Martin Kettle

A play written a century ago airs the issues in the Enron scandal like nothing else.

WHEN POWER, money, and status combine to produce a real-life courtroom drama, it can seem as if a whole way of life and behaviour is on trial. It has been that way last week and this as Enron's chief executive, Jeffrey Skilling, has taken the stand in Houston in the biggest conspiracy, fraud, and insider-dealing trial in modern American history.

"You're a smart guy, aren't you?" Mr. Skilling's defence lawyer, Dan Petrocelli, asked him last week. "Yes," proudly acknowledged the man who built Enron into the giant it once was. "Are you consumed by greed?" the lawyer continued. "I was consumed by this company," Mr. Skilling countered. "I wanted to build this company to be an institution. We thought there was a chance Enron could become the energy company, and later the company, of the 21st century."

A lot of the fascination of the Enron saga is there in that one short exchange: the pride, ambition, obsession and vulnerability. It sounds like a scene from a play. In fact it sounds like a scene from a particular and remarkable play.

Harley Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance is about an English family solicitors' firm at the start of the last century. Upper-middle-class Edwardian England is a far cry from the American energy-trading world now under the spotlight in Houston. But the worm in the Voysey bud is first cousin to the worm in Enron's. In both cases, the outward respectability of the company masks a sustained conspiracy to take money from investors and clients.

Barker wrote The Voysey Inheritance in 1905. It was an immediate success.At a time when corruption and scandal are so salient in public life, The Voysey Inheritance is at one level a reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. The Voysey family's dirty secret that it has been dipping into their clients' investments for generations echoes the career of the Victorian fraudster Jabez Balfour. But it also looks forward to the Maxwell scandal nearly a century later, to "rogue trader" Nick Leeson's audacious plunderings at Barings Bank and to the industrial-strength pilfering practised by Joyti De-Laurey at Goldman Sachs.

The Voysey Inheritance, though, is not a political tract. It would be a boring play if it was. In fact it is a play of resource and strength with echoes of both Ibsen and Chekhov.

The easy conclusion is that this is all very modern and that The Voysey Inheritance is remarkably resonant which is true. But it is a funny modern play that has so few modern counterparts. Fraud and corruption may generate a courtroom drama in Houston. But they do not often inspire playwrights to write drama for the theatre or television. This is a hole in modern culture and it is disturbing that it should take a play from a century ago to make one ask why. "Ask why?" incidentally, was the company motto of Enron.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004