The Invisible Hand


By Ayad Akhtar

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A "tense, provocative" play (Seattle Times) from the author of Homeland Elegies and the Pulitzer Prize winner Disgraced — a chilling examination of how far we will go to survive and the consequences of the choices we make.

In remote Pakistan, Nick Bright awaits his fate. A successful financial trader, Nick is kidnapped by an Islamic militant group, but with no one negotiating his release, he agrees to an unusual plan. He will earn his own ransom by helping his captors manipulate and master the world commodities and currency markets.



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When I first moved to New York in my early twenties, my father made a deal with me: "Read the Wall Street Journal every day and I'll pay your rent." He and my mother—both physicians, both concerned by my obsession with the arts and what they saw as an apparent, and complete, lack of interest in the more mundane matters of the world—had concocted the plan. They knew their son well enough to know that (1) I would abide if I agreed, and (2) I would probably become interested if I spent enough time reading it.

Such has been my introduction to so much of life, on the written page first. And so it was with the world of money.

My rent was $580, a sum split between myself and my then live-in girlfriend. I read the Journal at the local library a few blocks away, and sometimes at home. Back then the front-page left-hand column was usually the most interesting—and best written—story in the news. My folks were right. I got hooked. That monthly check started to seem entirely unearned.

It was the mid-nineties in New York City, the moment of the first tech boom fueled by the advent of the Internet. Tina Brown had taken over The New Yorker, and in its pages, profiles of the financial elites seemed to sit cheek by jowl with the accomplishments of the moment's most cultured. Soon, twentysomethings and thirtysomethings would be flush with millions (and later billions). At book parties and dinner parties and openings, money and its allure were all the talk. I couldn't have known then that a permanent shift was under way. Or let me put it like this: An old American obsession was finding new and vibrant life, finding a figure and form that would make money—its exigencies, its amorality, its language, its ethos—central not only to the larger cultural conversation but to our experience of the human.

Surely money has always mattered to us. As far back as his journey through the fledgling democracy that was the United States in the early 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville was able to see and articulate this with characteristic pith and pungency:

As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?

Was it ungracious of him to put it thus, or just a blunter way to say a thing we already know about ourselves? Some form of this question has long been a preoccupation for me—humanly, artistically. I, too, share this fascination with money—with its uses, with those who have it, with what the great Wallace Stevens once called the "poetry" of finance. Perhaps it's a form of vicarious living, the only reasonable pathway for an artist to accede to fantasies of power denied to her in life. Or perhaps it is the recognition that our being-with-money—that is to say, our living with it, individually, collectively—speaks to so much that is at the root of art's ultimate pursuit: the most hidden, the most human, the most primal. Beyond the free-market jingoism and all the ceaseless invocations of "The Economy"—as if those two words referred to some newfangled deity whose wrath we were always trying to appease—beyond all this, isn't money the site par excellence of our recurring quotidian terrors and soaring fantasies, and, above all, the everyday test of our character? And in America, money is something else as well: the metonymic complement of personal will itself, its acquisition standing in for the supreme American expression of individual vitality. In many ways, money is our central story.

The American story is no longer ours alone. Globalization has made it, increasingly, everyone's story. The socio-philosophical reasons for this are too complex, too contentious to be addressed in any direct way. And so it falls, I believe, to the artist to offer a picture of the world we are creating, a picture rich with contradiction, short on resolution. This, in any event, was the motivation behind writing The Invisible Hand—that of giving form to an American tale, but one unfolding on a global stage, an encounter of our national mythos with the world beyond our borders. Nick on one side, Bashir on the other. Yet in the end, both men at the heart of this drama resisted any schematic treatment of their so-called allegorical roles. A hostage thriller became an enactment (and inversion) of the Pygmalion tale and changed course again, revealing, at its close, what seemed to me an unlikely but unmistakable portrait of ourselves.

Ayad Akhtar

New York City

April 2015


The Invisible Hand had its world premiere as a one-act play on March 7, 2012, at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri (Steven Woolf, artistic director). It was directed by Seth Gordon; the set design was by Scott Neale; the costume design was by Lou Bird; the lighting design was by Ann Wrightson; the sound design was by Rusty Wandall; and the stage manager was Champe Leary. The cast was as follows:

NICK… John Hickok

DAR… Ahmed Hassan

BASHIR… Bhavesh Patel

JAMES AND THE GUARD… Michael James Reed

A considerably revised two-act version of The Invisible Hand had its West Coast premiere on September 5, 2014, at ACT—A Contemporary Theatre, Seattle, Washington (Kurt Beattie, artistic director). It was directed by Allen Nause; the set design was by Matthew Smucker; the costume design was by Rose Pederson; the lighting design was by Kristeen Willis Crosser; the sound design was by Brendan Patrick Hogan; and the stage manager was JR Welden. The cast was as follows:

NICK… Connor Toms

DAR… Erwin Galan

BASHIR… Elijah Alexander

IMAM SALEEM… William Ontiveros

The two-act version of The Invisible Hand had its New York premiere on November 19, 2014, at New York Theatre Workshop (Jim Nicola, artistic director). It was directed by Ken Rus Schmoll; the set design was by Riccardo Hernandez; the costume design was by ESOSA; the lighting design was by Tyler Micoleau; the sound design was by Leah Gelpe; and the stage manager was Megan Schwarz Dickert. The cast was as follows:

DAR… Jameal Ali

NICK… Justin Kirk

BASHIR… Usman Ally

IMAM SALEEM… Dariush Kashani


DAR—early 20s


BASHIR—mid to late 20s



Somewhere in Pakistan.


In the very near future.


The play should be performed with an intermission between Acts One and Two.

Act One: Scene One

A holding room. Spare. In disrepair. A table center stage. Two chairs. Along the far left wall, a small cot. And above it, a window near the ceiling. Covered in bars.

There's a door stage right.

Sitting at the table is NICK BRIGHT. Intelligent and vital.

Across from him is DAR—early 20s—a rural Pakistani who speaks English with a thick accent. He wears a Kalashnikov over his shoulder.

Dar is leaning over Nick's handcuffed hands. It may take us a moment to realize:

Dar is cutting Nick's fingernails.

We hear male voices offstage talking in a foreign language—voices to which Dar appears to be listening.


NICK: How's your mother, Dar?

DAR: Good. Good.

NICK: That's good.

Dar smiles, nervously.

Goes back to cutting.

NICK (CONT'D): So she's not too sick?

DAR: What?

NICK: Your mother. She's not too sick?

DAR: She sick, Mr. Nick. She sick.


But she happy see her son.

NICK: That's good you went to see her, Dar.

Dar forces a nervous smile, checking over his shoulder as…

… the voices diminish.

Dar stops—listening.

We hear the faint sound of a door closing. Then silence.

Dar gets up and goes to the door stage right—listening.

Then crosses to the window upstage center—listening.

In the distance, we hear a car engine start up. Then drive off.

Dar returns to the table. He rests the gun against the chair. He hands Nick the nail cutter as he pulls a key and undoes one of the cuffs.

DAR: They go. You can cut. I know you don't like I cut for you.

NICK: Thank you, Dar.

The shift is palpable. Dar is clearly more at ease.

DAR: I not go my mother, Mr. Nick.

(Explaining, off Nick's confusion)

I not go see my mother. I had plan. I not tell you.

NICK: You had a plan?

DAR: Before I not tell you.

Now I tell you.

You remember my cousin, he have farm? Potato farm?

NICK: Changez, right?

DAR (Smiling warmly): You remember.

NICK: Of course I remember, Dar.

DAR: Ramzaan coming. Prices going up and up. Like I tell you.

NICK: Like they do every year.

DAR: Changez tell me good crop in Jhelum. Very good year for him.

NICK: I remember.

DAR: Changez is good man, Mr. Nick. People like him. He have respect.

NICK: Right.

DAR: I tell him what you tell me. Sell me all potato, all farmer he has friends. Give for me lowest price. I sell potato high price when Ramzaan come.

I tell him, we all share money, together.

NICK: And?

DAR (Nodding): He talk to them. They don't sell potato to other.

They give me.


I tell here, I go my mother.

But I not go my mother.

I get trucks…

NICK: … Trucks?

DAR: Three trucks. Drive potato from Jhelum to Multan market, highest price.

NICK: How did you get trucks?

DAR: I pay.

NICK: With what?

DAR: Potato. I had so many!


After three days, potato gone.


Seven. Five.

NICK: Seven, five… what?

DAR: Dollar.

NICK: Seventy-five dollars.

DAR: I make.

NICK: You're kidding?

DAR: I change from rupee to dollar. Like you told me: Change all your saving to dollar, Dar. More…

(Speaking Punjabi)


NICK: Stable.

DAR (Repeating): Stable.

NICK: Dar, this is wonderful news.

DAR: A lot of money for me.


Thank you for give me help.

Nick smiles, moved. They share a moment.

We hear sounds in the hall.

Nick quickly takes a seat.

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On Sale
Aug 25, 2015
Page Count
144 pages
Back Bay Books

Ayad Akhtar

About the Author

Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright. His work has been published and performed in over two dozen languages. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Akhtar is the author of Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown & Co.), which The Washington Post called “a tour de force” and The New York Times called “a beautiful novel…that had echoes of The Great Gatsby and that circles, with pointed intellect, the possibilities and limitations of American life.” His first novel, American Dervish (Little, Brown & Co.), was published in over 20 languages. As a playwright, he has written Junk (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Kennedy Prize for American Drama, Tony nomination); Disgraced (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony nomination); The Who & The What (Lincoln Center); and The Invisible Hand (NYTW; Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award, Olivier, and Evening Standard nominations).

Among other honors, Akhtar is the recipient of the Steinberg Playwrighting Award, the Nestroy Award, the Erwin Piscator Award, as well as fellowships from the American Academy in Rome, MacDowell, the Sundance Institute, and Yaddo, where he serves as a Board Director. Additionally, Ayad is a Board Trustee at New York Theatre Workshop, and PEN America, where he serves as President. In 2021, Akhtar was named the New York State Author, succeeding Colson Whitehead, by the New York State Writers Institute.

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