The Invisible Stage Hand, or the Drama of Capitalist Realism
Mark Fisher has recently defined capitalist realism as “a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”  Fisher uses the term to describe the ideology that “not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (2). According to Fisher, capitalist realism is characterized by the fantasy of the infinite expansion of capital and by “reflexive impotence.” That is, people “know things are bad, but more than that, they can’t do anything about it” (21).
I propose to analyze the dramatic oeuvre of British and Irish playwrights writing in the wake of Ibsen (John Galsworthy, Harley Granville-Barker, G. Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde) in the light of capitalist realism. This is a fitting label, as the playwrights in question are often described as realists who revolted against melodrama and the French pièce bien faite. My argument is that their realism also captures their ambivalent attitude toward capitalist culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The most common motifs of the drama of capitalist realism include the negotiation of a deal with echoes of the Faustian bargain, toxic inheritances, and what Shaw dubbed “tainted money.”  These features spotlight the perpetuation of the status quo and leave the problem of how to bring about social change largely unresolved within the scope of the play. If Greek tragedy, as defined by Hegel, shows the collision and the ultimate reconciliation between two opposing and valid forces, each making too exclusive a claim, then the problem play of capitalist realism dramatizes the negotiation and the signing of a business deal between political idealists and realists, resulting in a significant loss for the idealists. The conflict in these plays is shown to take place on the surface, while the foundations remain unshaken. And the winners are the characters that are able to reach a compromise that perpetuates the status quo and guarantees the expansion of capital. The deus ex machina that perfunctorily takes care of the plot and the unsolvable moral problem at the end of capitalist realist plays is often nothing less than the invisible hand of the market, which makes its material grasp felt on stage through the presence of financial shares either through the appearance of shareholders or through a document showing the prices of stocks. We witness such deus ex machina even today in the endings of such Hollywood blockbusters as American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street.
It should come as no surprise then that formally the drama of capitalist realism is often a comedy, albeit a dark one, since the genre of comedy usually reaffirms the status quo that is threatened in the beginning. Time and again, we witness characters abandon their idealism, join the general covering-up of corruption, and become part of the system that they once hoped to challenge and change. In other words, these dramatic works not only represent reality as it is, but also probe political realism and the acceptance of reality as it is. As Adolphus Cusins sums it up in Major Barbara: “What I am now selling [my soul] for is neither money nor position nor comfort, but for reality and power” (171, my ital.). Yet the approach of these playwrights is not simply that of critique, as they stress their own complicity in the state of affairs and question the ability to resist the lure of capital.
Alisa Sniderman is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Her interdisciplinary dissertation The Modern Stage of Capitalism: Drama of Markets and Money (1870-1930) focuses on the relationship between modern European drama and capitalist culture from Ibsen to Brecht: how dramatic works think through economic theories and issues of their time and how they deal with their complicity with the capitalist system. Her article “Stage Freight: Labor and the Representability of Capitalism in Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Weavers” is forthcoming in Modern Drama in the fall of 2014.