Theatre: Bringing Adam and David up to date

David Hume (Gerry Mulgrew), left, and Adam Smith (Neil McKinven), right, are shown the fruits of their labour by Joanna Tope as Eve in The Tree of Knowledge
David Hume (Gerry Mulgrew), left, and Adam Smith (Neil McKinven), right, are shown the fruits of their labour by Joanna Tope as Eve in The Tree of Knowledge
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Time-travelling fathers of the Enlightenment have been given a chance to appraise our world, for good and ill, by the Traverse and playwright Jo Clifford

ON Edinburgh’s High Street there are two statues by monumental sculptor Sandy Stoddart, placed a stone’s throw from each other. On one side of the road, next to St Giles’ Cathedral, stands Adam Smith, a proud 10ft (3m) tall bronze. The man regarded as the father of modern economics has a ploughshare behind him and a beehive to his side, symbols of the agriculture and industry on which he built his doctrines.

Further up, near the crossroads, sits David Hume, also larger than life, wearing a toga, brandishing a book and currently boasting some rather fetching nail varnish. The author of A Treatise of Human Nature was a major influence on Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and Charles Darwin. As well as his contribution to empiricist philosophy, he founded the study of cognitive science.

Smart blokes both, the two men were born ten years apart in the early 1700s and helped establish Scotland as the cradle of the Enlightenment. Now, 300 years later, they are unexpectedly back together at the Traverse Theatre.

In Jo Clifford’s The Tree of Knowledge, they find themselves transported to the 21st century where they come across Eve, a woman whose idea of a new town is the streets of Glenrothes rather than the Georgian boulevards of Edinburgh.

“I thought it would be fun to contrast two very different sorts of new town and to think about the sort of values that both express,” says Clifford. “It tells us something about the world we live in.”

It may be December, but a high-minded drama about ethics and economics is as defiant a piece of non-Christmas programming as you could get. The playwright promises it will at least be seasonably wholesome.

“In the real sense of Christmas, which is supposed to be about valuing human beings and hope for the world, then it’s got a lot to do with Christmas. But none of the other stuff – no snow. I like Christmas shows, but it’s nice to have the chance to see something other. I hope people will find it very funny and very moving. It’s a highly emotional play.”

More directly, The Tree of Knowledge is a response to today’s turbulent economy. Clifford’s time-travelling conceit allows Hume and Smith to see how their theories played out after their deaths and to apply their radical powers of reasoning to the world we now live in.

“I’ve always said part of the pleasure of going to the theatre is that theatre is about really important issues. Theatre should stimulate the mind and stretch the brain. Those discussions in the bar afterwards – ‘What the hell was that about?’ – are very much part of the pleasure. It’s one of the few places where you can have an intelligent conversation about what’s going on in the world.”

Written as a result of a creative fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, the play reminds us that Smith was a more subtle thinker than his reputation would suggest. There was certainly more to him than many of his free-market followers would have us believe.

“He was a far more complex figure than that,” says Clifford. “He and Hume believed very strongly in what they called sympathy, which is our capacity for fellow feeling; we’d call it empathy. Smith is most famous for The Wealth of Nations, but he also wrote an extraordinarily interesting book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he’s thinking about empathy. He felt this capacity for fellow feeling should be at the heart of our social relationships, our justice system and our economic arrangements.”

The 21st-century world discovered by Hume and Smith appears to have everything they dreamed of. In the internet, mankind has developed a fantastic tool for distributing knowledge, the very stuff that drives a philosopher such as Hume, played here by Gerry Mulgrew. Meanwhile, our late capitalist free- market economy seems to be the logical extension of the principles set out by Smith, played by Traverse regular Neil McKinven. Caught between them, Joanna Tope’s Eve has a modern day perspective all her own.

The men can’t help but notice, however, that all this comes at a cost to humanity and the environment. “At first, they’re incredibly excited because it’s as if everything they dreamed of has come to pass,” says Clifford. “Then Smith goes out into the world and becomes disillusioned because he sees the downside of this economic system.”

Working for the first time with director Ben Harrison and composer David Paul Jones (winner of the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for music last week), Clifford was drawn to the subject because, as the banking crisis has reminded us, the economy is of such crucial importance.

“Hume and Smith had a vision that the market would set human creativity free and, to a certain extent, they were absolutely right,” she says. “But particularly in the last ten years when we’ve had this total disaster of right-wing free market economics that is governing the world in a destructive and appalling way, it’s desperately clear that we need to find a new economic model. We have to or civilisation is not going to last.”

She may be strident in her opinions, but Clifford is not a polemicist when it comes to writing plays. The author of Faust and Every One, seen recently at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, knows you can’t write a good play by hectoring the audience. During her research, one of the most interesting people she came across was Deirdre McCloskey, an American economics professor and fervent believer in the free market. The Tree of Knowledge reflects her views too.

“She reveres Adam Smith and believes the free market economy is a force for good in the world. Capitalism – and this is undoubtedly true – has transformed living standards, particularly in the west. Her books are very stimulating, and all that is in the play as well.”

Clifford is also aware of capitalism’s contradictions. Like all of us, she has benefited from the very economic system she calls into question. “I’m sitting with a little plastic ring in my heart that’s keeping it working.” She had heart surgery a few years ago. “That’s only possible because I’m living in one of the most advanced economies in the western world.”

And as a transgender woman, it is hard to see that she could have made the transition from John to Jo in many other social systems. “If I was living in the Middle East, for instance, I’d be dead; my family would have killed me or I’d never have been able to come out at all. So the play is certainly not one-sided or one-dimensional. I hope it’s five-dimensional at the very least.”

Her challenge in all this was to bring to life two historical characters in a way that was dramatically dynamic and that did justice to their ideas. “They were economist-philosophers who were incredibly clever, so the challenge was to get myself in tune with their thinking. They were remarkably progressive, intelligent, humane, wonderful thinkers. The play is a love letter to Hume and Smith.”

• The Tree of Knowledge is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, tomorrow until 24 December.