Enron: A Hot Ticket, Again

Playwright Lucy Prebble talks about her hit play Enron--and the infamous company that inspired it.
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3 min read
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Lucy Prebble, the 29-year-old British playwright, won over legions of critics and jaded London theatergoers last fall with Enron, a tragicomedy inspired by the 2001 collapse of the infamous Texas-based energy firm. Now the play is set to open on Broadway this month, and from the sound of it, it will offer something that hasn't been around since the beginning of the financial crisis: a little love for disgraced CEOs and bankers.

Prebble chatted with Entrepreneur about the production, Jeff Skilling--Enron's former president--and her plans after writing the Enron screenplay. (Of course there's a movie in the works.) "I've got an idea for what's next," she says. "It will be set in a completely different world--I'm escaping finance."

How is Enron fodder for a play?
I thought the story was so fascinating. It had the feelings of a classic tragedy, and a protagonist with a great deal of hubris who fell from grace.

And there's singing.
Yes, there are a few moments of singing. It uses a lot of video projection, dance, music and elements of vaudeville. I wanted to put show business into the world of business, because that's what it was. The company was all for extravagance and showmanship; it was swaggering, and incredibly indulgent at its height of power.

Was there a point you wanted to make about, say, greed or capitalism?
I wasn't keen on making a political point because when you do that, it closes down your writing. I can empathize with the protagonist, and I can hugely empathize with the people who lost their jobs and were affected. Finding the humanity within everyone was most important.

But didn't Enron's management reveal a lack of humanity?
Well, you can write these men off as villains, but it takes longer to understand them. Nobody started out to defraud anybody. You can see it in the hearings. The motivations are rarely malicious.

What tends to happen is that people veer into something that isn't quite legal and make large amounts of money from it. Eventually they get trapped and have to keep the lie going. It tends to be altruistic, paradoxically, because if they don't continue, everyone loses their jobs. They may even feel heroic.

You spent three years researching Enron's creative accounting standards--what do you take away from this tragedy?
My main impression is that there's a general acceptance that getting around regulations is part and parcel of the business world. There's a culture that celebrates paying as little as one can, and there are people who believe any curb on capitalism is a curb on liberty.

Maybe Skilling would argue that people will always act this way, but I think the financial crisis and Enron's collapse would not have been inevitable if the culture was different.

Is there any hope for change?
I think so. Since the Glass-Steagall Act [in 1933], the banking system has been so interconnected, and that's why there was such a big domino effect. But the Obama Administration seems to be interested in separating Main Street from Wall Street, splitting off investing arms of big banks. This way regular people won't have their money tied up.

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