Monday, August 04, 2008

Excellent Dramatisation of Adam Smith and his Views

I attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival ‘world premier’ last night of ‘Adam Smith: making poverty history’, a docu-drama production by The Radicals, described as ‘an inclusive drama group’ that uses ‘play reading’ to help us better identify with those whose life and teachings we wish to understand and evaluate’.

Overall, I recognised most of the (too long?) quotations from Adam Smith’s works and correspondence, most of the characters participating in the presentation, and what the players were trying to do in making the case that Adam Smith was not the person often portrayed by modern ‘neo-cons’ (a catch-all euphemism for sinister forces emanating in the USA – surely, on the eve of the US Presidential election, a spent force?).

Some comment and minor criticisms of the content:

The ‘Commentator’ (Wally Shaw) repeated correctly several times that Adam Smith was not an advocate of laissez-faire, a point made regularly on Lost Legacy.

The Narrator (Margot Daru-Elliot) held the links between scenes together, spoke clearly, and played the part well. She seemed to get fixated by the year ‘1773’, and stumbled over the year of the death of Smith’s father (1723) about four months before young Adam was born (not ‘some years’ before, which provoked credulous laughter from the audience and was corrected smartly by her).

Frances Hutcheson is listed in the performance notes as ‘Hutchison’, an easy mistake to make and one easily corrected by proof reading - and by checking (Google?).

Conversations between Adam Smith (Cameron Pirie) and David Hume (Kevin O’Donnell) were accurate and believable, but were also spoiled by the acoustics of the venue and by not being projected to the audience – it’s a play performance up to 30 feet away, not a conversation to each other across a couple of feet in distance.

Smith’s mother, Margaret Douglas Smith (Josée Mobbs), was convincing, acted well, and presented the audience with things they may not have known about. She could have been portrayed more accurately if the script made more of her deeply religious views, which may have given young Adam a chance to avoid upsetting her with presenting his real views on religion (shared in his social-hours with David Hume and his academic colleagues, but not overtly in his books and not in conversations with his mother.

Benjamin Franklin (Simon Byrom) was plausible and like conversations mentioned above would have been better understood if he, Smith and Hume stood in a ‘triangluar’ stance with space between them and spoke up to the audience and not to each other only. It was an imaginative scene and the issues were clearly presented as issues (if you knew their views), but may have been lost to others present on the issues chosen for presentation. More could have been made if Smith’s views on Empire had been quoted, Hume’s on Jealousy of Trade, and Franklin’s on the cause of the British colonists in North America, as three brief interchanges.

David Millar (Doug Healy) was an excellent cameo in discussion with Mrs Smith (the shaking head was a great touch), as was Marie Riccoboni (Mary Cameron). Smith’s ‘lady in Fife’ is described in Dugald Stewart’s his eulogy ‘Life of Adam Smith’ (1793; published in 1795) when she was still a spinster in her 80’s – a quite sad story of Smith’s real love that never flowered.

Robert Burns (David McGill) was a good end piece too.

Lastly, back to Adam Smith. Cameron Pirie looked the part and was convincing (project more!) and he coped with reading chunks of quite difficult pieces from Moral Sentiments.

General (quibbles):
Why not replace something with Smith’s parable of the earthquake in China and the contrast between the ‘man of humanity’ snoring soundly after sympathising over the death of 100 millions of ‘his brethren’ and then tackling the question Smith posed next: would such a man prefer to keep his little finger if losing it could avert the death of 100 millions? Most people quote this wrongly and conclude he prefers his little finger; yet in the next sentence such a man receives Smith's fury in the best tradition of a Scottish pulpit (Moral Sentiments, Book III, section 3, paragraph 4: pp 136-8?

On Wealth Of Nations and the pin factory, I think the point can be made more pointedly in the discussion with the young Duke of Buccleugh (Sandy Paterson – incidentally a very convincing performance; the Duke became Smith’s major source of patronage and secured the job as a Commissioner of Customs for him in 1778).

It was not just the numbers of 48,000 pins a day, but the growth of markets for pins and all the other things the division of labour made possible: Adam Smith defined wealth not as gold, silver and baubles, but as the annual production of the ‘necessaries, conveniences and amusements of life’, and from these annual outputs the common day labourer in 18th century Scotland was incomparably better off than the Indian or African ‘prince’, even though he was not as well off as a European prince (Wealth of Nations, Book I, chapter 1, pp 22-24).

The division of labour was the critical factor and not any other differences between the continents. John Locke noted, ‘that in the beginning all the world was America’; Europe had once been a hunting economy too just like the America’s until our ancestors discovered agriculture and the division of labour.

Overall, the performance of the cast was very good and most informative. It made its case well and effectively. My family who attended with me were highly positive about the learning experience and talked about it last night over dinner and this morning without any prompting from me.


Blogger David McGill said...

Thank you for a very generous 'critique' of what is a wholly amateur production. To be associated, in any way whatsover, with as great a mind as that of Adam Smith is a great honour. For many of us taking part in 'Adam Smith - making poverty history' though, there should be greater emphasis on the last three words of the title, and how to bring it into effect: to replace 'Adam Smith Lost Legacy' with 'Adam Smith's Legacy'.

3:48 pm  

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