, 20 October 1987, when the global share market crash reached New Zealand. The production featured in the stories on the front page of the Evening Postnewspaper, reporting that the play
“seemed too close to the bone for many in the audience … Unlike previous performances?and no reflection on a brilliant script and well acted roles?last night’s audience was reserved and not easily drawn” until John Callen’s Warren, asked to report on the value of the group’s shares, ad-libbed “After today? Bugger all” (Smythe 2004, 299).
Events in the real world ensured that Hall’s gently subversive comic critique of capitalist economics hit its mark, and by the time After the Crash arrived at Downstage in 1988 the play reflected a widespread cynicism about the market-led economic reforms, even as the government continued to advance policies that would partially dismantle the welfare state which was established in the 1930s. Jane Kelsey has catalogued the measures by which the universal welfare state was replaced by a “limited safety net” leading to an increase in poverty and a continual slide in New Zealanders’ overall standard of living (1997, 271-5). Kelsey illustrates how widespread disillusionment with the economic changes of the 1980s led to a rejection of the first–past-the-post electoral system that had given first Labour, then the subsequent National government, the power to push through unpopular ideologically-driven reforms, without any checks and balances by minor parties. In an indicative referendum in 1992, only 15.5% of voters wanted to retain the existing system, and the following year another referendum confirmed the change in the electoral process to an MMP system (Kelsey 1997, 303-5). While Hall’s share market plays cannot be said to have directly contributed to this massive political change, they had an influence, as the popularity of the plays suggests that audiences sympathised with their critique of the social effects of market-driven economics.
Smythe also makes the connection between the themes of The Share Club and the economics of theatre production:
In direct contrast to prevailing fortunes, [the play drew] full houses, the initial seven week season was extended for another month … and broke the attendance record for a Hannah Playhouse season (2004, 299).
However the crash also meant the liquidation of the Chase Corporation which had offered seven million dollars to Downstage to move to a much larger venue, the St James Theatre. Even with the “boom” in box office receipts from The Share Club, Downstage’s financial decline began in this era, and the Wellington seasons of most Hall plays since then have been performed at Circa Theatre.
The time has come to re-assess the themes and politics of Hall’s plays. Hall himself claims thatThe Share Club was written to “expose folly and greed” (1998, 237), yet there is an intriguing contradiction in the fact that the income from The Share Club and After the Crash contributed to economic stability for theatres, while the plays themselves parody middle-class avarice and financial naivety. Eagleton suggests that art inevitably becomes caught up in the realities of capitalist production:
Art may be, as Engels remarks, the most highly ‘mediated’ of social products in relation to the economic base, but in another sense it is also part of that economic base …one type of commodity production among many(1976, 60).
As we have seen, professional theatre is a labour intensive activity relying on significant box office income in order to continue to create art, requiring an ongoing balance between the cultural and political responsibilities of artists and a pragmatic commercial instinct. In discussing the relationship between the marketplace and artistic factors, theatre director Anne Bogart writes, “In a world of commodities, we are not solely artists, but producers as well. Each of us is a producer and artist in one” (2001, 5). The fact that Hall’s plays made money does not reduce their potential to be analysed as works of art. Even Aristotle, who placed more emphasis on tragedy than comedy in The Poetics, argues that comedy should be taken seriously. As previously noted, some critics have accused Hall of being “intellectually timid” and “lightweight”, yet The Share Club andAfter the Crash clearly tapped into the zeitgeist of late 1980s politics, and present debates on economics that ultimately reject the ideology of unfettered capitalism, presenting an alternative based on community values. Rather than diluting the impact of his social critique, the commercial success of Hall’s share market comedies adds ironic counterpoint to their themes. Reflecting the “boom and bust” realities of New Zealand theatre economies, where companies constantly speculate on potentially profitable plays that will contribute to their sustainability, Hall’s share market comedies create a productive dialogue between theatre, communities and the marketplace that remains relevant in the context of continuing volatility in the world’s financial markets.
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