The Theatrical History of Debt | Patricia Ybarra | Narratives of Debt

The Theatrical History of Debt | Patricia Ybarra | Narratives of Debt


PATRICIA YBARRA: I’m going to
give a very, very, kind of, raw new piece of thinking today,
and I’ll introduce everybody in the course of the paper. But I am going to
be working today with my co-researchers here from
the Brown Trinity MFA Program. So I’m going to start
for the sake of time and read and do the
introductions as we go. So as I think has been
clear a little bit certainly from the work shown today
and the work of Jennifer Baker, right, amongst
others, the relationship between theater and
debt is an intense one to the dramaturgical
and practical level. Dramaturgical
meditations on debt are present throughout
dramatic literature from the early modern
to the present, and while it might be
productive to think across all of dramatic literature
in a way parallel to David Graeber in, sort of,
a very long history of debt, I’m opting instead to
think alongside what I would call the development
of Anglo liberalism and later the financialization emergent
from you UChicago Economics as they develop and
ultimately transform US capitalism and
British capitalism. But today, in
particular, their– I want to speak briefly about
the incursion into Chile. And I think what
I’m asking here is this paper is, sort of,
the beginning of what I think of as kind of a longer
argument with Raymond Williams theorization and framing
of modern tragedy. And while he does talk about
debt, I think my longer– my big question is
is, like, sort of, is the history of
the modern tragedy, in fact, the history of
negotiation with debt. And so this is a field
I don’t usually plan. So I think you can tell
by the titles of my books I’m usually playing much more
in with Latinx playwrights and writers and
cultural producers. But I think this is,
sort of, my attempt to think through a certain
genealogy of, sort of, Anglo European theater
history that I often teach but in relationship to
this larger question of what debt does and, sort of, to
do a large historical sweep. So this is never something I
do, but I’m going to try today. So the work that
I’m trying to do here is awfully
complimentary of Williams and of the work of David
Graeber and a number of Marxist literary
theorists, but it also– I think I want to call
out a book that often gets forgotten, which is a
book called Worlds Apart by John Christophe
Agnew, which is also really important to thinking. Although, he’s dealing
with an earlier period. So I’m not going
to touch the period he touches for that reason. And I want to start with what
I think are the really, kind of, a confused
terrain dramaturgical in the 18th and
19th century so as to think about how some of the
transformations that we think about in terms of ones that
Graeber talks about in terms of debt but other
theorists too come to play at the edges of drama
as seen as canonical to framing middle class heroes and, sort
of, dramatic– the history of dramatic literature. So I’m going to start– I’m going to, sort
of, talk about how I’m going to move through this. The first play I
want to acknowledge is George Lillo’s infamous and
transformative London Merchant from 1731 that it
really does take on the age of capitalist
empires in an incredible way and in a more
overtly gendered way I would say than a lot
of theorizations of debt that we read. I’m going to briefly go to
Hegel’s Maria Magdalena, which was a really important
influence for Ibsen, and I would argue a
really important– a really important text to
think about Dollhouse actually. And all of these plays and the
reason I called them confused is that they toggle between
social and economic forms of debt and the languages get
vary invercated in each other. And then I’m going to move
to Doll’s House, which is Ibsen and Arthur Miller’s
Death of a Salesman, sort of, just to complete this, sort of,
arc of the middle class tragedy that we inherit. And then I’m going to move on to
the issue of educational debt, which comes up in an interesting
way in Young Jean Lee’s work Straight White Men, which
was recently put on Broadway. And I will say that
she’s very consciously thinking about this genealogy. But I think it’s worth
saying that this is the first Asian-American play– the first play written by
an Asian-American woman on Broadway, and
it happens to be a play about straight
white men and I’m just going to leave that there
and come back to it. And then I’m going to take,
sort of, a coda to look at Chile and move a little bit
out of what I would think of as tragedies into a more
performative mode gesturing to some performance
poetry And if we have time the re-staging
Michael Jackson’s Thriller by students in Santiago who
were protesting student debt. And that’s all to
say that I’m going to think– try to
think through this, sort of, drama– what
I would call these, sort of, dramaturges of debt
and they’re psychic tolls in a number of different ways. And I’m doing this today
with my co-researchers and why I’m using
that term is going to be apparent over the
course of this talk, four MFA actors in their second year
at Brown Trinity, Kalyne Coleman, Michael Rosas, Jack
Dryden, and Caitlin Duffy, who are going to
be acting/reading short scenes from the texts that
I am going to mention today. And I also want to nod to
Peter, because an early idea Peter and I had which has
transformed in a different way was actually to think
of a way to intersperse this conference with readings
of literature about debt by actors. But I’ve kind of
incorporated that into what I think of as a
sketch of a book project that awaits a well-deserved
sabbatical if I must say so myself. So I’m going to start
with the London Merchant. The London Merchant has
often been understood as a didactic play that extolled
the class of London merchants, while underscoring
the importance of honest, transparent,
homosocial relations between men for the
success of the new economy. Told through the frame of a
story of an apprentice gone astray by falling prey
to a grifter and a keeper of a house of entertainments,
a woman named Millwood. For those of you who love
the 18th century drama, you know it’s
significant that Millwood is referred to by
her last name and not her first name in this play. And she extracts money from
Barnwell, this young apprentice merchant, eventually convincing
him to kill his uncle. He eventually repents over
the course of the play, and she does not
instead pointing to the gendered relations
of contemporary life. And this play while it’s thought
of as this very didactic play that sort of talks about
the virtue of merchants, as Lisa Friedman
has so powerfully argued it’s also the story of a
relationship between, sort of, colonial modes of
plunder and extraction that live underneath this
new mode of capitalism. And all of those sort of
anxieties about colonialism are notably projected onto the
female characters in this play. So at this point,
I’m going to ask that we hear the first excerpt
from the London Merchant in which Millwood speaks
to her confidante, Lucy. KALYNE COLEMAN: How
do I look today, Lucy? CAITLIN DUFFY: Oh
killingly, madam. A little more red, and
you’ll be irresistible. But why this more
than ordinary care of your dress and complexion? What new conquests
are you aiming at? KALYNE COLEMAN: A conquest
would be new indeed. CAITLIN DUFFY: Not to you
who make them every day? But to me that is what I’m never
to expect, unfortunate as I am. But your wit and beauty– KALYNE COLEMAN: First
made me a wrench and still continually so. Men however generous or
sincere to one another are all selfish hypocrites
in their affairs with us. We are no otherwise
esteemed or regarded by them but as we contribute
to their satisfaction. CAITLIN DUFFY:
You are certainly, madam, on the wrong
side in this argument. Is not the expense all theirs? And I am sure it is
our own fault if we haven’t share of the pleasure. KALYNE COLEMAN: We
are but slaves to men. CAITLIN DUFFY: Neh, it is they
that slaves most certainly. For we lay them
under contribution. KALYNE COLEMAN: Slaves have
no property, no, not even in themselves. All is the victors. CAITLIN DUFFY: You are strangely
arbitrary in your principles, madam. KALYNE COLEMAN: I would have
my conquest complete like those of the Spaniards in the
new world who first plunder the natives of all the wealth
they had and then condemned the natives of all the wealth– excuse me. I would have my
conquest complete. Like those of Spaniards in the
new world who first plundered the natives of all
the wealth they had and then condemned the
wretches to the mines for life to work for more. CAITLIN DUFFY: Well,
I shall never approve of your schema of government. I should think it much
more politic as well as just to find my subjects
an easier employment. KALYNE COLEMAN: It’s a general
maxim among the knowing parts of mankind that a
woman without virtue, like a man without
honor or honesty, is capable of any action,
though, never so vile. And yet, what
pains will they not take, what art’s not used to
seduce us from our innocence and make us
contemptible and wicked even in their own opinions? Then is it not just the
villains to their cost should find us so? But guilt makes them suspicious
and keeps them on their guard. Therefore, we can
take advantage only of the young and innocent part
of the sex, who having never injured woman apprehend
no injury fund them. CAITLIN DUFFY: Ay, they
must be young indeed. PATRICIA YBARRA:
Great, thank you. So clearly here the link
between conquest and capitalism and colonialism is made clear,
as well as the, sort of, gendered effects of that regime. But there’s also a link
to debt in this play, and it’s often ignored. And so although this isn’t
really a play about debt, there’s a curious remark
that places the issue of debt and default into the system. And I think if we’re to
take Millwood seriously, we can’t discount the
larger truth of her past even though it seems that
she’s actually inventing it to seduce Barnwell. So I’m going to send
you to the next piece. KALYNE COLEMAN: Ay. Ay. The barbarous man
is rich enough, but what are riches
when compared to love? CAITLIN DUFFY: For
a while he performs the office of a
faithful guardian, settles her in the house,
hires her servants. But you’ve seen in
what manner she lived, so I need say no more that. KALYNE COLEMAN: How
should I live hereafter? CAITLIN DUFFY: Heaven
knows all things went on as one could wish till some
time ago his wife dying, he fell violently in
love with his charge and would fain have married her. Now the man is neither old
nor ugly but a good personable sort of man. But I don’t know how it was
she could never endure him. In short, her ill
usage so provoked him that he brought in an
account of his executorship, wherein he makes
her debtor to him. KALYNE COLEMAN: A
trifle in itself. But more than enough to ruin
me whom by this unjust account he had stripped all before. CAITLIN DUFFY: Now she having
neither money nor friend, except me who I’m as
fortunate as herself, he compelled her
to pass his account and give bond for the sum he
demanded but still provided handsomely for her and continued
his courtship till being informed by his spies– truly, I suspect to
some in her own family– that you were
entertained at her house and stayed with her all night. He came this morning raving
and storming like a madman, talked no more of
marriage so there no hopes of making matters up
that way, but vows her ruin unless she’ll
allow him the same favor that he supposes
she granted you. PATRICIA YBARRA: So
what’s interesting here is even though it’s
not a play about debt, clearly there’s a fictionalized
debt being put forth. And so I guess I would
ask the question then how does the debt
affect Millwood and how does the
question of debt relate to the history
of speculation that surrounds the play. And given that this play was
not written long after the South Seas Bubble, a fact that the
audience would have known and could have possibly
related to Millwood situation despite the rather
oblique reference. And the idea, of course,
from the footnote, right, is that she’s suggesting
that the guardian forced her to approve withdrawals,
sort of, robbed her twice. If we can’t answer these
questions even given that we think Millwood
might be fibbing, we still have work
to do to understand how the issue of debt and sort
of speculation and potentially mismanagement are at the
heart of understanding the emergence of the middle
class tragedy in English. And so there’s an intertext here
Maria Magdalena by Hegel, which is often, sort of,
read as a prologue to what Raymond Williams
would call, sort of, the liberal tragedy. But like the London
Merchant, the play is thought of as a middle
class tragedy, which laments a shifting in social mores. And in it, a young
woman who becomes pregnant with a
child from a suitor kills herself to retain the
virtue of her middle class family after he abandons
her after learning that she doesn’t have a dowry. And what it ends
up– the plot point is that the reason she
doesn’t have a dowry is because her father’s
actually paid off the debt of his former master. And so he has a moment where
he explains this, and he says a month ago I would– I’ll tell you today the suitor
who is pursuing his daughter said what happened– basically
what happened to the money. And he says, now you
know where the money is. I can tell you today,
because my old master was buried yesterday. A month ago, I’ve kept it
to myself on my deathbed. I put the IOU under
the dead man’s head before they nailed
up his coffin. If I could write, I
would have put honorably paid at the bottom, but all
I could do in my ignorance was tear the paper lengthwise. Now we will sleep in
peace and I shall– in peace as I shall when I
stretch myself out by him someday. And so I guess my point here
is twofold is that there’s a confusion of conflation
between social, religious, and monetary debt in this
work despite its sort of modes of abstraction and
the fact that it’s using this language
of the IOU and second, that the specter
of debt is always haunting the emergence of the
modern tragedy, especially the emergence of the liberal
hero in that modern tragedy. So the IOU stands to
convert a, sort of, a psychic debt to its material
in mundane form gesturing to but not entirely contained by
the idea of spiritual debt. And again, this is a play that
Ibsen supposedly knew by heart and would kind of
recite sections up in his everyday life. And so that’s, sort of, the
prologue to thinking Williams and his relationship to the
assessment of Ibsen’s, sort of, liberal tragedy in
which aspiration is also always linked to that. Williams is quick to
point out that debt is not sin in Ibsen’s conception. He states, quote,
“the debts that count in bringing
his heroes down are incurred in the
struggle for life and light, however wayward this
is often shown to be.” In fact, in that
1966 classic Williams describes the liberal
tragedy as one where, quote, “the individual
refused the role of the victim and became a new kind of hero. The heroism is not in
the nobility of suffering as the limits were reached. It was now unambiguously
in the aspiration itself.” And coming to
fruition under Ibsen and industrial capitalism,
the individual hero of the liberal tragedy
aspires to self-fulfillment that refuses to compromise
with the, sort of, quote, unquote false society
and is thus destroyed, quote, in his attempt to crawl
out of the partial world, unquote, converting
from hero to martyr. So Ibsen’s dramaturgy,
according to Williams, pared the tragedy of
aspiration with the concept of debt, which can be contracted
in the act of the refusal of compromise or,
perhaps, is simply happenstance from being
a part of the world that he struggles against. So is Williams points out,
debt can’t be defined simply as inheritance of original
sin or pure monetary debt but that Ibsen’s characters,
even though they often do have literal debt, which
is a point I’ll return to, and are working in a world that
advocates capital accumulation to create social prosperity. But the characters are not fully
defined by market rationality. In fact, these market
values contrasts with the moral and political
realm that exists outside. Given the agonistic
structure of these plays, Ibsen’s heroes always
resist these calculations on some level. In contrast, he reads Death
of a Salesman, Willy Loman in contrast to that
is, quote, a man who goes from selling things– who from selling things has
passed to selling himself and has, in effect,
become a commodity like all other commodities,
which will at a certain point be discarded by the
laws of the economy. He brings tragedy
down on himself not by opposing the
lie but by living it. And so that’s the
distinction he’s making between Ibsen and Williams. And we can talk about how that
relates to consumer capitalism as well. So charting the change
from industrial capitalism to consumer capitalism,
Miller’s liberal tragedy realigned Ibsen’s conceptions
of aspiration and debt. And these changing
conceptions, I would argue– although Williams does not– are particular to
differential modes of self-making at different
moments in capitalism in the US and Europe. What Williams doesn’t fully
attend to is how crucial monetary debts are to the
structure and contents of Ibsen’s drama,
particularly Doll’s House, and nor does he discuss in his
assessment of Miller’s– of it in the way that he talks
about Death of a Salesman. So a Doll’s House comes first. Most scholars consider
the play the play to be a meditation on
Nora’s gaining independence from a sham marriage,
but the plot revolves around a debt
and the need to repay it. The play itself preaches about
debt in the very first scene when assessing Nora’s
spending habits. KALYNE COLEMAN: Oh, but
Torvald, this year we really should let ourselves go a bit. It’s the first Christmas we
haven’t had to economize. MICHAEL ROSAS: But you know
we can’t go squandering. KALYNE COLEMAN:
Oh, yes, Torvald, we can squander a
little now, can’t we? Just a tiny wee bit now
that you’ve got a big salary and are going to make
piles and piles of money. MICHAEL ROSAS: Yes,
starting on New Year’s, but then it’s
a full three months till the raise comes through. KALYNE COLEMAN: Poo, we
can borrow that long. MICHAEL ROSAS: Nora, are your
scatter brains off again? What if today I
borrowed 1,000 crowns and you squandered them
over Christmas week, and then on New Year’s Eve
a roof tile falls on my head and I lay there. KALYNE COLEMAN: Don’t
say such things. MICHAEL ROSAS: Yes, but
what if it happened? Then what? KALYNE COLEMAN: If
anything so awful happened, then it just wouldn’t matter
if I had debts or not. MICHAEL ROSAS: Well, but
the people I borrow from? KALYNE COLEMAN: Them? Who cares about them? They’re strangers. MICHAEL ROSAS: Nora. Nora, how like a woman. No, but seriously, Nora, you
know what I think about that. No debts. No borrow. Something of freedoms lost
and something of beauty too from a home that’s
founded on borrowing and debt. We’ve made a brave stand
up to now, the two of us, and we’ll go on right
on like that the little while we have to. KALYNE COLEMAN: Yes,
whatever you say Torvald. PATRICIA YBARRA: Great. And so it switches, and
she has that conversation. And then just a little
bit later in the play she has a conversation
with Mrs. Lynn where she extrapolates
a little bit more about the nature of this debt. So let’s go to Doll’s House two. CAITLIN DUFFY: Now
listen here, Nora. You haven’t done
something indiscreet? KALYNE COLEMAN: Is it indiscreet
to save your husband’s life. CAITLIN DUFFY: I think
it’s indiscreet that without his knowledge you– KALYNE COLEMAN: But
that’s the point. He mustn’t know. My Lord, can’t you understand? He mustn’t ever know
the close call he had. It was to me the doctors came
to say his life was in danger. That nothing could save him
but a stay in the south. Didn’t I try strategy then? I began talking about how lovely
it would be for me to travel abroad like other wives. I begged and I cried. I told him please to
remember my condition, to be kind and
indulge me, and then I dropped a hint that he could
easily take out a loan. But at that Christine,
he nearly exploded. He said, I was
frivolous, and it was his duty as a man
of the house not to indulge me in
whims and fancies, as I think he calls them. Ah, I thought. Now you’ll just
have to be saved, and that’s when I saw my chance. CAITLIN DUFFY: And your
father never told Torvald the money wasn’t from him? KALYNE COLEMAN: No, never. Papa died right about then. I considered bringing
him into my secret and begging him never to
tell, but he was too sick at the time. And then sadly,
it didn’t matter. CAITLIN DUFFY: And you’ve never
confided in your husband since. KALYNE COLEMAN: For
heaven’s sake, no. Are you serious? He’s so strict on that subject. Besides, Torvald with
all his masculine pride how painfully humiliating for
him if he ever found out he was in debt to me. That would just ruin
our relationship. Our beautiful, happy home
would never be the same. CAITLIN DUFFY: Won’t
you ever tell him? KALYNE COLEMAN: Yes, maybe,
sometime years from now when I’m no longer
so attractive. Don’t laugh. I only mean when Torvald
loves me less than now, when he stops
enjoying my dancing and dressing up and
reciting for him. Then it might be wise to
have something in reserve. How ridiculous. That’ll never happen. Well, Christine, what do
you think of my big secret? I’m capable of something too. You can imagine, of course,
how this thing hangs over me. It really hasn’t been easy
meeting the payments on time. In the business
world, there’s what they call quarterly
interests and what they call amortization,
and these are always so terribly hard to manage. I’ve had to skimp a little here
and there wherever I could, you know. I could hardly spare anything
from my house allowance, because Torvald
has to live well. I couldn’t let the
children go poorly dressed. Whatever I got for them I felt
I had to use up completely, the darlings. PATRICIA YBARRA: Great. Thank you. So my point here is
just to think about– to think about Nora as a,
sort of, a liberal heroine of A Doll’s House, something
I’m certainly pushing harder than Williams. And then we have to think about
debt, as well as the escape from patriarchy,
and those two things are actually really embedded
in each other in this play. So I’m going to skip
to Death of a Salesman and try to go through
this a little bit quickly. For those of you
who know the play, it’s a canonical US drama. And what Williams does
to it, and [INAUDIBLE],, to a different extent,
is really thinking about the change in
consumer capitalism and, sort of, how the middle
class hero of consumer capitalism is different
in some ways from Ibsen and that the
subjectivity is created in a slightly– in a
slightly different way in how it relates to masculinity. And so thus it’s,
sort of, making a claim about how consumer
capitalism’s reliance on selling consumable
products overtakes the value of masculine
practical knowledge, charisma, and independent spirit. Yet the aspiration
to consume so as to keep the US economy
afloat in the post-world war years on World War
II and right after encourages the emergence of the
self as a consumer realigning the relationship between
aspiration and debt with a different set
of material conditions in the mid-20th century. Yet reading Salesmen
today, one is shocked by how often
monetary debt is mentioned compounding
its critiques on shifts in labor and work. And early in the
play, we learn much– we learned how much
Willy and Linda owe on their insurance policy
on their washing machine and their mortgage in
a litany of the scene. CAITLIN DUFFY: Well, the whole
block will be at that game. Did you sell anything? JACK DRYDEN: I did $500 gross
in Providence and $700 gross in Boston. CAITLIN DUFFY:
No, wait a minute. I’ve got a pencil. That makes your
commission $200– my god, $212. JACK DRYDEN: Well, I
didn’t figure it yet, but– CAITLIN DUFFY: Well,
how much did you do? JACK DRYDEN: Well, I did about
$180 gross in Providence. No, it came to roughly $200
gross on the whole trip. CAITLIN DUFFY: $200
gross, that’s– JACK DRYDEN: The trouble
was that three of the stores were half closed for
inventory in Boston. Otherwise, I would
have broke records. CAITLIN DUFFY: Well, it
makes $70 and some pennies. That’s very good. JACK DRYDEN: What do we owe? CAITLIN DUFFY:
Well, on the first there’s $16 on the refrigerator. MICHAEL ROSAS: Why $16? CAITLIN DUFFY: Well, the fan
belt broke, so it was $1.80. JACK DRYDEN: But it’s brand new. CAITLIN DUFFY: The man
said that’s the way it is. That’s how they work
themselves in, you know. JACK DRYDEN: I hope we didn’t
get stuck on that machine. CAITLIN DUFFY: They’ve got the
biggest ads of any of them. JACK DRYDEN: I know
it’s a fine machine. What else? CAITLIN DUFFY: Well, there’s
$9.60 for the washing machine, and for the vacuum cleaner
there’s $3.50 due on the 15th. And the roof, you’ve
got $21 remaining. JACK DRYDEN: It
don’t leak, does it? CAITLIN DUFFY: No, they
did a wonderful job. And you owe Frank
for the carburetor. JACK DRYDEN: I’m not
going to pay that man. That god damn
Chevrolet, they ought to prohibit the
manufacturer of that car. CAITLIN DUFFY: Well,
you owe him $3.50, and odds and ends comes to
around $120 by the 15th. JACK DRYDEN: Oh, $120. My god if business
don’t pick up, I don’t know what
I’m going to do. CAITLIN DUFFY: Well, next
week you’ll do better. JACK DRYDEN: Oh, I’ll
knock ’em dead next week. I’ll go to Hartford. I’m very well liked in Hartford. You know the trouble is Linda? People don’t seem to take to me. PATRICIA YBARRA: Great. Thank you. So obviously the nature of debt
as a daily installment rather than a one-time sacrifice speaks
to the diversification of risk here in terms of
thinking insurance, but what I think is interesting
is at the end of the play, right, we think of this
as a tragedy of, sort of, a certain kind
of masculinity dying. But what Linda says I think
is actually really important. So it’s just a
tiny little piece. CAITLIN DUFFY: I can’t
understand it at this time, especially. First time in 35 years we were
just about free and clear. You only needed a little salary. He was even finished
with the dentist. PATRICIA YBARRA: Thank you. So it’s interesting that Linda
thinks that the end of debt is, sort of, the end of
his feeling of precarity or that that would
affect his psyche. And it’s later proved
that that’s not really it. But the fact that there is
always a female character who is often sidelined in this
play literally, sort of, almost like a ledger
of talking about dead I think is something
that needs to be accounted for more clearly. So as I think about this, right,
if you know the play it’s also he’s like seemingly in
this moment of precarity, because eventually because
he’s not a good salesman he’s asked to only
work on commission and not have a salary, which
I also think is important. But in thinking about this
relationship of the development of the middle class tragedy to,
sort of, American capitalism, I think we have to take debt
into account more fully. And so even as he becomes, sort
of, for [INAUDIBLE] a, sort of, an anti-exemplar of
aspiration, there’s still this, sort of,
tangled piece about that we can’t completely undo. So the relationship
between his, sort of, anti-aspirational
aspiration debt is trickier in Young Jean
Lee’s Straight White Men. And this is really where I
began the project is thinking a little bit about this play
as it’s debt to the, sort of, lineage of drama but also how it
differently thinks about debt, because it’s primarily thinking
about educational debt. So Lee’s play centers
on a Christmas gathering of a father, Ed, and his three
sons, Jake, Drew, and Matt, who have varying degrees
of success in their lives. And obviously, this
is her meditation on straight white male
dramaturgy, as she calls it, and it’s often thought of as a– as really a play
about privilege, but I also think it’s
a play about debt. It had a workshop here at
Brown in I think 2012, 2013, and today rather than dealing
with the aspect of privilege I want to deal with
how debt works here. And I think it’s– I argue that this is a play
about the psychic experience of debt as much it is
as a struggle to think about white privilege
and masculinity. Young’s play clearly
hearkens back to Doll’s House and Salesman
in a number of ways. She deals with
familial inheritance. The first scene of the play
is a Christmas scene just like a Doll’s House, and it has
a, sort of, a thrifty father and adult sons rather
than a female spendthrift. And the exploration
of the unhappiness of the set of male sons,
obviously, sort of, gestures to Death of a Salesman. But unlike Ibsen and
Miller’s plays, in her play there’s no familial
event that conditions mass failure or demise. Instead, the play kind
of ironizes the idea that there’s some psychic
piece that he’s rectifying. And we’re left to believe that
the primal scene, if there is one, is Matt’s experience
as a straight white male in a liberal arts college
where he was, like, called on his privileged and
thus kind of falls apart. However, he also has
a lot of debt, which is what I want to talk about. And so there’s a
moment in the play where Jake, who is one of the
brothers, says Matt’s a freak. I mean all those years
of banging his head against the wall as
a community organizer and not letting dad pay off
any of his student loans– all that debt and
nothing to show for it. And so Matt is back living
in his father’s basement like hanging out and
helping his aging father. But the point here is if
Matt took all of those loans, one would assume he did not
have the familial money not to have to take loans. Yet there’s a suggestion that
his father could have helped or, perhaps, paid them off. Given the age of the characters
and the loan policies, therein it seems likely
that the bulk of his debt came from graduate and
professional school rather than from his
undergraduate loans. The character has a PhD in
Russian studies and a law degree. And if this is
true unless Ed was extraordinarily wealthy
or an especially good investor, paying
them off would have been impossible without him kind
of liquidating his retirement nest egg or his home. An issue this first
version of the play is pretty oblique
about referencing. Yet the play does not– does reveal– does
reveal how we’re to think about these loans. Jake frames educational debt as
individualized risk management, all that debt and
nothing to show for it. This frame, of course, is a
neoliberal mode evaluation, which alongside Matt’s role as
a liberal hero in Ibsen’s sense- so I think this is something
that Lee is really struggling with and thinking through– makes him culpable
for his situation. Matt’s culpability
makes his assumption of monetary debt a
psychological problem rather than an economic
reality inverting a more plausible relationship
of cause and effect. Watching the play, I asked
myself might Matt’s inability to cope be an effect of his
debt rather than its cause. Is this why Ed, his
father, is so angry that he’s made a, quote,
unquote, bad investment? And if you try to
calculate Matt’s debt, it’s really overwhelming. Although it’s not
quantified in the play, his loans were estimated
in rehearsals hundreds of thousands of dollars. The question remains for me at
least is what remains of debt and how does this debt
affect his psyche? Is this the reason
he moved home? Is he trying to dig
himself out of debt while he helps us aging
father by being useful? If we consider that
Matt is 44 in the play and spent 13 years
in school, he would have entered the academic market
or the legal market at a time even when if he’d
finished his degrees, he may have been in
a precarious state. By the turn of the 21st
century, the widespread hiring of adjuncts in
decline and tenure track jobs in the
academy particularly in language departments– I think it’s striking that
he has a language PhD– may have precluded a
more sustainable career in the academy. And by the time, he
was out of law school the financial crash
would have laid him off before he ascended
the ranks of a firm, and I know a number of
people who went to law school later and are actually
in this predicament. Materially, Matt’s
life is precarious, because he joined the labor
force 15 years or so later than his brothers
after a huge shift in the occupational
possibilities for white collar workers with legal
and academic degrees. That he tempts is not out
of the realm of possibility for someone with this skill
set, despite his level of ambition or self-worth. That Matt’s failure is then
less an issue of self-esteem than a reaction to
historical consequence. His malaise of the situation
is also historical and social, mirroring the affective
state of indebtedness so widespread amongst the
first world precariat. Mat’s precarity comes
not from being exhausted under the grind of consumer
capitalism a la Willy Loman, but from being crushed
under the financialization of educational debt as a
mode of self-appreciation. My emphasis on debt
here, although it’s not a major player in the first
production of the script I saw, was a plot in earlier drafts. And Matt has a choice to have
his father paid off the debt– that’s the way they
originally wrote– Lee originally wrote it. And then the students were so– that she worked with on
the workshop were so– they thought it were so
ridiculous that he wouldn’t just let his father
paid his debt, she thought it was
dramaturgically unfeasible to leave
that aspect of the plot, and she changed it. But I do think it’s
still, sort of, a ghostly presence
in the version of the play about privilege. So after this, I
interviewed Young Jean Lee, and then she rewrote the
play and brought debt back into the play actually and made
it a very important plot point. In fact, the check Matt’s father
Ed writes to pay off his debt is conspicuously placed
on stage by a stagehand in a transition between
scenes in such a way that it calls great
attention of the audience that the prop then almost
becomes like an auratic object that gestures to Ibsen’s use of
notes, letters, calling cards, and paper notes, and their
revelation as major plot points. Yet in Lee’s hands,
the stage business pushes these objects outside
of traditional realism through the meta theatrical
trick of visible stagehands who she specifies should be
people of color incidentally, and they just, sort
of, drop them on stage. In the most recent version
on Broadway that was cut, but the following scene still
remains at the end of the play. So we all go to
straight white men. CAITLIN DUFFY: Matt, you’ve
got to help me out here. I’m not going to watch
you destroy your life. I’ve been enabling
you for too long. I’m not going to do it. If you won’t agree to make
some honest attempt to improve your life, I’m done man. I can’t have any more
contact with you. JACK DRYDEN: Drew. CAITLIN DUFFY: No, no, no, no. I just– promise me you’re
going to take one positive step. I’ll do everything in
my power to help you. JACK DRYDEN: I can’t do that. CAITLIN DUFFY: You would choose
staying in this situation over having a
relationship with me? OK, enjoy your misery. MICHAEL ROSAS: Matt,
here’s what we need to do. You’re going to take this. You’re going to
pay off your loans. You have so much potential. Go out there and
change the world. JACK DRYDEN: I can’t
take your money. MICHAEL ROSAS: Yes, you can. JACK DRYDEN: I didn’t earn it. MICHAEL ROSAS: What’s the matter
if you earned the money or not? Take the check. JACK DRYDEN: I don’t want it. MICHAEL ROSAS: Matt,
what is wrong with you? JACK DRYDEN:
Nothing’s wrong, dad. For the first time
in a long time, I don’t feel bad
about what I’m doing. I feel useful. MICHAEL ROSAS: What you’re
doing isn’t actually useful, especially
considering everything that’s been invested in you. You should be doing
more than cooking and cleaning like a housemaid. JACK DRYDEN: I want to be here. MICHAEL ROSAS: It’s
repugnant, Matt. There’s something
repugnant about it. I wonder what your mother
would say if she were here. PATRICIA YBARRA:
Awesome, thank you. So it’s clear that the, sort of,
pernicious of educational debt gets wrapped into a
very particular kind of financializing
discourse by the family. And I guess my point here is
that that, sort of, malaise that Matt has and his feeling
of being useful is a, sort of, a different labor model than
the one in which he’s been– is supposed to be
enacting aspiration as, sort of, refuses. And that, sort of,
refusal of aspiration is interesting in terms of
thinking the legacy of Ibsen or moving away from
it simultaneously. So I want to– I’m going to– I think I’m
going to run short on time, so I want to conclude to talk
about this issue of student debt and particularly
with the students who came as my co-researches to help
me deliver this paper today. So I think it’s really clear
that the perniciousness of educational debt as personal
investment and responsibility makes students,
quote, unquote, behave as if they were individual
businesses in the play. But I think this is
anything but play acting. Thus here, I turn to how
the very privatization of educational debt erases
the idea of education as a public good
for art students. This formulation is especially
present in graduate theater arts education where these
degrees are misrecognized as a form of– as an
individuated form of acquiring virtuosity and
professional connections. I navigated this terrain
when working as a chair to advocate for better financial
aid practices for the Brown Trinity– the Brown Trinity program,
and it’s now tuition-free acting in debt free
directing degrees. This is a seeming tangent– thank you– and to all of them
for my dramaturgical analysis above, but is actually part
of the same problem for me. I want to think through how
this issue briefly in relation to the idea of professional
training, which I think is a misnomer when
talking about the arts. Which is why I introduced
the actors here today as co-researchers rather than
actors, although they are also actors, and although
I have paid them on an actor’s scale, a
union scale to be here today and I did not ask them
to volunteer their time, although admittedly that money
came from my research account so it is a mixed economy. So here’s a problem. Professional training as
opposed to say graduate training in a research field, i.e. The PhD, is assumed to be an
investment model in which you pay out of pocket to receive
individual skills that help you succeed in your
career such that you as an individual gain
promotion and/or monetary gain. So that’s the model for a
business school or a law school or a number of other
professional programs. This is seemingly opposed
to how institutions think about funding,
quote, unquote, pure research as
a societal good, but is this really
a true distinction, especially when degrees are
embedded within research institutions with
a strong commitment to liberal arts education? Certainly MFA degrees in theater
are designed such that students acquire very specific
creative skills, including embodied techniques
of expression. But they often
develop these skills while obtaining an affective and
intellectual expansiveness that adds to society
as a whole as much as it does to gaining personal
capital in arts markets. MFA’s do professionalize, i.e.,
they can make one a better artist, connect students
to professionals, give a pedigree, and
all of those things and qualify degree
recipients to teach. The MFA is a terminal degree. But this does not necessarily
translate into monetary profit generation, and thus
lies the problem. Schools of Professional Studies
and professional schools and extension programs like
Harvard’s, which famously canceled its certificate
graduate degree last year after they were cited for
predator– a few years ago, after they were cited
for predatory lending by the Obama
administration are largely designed to create
revenue by offering non-degree or
professional degree programs for an
instrumentalized purpose. This makes no
sense for the arts. Although not everyone
places debt politics at the forefront
of their thinking, the fact that MFA’s degrees
are only rarely funded in private institutions
is not just the bad faith of universities. To be fair, there
is little or no claim to private or public
research money for– i.e. Mellon, NSF, et
cetera, et cetera for institutional
support of MFA programs, even innovative ones, or direct
financial support for students seeking those degrees. One of the only avenues for this
kind of support, the Jack Cook Kemp Scholarship
no longer provides funding for MFA students. Professional partners, i.e. not-for-profit
theater companies, can’t make up the financial
difference either. Yet the proximity of
MFA, PhD, and BA students in a very different compensation
value of their labor is striking and mobilizing. Collaboration while
often glorious throws these
disparities into relief, and the reaction
to this inequality often ends with
personalized attacks rather than systemic
solutions, which understanding the reality of faculty
student and, yes, administrators labor is
part of thee structures as nearly now explaining things
as admittedly cold comfort when you have to
have a loan just to eat as you’re shuttling
between classes and rehearsals in your 16 hour day. This is a very type of day
that makes earning money to work study job while
completing a degree impossible this laboring
reality, of course, is different from
those experienced by fully funded research PhD
students who aren’t always completely taken care of
but are treated better than MFA students in most
cases or by undergraduates at elite institutions. This kind of disparity and
misunderstanding of disparity is toxic leading to
rage, tears, and sadness among students, faculty,
and staff alike. The problem to my
mind is simple, a profound misunderstanding
of arts labor. Despite a number of investments
in debt-free MFA education here at Brown, many of
the larger ideological and structural issues of
the MFA are not so easily solved in the
neoliberal university, even one with more protections
than most places enjoy. Practically speaking, we could
argue that these degrees do not sit on one side of the research
professionalization binary, and thus should be funded
like research degrees because students
produce knowledge. We need to theorize
the MFA degrees such that we understand that teaching
people how to make art that produces knowledge and models– knowledge models a
way of thinking– and models a way of thinking
is a basic goal of graduate art education from the
most fundamental voice exercise to the final
production and evaluation. If this is true then it is
society articulated broadly that is indebted to the
emergence of these artists, and thus it’s the responsibility
of research institutions and its supporters, not
the individual artists, to take on the cost
of that education. I think this shift would
be transformative also for students psyches. Taking a turn away
from Ibsen, we must disperse
responsibility away from a hero who stands
up to a false society and send our debt back
to a social body letting go of our idea of the artist
as an iconoclastic hero and a harborer of
crushing debt who sacrifices himself to expose
society’s foibles and violence. Instead we should realize
that the artists and debt accrues to us all. So I’m going to
quit talking here, but I wanted to
honor Michael who I asked to read a really
interesting performance poem by Cecilia Acuna actually. And I’m just going to
have him read that, and then maybe we can just– I’ll just end. So thank you. MICHAEL ROSAS: A message came. It says [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] had
been speaking to the European community on February 8, 19– sorry– 18– sorry, 02. He said [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. Brothers, you who ask
us to pay you our debt, you are asking to
pay you our debt. In reality, I loaned you
millions and millions and millions and
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] of gold and silver as a friendly
gesture of the Americans towards the development of Europe. This was our Marshall
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] plan, plan for the reconstruction of
the barbaric Europe for them. But it failed. Look, in its irrational
capitalistic ways, they are still at it. Europe always wants more. They need more, more,
more, more from us. But time has come
for your, your– I can’t even say it– you, you, you, your,
your up to return to us– to return to us the gold and
silver we so generously loaned. We ask you to now sign
a letter of intent as a way to discipline you. And then I wanted to tell
you after your September 11, which is my second September
11, I decided to go to BA– that’s Buenos Aires–
to take a little refuge. Look at the refuge
I picked, huh? I was there. I was there. And even a few weeks before
the whole thing started, I was scribbling
down these notes– these notes that were, perhaps,
in everybody’s minds about the [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. You know what the
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] is? The [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] is
the debt, the so-called debt. If you go now to
the drawing center, you will find a
little scrap of paper that Ellsworth Kelly took
to make a little drawing. In it, you will see a little
ad from the New York Times. It says, Argentina says,
it’s going to pay the debt. 1959. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] If you open the world
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] in Spanish it becomes [SOUND]
[SOUND] from [SOUND] give. You can also read it in
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].. That’s the future
language of South America, and it becomes god gives
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH].. Turn around the U in a U-turn
turned inside out the [SOUND].. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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