Friday, December 16, 2011

A Play About Adam Smith, David Hume, and a 21st-century Modern Scottish Woman

I was able to get out to see a play in Edinburgh's Traverse yesterday. This is my review of it (with remarks about a review to be published in the Sunday Herald HERE ).

"The Tree Of Knowledge" by Jo Clifford

Mark Brown’s review of Jo Clifford’s, The Tree of Knowledge, in the Sunday Herald, left me somewhat bemused. I attended the Thursday matinee and failed to see what Mark Brown saw in its script and in the performances of the three actors. It was a moral play written and played with a moral tone, albeit somewhat stretching the factual history of Adam Smith and David Hume and their respective philosophies. But plays are not judged on their author’s historical accuracy, so much as the theatricality of the production. I think script and the actors worked well together.

Hume’s role, acted by Gerry Mulgrew, was to speak as an ‘atheist’; he was in fact a "sceptic", not an atheist. Hume rejected atheism on philosophical grounds, because what cannot be known to philosophy (the existence or non-existence of a god) cannot be asserted (see "Philo" in Hume's“Dialogues on Natural Religion”). But it added bite to the performance by Gerry Mulgrew that went well.

Jo Clifford’s Smith, acted by Neil McKinven, probably had more camp than historically justified, but it held the attention of the audience and gave scope to Neil McKinven to display his range. The absence of women in a man’s life, of course, does not alone make him a latent homosexual. He was a ‘man of the world’ (a phrase regularly used in his correspondence) and, like his contemporary, James Boswell, he knew where to find sexual partners within yards from his home in Panmure House in the Canongate. His devotion to his “very religious” mother in real life was intense.

He left his mother’s house in Kirkcaldy in 1737, aged 14, when she was 43, and, apart from a few years, they were separated on and off for 20 years, until he took her to live with him at Panmure House, Edinburgh in 1778 (she was then 84). Her health declined over his many absences. She died in 1784, aged 90. She was the major cause of his not marrying, despite his much noted relationship with ‘the lady in Fife’, interviewed at the turn of the century by Smith’s first biographer, Dugald Stewart.

Jo Clifford, the author, struck the right theatrical note with the camp Adam Smith in her dramatization of him and his friend, the “atheist” David Hume (it would take too long in a play to explain the philosophical difference dramatically). These characterisations, however, worked well in the context of their stage impact.

Eve (acted by Joanna Tope) presented the particular moral problems raised by the author. Eve and her mother were victims of male domestic violence and this was illustrated dramatically with all the pain that they were, but certainly this violence is not unique of the 21st century, nor as it anything to do with ‘the market”. It was present in 18th-century Scotland and elsewhere. So were women bearing a dozen or more children, most of them dying before their 5th birthday. Pin-factory workers endured six ten- to-twelve hour shifts a week, with no holidays, sick pay, social security, or the dreaded Health and Safety, in stark contrast to modern computer chip-factories. They were uneducated from 6 upward, except for two or three years in “Little Schools”. at least in Scotland, the brightest might get a chance to go to college if charity was available and if sponsored by a sympathetic school-master. Eve, herself got herself into a college, an option closed to 18th-century girls and women, even in the ancient Universities that were still closed off to women until the end of the 19th century and early 20th century.

So, while Eve acted he part with gusto (I certainly felt her anger), I couldn’t help counting some of the modest blessings of this century compared to Smith's.


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