If you have a few bucks to spare, and three hours and twenty minutes, you probably could not acquire a more compelling understanding of the working of the capitalist marketplace than to sit yourself down before April 10 at the Ahmanson Theater for a performance of The Lehman Trilogy. The opening night crowd on March 6 gave the production a unanimous standing ovation—not just for the three actors, not just for the stunning set, but for the script itself, a lesson in how a freewheeling free-market system operates, and can ultimately go haywire unless governed by conscientious regulation.
The Lehmans—Henry, Emanuel and Mayer, three German Jewish brothers—came from Rimpar, Bavaria, just north of Würzburg, the first in 1844. Henry wound up in Montgomery, Alabama, where he opened a small shop selling cotton garments, a typical immigrant endeavor, where he was soon joined by his two younger siblings. The 164-year-long saga story unfolds in three parts: Montgomery, New York from the end of the Civl War until the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and the Thirties until the firm’s spectacular demise in 2008 in the subprime unsecured mortgage crisis.
Shortly after this unimaginable collapse, the Italian playwright Stefano Massini produced a play directed by Luca Ronconi (his final production before his death). A long-term admirer of Ronconi’s, the British director Sam Mendes was inspired to stage an English adaptation by Ben Power. The Lehman Trilogy opened at the National Theatre on July 4, 2018, before its North American premiere at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, winning wide critical approval. The play subsequently returned to London in 2019 for a 16-week sold-out West End run. And then it came back to New York, playing on Broadway for four performances in March 2020 before the country shut down. Recently it finished its limited engagement at the Nederlander Theatre, and it has now opened in L.A.
The melodrama of money
In a remarkable stroke of theatrical invention, this very wordy play is accompanied, almost continuously throughout the show, by a solo pianist whose music comments on and amplifies the spoken word. The word itself is a rich, heady free verse given to expressive metaphor, dream, dialogue, third-person commentary as though from outside the characters themselves, strongly redolent of Greek theater. And that may be where the piano comes in, to provide melodrama, a deeper musification, as it were, of the text, recalling popular songs and evoking moods and emotions, and also remind us of the role of the piano or Hammond organ played during silent movies.
Now, the religiously observant Lehman Brothers were no strangers to worldly culture. Indeed, the very aspiration to come to America in the 1840s derived from their fascination with the wide-open opportunities that awaited in the brash new republic. They are often seen at prayer, observing Jewish holidays and mourning practices. Their Hebrew is that of Central Europe in the 19th century, and generally is well rendered here, though not perfectly. The pronunciation of the word for Sabbath in that time and place would have been Shábbes, not the much later Sephardic-adopted modern Hebrew Shabbát.
Yet they would not be familiar with the rich body of Yiddish folksongs, not to mention the musical theater works of Yiddish playwright Abraham Goldfaden. For one thing because they would have had deep contempt for their “uncultured” peasant, jargon-speaking brethren of Eastern Europe, and for another because a lot of these songs and theater works had not been created by the 1840s!
But repeated quotes from this material underlie the piano score. The single most iterated, and most familiar of these songs, is “Rozhinkes mit mandlen,” or “Raisins and Almonds,” from Goldfaden’s 1880 opera Shulamis. Although the words themselves are not included in the play, it’s worth recalling them—all of them!—as they inform the action.
In the Temple, in a corner of a room,/ Sits the widowed daughter of Zion, alone./ She rocks her only son, Yidele, to sleep with a sweet lullaby. / Ai-lu-lu.
Under Yidele’s cradle stands a small white goat./ The goat traveled to sell his wares./ This will be Yidele’s calling, too, trading in raisins and almonds./ Sleep, Yidele, sleep.
In that song, my child, lie many wonders,/ When you will at some time/ Be scattered throughout the world,/ A merchant of all grains,/ Earning from your trade a lot of money./ Ai-lu-lu
And when you become rich, Yidele,/ Remind yourself of this lullaby./ Raisins and almonds./ This will be your calling./ You’ll be a merchant of all wares,/ But for now, sleep, Yidele, sleep.
There follow two verses that most mothers singing this beloved lullaby never include, and are often not published or recorded, yet are most telling about their time, when merchants concern themselves with much bigger enterprises than cornering the raisin and almond markets. Perhaps Goldfaden had people like the Rothschilds in mind:
A time will come of stocks and bonds,/ There will be offices in the whole world./ You’ll be the greatest banker of them all,/ And you will earn a lot of money. [World (velt in Yiddish) and money (gelt) make the rhyme.]
A time will come of railroads,/ They’ll cover the whole world./ You will unhitch their iron wagons/ And you will earn a lot of money.
Those are the verses the Lehman brothers sang to themselves, even before or if they never heard them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that with news, stories, books and songs constantly traveling “ek and bek” across the Atlantic between Old World and New, it could well be the exploits of the Lehmans and their ilk that inspired those verses. Some children fall asleep with dreams of princes and princesses, others of railroad bonds.
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Someone has to win
The cast consists of, in order of the brothers’ ages, Simon Russell Beale as Henry, Howard W. Overshown as Emanuel, and Adam Godley as Mayer. These characters will die off in turn, but the actors already are morphing into their sons, neighbors, fellow businessmen, in every manner of split-second switches of voice, accent, physical expression, posture, from bawling babies to snotty know-it-all sons to ancient rabbis and patriarchs. Wives are depicted, as well as their courtship, but otherwise women are very much in the background of this story. Though each of these characters is fully rounded out as personalities (or as fully as dramatically we need), individually they may not be especially well-known to the general public, except for one: Herbert Lehman, son of the youngest original brother Mayer, who became a New Deal Era New York State Governor (1933-42) and then U.S. Senator (1950-57).
The tight focus on this Jewish-founded firm, which would eventually founder on the shoals of a grand Ponzi-like speculation, runs a certain risk of this business being identified as a “Jewish” scheme. It certainly will be taken that way in certain quarters. Yet the arc of the firm echoes that of many great capitalist projects, by the Mellons, Carnegies, Rockefellers, Fords, J.P. Morgan, DuPont, George Peabody and others, including in more recent times Amazon, Tesla, Walmart, CVS, Big Pharma, and hedge-fund scavengers, such as Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital—he’s the richest U.S. Senator—which were the topic of another successful play (and film) Other People’s Money, much admired by Donald Trump. The objective of all these enterprises is simply to make as much money as possible, with as little regulation as possible, whatever the rapacious consequences on “the little people” at home in the U.S. or anywhere in the world. The beat of monopolization and wealth concentration goes on unimpeded, like the almost uninterrupted music from the piano.
When the idea of “marketing” came around, ordinary people with a credit card could “give us money they do not have for things they do not need,” and the Lehman Brothers, now far beyond mere banking, became an all-powerful leader in finance. As the last Lehman in the firm—Robert (1891-1969), a grandson of Emanuel—starts winding down his career, the company has gone into computers and then, after him, those toxic derivatives that would bring the house down.
One of the recurring themes in the play, and in the larger history of capitalism, is what Naomi Klein would later call the opportunistic “Shock Doctrine.” We begin with a simple dry goods store, then progress to the brothers brokering cotton from local plantations (referred to today, though not in the play, as “forced labor camps”) to northern manufacturers. Before the Civil War they opened a New York office for cotton sale, soon branching out into coffee, oil, moneylending, investment in railroads (that song again!), tobacco, armaments, Hollywood films (King Kong), race horses, radio and television. Eventually, and essentially, it’s just buying and selling money itself. “We are merchants of money,” says Emanuel’s son Philip. “Our flour is money.” Confidence, trust and belief—these are the true coin of success for a financial entity that plays with your dough.
At each stage they do not despair over slavery, fires, wars, genocide, stock market vagaries, new technology. Hardly! They keep the ball in play (the next generation learns to play tennis), adapt, and strategize new ways of investing in the rebuilding that will redound to the company’s profitability. “Prices always change, but someone has to win.” It’s not haphazard that there’s an early scene of the brothers lighting the eighth night of Chanukah candles. Chanukah means “rededication,” in the historical case after the destruction of the ancient Temple. Disaster means rebirth and opportunity. They will be the “middlemen,” the brokers, as their father back in Germany had been a cattle merchant, as the landless Jews became, in the Middle Ages, the favored tax collectors for the noble landowners, with limited access to the court—and unlimited hatred from the peasants.
We cannot help but think of the market slump in the late Trump years, and how quickly the stock market rebounded under COVID. Investors who had lost a third of their portfolios’ value found that they quickly regained, even doubling within a few short months, especially from the good luck of Big Pharma and the vaccine and government intervention to protect wages and cover unemployment. With weak regulation and scant taxation of windfall profit, a certain class (and the entire Republican Party) have now all but decided that 1) democracy is too harmful to its steady accumulation of wealth, and that 2) their only salvation is through open class rule in control of the corporate state, in other words, fascism. The issue goes far beyond the Lehmans, who are no longer in the picture.
All the while, as Lehman fortunes mount vertiginously, the lot of those at the bottom—the enslaved and later sharecroppers who picked the cotton at the beginning, for example, and the would-be homeowners who lost their assets through the false lure of a mortgage they would never be able to pay—is totally out of view, implied, of course, but never mentioned. At one point a rabbi is testing the young boys to see if they know the Ten Plagues in the Passover Exodus story—and the fact that the Lehman treasure house was built on enslaved African backs somehow fails to come up.
Even in the depth of the Depression and the multiple bank failures, the Lehmans made a conscious decision not to come to the rescue of their fellow bankers on the theory that if Lehman Brothers survived, they would come out on top. The absence of basic human solidarity outside their own Lehman family ranks is stunning, and perhaps more so as audiences contemplate it without benefit of any sermonizing.
A number of subsidiary themes run through the play as leitmotifs: Terrifying recurring dreams of failure and collapse; piles of coins, briefcases, file boxes, and one could add skyscrapers mounting high, like the Tower of Babel or like Icarus flying too close to the sun, that surely one day will have to topple; the high wire tightrope walker Solomon Paprinsky who performs his act every day to the amazement of people on Wall Street, “where every day people walk on air,” a telling metaphor for the risks and dangers of high finance; cards, gambling and shell games; and the increasingly secularized lives of the family, standing in, perhaps somewhat hypocritically, for the lamentable “loss of family values” in America—as if!
Great tragedy usually involves great hubris. It’s not that Oedipus, or Lear, Macbeth or Othello, or Willie Loman for that matter, are such lovable characters. They’re not, as the Lehmans are not. But great flaws are built into this dystopian ecosystem, both characterological and historical. At the end of the Civil War, when the cotton fields have all been burnt and nothing points to renewal, the family Dr. Beauchamp reflects to Mayer that “everything that was built here was built on a crime. The roots run so deep you cannot see them, but the ground beneath our feet is poisoned.” And that’s without even once mentioning the first theft of the land from the Indigenous peoples!
The scenic design is by Es Devlin, with costumes by Katrina Lindsay. The all-important video component that surrounds the rotating transparent box at center stage is by Luke Halls. Lighting is by Jon Clark; the composer and sound designer is Nick Powell, assisted by Dominic Bilkey. The music director is Candida Caldicot, and movement is by Polly Bennett. The pianists are Rebekah Bruce and Em Goldman.
One doesn’t have to admire these people, except for the sheer brilliance of their heartless audacity, to recognize The Lehman Trilogy as one of the most significant plays of our time—and maybe for all time. It would be a real shame to miss this moment of theatrical magic. Inevitably there will be a film—or a mini-series—but it won’t be the same.
Center Theatre Group presents The Lehman Trilogy through April 10 at the Ahmanson Theatre Tues. through Sun., with matinees also on Sat., and Su. The full schedule is on the company website. The Music Center is located at 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles 90012.
For tickets and further information, go here.
Eric A. Gordon