Tuesday 12 March 2013

Forgery Most Foul

To the Finborough Theatre, to see “Laburnum Grove” in a room not much larger than the sitting room the play depicted, such that when the daughter of the house accidentally dropped her napkin at my feet I had to restrain myself from picking it up and handing it back to her.

J.B.Priestley’s 1933 play has the dramatic construction and simplicity of text that he was to hone to perfection in “An Inspector Calls”, which in part this play prefigures. It supposedly tells a simple tale of humdrum suburban fraud, in which the mild head of the household, in the temporary absence of his loving wife, confesses to his daughter, her pushy boyfriend, and his wife’s sister and husband who are staying with them, that after his wholesale paper business came near to bankruptcy four years before, he used his knowledge of high quality paper to become a forger of banknotes.  As you may imagine, this confession has a considerable impact. The daughter regrets complaining about her father being boring, the boyfriend withdraws, fearing trouble, and the sponging sister and unemployed husband decide that they too must get out before they are implicated as accessories to crime. Inevitably, the wife finds out about the prank, and shows the gullible household how they have fallen for the story taken from a recent crime thriller. She is therefore perfectly at ease when an Inspector Calls from Scotland Yard, investigating a counterfeiting gang.

Robert Goodale shines in the lead role, with Lynette Edwards, Timothy Speyer, Georgia Maguire and Karen Ascoe very close behind. The props also deserve mention: everything becomes particularly believable when it takes place in the granny’s house of nostalgia. Those old sticks of furniture are still knocking about somewhere in our own houses.

The rest of the play revolves on the themes of whether, sometimes, an illegal act can have positive consequences. In his supposed confession about being a forger, our hero explains that the counterfeit notes serve the social purpose of boosting the economy, a notion then being made popular, at least in some circles, by Keynes in his famous comment  "If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is." 

Of course, one must note that Keynes did not propose forgery, but the implications are clear: there are circumstances in which, the argument goes, printing more money helps the real economy, by oiling the wheels and boosting confidence. As a point of pedantry, Keynes did not write this until 3 years after the play came out in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Macmillan, 1936) p. 129, but as fellows of the Left, or as Victorian liberals, they knew and influenced each other.

So, a thirties interior is the perfect setting for contemplating the morality of quantitative easing, and the ways in which tainted money can be laundered when it suits personal needs.  The Great Depression still casts its distorted shadow on the present day.

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