Caryl Churchill’s “Serious Money” is a scorching satire of the financial elite of both British and North American society, one that is both provocative and pessimistic. The play’s first scene is borrowed from a seventeenth-century play by Thomas Shadwell, The Volunteers, in which the essential problem at the heart of high finance, namely how ethics takea backseat to profit, is emphasized. Churchill’s inclusion of such a scene has the double purpose of showing how financial immorality is as old as the modern world and of implying that it is therefore unlikely to change in the future.
In the subsequent scene, the vigorous pace that characterizes both the play and the financial market it represents is set. The scene details three separate settings. In the first of these, Greville is talking with an investor on the phone, describing a potential investment and predicting its likely profitability. In a second room, Grimes and Scilla, two female traders, monitor stock prices. They also discuss hedonistic things, such as going out after work. In the third room, Scilla’s brother Jake sits with several traders hurriedly trying to hammer out the terms of a deal before an anticipated power cut. When this power cut happens, the group are horrified.
In the next scene, Jake, Scilla, and Limes are discussing how much money they are earning in an expensive-seeming bar. Jake announces his ambition to retire at thirty but admits this may involve his having to fight dirty. He asks Scilla to take care of Zac, an American businessman whom Jake has invited to visit but whom he cannot host since he will be out of the town on the weekend. Zac comes in and tells the three about two businessmen, Merrison and Durkfeld, who worked together for a number of years before one turned on the other and drove them out of the business so as to make more profits for themselves. For Zac, trading, and not banking, is where the real money is now.
The next scene sees the characters already introduced, plus two or three more riding horses in the country. The dialog has a musical quality, with repeated phrases perhaps mirroring the cyclical
nature of finance in the city of London. The scene’s chief revelation is delivered by Frosby, who warns that he intends to bring misfortune on Scilla and Jake. This at least comes true for Jake, who is dead before the start of the next scene. Though the audience doesn’t see his demise, they are made aware of it by Zac, who informs his friend Marylou Baines, who in turn initiates a string of phone calls passing the news throughout the financial community. Scilla is shown identifying Jake’s body at the hospital and complaining that he was murdered. She announces that she will question everyone he wrote about in his diary so as to find out who it was that killed him. This scene also reveals that at the time of his death, Jake was under investigation by the British government for illegal financial practices.
Scilla pays her father a visit and demands he tell her all he knew of Jake’s dealings and whether or not he thought anyone would have a motive for disposing of him. Greville claims to know nothing. The scene then switches again to a conversation between Zac and Corman, who are planning to buy out a company and sell it off so as to make more money. Ducket, who owns this company, seeks the help of Ms. Biddulph, who promises him she will make a deal with Corman to guarantee Ducket’s continued employment. Corman authorizes his people to use whatever means necessary to buy up Albion’s stocks. Zac warns Corman that Marylou is helping Ms. Biddulph, and the latter rings her up in New York to try and negotiate. At this point Scilla storms in and accuses Corman of Jake’s murder, but she has no evidence of this claim. Temporarily giving up her investigations, Scilla settles down to a discussion with two other women, new to the financial sector, about the challenges faced by women in their profession.
The second act opens with Jacinta, a businesswoman from a South American country, sitting in a plane and informing the audience that she chooses to invest her money in stable economies rather than in that of her own country. In the next scene in London, she introduces Zac and Corman to Nigel Ajibala, an African coco planter who has moved to London so as to become the exploiter, rather than the exploited party, in the world’s economies. Jacinta admires him for this decision and says she herself has sold her mines so as to invest in the production of drugs.
Initially, Nigel is convinced by Corman’s promise of a financial incentive to invest in their hostile takeover of Albion, but he changes his mind, hoping for something more profitable. Jacinta is playing a double game. She meets with Biddulph, who is trying to paint Ducket in a positive light in the press, and asks for a loan in exchange for her lending him her support, a proposal Biddulph accepts. The disgruntled Merrison, meanwhile, at Marylou’s urging, has resolved to carry out a hostile takeover of Corman’s business, in which his former business partner is now invested.
Scilla and Grimes decide to launch a second investigation of Greville, but he again swears he doesn’t know anything about Jake’s death. Frosby waits until the women leave before confessing that he tipped off the British government as to Jake’s misdeeds. Scilla now dresses up as a model so as to gain entry into Corman’s office, conspiring with a journalist named Dolcie Star, who plans to bring Corman down by means of a false sex scandal. Scilla manages to obtain information from Corman in exchange for information of her own, namely that Jacinta and Nigel have turned on him.
Corman confronts Nigel about this. At this point a British government agent appears, and everyone denies any wrongdoing. As she is not implicated in this particular confrontation, Scilla is free to pursue justice for Jake, or at least access to his money, the location of which she does not yet know. She contacts Marylou in hopes that she might have information on this count. In order to obtain this information, Scilla warns Marylou that she will expose her own financial misdeeds. Impressed by this confidence, Marylou offers Scilla a job. Scilla gives up on looking into who killed Jake and settles down in a new job that she very much enjoys.
Corman, meanwhile, has been intimidated out of his hostile takeover by an unnamed MP, who warns him that if he continues that course of action he will end up dead like Jake. To make matters worse for him, the takeover Merrison had planned goes ahead smoothly. As for Zac and Jacinta, the pair enter into a sexual relationship, which promises to be long-term.