The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1173

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...

(The entire section contains 2962 words.)

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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 murder. Intervening, Zac explains to Scilla that Jake gave insider information to Marylou for a percentage of what she made. Realizing that Jake was making “serious money,” Scilla decides to track down not the murderer but the money. In the meantime, she will return to work. In the canteen, she and her female coworkers discuss job harassment, then move on the floor, where four groups conduct business as furiously as in the first scene. Out of the fast-paced rhythms of the trading emerges the “Futures Song”: “So L.I.F.F.E. is the life for me.”

Act 2 opens with a flashback: Jacinta Condor, flying to London, reveals her ruthlessness in acquiring Eurobonds and her cynicism about the poor in Peru. Zac says that Jake introduced Jacinta to him as a possible investor. In flashback, Jake reveals that he has been seen by the DTI and hence Zac might want to call off the deal. Zac retorts that one can go with either greed or fear; Jake settles on greed and introduces the two. Jacinta in turn wants to bring in her friend, the cocoa importer Nigel Ajibala.

In their deal with Corman, he agrees to a complicated arrangement that includes cash donations in return for their investing in Albion and voting Corman’s way. Ajibala’s liquidity problem is quickly solved; Corman will advance him two million. Immediately, cracks in the deal appear. Aside, Jacinta advises Ajibala to give Jake the two million to invest in something more profitable than Albion. Then she visits Albion itself and wangles a loan from the manager in return for her support for his bid to keep control of the company.

Scilla, sure that her father knows more than he has told her, confronts him about Jake’s money. Greville admits that Jake passed on the odd tip but that he told his sister nothing in order to protect her. When Scilla leaves, Frosby confesses to Greville that he alerted the DTI about Jake.

Outside Corman’s office, Scilla confronts Zac, who has just learned of Jacinta’s double dealing and of Ajibala’s disappearance with the two million. Using bribery, Scilla changes places with a model who has just arrived. Inside the office, Corman, desperate to complete his takeover, listens while a public relations expert urges him to acquire a “sexy greedy” image. Creating this image will require being photographed with a beautiful woman—hence the model. Enter Scilla, in place of the model. As the unknowing public relations expert attempts to photograph them in an amorous moment, Corman tries to throw Scilla out, and she grills him about Jake’s money. Figuring out enough to blackmail Corman for her silence, Scilla coolly tells the public relations expert that she will deny ever having seen Corman before.

Zac enters, leading Ajibala. As Corman lashes out at them, Etherington enters with an inspector from the DTI, who overhears Corman’s incriminating statements. Zac immediately explains the statements away, with the result that Corman must deny ever having given Ajibala two million. Ajibala leaves, pleased, and the inspector goes off with Etherington to inspect the books. Zac tells Scilla that probably only Marylou knows what holding company Jake established for his money. Scilla, determined to get the money, blackmails Zac into forcing Marylou to see her.

A government minister tells Corman that, because of the upcoming election and the need to forgo any appearance of greed, Corman must cease his attempt to take over Albion. If he refuses, the DTI will continue its investigation. If he agrees, it will be halted. Trapped, he agrees.

In New York, Scilla threatens Marylou with going to the authorities if Marylou does not tell her where the money is. Impressed by such aggression, Marylou hires her on the spot. Zac explains that Scilla never returned. He speculates that either British or American intelligence was responsible for Jake’s death. However, his death was “incidental,” for everyone recognizes that if the system stopped the economy would collapse. Hence, the Conservatives have been reelected in a landslide. The characters return to announce their fates: Scilla has been named Wall Street’s “rising star,” Zac and Jacinta will marry, Marylou has run for president, and Corman has become a lord. All express their satisfaction with a rousing song, a tribute to the Conservative victory, “Five More Glorious Years.”

Dramatic Devices

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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 that attention focuses directly on the ideas of the play. To these techniques Churchill adds two of her own, perfected in earlier plays. One is multiple roles for each actor. In Serious Money, eight actors play the twenty roles, allowing resonances from one role to the other: the ruthless school dropout, now successfully trading gilts, and the ruthless Corman, who becomes a lord, are played by the same actor. The other device is overlapping dialogue. In the frenzied trading scenes, as many as four conversations take place at the same time, and the energy and confusion created thereby capture the energy and confusion found on trading floors.

Churchill’s biggest gamble in Serious Money was using rhymed verse. Fittingly for types who have no interest in the arts except for public relations purposes, the verse is doggerel. An example: When Scilla blackmails Zac into enabling her to see Marylou, she says, “I could have my picture in the papers/ With Corman alleging all kinds of capers/ And linking him publicly with bad Jake Todd.” Zac responds with the closing rhyme, “Scilla, you wouldn’t. God.” The verse also helps to distance the audience from the characters and their single-minded concentration on money-making. All the distancing devices free the audience to laugh at them, their double dealings and shady dealings, their schemes and counter-schemes, even while it deplores both their goals and their methods of achieving them.

Form and Content

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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 familiar situations in a way that renders them strange.

The world of the City revolves around deals, and the plot of the play concerns Billy Corman’s attempt to take over the symbolically named Albion (England). The banker “Zac” Zackerman is responsible for orchestrating the deal; he also comments on the situation, providing a history of changes in the financial world that Britain is just beginning to feel and noting that “the British empire was a cartel” but that those days are past.

A short hunt scene shows the upper class to be out of touch with reality and Zac unable to function in their world—something that no longer matters. Frosby, a jobber of Greville Todd’s generation, ends this scene with a monologue lamenting stock market change and his own worthlessness, then decides to revenge himself by telling the regulatory DTI about Jake’s insider dealings.

In the following scene, Zac informs Marylou Baines of Jake’s death, but the news has little effect on business or the takeover bid. Scilla, who, in a flashback, discusses Jake’s problems with him, is certain that he is no suicide, and she begins confronting his contacts—at first hoping to discover his murderer, but, after learning about his wealth, shifting to a search for it.

The takeover bid involves Jacinta Condor and Nigel Abjibala, who prove that representatives of the Third World are as single-mindedly greedy as their British and American counterparts; a “white knight,” Ms. Biddulph, intent on “saving” Albion for her own reasons; and an intervention by Gleason, a cabinet minister, who persuades Corman to drop his takeover bid on the eve of the election to help the image of the conservative government. The loose ends of the plot are resolved in Brechtian fashion at the end by Zac’s long monologue and each character’s one-line summary of his or her fate. (For example, Scilla is “named by Business Week as Wall Street’s rising star,” and Jacinta “marries Zac next week and they honeymoon in Shanghai. [Good business to be done in China now.]”) The finale is a song celebrating the reelection of the conservative government for “five more glorious years.”


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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.


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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, essays, interviews, and secondary sources.

Itzin, Catherine. “Caryl Churchill.” In Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980.

Keyssar, Helene. “The Dramas of Caryl Churchill: The Politics of Possibility.” In Feminist Theatre: An Introduction to Plays of Contemporary British and American Women. New York: Grove Press, 1985.

Kritzer, Amelia Howe. The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Theatre of Empowerment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Written from a feminist perspective, this book opens with an overview of theories of theater and drama and of feminist and socialist criticism in relation to Churchill’s drama. The chapter “Labour and Capital” analyzes Top Girls, Fen, and Serious Money as characteristic of Churchill’s concern about the socioeconomic effects of Margaret Thatcher’s government and its policies.

Muller, Klaus Peter. “A Serious City Comedy: Fe-/Male History and Value Judgments in Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money.” Modern Drama 33 (September, 1990): 347-362. An analysis of Serious Money as a “city comedy,” this article provides a history of the genre and its relationship to comedy and satire, then places the play in this context, analyzing Churchill’s use of the traditional form and detailing how she goes beyond it.

Nellhaus, Tobin. Review in Theatre Journal 42 (March, 1990): 108-110.

Rabillard, Sheila, ed. Essays on Caryl Churchill: Contemporary Representations. Winnipeg, Canada: Blizzard, 1997.

Randall, Phyllis R., ed. Caryl Churchill: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1988. This casebook features a variety of essays. The essay on Serious Money reflects on the popularity of the play’s first production. Includes an annotated bibliography of secondary sources.

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