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Ayad Akhtar, writer of Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced (photo: Nina Subin)

Ayad Akhtar, writer of Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced and The Invisible Hand (photo: Nina Subin)

The money behind The Invisible Hand

Published 12 May 2016

As The Invisible Hand begin previews of its UK premiere at the Tricycle Theatre, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar delves into the murky world of money that inspired the tale of an American banker taken hostage in Pakistan whose freedom depends on his ability to play the market:

When I first moved to New York in my early 20s, my father made a deal with me: “Read the Wall Street Journal everyday and I’ll pay your rent.”

He and my mother, both physicians, both concerned by my obsession with the arts and what they saw as an apparent – and complete – lack of interest in the more mundane matters of the world, had concocted the plan. They knew their son well enough to know that (1) I would abide if I agreed, and (2) I would probably become interested if I spent enough time reading about it.

Such has been my introduction to so much of life, on the written page first. And so it was with the world of money.

My rent was $580, a sum split between myself and my then live-in girlfriend. I read the Journal at the local library a few blocks away, and sometimes at home. Back then the front-page left-hand column was usually the most interesting – and best written – story in news. My folks were right. I got hooked. That monthly cheque started to seem entirely unearned.

It was the mid-90s in New York City, the moment of the first tech boom fueled by the advent of the internet. Tina Brown had taken over The New Yorker, and in its pages profiles of the financial elite seemed to sit cheek-by-jowl alongside the accomplishments of the moment’s most cultured.

Soon, 20-somethings and 30-somethings would be flush with millions – and later billions – and at book parties and dinner parties, at openings, money and its allures were all the talk.

I couldn’t have known then that a permanent shift was underway, or let me put it like this: An old American obsession was finding new and vibrant life, finding a figure and form that would make money – its exigencies, its amorality, its language, its ethos – central not only to the larger cultural conversation, but to our experience of the human.

Surely money has always mattered to us. As far back as Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey through the fledgling democracy that was the United States in the early 1800s, he was able to see and articulate this with characteristic pith and pungency:

“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” De Tocqueville

Was it ungracious for him to put it thus, or just a blunter way to articulate a thing we already know about ourselves?

Some form of this question has been a long preoccupation for me, humanly, artistically. For I, too, share this fascination with money – with its uses, with those who have it, with what the great Wallace Stevens once called the “poetry” of finance.

Perhaps it’s a form of vicarious living, the only reasonable pathway for an artist to accede to fantasies of power denied to her in life. Or perhaps it is the recognition that our being-with-money, that is to say, our living with it – individually, collectively – speaks to so much that is at the root of art’s ultimate pursuit: the most hidden, the most human, the most primal. For beyond the free-market jingoism and all the ceaseless invocations of “The Economy” – as if those two words referred to some newfangled deity whose wrath we were always trying to appease; beyond all this, isn’t money the site par excellence of our recurring quotidian terrors and soaring fantasies, and above all, the every-day test of our character?

And in America, money is something else as well: the metonymic complement of personal will itself, its acquisition standing in for the supreme American expression of individual vitality. In many ways, money is our central story. 

The American story is no longer ours alone. Globalisation has made it, increasingly, everyone’s story. The socio-philosophical reasons for this are too complex, too contentious to be addressed in any direct way. And so it falls, I believe, to the artist to offer a picture of the world we are creating, a picture rich with contradiction, short on resolution.

This, in any event, was the motivation behind writing The Invisible Hand, that of giving form to an American tale, but one unfolding on a global stage, an encounter of our national mythos with the world beyond our borders. Nick on one side, Bashir on the other. Yet in the end, both men at the heart of this drama resisted any schematic treatment of their so-called allegorical roles. A hostage thriller became an enaction (and inversion) of the Pygmalion tale and changed course again, revealing, at its close, what seemed to me an unlikely but unmistakable portrait of ourselves.

The Invisible Hand plays at the Tricycle Theatre until 2 July. You can book tickets through the theatre’s website.

This article was first printed in The Script.



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