Jewish tradition suggests that man was created because God loves stories. And pedagogy tells us – critics as well as authors – that showing is better than telling; let the facts and examples speak for themselves. If you’re looking for a standard review of the devastating drama that is The Lehman Trilogy, read elsewhere. Here, I’ll try to show why it is an American horror story, and mostly let the tale speak for itself.
To begin, the visual: This presentation of The Lehman Trilogy has transferred from the National Theatre’s 900-seat Lyttleton Theatre to a comparable configuration within the vast Wade Thompson Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory. Its steeply raked stadium seating faces a wide stage, on which designer Ev Deslin has set an immense, translucent cube, sparingly accoutered with a glass table, some chairs and various piles of file boxes. At scene changes, the cube revolves silently on a turntable within the polished black floor.
Embracing it, a blank cyclorama serves as a screen on which Luke Halls’ projections will take us from the New York harbor and Battery in the middle-1800s to Montgomery, Alabama, where three immigrant brothers from Bavaria will establish their first business, to the arid plains of Dust Bowl-era Nebraska, and finally to the go-go ‘80s Manhattan of Masters of the Universe, leveraged buyouts, subprime debt and Tom Wolfe uber alles.
The cube and the videos are frequently deployed in counterpoint, to cinematic effect that can vary by scene – a dissolve, for example, as when the background setting comes into view and then recedes, focusing the action on the events taking place within the walls. Or a simulation of the market meltdown of 1987, when rows of numbers and symbols whirl, faster and faster, around the cube, which remains immobile but appears untethered, like Dorothy’s farmhouse during the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz, though slightly nauseating here.
And now to the action of the play, which has been adapted by Ben Power from Stefano Massini’s sprawling, five-hour original performed by a large cast, and compacted into three swift-moving hourlong chapters in which just three actors play all the roles. The director is Sam Mendes (also represented this season on Broadway with The Ferryman). His cast comprises three of the English-speaking theater’s most accomplished actors: Simon Russell Beale as Henry Lehman, eldest of the three brothers and founder of the family firm; Ben Miles as middle brother Emanuel Lehman; and Adam Godley as the baby, Mayer Lehman.
They will go on to take many other roles as well, for Mendes is a master of many theatrical forms, from the Story Theater of Paul Sills to the distancing Epic Theatre of Bertolt Brecht to agitprop theater of Joan Littlewood, all represented here, along with Aeschylus. For Power and Mendes have transformed Massini’s family biodrama about the House of Lehman into a tragedy on the order of the House of Atreus (though absent a chorus to fill us in on the gory details). The language is hypnotic, free-verse and repetitive, songlike.
At the opening, Henry is alone on stage, the New York harbor behind him as the ship from Europe steams to port:
“He left Le Havre a teetotaler and got off the boat in New York an expert drinker … He left shy, self-absorbed and arrived convinced that he understood the world … He left with an idea of America in his head and got off the boat with America before him: no longer in his mind but there in front of his eyes. AMERICA. Baruch HaShem … like so many others, he stepped into the magical music box called America.”
Note that “Baruch HaShem,” “blessed be the Name of God,” is repeated and signifies the arrival of this religious family. They are Jews of the Old Country. When the brothers relocate to the cotton capital of Montgomery, selling bolts of rough fabric to be turned into clothing for local patrons, they never fail to touch the mezuzah on the doorposts and to observe ritual customs to the letter of the law.
Soon, the brothers are buying raw cotton from nearby plantations and selling it to mills in the north, which are insatiable for the goods. Mayer boasts that Lehman Brothers quickly advances from buying eight wagons of cotton to, soon, 2,500 wagons, and reselling it at immense profit. Henry dies young, at 33, and the family sits shiva for a week, according to convention. The business keeps expanding, as does the family.
No mention is made, in this first part, of the consequences for the slaves, of those multiplied orders for more and more cotton. The Lehman Brothers are self-proclaimed “middlemen” between the plantation owners of the South and the mill owners of the North. During the Civil War, the brothers make do by selling cotton overseas, and when the war is finally over, “the Lehman brothers have somehow miraculously survived.” Baruch Ha-Shem.
I will skip here through the second part, in which the business re-centers in New York, to the third, which finds the children and grandchildren of Henry, Emanuel and Mayer as stewards of an ever-evolving and growing business that ultimately expands into finance, bankrolling the moguls who manufacture everything from railroads to moving pictures. The descendants of Henry, Emanuel and Mayer assemble collections of art by old and modern masters. They send their children to the best schools. They boast of becoming Reform Jews (misstated in the play as “reformed”) ,which is meant to suggest they are so alienated from religious piety that shiva is reduced to three minutes, in order not to sacrifice any money-making time to silly old tradition.
A newspaper interviewer by the not insignificant name of Dow asks Mayer and Emanuel, “If Lehman had a recipe for making money, what would the core ingredient be? The flour that you bake with?”
“Trains!” says Emanuel. “Coffee!” says Mayer. Emanuel’s son Philip, who has become the brains of the operation, demurs.
“My dear Mr. Dow,” he responds coolly, pragmatically. “The flour that you are asking about is neither coffee nor coal nor cotton nor the steel of the railway tracks. We are merchants of money ... We use money to make more money. We buy it, we sell it, we lend it, we trade it. This is how the recipe works. Our flour is money.”
If that doesn’t freeze your blood, the penultimate scene, set during the run-up to the collapse of 1987, surely will. Philip’s son Bobbie has further expanded Lehman into the global economy while obsessing over horse racing. Played now by the wiry, wild-eyed Godley, Bobbie literally morphs into a money-sucking vampire, twisting and turning horribly (the section is called “The Twist”) as numbers and code whirl behind him. Faster and faster, it is a dance of death with the almighty dollar, in which the dollar unquestionably wins.
And if God ever was interested in this story, he would seem to have long since left the premises, possibly when it became clear from Massini and Power’s narrative that for this Jewish family, the accumulation of wealth exists for no other purpose than the further accumulation of wealth, no matter the human cost. If money is the flour of the Lehman recipe, greed has been the yeast that made it grow. It’s all too frightening to extract the message from that story.