Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875

Churchill’s central intent in Serious Money is to satirize the world of the City, which may be seen as a microcosm of capitalistic society in the late twentieth century. She is concerned about the emphasis on the egoistic needs of the individual, which are satisfied at the expense of the...

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Churchill’s central intent in Serious Money is to satirize the world of the City, which may be seen as a microcosm of capitalistic society in the late twentieth century. She is concerned about the emphasis on the egoistic needs of the individual, which are satisfied at the expense of the common good. In this world, choices are made as a response to fear and greed. The considerable energy and intelligence of the traders is misplaced; they strive for personal success, but even when they achieve it, they are as much oppressed by the system as are its more obvious victims.

Churchill’s use of verse dialogue conveys this, the rigid form restricting the actors, channeling their energy in the same way that the market restricts and channels the traders. The use of prose interludes (for example, Frosby’s confession to the audience that, as he is about to get his revenge on Jake, he is frightened; Jake’s admission to Scilla that he is in trouble with the DTI) heighten the effect of the verse. More than one critic credits the verse with augmenting the driving pace of the play, which is suitable for representing the hectic life of the City.

Churchill wants the audience to observe this world but not to sympathize with it or with the characters in it. To accomplish this distancing, she turns to a variety of devices associated with the alienation effect of German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Her characters are two-dimensional and neither demonstrate nor elicit empathy. They do not listen to one another; dialogue often overlaps, and in the hunt scene, aristocrats repeat phrases that have no meaning in the current context.

This effect is strongest in the reaction to Jake’s death. His contacts are concerned about what he might have revealed, but they see his death as no obstacle to continuing business as usual, taking the same risks that have led to Jake’s death. Scilla’s concern that Jake has been murdered seems at first to indicate that she has some feeling for her brother, but as soon as she learns about his “serious money,” greed becomes her sole motivation.

The structure of the play is episodic, and it uses a number of flashbacks. The most startling of these involve Jake’s appearance after his death has been announced. A number of long presentational speeches, with the actor addressing the audience directly, also interrupt the narrative flow. Examples include Zac’s speech on the changes in the financial world; Frosby’s angry lament on the changes, which have shut him out of the game; and Scilla’s explanation of trading futures. All these speeches provide helpful exposition, but they also interrupt the pace of the play and force the audience to listen to complex information delivered from different points of view.

The world of high-stakes finance is in itself a strange world for an ordinary theater audience. Churchill and her colleagues at the Royal Court Theatre thoroughly familiarized themselves with this world during the workshop period set up by director Max Stafford-Clark—visiting the markets, observing proceedings on the floor, then visiting embassies of countries whose commodities were being sold. When the workshop ended, Churchill continued her research, reading the daily news stories about takeovers and insider scandals that followed the Big Bang. She re-creates the world quite accurately, but the effect of the fast pace and the specialized language is often to alienate the spectator, who has not participated in this immersion. (By contrast, the traders who flocked to see the play enjoyed the re-creation of their world, even if they did not understand the satire.)

The dialogue of the play is filled with images of war and trading. These can be threatening or quite funny. The most humorous use of this imagery occurs in the love scene between Zac and Jacinta and is crucial in “making strange” this potentially ordinary scene. Jacinta compares her attraction to Zac to her attraction to Eurobonds; he finds her as fascinating as a changing interest rate. Yet even matters of love and sex yield to the real business of the financial world, for when Zac and Jacinta can finally fit a romantic interlude into their hectic schedules, they are so tired that they decide to sleep instead.

Churchill follows Brecht in using music to underscore her satire. Rock songs end each act; act 1 has a song celebrating the glory of futures (with appropriately scatological lyrics), while the song at the end of act 2 is ecstatic at the prospect of “five more glorious years” of “promiscuous” money-making, following the reelection of the conservative government.

Churchill would not be happier, however, with the election of a labour government or a return to the “good old days” before the Big Bang. The older generation may have had more “class,” more surface civility, but they were no less greedy, no less brutal to the human community at large. There is no sign of hope in this play. Men—and women—repeat the same mistakes on an ever-larger scale, even in the Third World. Only a restructuring—perhaps the development of a new social, moral, and political order—might change this. Yet this is not a change that Churchill sees coming soon.

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