The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Serious Money begins with a brief scene from Thomas Shadwell’s The Volunteers: Or, The Stock Jobbers (pr. 1692), in which the goal of investing is shown to be “turning the penny,” regardless of the project or its legality.

On the floor of LIFFE (the London International Financial Futures Exchange), many traders shout their transactions simultaneously, with increasingly furious energy. After work, traders Scilla and Grimes, and Scilla’s brother Jake, over drinks, agree that the market is so overcrowded that only those as aggressive as themselves will survive.

The narrator, an American banker named Zackerman, who provides continuity between the rapid scene shifts, also realizes that the money-dealing world has become cutthroat. A flashback to Zackerman’s New York employer shows how, in an idle conversation, one executive officer dismisses another. Since there has been deregulation of the exchange in England, Zac (as he is known) observes that such Wall Street scenes will now occur in the City, the trading district of London.

At the country home of Scilla’s father, after Scilla, Zac, and others set off on a hunt, Frosby, an old family friend, embittered about losing his trader job, vows to call the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI, the securities investigative unit) about Jake.

Abruptly, Zac telephones Marylou Baines in New York, telling her that Jake is dead, perhaps through a suicide. In various overlapping telephone calls, Zac, investors Jacinta Condor and Nigel Ajibala, and corporate raider Corman consult on appropriate moves to protect themselves. Zac reports that he went to identify the body with Scilla, who reveals that she thinks Jake was murdered and vows to find the murderer. She begins her investigation with her father, who denies any knowledge of Jake’s doings.

Meanwhile, Zac reports to Corman, who is involved in several takeover attempts, including that of Albion. Two flashback scenes show Corman with his associates planning these takeovers. Corman suggests that Marylou Baines might want to buy Albion shares, too, whereupon Zac notifies Jake.

Subsequently, in New York, Marylou and her assistant discuss buying Albion stock. At Albion, the chairman discusses with his white knight (a rescuer of takeover targets) a public relations strategy to fight off the now-obvious takeover attempt. Needing still more shares, Corman orders Etherington and Zac to use any tactic necessary to get them. Corman telephones Marylou, only to learn that she has sold her Albion stock. Furious, Corman threatens her, but, recognizing that the deal cannot be made without her help, calls her back to apologize. Meantime, Scilla has arrived, unnoticed, and has overheard the conversation, including Corman’s statement that Jake was “one of mine.” Blindly, she accuses Corman of Jake’s...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Serious Money, like many of Caryl Churchill’s plays, developed from a workshop. Churchill, director Max Stafford-Clark, and the actors researched and observed brokerage firms and trading floors; based on their discussions, Churchill alone wrote the script. The workshop method promotes a unity, a seamlessness between script and performance that leads to impressive productions.

Churchill’s allusions to contemporary events add an air of realism to her fictitious ones. Frosby mentions “Big Bang,” as deregulation was popularly known. Marylou alludes to Ivan Boesky’s “insider” deal with the United States government to unload his billion shares before his arrest was announced—a reference to the Wall Street scandal of 1986. Referring to the scandal in England the previous year, both Zac and Etherington remind Corman of the legal trouble in which the Guinness brewery became mired because of its takeover schemes. Moreover, in Great Britain and the United States, the Thatcher and Reagan governments were generally considered to favor the rich, while programs for the poor were curtailed. Connecting the adventures of greedy Corman’s takeover bid with the election was also topical.

To maintain some distance between the events of the play and the audience, Churchill uses many Brechtian devices: numerous scenes, a narrator, a nonchronological plot, and occasional songs. Moreover, the plot is minimal, the character development nil, so...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Churchill subtitles Serious Money “a city comedy” and introduces the play with a scene from Thomas Shadwell’s 1692 play The Volunteers: Or, The Stockjobbers. Thus, she deliberately places her play in the tradition of satiric city comedies such as Ben Jonson’s Volpone, dating back to the early seventeenth century.

The scene from Shadwell’s play depicts Hackwell, Mrs. Hackwell, and two jobbers debating the usefulness of various patents, with Hackwell repeating his assertion that the only use of any patent is “to turn the penny.” This sets up Churchill’s major assertion—that money and greed are the only motivation in this world of jobbers and dealers.

Although Churchill lists twenty characters in her dramatis personae, in a real sense the major character of Serious Money is “the City,” an international financial center inside the old city of London. The first scene following the Shadwell introduction shows three different dealing rooms in the City that clearly illustrate the effects of the “Big Bang,” a change in the mode of operations for British stockbrokers that introduced an open computerized trading system and replaced the upper class “old boy” network. The rooms, each dominated by one of the Todds, presents a realistic picture of the traders, based on Churchill’s extensive research, yet the style of presentation uses the Brechtian alienation effect, presenting...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

While feminists acknowledge Churchill’s importance as a major dramatist, they have often been uneasy about what some have seen as her ambivalent attitude toward feminism. It is not difficult to see the reason for this. Churchill does not write from a simple position, and her female characters are not necessarily positive.

In Serious Money, many of the characters are women, and they have “made it.” Marylou Baines controls much of the action and runs for president of the United States. Scilla Todd becomes “Wall Street’s rising star.” Jacinta Condor gains tremendous financial advantage. Yet their success comes at a huge price: Marylou betrays her colleagues; Scilla forgets her brother’s cause; Jacinta betrays her country and its needy people. The women have become indistinguishable from the men in power. They know that the financial world is sexist, but they all accept the humiliation that is part of their initiation into this world. They adapt to the male model, and when they lead, they are as ruthless as the men. It is no coincidence that the ultimate insult among the traders, “You trade like a cunt,” is accepted and used by both men and women.

The behavior of her women characters reinforces Churchill’s insistence on feminism and socialism as necessarily inseparable. To escape the general oppression of the City, the system must be changed. Putting women in power positions in the old system is not enough.

However ambivalent some feminists may be about Churchill’s feminism, she is widely recognized for her important contributions to socialist feminism and to the feminist theater since the 1970’s. The broad appeal of Serious Money, which reached a wide spectrum of people, including the traders she was satirizing, assures that Churchill will be a force to be reckoned with in British theater—a strong female voice.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Aston, Elaine. Caryl Churchill. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1996.

Churchill, Caryl. “The Common Imagination and the Individual Voice.” Interview by Geraldine Cousin. New Theatre Quarterly 4, no. 13 (1988): 3-16. An interview in which Churchill discusses her feminism, her use of collaborative workshops, the Joint Stock Company, and the writing of Serious Money, noting that most of the play was written in prose before she turned to poetry.

Cousin, Geraldine. Churchill: The Playwright. London: Methuen Drama, 1989. Contains information of Churchill’s use of the workshop process, an analysis of her plays, and a summary chapter that attempts to connect shared themes in her work. A section of Serious Money discusses the workshop at the Royal Court Theatre from which Churchill got the impetus to write the play. Illustrations include a photograph from the original Royal Court Theatre production of Serious Money.

Fitzsimmons, Linda. File on Churchill. London: Methuen Drama, 1989. Contains a general introduction and a brief chronology. A comprehensive listing of plays includes unperformed ones plus a selection of reviews and Churchill’s comments on her work—excerpts from interviews on Serious Money among them. The bibliography lists selected play collections,...

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