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Utah theater company finds the drama in the theory of money

Published February 16, 2014 9:26 pm

Q&A • Playwright talks about his version of a dark World War II night when two famous economists argued about prices and economic theory.
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The idea for a play based on an argument over economic theory started with a random library book that found its way to Eric Samuelsen's hands.

After reading "Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics," the Utah County playwright couldn't stop thinking about a dark night during World War II that British economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek spent on the roof of a chapel in Cambridge. For one night in 1942, the college professors were assigned to wait and clear away any possible German bombs.

Not much is known about that night. No one knows the date, or even if any bombs fell. But what history didn't record gave Samuelsen the dramatic license to imagine a play.

First, it took a lot of reading. The retired theater professor knew so little about macroeconomics he couldn't even begin to comprehend Keynes's 1936 magnum opus, "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money," on his first read.

Samuelsen turned to his son Tucker, a University of Utah economics student studying public policy, for reading suggestions. By slogging through textbooks and the field's classic texts, the playwright began to fictionalize the story. He invented a third character, an everyman named Mr. Bowles, and sent him up on that dark roof.

Samuelsen is directing the world premiere of "Clearing Bombs," the latest entry in Plan-B Theatre Company's season devoted to plays by the playwright, who retired in 2010 from Brigham Young University.

The production features Mark Fossen as Keynes, with Jay Perry as Hayek. Kirt Bateman plays Mr. Bowles, a fire warden from London whom Samuelsen invented as a stand-in for the audience.

"Probably two economists would just talk hard-core economic theories, and the audience" — or the playwright — wouldn't understand the arguments, Samuelsen explains. "I thought if they had a third guy up there and they could have a debate, that might give the play some dramatic focus."

The cast came into rehearsals dreading the play's main subject, Samuelsen jokes, but now think they should receive credit for a university-level minor in economic theory.

The playwright assures theatergoers not to worry: There will be no quizzes at the closing curtain. "I certainly understand people feeling some dismay attending a play arguing macroeconomics," the playwright says, with a laugh. "I would, too. I'm not an economist. In terms of my understanding going into the project, I'm way more Mr. Bowles than the other two guys."

At its core, the play offers an illumination of the issues that American voters — and our politicians — are still debating. "If you really want to know why our current Congress can't seem to get anything passed, it's because they're still refighting Keynes versus Hayek," Samuelsen says.

What do audiences need to know before they come to see "Clearing Bombs"?

Just come and watch it. I hope the arguments and the characters and the situation of the play are self-explanatory. They're not going to need to prepare. I am, of course, utterly terrified that actual practicing economists will come see the play and say: "Oh, this man doesn't know what he's talking about."

What makes the plot relevant to Salt Lake City audiences in 2014?

The economics debates of the 1940s between these two guys are still immensely relevant to everything we talk about in the public policy debate. Keynes thought that economic theories had to be based on the way human beings actually behave. Hayek had a love affair with prices, as a way to quantify what we value and how much we value it.

What did you come to admire most about Keynes' and Hayek's theories during the course of writing the play?

Both of them were passionately engaged in the issues. Keynes was very involved in funding the war. Hayek wasn't, but he basically spent the war writing his book "The Road to Serfdom." To me, Keynes is about compassion, about economics used to help people. Hayek is about freedom, the dangers of encroaching on the individual liberties of people. That balance seems to be tremendously important, and seems to me almost like the main task of anyone working in public policy.

You've written your admiration for both men into the script. What stands out for you about their personalities?

Maynard Keynes: Almost anybody who interacted with him said he has an extraordinary passion for rudeness. And yet his arguments are all about how could we not help people in need? Friedrich Hayek: He was just laser focused on theory and the world of ideas. As a person, he had a little bit of a messy family life. But I think the key to him is where he talks about being in Austria during a time of hyperinflation, when the value of the [currency] was in freefall.

And what should audiences know about the character of the London fire warden Mr. Bowles?

Mr. Bowles is really kind of every working man, a laborer. … He's an intelligent man, but not very well educated. And above all, he's a family man — with five children involved in the war effort — and as such, also a patriot. I needed him for the argument. He was a lot of fun to imagine.

How did you blend the right blend of fact and fiction?

First, I'm writing a play, a dramatic entertainment. I really want the play to be lively, enjoyable. I also wanted there to be that sense of danger. We don't know if any bombs actually fell that night, but falling bombs are more dramatic than not-falling bombs.


'Clearing Bombs'

Plan-B Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Eric Samuelsen's "Clearing Bombs," a fictional account of a nighttime argument by two prominent economists — joined by a fire warden — on the roof of a Cambridge church. "A play about economics and defining the future amid mortal danger," promoters say.

When • Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 20-March 2; plays at 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Studio Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $20 ($10 students) at 801-355-2787 or arttix.org

Info • planbtheatre.org/clearingbombs.htm; 90 minute running time, no intermission; no late seating