Monday, October 20, 2008

Economics in the Musical "Big River"

Last fall when the students of the Upper School at Collegiate (home to the Powell Center for Economic Literacy) did The Music Man for their fall musical, I spent some time on the economics in that play, and managed to pull one economics lesson per day for a week. This year, the students are presenting "Big River", the musical based on Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This time, I thought I would try to focus on one concept or idea and try to point different examples of it in the play. This didn't prove to be less challenging or less entertaining. And despite the fact that a warning appears in the opening scene, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the author. Mark Twain." I pressed on.

The concept that seemed to offer the most interesting opportunity was "productive resources." We know from Powell's Keystone Principles that productive resources are important. There are four types of productive resources: "natural resources" that occur in nature and include things like animals, plants and minerals; "human resources" which include all human effort, whether physical or mental and include all of the skills that humans possess; "capital resources" which includes money, tools or other products held back from consumption for purposes of producing later; and entrepreneurship" which includes the ability to mix and the other resources in new and innovative ways, and taking the risk on providing a good or service.

There are a number of instances where the concept of productive resources is well-illustrated in this musical. Here's how I see them. Please feel free to disagree or add to.

There are a couple hints at productive resources in the number, "Do You Want to Go to Heaven?" The first is the general encouragement to learn to read. Reading is presented as a skill (human resource) that yields benefits - not the least of which is being able to help one get to heaven. But there's also a mention of Judge Thatcher investing money for Huck and Tom Sawyer that yields them "a dollar a day." That’s a good example of capital resources in a productive enterprise.

Huck prepares dinner while his father is railing against the Guv'ment. He rolls fish (natural resources) in cornmeal (natural or capital resources) to cook them.

This scene is opened with the song, "Hand for the Hog". And by the end of the song, we're convinced that the hog is one of the grandest of natural resources regardless of your undertaking. From providing food to being a good pet, you have to give a "hand for the hog." As it turns out, the hog is an important resource to Huck as he tries to fake his own murder so he can run away from his father. Later in Scene V, Huck and Jim pull an old catfish out of the river for dinner. And the catfish (a natural resource) proves to be the source of capital resources (a gold coin), that gets put to use as they provision a raft and set out down the river.

Jim talks about his dream to get his wife and children out of slavery. He envisions trading his labor (human resources) for cash (capital resources) until he has enough to buy their freedom.

This scene sees Huck and Jim have been joined by a couple of other fellows, who go by the names of Duke and King. They're conmen and actors and proceed to develop a plan (entrepreneurship) to get some money from people in a small town by putting on a show. They use their talents (broadly speaking) and cunning to develop a way to trick some of the inhabitants into paying for the show, but then to bring others with money into the show to see the NONESUCH.

Here we find our small quartet heading past Arkansas and developing another plan to take advantage of their human resources to trick a grieving family out of their inheritance. Through a combination of acting and solid listening, King and Duke pick up enough information to perpetrate the fraud, only to be caught by the untimely arrival of one of the people they are impersonating.

We're almost near the end, and this brings Tom Sawyer into the story. Huck has been passing himself off as Tom for a while since getting rid of King and Duke. However, he's stuck at Tom's uncle's home (who evidently hasn't seen Tom in a while), and he needs to get Jim free. Jim was captured as a runaway and is stuck in the uncle's shed. As it turns out, the real Tom shows up. Tom Sawyer has a penchant for elaborate and risky plans (entrepreneurship) for getting what he wants. His intellect is a human resource. However, it seems that all of his plans are more elaborate than they need to be, calling for all kinds of capital resources (spoons and pie) and even some natural resources (spiders).

The show ends shortly thereafter, with Huck planning to head out to the Western Territories. There may be other examples of productive resources in the play, but just this handful shows how an "economic way of thinking" can provide a new view of a classic and fun piece of theater, and provide a new level of appreciation.

I look forward to your comments.

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