Compared with Bernard Madoff, he was small fry.
Charles Ponzi’s scam blew up after a few months, and his investors lost about $20 million. Those people who invested with Madoff lost about $20 billion in principal, the trustee liquidating his business in bankruptcy court has said.
Still, the scheme of robbing Peter to pay Paul bears his name, and he now has been resurrected in a French play: “Le Systeme de Ponzi,” which is directed by the author David Lescot and is touring theaters across France.
Lescot, who has already written six plays, has done his homework. He unfolds the biography of the Italian immigrant who arrived in Boston in 1903 with $2.50 in his pocket. After barely surviving on menial jobs Ponzi discovered that honesty was not necessarily the shortest way to get rich.
In 1919, he hit upon his big idea. He discovered that international reply coupons had nominally the same value in every country although they were much cheaper in Europe than in the U.S.
He urged his relatives in Italy to buy them en masse and send them to Boston where he would exchange them for stamps with a handsome profit of 400 percent, or so he believed.
With these rosy prospects, Ponzi set up a “Securities Exchange Company” and promised investors to double their capital in 90 days. They responded in droves.
In August 1920, the bubble burst when Ponzi’s unsavory past came to light -- he had spent time in prison -- and the U.S. Post Office Department stated that it had no intention of redeeming reply coupons in large quantities.
Ponzi spent three and a half years in federal prison for mail fraud and another seven years on state larceny charges.
After his release, he was deported to Italy. He died in 1949 in Rio de Janeiro as poor as he had been when he arrived in Boston.
Lescot knows his Brecht, the “Verfremdungseffekt,” or distantiation, the cabaret style and the songs that, in the German playwright’s works, comment on the action.
A faux Greek chorus relates Ponzi’s life in blank verse interspersed with rapid dialogue and jazzy interludes. The 10 actors, including the author, impersonate about 50 characters and play guitar, accordion, saxophone and other instruments. Only Ponzi (Scali Delpeyrat) and his wife Rose (Celine Milliat-Baumgartner) are exempt from the role swapping.
The main props on the bare set (designed by Alwyne de Dardel) are a dozen or so desks constantly moved around by the actors and piled up in various combinations.
It’s clever, lively and harmless.
In “The Threepenny Opera,” Brecht asked: “What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?” It’s tempting to imagine what the old class warrior would have done with the Ponzi saga and how he would have denounced it.
Lescot is no agitator, and bankers can watch the show without fearing for their blood pressure.
“Le Systeme de Ponzi” is at the Theatre aux Abbesses in Paris through Feb. 10 and then travels to Nancy (March 13-17), St. Etienne (March 21-23), Strasbourg (April 11-26) and other French towns. Information: http://www.theatredelaville-paris.com or +33-1-4274-2277.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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