Julia Irvine 27 Jul 2018 12:12pm

Six of the best: plays about business

It’s not surprising that when playwrights are inspired to write plays about business, the plot is usually based on the dark side – the dodgy and drug-fuelled dealings of Wall Street, the corruption behind corporate collapses – like Enron – and indeed the machinations of larger than life bosses like Robert Maxwell
Caption: David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross has since been made into a film

No doubt, once the dust has settled over more recent corporate scandals, like HBOS, BHS and Carillion, there will be someone out there raking through the dirt for artistic inspiration. So, with Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy currently playing in London to packed audiences at the National, we thought we would look at a few business-themed plays that have stood the test of time.

The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare’s comedy remains – despite accusations of anti-Semitism – one of his most popular plays and is regularly performed. At its heart the plot centres on a business deal: the merchant in question is one Antonio who lends 3,000 ducats to his mate Bassanio who needs to put on a show to impress the beautiful (and rich) Portia and win her hand in marriage. But Bassanio’s money is all tied up in business ventures, the success of which depends on the safe arrival of his cargo ships. So he borrows the money from Jewish moneylender Shylock who in return demands a pound of his flesh if he fails to return the money on time. Naturally, the ships founder and Shylock demands his bond. Cue cross-dressing Portia, her “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” speech and agreement to the bond’s execution provided not a drop of blood is spilt.

The Adding Machine

This play, written in 1923 by the Pulitzer-prize-winner Elmer Rice, is as relevant today as it was almost a century ago, especially in the light of today’s concerns about technological advancements, artificial intelligence and robotics and the impact they will have on the future of work. Mr Zero, the main protagonist, is an accountant who has worked loyally for some large and faceless corporation for 25 years. Then he discovers he is about to be replaced by an adding machine. He snaps and in his rage he murders his boss. He’s arrested, tried and hanged and ends up in the “elysian fields” where he works operating an adding machine until his boss there decides he is a waste of space and his soul is sent back to earth to be recycled.

Death of a Salesman

No list of business-related dramas would be complete without this Arthur Miller play, written in 1949, which has become a staple of the A level English course. Dealing with loss of identity and people’s inability to accept change and move on, the play draws on Willy Loman’s lack of success as a salesman as an important aspect of his failure to achieve the American dream. The play charts the disintegration of his relationships and ends with his suicide and funeral.

Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet’s play about the dirty tactics that a failing team of real estate agents get up to has suffered from comparison to Death of a Salesman but it has quietly become a classic that is as relevant today as it was when it was first premiered at London’s National Theatre in 1983. The plot covers two days in the life of four desperate Chicago real estate agents who are trying to offload parcels of undesirable land on to unwitting prospective buyers at inflated prices. The bosses of the company have challenged the team to a sales contest, the winner of which will win a Cadillac and the two who perform worst will be sacked. Two of the team hatch a plot to break into the office, steal the good leads and sell them to a competitor.


The collapse of Texas energy giant Enron and the demise of Big Five firm Arthur Andersen as a direct consequence give Lucy Prebble’s eponymous play a cast iron place in our listing. First performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2009, it transferred to London shortly afterwards where the production received critical acclaim. The play traces the trajectory of what should have been a model company of the future to disaster and bankruptcy owing some $38bn (£29bn) to creditors. It focuses in particular on the role of Jeffrey Skilling, Enron’s CEO, who uses the premise of “we’re not just an energy company, we’re a powerhouse for ideas” to expand into other unrelated businesses. As it becomes clear that none of them are profitable, he enlists CFO Andy Fastow to create fake companies to cover up the losses.

The Lehman Trilogy

After paying off all Lehman’s creditors in the UK 100% in 2014, administrator PwC is currently returning to court for approval to pay out another £6bn to them bringing the total returned to 140%. Many of the beneficiaries are hedge funds which bought up tranches of the debt for exceptionally low prices. This would have brought a wry smile to the lips of Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman, the three Jewish refugee brothers whose canny business ways saw their general store in Alabama turn into a bank in the space of 23 years. The transformation is continued by the founders’ descendants – the last Lehman to lead the bank died in 1969 - only to get entangled in the sub prime mortgage lending crisis and collapse into bankruptcy. The play spans the 164 years of the bank’s existence and the characters that created and moulded it and it is astonishingly brought to life by just three actors on stage for three and a half hours in a veritable tour de force.