Edinburgh Fringe 2018
A fascinating insight into the life and works of Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics.
Adam Smith’s seminal work is agreed by many to be An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. But whilst he has been hailed as the founder of modern economics, there is much more to Smith than just this particular book. His importance as a moral philosopher is now better understood following recent research into his other well known work The Theory of Moral Sentiments and his other works on the nature of justice, science and the expressive arts are also now recognised as having been major contributors to the Scottish Enlightenment in the late 18th century, a movement that forever changed the country from that of backward and bigoted to one that led the world in social philosophy, social change and religious freedom.
Smith is perhaps best remembered for his hypothesis that the invisible hand of market forces of supply and demand would maximise the efficiency of production, consumption and distribution of goods and services in a society. Yet if you look beyond this and some of the more controversial passages of Wealth of Nations, you will see that Smith did not simply believe in the primacy of man’s selfishness or the purity of markets. The ideas he explored and the conclusions he drew are far more realistic and humane. For him, the quality of economic growth was more important than the quantity. (Full disclosure here, I’m an economist by background).
John Yule’s fascinating play draws all this out and more in a fascinating hour down at Panmure House, Smith’s home on the Canongate from 1778 until his death in 1790. The wonderfully ornate surroundings are the perfect setting for this historical drama where four actors bring to life the conflict Smith felt about his inability to finish his work by fusing Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments into a third work.
The tight stage is equipped with an ornate desk of Smith’s period in one corner and a modern desk in the other as the play cleverly flips between the period and the modern, allowing the packed audience to appreciate that Smith’s ideas are as relevant today as they were 250 years ago. More so even, especially his oft espoused belief that direct action is not a solution to social unrest. The political elite of the 21st century might wish to take heed.
Simon Macallam as the narrator does the difficult job of keeping the story moving forward (as well as playing a subsidiary character) with great aplomb. Susan Coyle is suitably matriarchal as Margaret Douglas, Smith’s incredibly perceptive mother and a major influence throughout his life. And John Yule himself is playing Smith this week which he did with complete conviction, conveying Smith’s persona as a deep thinker, something of a loner but a passionate believer in the hypotheses he developed. Finally, Martin Docherty stood out for his consummate character creations that included Jean Jacques Rousseau, Robert Burns, Voltaire and David Hume as well as his dry, droll delivery.
This is a very nicely conceived and staged piece of historical drama that reveals a side of Smith that is not often on show. Informative and entertaining, it held the interest of the audience throughout as well as conveying what I thought was a clever subliminal message – two centuries and more on from Smith’s heyday and we still face the same economic challenges that he identified. Smith was interested in empathy as much as economics. Quite what he would have made of our 21st Century “casino capitalism” could perhaps be the subject of a future project for Yule. For now, this one comes thoroughly recommended.