About The Author
Born in New Plymouth on New Zealand's North Island, Anthony McCarten is an award-winning novelist, playwright and filmmaker.
He published his first novel, Spinners, in 1999. In 2005, he adapted his second novel, The English Harem, for ITV, in a production starring Art Malik and Martine McCutcheon. His adapted his third novel, Death of a Superhero, for the big screen; it went on to win the 2011 European Film Festival People Choice Audience Award and the Youth Jury Award. His own adaptation of his fourth novel, Show of Hands, was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the New Zealand Film Awards.
He has also written a number of other works for stage and screen; his 1987 play, Ladies' Night, remains New Zealand's most commercially successful play ever and won France's prestigious theatre award, the Molière Prize.
His new novel, Brilliance, centres on the Gilded Age relationship between Thomas Edison, the legendary inventor of the first commercially practical incandescent light, and the giant of the late nineteenth-century financial world, John Pierpont Morgan. In his eighties, Edison looks back over a life of remarkable achievements, regretting both the strain on his family and the moral decline brought about by his pursuit of commercial success that was also to see him irrevocably linked with the innovation of the electric chair.
A gripping account of a tumultuous era and the sobering tale of a man who could never live up to his godlike reputation, Brilliance offers a hugely entertaining perspective on the lives of two men who shaped history.
Below he explains how J P Morgan's ruthlessly commercial approach to business established the conditions for modern industry and corporate America as we know them today. Beneath that, in an exclusive interview for Foyles, Anthony talks about the 15-year gestation period of Brilliance, the close parallels between the business and banking world in the Gilded Age and today, and crossing the line between technology and magic.
The Author At Foyles
The Gilded Age, Revisited
Gilded: as in covering with a thin layer of gold. The name, The Gilded Age, evokes marvelous excess, surfeit wealth drizzling down from the rich to the less fortunate, in glorious defiance of the gloomy predictions of Karl Marx. This Age, an American phenomenon in the main, more or less began in 1870 and ended in 1905, a 35-year run of unprecedented economic growth. Evoked are the "diamond dinners" thrown at the Madison Avenue brownstone of the world's greatest banker, J P Morgan, where the females guests opened their napkins to discover inside an exquisite pearl, while the tuxedoed men lit their cigars with hundred dollar bills (a figure exactly one-third of the average annual income in 1880). Enough money to go round, enough even to trickle down to the poor. Et In Arcadia, Nos.
But in fact, the age was anything but gilded for the majority. For most, The Gilded Age would be more aptly called The Gilty Age. (The archaic usage of "gilt" is to "smear with blood.")
A noted US economist in 1880 (though it could as easily serve for 2012) observed "a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution" in society at large. And the cause of the hostility? The huge disparity in wealth between rich and poor. In that year the US counted 12 million families. Eleven million of these lived well below the poverty line. The rich, rightly uneasy in their gilded beds, feared "carnivals of revenge" as they got wind that the general public were both unhappy and unhappily organizing themselves. Corruption had been observed in every estate of business, government and the press. Strikes were called for. Spontaneous riots erupted. Even those politicians engaged to uproot corruption were found to be on the take. Any of this sound familiar to today's readers?
Neither a borrower nor a lender be, Shakespeare extolled. Many today might wish to abridge Hamlet's famous encomium to better fit modern times: adding, not unless you can be paid £14 billion in pre-tax bonuses (the figure cited by the UK Office of National Statistics as those monies paid out on City bonuses in this year of general penury and privation).
During the recent protests on the grounds of St Paul's Cathedral, I saw one young male protestor who looked especially mild-mannered. Gentle. Intelligent. He looked sensitive. I'd add the word 'harmless' if the placard he held hadn't read: 'Death To Bankers'. This short three-word nugget was intended to sum up his, and a wide swathe of society's, anger at a group of professionals who must now be deemed the most reviled order of person in the industrialized west, after Islamofascists, and the Kardashians.
How did this happen? How did those people we pay to keep our money in a safe place until we need it again, come to be seen as tyrants, defilers, ruiners of the universal dream? And what lessons can we draw from the Gilded Age, a time perhaps more like our own than any other in history.
The Gilded Age was a term first coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book The Gilded Age: A Tale Of Today. Twain would write: "What is the chief end of man? - to get rich. In what way? - dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must." At the time Twain wrote these worlds, the greatest banker in the world and the first real superstar of usury, was J P Morgan. The son of a banker, Morgan was a frightening figure: firstly because of his financial power, but also because of his nose swollen to twice its normal size by a disease which gave it the texture of a cauliflower. There had been corporations before - the fledgling rail and steel industries had spawned them in the 1820s - but with Morgan came a man with a new economic vision that was nothing less than Napoleonic. He foresaw international 'combinations' (conglomerates into today's language) that would become more powerful than governments, that could write their own rules, free from what he called the 'petty meddling of politicians' only concerned with re-election. He wanted bankers, professional money men, pulling the levers, setting the world on a new trajectory away from the wasteful competition of warring interests. Instead, a competition-free zone, where single entities could more efficiently control the flow of credit and capital. Because he considered himself an idealist and an adherent of noblesse oblige, he foresaw no dangers to the public in such ideas. Enlisting men like the inventor Thomas Edison, who had just invented the electric light bulb, he built all-new industries from the ground up, control of which rested with a board, with the board answerable, finally, to himself. It was an enormous conceit, and with its invention - resisted in vain by liberals at every turn over fifty years - Morgan's opinion and favour became more sought after than Presidents or Princes. Banking would never again be boring. He made his profession the quiet centre- piece of the system which, rather illogically, is still called Democracy. When he died, with his economic vision in full, happy swing, he left a fortune of $80 million. Rockefeller, hearing of the dead man's bank balance, remarked: 'And to think, he wasn't even rich.'
Most historians cite the sinking of the Titanic as the moment when the party finally ended. The Gilded Age sank along with that glorious symbol of power and gaudy wealth, but the system Morgan had engineered would prove - as today's 'Occupy' movement protestors will shrink from concluding - invincible.
© Anthony McCarten 2012
Questions & Answers
What was it that first drew you to the story of Edison and the War of Currents?
I awoke on my couch. It was after midnight. I was in Los Angeles, working on my first novel, which I'd briefly set aside that night in order to watch the Los Angles Lakers basketball match play dismally on Channel Nine TV. The year was 1997. Groggily, I flicked through the late-night channels on offer with small hope of pleasure - much as one pats a cat that doesn't belong to you - and stopped on the History Channel which showed a frozen black and white illustration of men wearing bowler hats, parading in formation down Madison Avenue in Gilded Age New York, circa 1880. What was remarkable about the picture, and the men, was that out the top of each bowler hat sprouted a glowing light-bulb. It was an arresting image, surrealistic, oddly futuristic, magical. I sat up, incandescent myself. I paid attention. Turns out these men were employees of the inventor Thomas Edison, paid to advertise the safety of the latest "lamp" and more importantly, the safety of electricity itself, at that time little understood and even thought by many to be a liquid that could seep out of wires, be absorbed by household furniture, and kill you in a flash if you sat down. Edison was out to prove a point. He wanted to change the world. Turns out, he did. But in far more ways - both appealing and appalling - than he'd bargained for.
For the next fifteen years - after watching those closing ten minutes of that documentary on Edison's battle to establish his incandescent lamp and the Direct Current system, as the industry standard - I have been at work, more or less, on a Gilded Age novel that tries to shine a light on the world we live in today.
It is his involvement with financier JP Morgan that shifts Edison's focus from invention to commerce. Should we blame the banker for corrupting Edison or were the flaws there already?
Through Edison's relationship with the world's first great superbanker, JP Morgan, a paired dream was chivvied to life, of an electric world presided over by giant corporations whose combined power would be greater than governments. They both got their wish - the recent Occupy Movement protestors outside St Paul's Cathedral will surely attest to this, as might your bank balance - if you still have one. At any rate, since watching that documentary, and after reading my way through a Hindu Kush of historical tombs, I now look at America in the 1880s as a point of embarkation for the modern world. It is my thesis that the offer of almost unlimited cash in and of itself corrupts. I think Edison knowingly deviated from his own principles, thinking that this would be temporary. I use the image of "the pilot light" which he is sure will keep burning, even as he turns the flame down on his principles. It seldom works out like this. Pilot lights are fragile too. Ultimately, Morgan only exploited weaknesses in Edison that are common to almost anyone. I'm reminded of the Groucho Marx line: "Those are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others."
Were Edison's objections to his one-time employee and, later, rival Nikola Tesla's ideas about the potential of AC current (as opposed to his own DC system) ever truly scientific?
The first reaction of most people to new ideas that threaten the orthodoxy is disbelief. After this comes anger. Then rejection. Then war. Then, inevitably, acceptance. Even, sometimes, attempts to claim that the idea was the brainchild of those who first rejected it. The forces of orthodoxy are great revisionists.
Readers may well be quite shocked by Edison's cavalier attitude toward using animals in experimenting with 'electricide'. Does this demonstrate a callousness resulting from his immersion in the world of business or would social attitudes of the time have made this seem acceptable?
In my research I found little evidence that Edison viewed animals with any tenderness. He was therefore a man of his times. I think, in the book, that I make him slightly more squeamish about brutality to animals than he probably was. But this is to represent another ideological threshold that, in his obsession to succeed, he is prepared to cross.
Edison's success as an inventor is contrasted with his poor treatment of his wife, children and colleagues. Do you feel this was just an inevitable consequence of the dedication his achievements required?
Edison's family were certainly victims of his famous workaholism. He was a better husband second time around. He learned to appreciate his family more in later life. But by then, tremendous damage had been done. His first wife had not survived his lack of care. His children by this marriage had eccentric and mostly miserable lives. He had much to regret in the last years of his life. But was it necessary to be a lousy husband in order to invent the electric light? I suspect Edison's poor treatment of his wives was not uncommon for his times. And his profession did demand obsessive concentration. Being almost entirely deaf unless shouted at cannot have helped things.
Science in the era of Edison and Tesla contained much that might have seemed almost like magic; would this explain their investigations of what we would now think of as paranormal applications for their discoveries?
From eye-witness reports by those first exposed to the phonograph, telephone, electric lamp, cinema, it was clear that people believed that the line that separated technology from magic had been crossed, even erased for good. People collapsed, screamed, ran away in fear at first exposure to these far-fetched miracles. Doctors had to stand by at expositions ready to perform cardiac massage and mouth-to-mouth.
The steady flow of marvellous inventions had the effect of dashing cynicism and almost demanding credulity. After all, if an orchestra could be crammed into a little box and summoned at the crank of a handle, then anything was surely possible: an invention to make food from thin air, a machine to speak with the dead, a dynamo that would broadcast unlimited free electricity anywhere in the world, must surely come next. And then everybody would know the mind of God. No wonder men like Edison were worshipped.
Much of the novel is told in flashback from Edison's final years, just prior to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and includes the 1912 congressional hearings on the behaviour of major financial institutions. Did you have parallels with today's economic situation in mind?
I suppose I smelt a rat long before this current economic crisis. Since my university days in Wellington New Zealand in the 80s - then a poor student of anthropology, political science, and the arts - I'd had the not uncommon undergraduate hunch that business and banking ruled to a degree that was did injury to our highest hopes and aspirations as a species. At some point in my studies I identified the corporation, especially the multi-national financial sector, as one of the enemies to global justice. It begged the question: where did this system come from? Who invented it? When? Why? The good old four Ws. I was to learn that America in the 1880's, at the height of the Gilded Age, was a hinge period in the history of the modern industrial world. It was the moment when bankers stopped being boring keepers of our money. They got interesting. And dangerous. There are almost too many parallels with today's economic woes to list.
A noted US economist in 1880 (though it could as easily serve for 2012) observed "a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution" in society at large. The cause of the hostility? The huge disparity in wealth between rich and poor. In that year the US counted 12 million families. Eleven million of these lived well below the poverty line. The rich, rightly uneasy in their gilded beds, feared "carnivals of revenge" as they got wind that the general public were both unhappy and unhappily organizing themselves. Corruption had been observed in every estate of business, government and the press. Strikes were called for. Spontaneous riots erupted. Even those politicians engaged to uproot corruption were found to be on the take. Any of this sound familiar to today's readers?
You've adapted several of your earlier books for television and cinema. Might we see a screen version of Brilliance at some point?
Available Titles By This Author
Past Events for this Author