Houses of Cards

Economics Literature


The short-run production of The Builder Association's "House / Divided," directed by Marianne Weems, opens with a narrator reading the captivating introduction to John Steinbeck's masterpiece, the Grapes of Wrath:


TO THE RED COUNTRY and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.


The narration continues, and then wraps up with a vision of the unceasing, gritty swirl of the 1930s American Dust Bowl:


In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.


In the distance a bell tolls, louder and faster until the stage lights redirect to traders reacting to the opening bell of  the New York Stock Exchange. In a flash, it's early 2008 and the traders are riding high, confident in their money-making skills. The addition of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDO) to their portfolios only increases the highs (and fortunes) of these cash-addicted brokers. But the profit motive becomes increasingly abstract because the foundation on which the wealth is constructed is intangible. Who can decipher the riddles wrapped in mysteries that are these new financial instruments? Who cares when money is being made hand over fist?


Fade to black stage left, lights up stage right. The scene switches again. Steinbeck's Joad family and their neighbors are losing their homes to banks, faceless and heartless institutions that remain distant, cold, and unforgiving. It's the Great Depression and these tenant farmers have fallen on hard times: the combination of macroeconomic failure, drought, and financial institutions intruding on traditional agricultural business has decimated families and communities in the middle of the United States. Their only recourse is to head West in search of greener opportunities.


In "House / Divided," the stage is dominated by the façade of a recently foreclosed home. The scenes featuring the Joads take place in the home. Close-up images of the actors and grainy film footage of sparse landscapes are alternately projected onto the house's exterior. The technologically sophisticated technique drives home the message: replace the farm foreclosures in Grapes of Wrath with home foreclosures and Steinbeck's story becomes instantly—nay, profoundly—relevant for the current distress of millions of Americans today.


Interspersed throughout the play are scenes of real people commenting on the mortgage crisis—a man who buys up foreclosed homes in hopes of returning the houses or lands back to the community; a cleaner who disposes of the waste left behind by evicted families; a young woman whose dream home was taken from her. 


Time advances. By this time the Joads are in California struggling at the edge of existence. Meanwhile, the account books of the day traders bleed red. Lehman Brothers collapses after 150 years in business. Mortgage-backed securities, once declared safe as houses, crumble like the demolished homes of Dust Bowl Oklahoma. The JP Morgan whale makes headlines, as does the LIBOR fixing scandal. Fortunes turn to dust. Lives are destroyed. And an obstinate Alan Greenspan refuses to admit his economic theories may be flawed. As rain waters flood the Joads' precarious grip on dry land, Americans drown in the homes that sink under water


The mechanisms of greed behind the insatiable investment scheming is revealed to be a monster. But the monster is invisible, faceless, and multifaceted. Its tentacles are far-reaching, but from where they stem we cannot quite see. Whose fault? "House / Divided" asks. Nobody's fault comes the reply.


Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol



Finance, John Steinbeck, Theater