My Review of "Adam Smith - The Grand Tour"
“The Adam Smith Tour” written and performed by Vanessa Oltra, with fellow actor Frederic Kneip, join in a production, by Compagnie Les Labyrinthes, arrived at the French Institute last week and will be performed for another two weeks during the Edinburgh Festival.
I approached the “Adam Smith Tour” as someone with an interest in Adam Smith and not as a dramatist, the latter of which I have no pretensions to any expertise. To date, over the years I have attended three Edinburgh Festival dramatisations about Adam Smith, of which the Les Labyrinthes production is by far the best that I have seen.
It is about the ideas of Adam Smith. It is not about fantasies about his ideas or his life (in last year’s case that play was about his after life with David Hume!). All these other plays were written for dramatic or political affect by their authors.
Vanessa Oltra, an associate professor (Senior Lecturer) in economics at Bordeaux University, who wrote “Adam Smith’s Tour”, is alert to the incongruities of most of the presentations of Smith's ideas by modern economists. She is by training in the French education system an accomplished mathematical economist, who clearly has read Adam Smith’s works, thought about them too and not just read and accepted the usual modern interpretations.
Now putting Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759) and his “Wealth Of Nations” (1776) into a digestible dramatic performance is a serious challenge. She copes with that challenge – indeed, surpasses my expectations, based on the other author’s attempts – in an impressive display of dramatic imagination, while keeping true to Adam Smith’s intentions and his ideas.
She did this by using the device of two foreign tourist visitors ("Mr and Mrs Smith") to Scotland keen to visit Adam Smith’s grave in the Canongate Kirk yard and as keen to explore what is known about his ideas by the many visitors to his statue (opposite to where he worked in 1778-90) as a Scottish Commissioner of Customs (currently its the Edinburgh City Council building) where the statue stands, 19 feet high.
Vanesaa Oltra uses the organization, The Adam Smith Institute (London), responsible for raising the funds and negotiating with the City Council for permission to erect the statue, as a means of contrasting some modern ideas about Adam Smith’s ideas directly with some of the ASI’s somewhat different ideas about the morality and economics of Adam Smith (though I am not so sure she covers the whole spectrum of ideas about Smith in ASI (Disclosure: I am a Fellow of the ASI and I am not alone in my expressed views which they often publish without any censorship).
She achieves this objective with the play’s blend of a double screen portrayal of filmed scenes of her character, "Mrs Smith", with, in this case, supposedly, the Director of the Adam Smith Institute (ASI). It makes for some uncomfortable viewing, though I should add, it is not representative of all people associated with the ASI.
The play uses the filmed screening to affect throughout the play, and does so effectively.
She also shows the bureaucratic obstacles to the play’s feature of “Mr and Mrs Smith” (Frederic Kniep, and Vanessa Oltra) trying to get permission to visit Smith’s grave and lay some flowers inside the fenced-off area around it. Yes, she sums up the endless intellectual tortures of dealing with City bureaucrats over quite simple issues – placing flowers on Smith’s grave - let alone far more complex, matters of restoring Panmure House, where Adam Smith lived in Edinburgh (1778-90), almost next door to the Canongate Kirk. Little wonder the two actors appear for much of the time in military style, commando uniforms and gunfire is a regular foreground sound affect!
The play shifts over to Glasgow University in the rebuilt buildings taken from its original 16th century site off the High Street and erected brick-for-brick at its 19th century, and present site, of Gilmore Hill, to the west of Glasgow city centre.
Here Adam Smith was a student (1737-1740) of Moral Philosophy and the Professor of Moral Philosophy (1751-64). Frederic Kniep, switches roles convincingly from plain ‘Mr Smith’ to deliver a lecture in University Garb as Professor Adam Smith. His lecture is verbatim from the first part of Moral Sentiments and dramatically delivered with interrupted suggestions on the appropriate delivery style from Vanessa Oltra, playing a role as the play’s director, to capture what we know of Smith’s actual lecturing style. From former students we know he was hesitant at first, then upping his pace and finally becoming quite animated as he approached his main points of emphasis for his young students.
Oltra’s filmed vox populi around the Adam Smith statue, where she queries what they know about Adam Smith in general and specifically what they know about the “invisible hand”, is instructive. The IH metaphor is not widely known to the selected interviewees, nor for that matter was Adam Smith, but then I do not suppose that people in the High Street would know much about David Hume, whose statue is a few yards away across the street.
I am not disappointed by this discovery. Why not? Because even in Smith’s day, among his readers, nothing appears to be mentioned by anybody in print that comments directly on Adam Smith’s so-called “invisible hand”, even though it was a fairly common metaphor in use, mainly by preachers and theologians (“hand of God”) before and during Smiths time. The IH metaphor was decidedly not mentioned by his contemporaries in any economics or philosophical context (he only used it three times), nor was it associated directly with his name until 1875, and hardly much afterwards until the 1950s. After then references showered down in the literature, becoming ubiquitous around his name until today. The myth was born and thrives, sadly, this day.
The play closes with ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ finally getting into his grave site – the railings were erected to protect the site from the detritus left by homeless addicts and vandals. This was quite moving; people being kept out of Smith's grave site and ignorant of the truly moral professor compared to the “founder of capitalism” (a word he never used or knew) and an exponent of the social good that selfish individuals supposedly do for us. What a travesty!
I conclude that “Adam Smith – the Grand Tour” deserves the accolade brilliant. My congratulations to Vanessa Oltra and Frederic Kneip for making “Adam Smith – The Grand Tour” a well-crafted dramatic experience, at least for me and, I am sure, for many others too.