When Dockets Imitate Drama
By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: December 26, 2008
“You must realize that money making is one thing, religion another, and family life a third,” Mr. Voysey matter-of-factly tells his son Edward, who is appalled to learn that his father has been operating a pyramid scheme for decades with his clients’ money.
Mr. Voysey — the affably corrupt character in Harley Granville-Barker’s 1905 play “The Voysey Inheritance” — is one of Bernard L. Madoff’s literary predecessors, and his compartmentalized view of the world may suggest how Mr. Madoff, a philanthropist and a pillar of the financial world and Jewish life, enmeshed family and friends in what federal authorities are calling a $50 billion Ponzi scheme.
The accusations against Mr. Madoff may seem so outlandish and outsize that only a literary imagination could have dreamed him up. And indeed, where businessmen, psychologists, theologians and prosecutors have so far come up short in explaining the tangle of human emotions and drives behind the Madoff enterprise, literature and drama have provided plenty of models.
“It’s almost verbatim the story of ‘The Voysey Inheritance,’ which was written 100 years earlier,” said Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater, which staged the play in 2006. “It’s about the nature of business, whether they’re bending the rules or following them.”
David Mamet, who adapted “Voysey” for The Atlantic, explained in a New York Times interview at the time why he was initially drawn to the play.
“What is capital?” he said. “How does society work? What is money? On the one hand you can say money is meaningless: it doesn’t really exist, and so everything is really all about trust. You can also say that means it’s all about crime.”
As Voysey puts it, his clients’ security lies not in pieces of paper but in “my financial ability.”
To the elder Voysey, Mr. Pepe noted, such practices “are an accepted form of behavior.” That is why he is so exasperated with Edward. “Oh ... why is it so hard for a man to see clearly beyond the letter of the law,” Mr. Voysey says, later adding, “We must take this world as we find it, my dear boy.”
That is clearly the world that Anthony Trollope is portraying in his 1875 novel, “The Way We Live Now” (another Mamet favorite). In his autobiography Trollope writes that this satiric novel was inspired by the corruption eating away at British society, a “dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places.”
His shady financier, Augustus Melmotte, is at the center of a huge scam, selling shares in a railroad that doesn’t exist. He is widely regarded as the financial sector’s presiding genius, “the very navel of the commercial enterprise of the world,” and his ruin, as Lord Alfred observes in the novel, “would be the bursting of half London.” Many of Melmotte’s attributes can be found in some of the real-life rogues who preyed on credulous British investors in that period.
Comparing Melmotte to Mr. Madoff, Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University, said: “There’s the same ‘do I have a deal for you’ and the same lust for money. He’s very smart, he has no compunction about swindling everybody, and he’s socially ambitious.”
“The difference between Melmotte and Madoff,” she added, “is that Melmotte comes out of nowhere.” In the book Melmotte simply appears, already wealthy, and no one knows his roots or where he is from. Nineteenth-century British society was quite anti-Semitic, and Ms. Stimpson points out that Trollope hints that Melmotte has Jewish origins.
“The bluebloods sneer at him,” she said, “but that doesn’t prevent them from wanting what he has.”
John Guare, author of “Six Degrees of Separation” and “The House of Blue Leaves,” also thought first of Melmotte when asked about Mr. Madoff’s literary parallels. Even as the scandal is breaking, Mr. Guare noted, Melmotte wins a seat in Parliament. (In the end he commits suicide.)
People like Melmotte “are just missing a moral gene,” Mr. Guare said.
“The money is there for the taking,” he continued. “Asking why they do it is like asking, ‘Why does the scorpion bite me.’ ”
Mr. Guare says he is fascinated by the serene smile Mr. Madoff wears in some photographs. “How do you account for his beatific smile, like the Dalai Lama?” he asked. It’s “as if he’s coming in from Shangri La.”
That smile similarly intrigues Andrew Delbanco, the director of Columbia University’s American Studies program. Referring to photos taken after Mr. Madoff’s arraignment, Mr. Delbanco said the events “put me in mind of the arrogant Ambersons before they got what Booth Tarkington called their ‘comeuppance.’ ”
“But the thing about Bernard Madoff,” he added, “is that we have no idea what he was thinking.”
“I suspect he feels, as several pundits have suggested, that what he did was no different morally from what many big-time brokers and banks have been doing,” Mr. Delbanco wrote in an e-mail message. “But it would take Henry James to give us a deep portrait of such a character.”
Of course you can’t talk about 19th-century fiction and greed run amok without referring to Charles Dickens. “Even his name is sort of Dickensian,” said the author Thomas Mallon, who has set some of his novels in the late 1800s. “Made-Off. It sounds so perfect.”
“The great manipulators seem to come out of Victorian literature,” Mr. Mallon said, mentioning Merdle, the swindling banker from “Little Dorrit.”
As Dickens describes him: “Mr. Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other.”
Think of it, Mr. Mallon observed: “Merdle, Melmotte and Madoff. It sounds like a phony literary hedge fund.”
The investigation centers on a Big Con, but the impact of Mr. Madoff’s suspected duplicity toward his family is a crucial element of the story. Though Mr. Madoff brought his brother, two sons, a nephew and a niece into the business, he insists that none of them knew about the sham, according to the criminal complaint. When the money ran out, it was Mr. Madoff’s sons, Mark and Andrew, who turned him in.
In “Voysey” the “inheritance” is in fact the embezzlement and fallout that one generation has left for the next to clean up. “It’s really about handing down the legacy of such behavior,” Mr. Pepe noted. “Inevitably the truth rears its head, and it catches up to you.”
Those themes are what made James Lapine, the playwright and director, think of Granville-Barker’s play, as well as of another, more modern drama now in revival on Broadway, “All My Sons.” In that 1947 play by Arthur Miller, Joe Keller lies about a manufacturing problem that caused the death of 21 pilots during World War II, saving himself from jail and his business from ruin. But his carefully structured artifice comes crashing down when his surviving son learns the truth.
“I think it’s about selfishness and what you do to your children when you make those selfish choices,” Mr. Lapine said.
Perhaps another way of making sense of the charges against Mr. Madoff, though, is by looking not at his actions but at the gullibility of the vast network of people seduced by returns that are too good to be true.
After hearing about the scandal, Ilan Averbuch, an Israeli artist whose work is currently on exhibit at Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Chelsea, took down a tattered storybook he has had since childhood, a collection of Jewish folktales about the mythical people of Chelm, a city populated by supposedly wise souls who are actually very foolish.
In one, the townspeople decide to illuminate their city on dark nights by capturing the full moon, which they see reflected in a large barrel of water. They seal the top so it cannot escape. Two weeks later, on a night when there is no moon, the town gathers to open the barrel. When the lid comes off, the moon is gone.
Imagine that, they cry. A thief has stolen it.