This past weekend, the New York Times published an essay by Ayad Akhtar, the author of Junk, in which he explored “the merchandising of attention”: the way in which technology “has enabled the very movements of our mind to become a steady stream of revenue to someone, somewhere.” As one antidote to this development, Akhtar argued for the power of the theater, which features living actors in front of a living audience. The relationship between performers and patrons is “unmediated by the contemporary disembodying screen.”
As a follow-up to the article, I asked Akhtar what Junk’s central plot element – the takeover of a steel company by debt-bond financiers in the mid-1980s – might look like in 2018, in a Wall Street world of speeded-up transactions and attention-bidding ploys.
He replied: “There is no way to tell this story today without it seeming an even more foregone conclusion. In a sense, the 80s was really the last moment when the outcome could be contestable. Today, the forces of finance are – for the time being – beyond anyone’s ability to resist.
Ahktar discounted my sense that speed would fundamentally alter Junk if it were set in the present. “The issue of speed,” he said, “isn’t really relevant in the sense that the play is an attempt to make contemporary a classical form” – the Shakespearean history play. He went on: “The speed at which the play takes place is the speed of finance. It is the cognitive speed of the money as a disembodied phenomenon. Financial dealings at this level aren’t really any more accelerated – there are still human decisions that management and buyers need to make.”
There is, however, at least one signal difference between the world of Junk and that of today. Now, said Akhtar, “there is no resistance. CEOs are no longer stakeholders beyond their financial compensation – which incentivizes them to do deals. Tom Everson” – the head of the steel company in Junk – “is a stakeholder in a deeper sense. That’s the real tension of the play. We are a country who no longer believes that we are worth anything more than what someone will pay us. That’s the transformation the play is charting. That is the tragedy of our era.”
And that is the tragedy that Junk, which closes its run this weekend, has illustrated so entertainingly and eloquently.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.