Emily Louizou is a director and founder of London-based, female-led international company Collide Theatre. Since its inception, Collide has created five critically acclaimed sold-out productions in London and Manchester, and has collaborated with more than 50 artists from around the world. Emily is currently working on The Coral at Finborough Theatre, taking place 4th – 29th October.
‘The protagonist in Georg Kaiser’s Gas trilogy exclaims: “I have glimpsed humanity – I must save it from itself!” This was written more than 100 years ago – but how strangely familiar it sounds today. I grow increasingly afraid of what mankind is capable of. Staging The Coral, the first part of Kaiser’s trilogy, this coming October has led me to ponder many questions in terms of our relationship with money, status, and power.
Over the course of the trilogy (written between 1917-1920), Kaiser presents most of the major issues confronting modern civilisation: the alienation of the worker in a capitalist system, greed and obsession over abundance, totalitarianism, militarism, and finally total warfare.
What our theatre company realised in rehearsals was that The Coral remains relevant as sadly history repeats itself, and mankind has proven once again unable – or unwilling – to break the vicious cycle of greed, violence, and oppression. In 1917 – just before the Russian Revolution and as the First World War was ending – Kaiser was writing about a society corrupted by insatiable greed and atrocious inequality. Not very different from our society today.
The Millionaire in The Coral is a ruthless employer: he exploits his workers, he disregards his employees’ rights, and he puts his personal happiness above all. Ultimately, does his money make him happy or fulfilled? His Daughter confronts him and realises how: “The rich in our purified bubble – and everyone else choking in smoke and torment. We’ve no right to do it – why do we do it? Why? Give me one answer that absolves us?’’. But, like today, inequality is about politics as well as economics. The paradox is that even though individuals have much more wealth than what they need – or that they can possibly spend in their lifetimes – they still choose not to end world hunger.
Of course, the solution is not obvious. And Georg Kaiser – very similarly to his successor, Bertolt Brecht – was not giving answers through his plays. He is not rejecting capitalism to defend socialism.
As we are to face perhaps the most difficult winter since the Second World War, and as families will struggle to pay their bills, I wonder where we stand as a society which has failed to do the most basic: to guarantee all citizens an above average quality of life.
Indeed, as my generation is witnessing the deepest plunge in living standards on record, I wonder what our relationship is with money today and how this will impact the way the younger generation perceives the value of money? When young people today are faced with the inability to pay a gas bill, the inability to go on holiday, the inability to buy a house, or even afford their rent, then they start re-evaluating their life choices and career plans.
Being in a rehearsal room with an incredible array of actors and creatives, I cannot but feel grateful for the sheer talent and creativity I interact with daily. But I am also scared to think whether making theatre – or choosing other similar creative career paths – will be considered as madness in the years to come. Living in a world which propels young people to decide what they are going to study on the factor of profit alone, is sad.
I understand that the profit motive is what drives the technological progress in our capitalist society – and it is no new concept. The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past: command over resources, especially food and shelter, made early humans much more likely to reproduce. The same instinct lies at the foundation of both modern economics and the way we think about capitalism. Our desire to acquire income and wealth, so as to afford material goods, is what has always motivated individuals to work, save, invent and invest.
But do we want to live in a world which equates power and status with money; a world which defines as ‘fittest’ the people that, out of fear for their own survival perhaps, become too selfish, too greedy, too obsessed with their own wealth? Some supporters of ‘social Darwinism’ have argued that civilisation, by protecting the weak and enabling them to survive, inhibited human evolution. This view has been rejected by Darwin himself, who emphasised the importance of cooperation for species, like humans, that live in groups. But it was this view that ultimately led to the notion of eugenics and to the killing of millions.
The Coral’s Millionaire excuses his ruthless and selfish actions by viewing social order as a running race: “those who run fastest – who trample on the most bodies – are the winners”. He explains how “everyone is on the run”, just some people are more scared and happen to run fastest, therefore distancing themselves and protecting themselves more.
With housing prices soaring, an economy on the brink of recession, and a war taking place at our doorsteps, I do fear how the younger generation will adapt in order to survive or to win this ‘race’.’