'The Lehman Trilogy' Is A Parable Of American Capitalism

Apr 3, 2019
Originally published on April 3, 2019 6:16 pm
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"The Lehman Trilogy" is a play that traces the rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers from 19th-century cotton merchants to the 2008 bankruptcy that helped trigger the global financial crisis. "The Lehman Trilogy" is on stage in New York before returning to London, which is where NPR's Frank Langfitt saw it. He sends this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE LEHMAN TRILOGY")

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The play opens on a modern glassed-in office in a Manhattan skyscraper. Financial reports litter a boardroom table. Lehman Brothers threatened with bankruptcy, blares news from a TV. A clock ticks. The action then leaps backwards more than a century and a half to 1844 when Henry Lehman arrives in New York from Bavaria. Simon Russell Beale, a renowned Shakespearean actor, plays him.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE LEHMAN TRILOGY")

SIMON RUSSELL BEALE: (As Henry Lehman) He'd been dreaming of America. The son of a cattle merchant, a circumcised Jew with only one piece of luggage, stood as still as a telegraph pole on dock No. 4 in the port of New York. Thank God he'd arrived (speaking Hebrew). Thank God he'd left (speaking Hebrew).

LANGFITT: Henry opens a store selling suits and fabrics in Alabama. His brothers, Emanuel and Mayer, join him. The Lehman brothers are ambitious, always looking for better ways to make more money.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE LEHMAN TRILOGY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I don't want to sell buckets and spades to slaves.

BEALE: (As Henry Lehman) We sell to whoever will buy. Here in America, everything changes.

LANGFITT: Ben Power adapted the play from its original, much longer version in Italian by Stefano Massini.

BEN POWER: It feels like it's the history of Western capitalism through the last 200 years held by one family, held by these three young men.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: As the family business evolves, a lone piano player provides accompaniment. Sam Mendes, whose credits include the film "American Beauty" and the last two "James Bond" movies, directs. Three performers, the original London cast, play more than 70 roles. The Lehmans become cotton brokers. After the Civil War, they open a bank to fund reconstruction, invest in the railroads, the Panama Canal and survive the Depression.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE LEHMAN TRILOGY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) If buying is instinct like breathing, then people will use banks like they breath air.

BEALE: (As character) Lehman corporation - pure finance, pure money, pure adrenaline.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I'll buy 200 shares in International Steam.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Give me 300 General Electric.

(CROSSTALK)

LANGFITT: Two big themes run through the three-hour play. As the Lehmans and their descendants build businesses over the decades, the family's Jewish faith ebbs. Playwright Ben Power, who also serves as deputy artistic director at the National Theatre in London, explains.

POWER: When the first Lehman in America dies, Henry, they sit shiva for the full seven days. Generation after generation, these deaths come. Shiva is sat within the play, but the time gets shorter and shorter - three days, one day, three-minute silence, ultimately no acknowledgment at all.

LANGFITT: Power sees these fading rituals as symbols of assimilation.

POWER: The roots of the company, the roots of the family, the homeland is lost. In a way, they lose their relationship with God.

LANGFITT: The second theme traces what proves to be a fatal shift in the family business. The Lehman brothers move from selling physical products, such as cotton, to trading eventually in synthetic financial ones, like collateralized debt obligations. The Lehman family finally sells the firm, which is eventually taken over by traders. Again, Ben Power.

POWER: With that move come the seeds of its destruction because there is a hubristic level of aggression built into the philosophy of trading at Lehman. And it's that which ultimately takes the company to bankruptcy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: The Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan is staging "The Lehman Trilogy," not too far from where Lehman Brothers used to operate. Pierre Audi is the Armory's artistic director. He says more than a decade after Lehmans' collapse, the story remains highly relevant.

PIERRE AUDI: It says something about our time and probably about the next hundred years. Who are the next Lehmans that will arrive today in America and where will they get to in 100 years from now?

LANGFITT: "The Lehman Trilogy" is in a limited run until April 20 and then returns to London. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.