Bringing the life of Adam Smith to the stage in Kirkcaldy

A new play based on the remarkable life of Kirkcaldy's most famous son is coming to town this week.
Tha cast of 'Adam Smith - The Invisible Hand' with writer/director John Yule (centre) (all pics by David Cruikshanks)Tha cast of 'Adam Smith - The Invisible Hand' with writer/director John Yule (centre) (all pics by David Cruikshanks)
Tha cast of 'Adam Smith - The Invisible Hand' with writer/director John Yule (centre) (all pics by David Cruikshanks)

‘Adam Smith – The Invisible Hand’ tells the story of the Kirkcaldy-born author and economic pioneer whose landmark book The Wealth of Nations is still a major influence on worldwide economics to this day – over 250 years after it was written in 1776.

The play is the brainchild of Kirkcaldy-based writer and director John Yule, who said he had sat on the idea for a number of years.

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“I’ve always hankered after having my own small company just to do small-scale tours and plays,” he said.

The cast in rehearsals at Kirkcaldy's Old KirkThe cast in rehearsals at Kirkcaldy's Old Kirk
The cast in rehearsals at Kirkcaldy's Old Kirk

“Going back around maybe as long as 20 years I had this idea that Adam Smith may be a good subject for a play and I bought a volume called The Life of Adam Smith by Professor Ian Simpson Ross who lives in America.

“It’s a very learned tome and it just lay on the shelf as I was really busy at the time. Then about three years ago I had a wee bit more time on my hands so I did a bit of research and thought, you know maybe I could do this.”

John, who has worked as a professional actor since the 1960s, then began writing and says at first the play was “pretty dull”.

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“I was finding it hard to get an angle on Adam Smith because there’s not too much that’s known about him, but this book by Prof. Ross took quite an interest in the French Revolution, so all of a sudden it got quite exciting,” John said.

“Adam Smith actually destroyed all his letters before he died, possibly because he just wanted people to concentrate on his two books and he’d seen how David Hume’s legacy had been messed about with by people printing old letters and making assumptions about him that weren’t necessarily true.

“He went to France for three years, and toured the country as a tutor to the son of an aristocrat. And I thought, I don’t believe that anybody can go to France for three years and not come away changed in some way.

“So in the play I have him writing letters to his mother and she is concerned because his French experience is changing his mind on a lot of things and she wasn’t keen on this. So there’s conflict there.

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“He was also involved in a theoretical sense with the French revolutionaries who wanted to change their society. He gave some pamphlets concerning French thinking to Professor Alan McConnachie here in Scotland, who had a relation who was a spy for the British Government.

“Now, I’ve been a little economical with the truth here, McConnachie’s relation was certainly a spy later in his life, but whether he was when Adam Smith was alive I’m not entirely sure, but it’s not impossible. So in the play Smith becomes a little tense in how he’s going to be perceived through his letters and these pamphlets.

“In that way, I was able to get some hooks into the play. So I tried it out, firstly in France then here at the Old Kirk about 18 months ago where we had a reading of it. People liked the idea and it was a bit better.

“So then I worked and worked on it and thought it was ready to do.”

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The result is John’s In Company Theatre Productions, which will stage eight performances of the play later in the month – a production that is entirely Kirkcaldy born and bred.

“Kirkcaldy have backed their own man,” John said, “the Old Kirk and Kirkcaldy 4 All have funded this and it’s very difficult to find funding for plays.

“Kirkcaldy 4 All have been really supportive of this and I can’t commend manager Bill Harvey highly enough, because he’s stayed with me through thick and thin – and there has been some thin! – but I think we’ve now got the play at a really good standard.

“We have four professional actors; Martin Docherty, Billy Riddoch, Susan Coyle and Paul Samson, and a set that’s up to proper production standards, so we’re doing it.

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“Paul was in River City for 13 years as Raymond Henderson so he’s quite well known. He’s been a big help to me on this, he’s been with it from the start.”

Another aspect of the play is to repair some of the damage to Smith’s reputation of being, as John puts it, “the High Priest of Capitalism”, which he says is unfair.

“Margaret Thatcher famously carried a copy of The Wealth of Nations in her handbag,” he said.

“Now, we may or may not like Margaret Thatcher, but what she did was to take Adam Smith literally, that governments and business should leave traders alone. Well, that was OK for his day, but if he’d seen what is happening in our day, such as the 2008 crash, where rampant neo-liberalism has really ruined a lot of businesses and a lot of people’s lives, he would never have agreed with that form of capitalism, so I’m redressing the balance in a sense, to say that.

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“Where Smith based his values was mostly in Kirkcaldy because he went to school here. He had a very good primary education where they put on plays which weren’t about Lords and Ladies, but about ordinary people bartering in the market places. And so his experience in Kirkcaldy continued when he came back to write Wealth of Nations.

“The town was quite well off at that time with lots of markets and trading close to where he lived and he also saw that in France, so that’s where all his theories began.

“My take on it is that Kirkcaldy is the root of where everything happens. The Wealth of Nations is where all his thinking came together – inspired by the ordinary people of Kirkcaldy, not rich traders.”

The play also looks at Smith’s private life and his complicated relationship with his mother.

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John said: “Smith’s dad died before he was born and he was a sickly child. His mother cared for him and she had a lion-hearted approach to anything that went wrong with him and helped him to survive his childhood and the harsh Scottish climate.

“He maintained a very close relationship with her throughout his life, so there’s number of scenes with the mother.

“I was worried about that role but Susan Coyle has taken it and made it something quite special.”

John said there are further plans to help develop Adam Smith’s name in the town and outwith. “There are plans to maybe next year take the play to the Edinburgh festival and maybe do another week here,” he said.

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“We’re also considering running Adam Smith tours, where me or someone else can dress up as Adam Smith and take people around pertinent Adam Smith spots.

“That’s a big part of the reason why Kirkcaldy 4 All have been really supportive of this, it’ll bring people to the town.”

‘Adam Smith – The Invisible Hand’ is on at the Old Kirk, Kirk Wynd, Kirkcaldy, from Friday, August 18 – Sunday 20 and Tuesday 22 – Saturday 26. All shows begin at 7.30pm.

Tickets are available each night from the venue or by emailing John Yule at [email protected].