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Eric Samuelsen

Eric Samuelsen

Eric Samuelsen has been writing for Plan-B for a decade: seven SLAM plays, two Ibsen translations presented as part of the Script-In-Hand Series (A DOLL HOUSE and GHOSTS) and five world premieres (MIASMA, AMERIGO, BORDERLANDS, NOTHING PERSONAL and RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA).  The 2013/14 #SeasonOfEric is fully dedicated to his work.

Sometime in the summer of 1942, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich A. Hayek spent a night on the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.  It was a college faculty assignment, to spend the night there and extinguish any German incendiary bombs that might drop in an air raid.  Almost nothing is known about that night.  Neither Keynes nor Hayek wrote of it at any length, except for a brief mention of it by Keynes in a letter.  Even so indefatigable a biographer as Robert Skidelsky (my apologies, sir: that should be Baron Skidelsky), whose magisterial three volumes of Keynes biography would seem fairly all-inclusive, didn’t mention it.  I learned of it in the book that first drew my attention to the friendship and rivalry between the two economists: Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek.”  I think it’s likely that the event took place either in June or mid-August, 1942.  Those two time periods coincide with Keynes’ weekends at Cambridge.

Anyway, I found it fascinating.  Two remarkable economists, brilliant men, endangering their lives for a patriotic and college faculty assignment.  What did they talk about?  1942 is a fascinating time period for their discussion to have taken place.  The outcome of the war was still very much in doubt, and yet economists were very intensely engaged in conversations about what would happen when it ended, assuming Britain won.  Hayek’s great book on that subject, “The Road to Serfdom,” was a warning about the dangers to liberty he thought might inevitably follow if some kind of central economic planning was implemented.  Hayek had finished the book—more or less—in 1942, but had yet to find a publisher.  Meanwhile, a commission chaired by economist William Beveridge had issued a report urging the founding of the British welfare state.  This was precisely the kind of reform Hayek considered fraught with peril; Keynes, occupied with financing the war, was on the fence about it.

Eric Samuelsen's grandfather, Ragnar Andreas Samuelsen (left), the basis for the character of Mr. Bowles

Eric Samuelsen's grandfather, Ragnar Andreas Samuelsen (left), the basis for the character of Mr. Bowles

I thought their rooftop conversation could well have echoed conversations economists were having all over Great Britain, about the post-war future that was finally, that summer, beginning to seem possible.  And to give their talk a focus, I invented a third character, Mr. Bowles, a fire warden up from London, there to supervise their bomb clearing.

The play does distort history to some degree.  I did research WWII military units and hospitals for the details about Mr. Bowles’ family, and their war-time service.  Mr. Bowles’ children serve on real ships or real companies, under real commanders, though he himself is an invention.  The Night Watch was likewise real, and I’m indebted to Connie Willis’ terrific novelette “Night Watch” for details about the fight for St. Paul’s.

More seriously, though Keynes had not read Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” in 1942.  It’s well established that Keynes read it on the boat to America for the Bretton Woods negotiations in 1944.  It is true that Keynes typically read his works-in-progress aloud to his students and friends at King’s College, and relied on their feedback and suggestions.  Hayek may have joined in those discussions, and could have mentioned the ideas in his book.  But Hayek, in 1942, was only temporarily assigned to King’s, up from the London School of Economics.  It’s barely plausible that some of the book’s ideas could have come up for discussion in Cambridge by ’42, and so I sort of fudge it a bit—I wanted the play to reference both men’s most important works.  I also don’t know when they spent the night on the roof, which is really only important in one sense—Keynes’ peerage.  It was publically announced in June 1942, conferred formally in August.  I’m going to assume that it had been announced, but had not yet happened.  That seems reasonable.

John Maynard Keynes

John Maynard Keynes

Keynes, in 1942, was not well.  He moved slowly, and conserved his energy by sitting whenever possible.  He suffered from a heart condition, and rarely came up to Cambridge—his duties in London kept him fully occupied.  (Although he had no official position in government, he was a sort of roving minister-without-portfolio, floating from office to office and making himself completely indispensable.  It’s no exaggeration to say that without Keynes, the British could hardly have funded their resistance to Nazi aggression).  But when Keynes did make it back to King’s, he got a prodigious amount of work done.  It’s entirely within his character to volunteer for the rooftop assignment.  Hayek was a good deal younger, and anxious to prove himself as a loyal Brit.  His career, once promising, had stalled—he was desperately hoping his new book would reestablish him professionally, as indeed happened.

The play also deals with the issue of Keynes’ sexuality.  Hayek was married in 1942, to Helen Berta Maria von Fritsch, who had been his secretary.  He married her on the rebound, having been rejected by his cousin, Helene Bitterlich.  He and Helen had two children, but it was not a happy marriage.  After the war, he met up with Helene again, and after a divorce, they married, in, of all places, Arkansas.

Keynes, on the other hand, was happily gay for the first half of his life, as openly gay as it was possible for a British eccentric intellectual to be in the 1920s.  As a part of the Bloomsbury circle, he could be remarkably open about his sexuality, and had affairs with a number of men, including the historian Lytton Strachey, but most particularly with Duncan Grant, the painter.  Then, in 1922, Keynes met Lydia Lopokova, a Russian ballerina, his beloved “Loppie.”  They married in 1925 (it took awhile, because of complexities involving her divorce).  From that point to the end of his life, Keynes seems to have been as happily heterosexual as he had been happily homosexual.  What makes this even more remarkable is that his Bloomsbury friends didn’t like Lydia.  But Lord Skidelsky argues (with justification, I think), that Lydia was immensely important to Keynes, that her influence put a stamp on his economics, even.  Keynes adored her, and she guarded his time and privacy like a bulldog, insisting that he eat well and rest when needed.  Anyway, I don’t see any evidence that Keynes was much conflicted by any of this.  It’s like ‘okay, I’m gay, okay, all the sudden, I’m straight.’  (Probably, he was simply bi-sexual throughout).

But his earlier homosexuality has taken on importance now, in our day.  Niall Ferguson, the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard, in a recent paper, argued that Keyne’s macro-economic theories were fatally flawed, because as a childless, gay man, he was only capable of thinking short-term; that he never considered—was obliged by his life circumstance to not consider—long-term consequences of his policies.  Keynes is famous, of course, for his quip ‘in the long term, we are all of us dead,’ and a centerpiece of his economics is that governments should, at times, go into debt to provide stimulative spending.  In any event, I, perhaps unfairly, put some version of Ferguson’s notions into the mouth of Hayek.  I did have qualms about doing so.  Hayek, as a libertarian, was unlikely to care much about Keynes’ sexuality.  More to the point, I wanted the play to be as even-handed as I could make it, to give Hayek’s views equal weight with Keynes’ views.  I came to admire both men tremendously.  So why give an incendiary homophobic line to Hayek?

Friedrich Hayek

Friedrich Hayek

The answer is rooted in their economic views.  Hayek did not much care about the fact that Keynes was (or had been) gay.  But he was very concerned about the long-term consequences of the Keynesian revolution.  And he felt that everything in Keynes’ personality (including his childlessness) prevented him from taking the longer view.  It’s a fair criticism—Keynes was more interested in solving problems here and now than in what might happen down the road.

Their debate, over macro-economics and politics and policies and debt and stimulus, the debate these two men may have had on that roof (and certainly did have in their published papers), remains relevant today.  The last Presidential election probably turned on some version of Keynes v. Hayek.  It was fascinating to me to watch this election, to compare the President’s economic plans and compare them to the plans offered by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and see resonances of Keynes and echoes of Hayek.  As Keynes puts it:  “You believe you’re voting for a chap, a good bloke.  But none of that ultimately matters.  You are voting for a set of economic principles.  You are voting for one of several competing economic theories.  And if you vote foolishly, you could, in very short order, drive your nation off a cliff into disaster.”  That’s a paraphrase of an actual Keynes quotation.  It was fascinating to see it in action in 2012.

In any event, writing CLEARING BOMBS has been a joy and privilege.  I knew essentially nothing about economics when I began it.  I am immensely indebted to my economist son, Tucker Samuelsen, for his patient tutorials on the subject.  This play could not have been written without his help.

 

Plan-B Theatre’s #SeasonOfEric continues with Eric Samuelsen’s CLEARING BOMBS February 20-March 2, 2014, featuring Kirt Bateman, Mark Fossen and Jay Perry, directed by Eric Samuelsen.  Click here for tickets and more info.