How are we to understand the violence inherent to the possession of wealth? In the mid-seventeenth century the revolutionary Digger Gerard Winstanley called the possession of immense private property the “kingly power” of men over men, the “great red dragon, the god of this world, the oppressor, under which the whole creation hath groaned a long time, waiting to be delivered from him.” In Posh, a play by Laura Wade first produced in London in 2010, a less rhetorical approach is taken, but the upshot is almost the same.
In the context of this play, violence is the innermost hidden tendency of the ownership of wealth; it is forever struggling to come out and manifest itself. The possession of wealth may incline people to behave with respect for the society in which their money is invested—and from which, inevitably, the money stems. But wealth can also allow people to buy off and discard society’s restraints— moral codes, laws, authority, a sense of shame–after which they will use their wealth to oppress and destroy, even to the point of self-destruction.
In Posh, and to a lesser extent in The Riot Club, the 2014 film based on the play (out this week on DVD), this odd logic of self-destructiveness is convincingly dramatized. Both versions of the story are based on the real life Bullingdon Club, an all-male private dining society at the University of Oxford. Three of the most powerful men in the United Kingdom—Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne, and London Mayor Boris Johnson—were members there, and all have been caught in photos wearing the ridiculous custom-made formal wear traditional to the club, posing like high-minded lords on their way to a world peace conference (or else on the way to a very serious and portentous drinking binge).
Though by no means the only exclusive private club at Oxford, Bullingdon is one of the most prestigious and notorious. It has a history of hosting dinners where, once the members have stoked themselves with enough liquor and drugs, the members trash the facility where the dinner is held, breaking windows, chandeliers, furniture—and then later simply paying the owner of the facility for the damage, in cash.
In both Posh and The Riot Club, one dinner goes too far, and the group’s violence lands on an unlucky person, the owner and manager of the restaurant. A kindly middle-aged man with a Scottish accent, the owner protests against the club members’ behavior. They have brought a prostitute into their private dining room (although the prostitute herself has rejected their proposal for group oral sex and quit the premises). They have been making a lot of noise and scaring away his normal customers. They have harassed his daughter, a college graduate (from a non-posh university) who works as a waitress there. He is angry and resentful. Finally, he catches them in a drunken tizzy, absolutely trashing the dining room, ripping the very wallpaper from the wall. He protests, and pays for it by being brutally attacked by several of the club members and knocked unconscious.
The play has a surreal quality. The step-too-far the play must take in order to bring about a catastrophe and denouement comes about as if in a dream. That is as it should be. The violence of the upper classes in Britain is not a “real” kind of violence; rather, it is a matter of structure, of legal and traditional coercion and domination, bolstered by what the author of the play has called “tribalism.” In making this latent power manifest in vandalism, riot, and a beating, the play has a power that is at once fascinating, appalling, and allegorical. It scores its political points by sticking to the dream-like logic of inequality in Britain: a logic that is usually too strange and awful for people in their waking lives to acknowledge.
The film, however (directed by Lone Scherfig following a screenplay by playwright Wade), unfortunately pays its respects to what passes for realism in most films today, with sentimental character development emphasized by close-ups and easy-to-parse moral confrontations. The Riot Club focuses on two of the young men in the club and makes them, for all their faults, into people we can sympathize with, even as we must also condemn them. The logic of the violence seems less like the expression of the English class system than like a pattern of juvenile delinquency, undertaken by boys who happen to have too much money and too little adult supervision in their lives, and who make the mistake of thinking that they are men.
“Filthy rich, spoilt rotten,” says the poster of the film and the cover of the DVD. Yes, of course. But unlike the film, the play condemns the entire system. Posh makes the deeper point that money today, even in democracies, is a kingly—even tyrannical—power, and the whole system for making, owning, distributing, and using it is corrupt.