Tuesday, June 1, 2010
If you were watching the news in December 2001, or have seen The Smartest Guys in the Room you know the story. Enron executives Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow used complexity and creative accounting to build a $60B house of cards which collapsed almost overnight, losing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of value for its employees and shareholders.
The play "Enron" now running on the London stage is a brilliant, ambitious portrayal of the story over the nine years from 1992 to 2001. Combining traditional high quality acting with a thrilling use of lighting, TV clips, dance and recreations of the frenetic pace of the trading floor, the play brings both the human story, and an explanation of the financial games at work, to life in an explosion of creativity.
Enron is old news now, but watching it the parallels to the financial crisis of 2008 are chilling. The same hubris, the same ambition and greed using the complexity of instruments to hide the reality of what was really going on underneath. It was uncomfortable to watch bankers portrayed as fools, analysts as groupies, the board as the three blind mice and the debt accounts (nicknamed raptors by the CFO) as lifelike raptor masks on the heads of the actors.
I found the play both brilliant and compelling in its reminder of how far very smart people can go wrong in the face of the opportunity to make a great deal of money. How important it is to not lose sight of the basic rights and wrongs of doing business. And how important it is to not believe you are the smartest guy in the room because even if at times you are, the arrogance that comes with that belief can be very destructive.
Sadly Enron failed on Broadway, killed with a witheringly negative review from the New York Times. The review criticized the play as "flashy but labored" and that it "isn't much more than smoke and mirrors itself" -- and it is hard for any New York production to survive a scathing review.
While the Guardian surmised that maybe the play was not conservative enough for Broadway, I think the play may have failed because it's subject matter would be so hard for many of the New York theatre going public to watch. Too many people would recognize their own lives and careers in it - it's almost un-American. I saw it in London 2 days ago and was next to a couple from Houston who hated it - they felt insulted by the portrayal of American business. And yet it all happened again less than 10 years later as Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008.
I believe we need to look boldly into the face of the past disasters of American business - the dark underside of our business culture of chasing the almighty dollar. I was born in the US, grew up in England and choose to work in the US; I admire it and thrive here. But the reminder, through art not just the news, of just how badly it can go wrong is healthy.