In fact, being an economist gets in the way of seeing things normally. Last night I was treated to a visit to the Olivier to see an 1841 farce called London Assurance. Richard Briers, Fiona Shaw and above all Simon Russell Beale were excellent, and the play surprisingly feisty for a period I had always thought was more staid and conventional. The air of sexual licence in particular was more what I would have expected 60 years later, at least*. Or 60 years before
But as an amateur economist and historian I could not help seeing the play through different eyes. It had many of the classic ingredients of comedy from that century. Aging squires, inheritance issues, a monstrous class structure, marriage and the capricious Will as the only way fossilised property ever moved. And all I could think about was the industrial revolution and seething social change going on beyond the walls of the Play and seeping into many of its plot structures.
For example, the indebtedness of both father and son – with clamouring Jewish money lenders outside the doors – for me signified the long march towards insolvency of this landed class, no longer able to produce goods of sufficient value to maintain the same position. Industrialisation must have driven wages up and up; that aristocratic playboy leisure-seeking needs a lot of servants, and their wages are being bid higher and higher by ever better alternatives. The commodities sold by the country are being undercut by a growing global market in grain. Urbanisation is racing ahead – Britain at the forefront for over a century by 1841.
Soon the wide-eyed wonder and contempt of the city types at rural life would seems even more contrived, because it would become just a train ride away.
I loved the moment at the end when Dazzle, the dissolute companion of the heir, is asked who he is – having claimed all through a distant relationship with everyone (Adam and Eve, he winks). He replies that he has no earthly clue – like half the world. Having inveigled his way through life by faking a chummy acquaintance with the landed and noble, he has no shame in admitting this.
I thoroughly recommend it – for economic history nerds or just those wanting a laugh. But I suspect it is sold out for the entire run. What recession, eh
*then I am no expert