LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - In September it will be a decade since Lehman Brothers collapsed. While many recall the Wall Street firm’s dramatic failure - and the global crisis it unleashed - few know how it began. A dazzling new production of “The Lehman Trilogy” examines that story through the eyes of its founding siblings and the dynasty they created. It’s America’s economic history distilled into a family drama.
The chronicle of a collapse foretold begins in September 1844 when Henry, the oldest Lehman, arrives in the United States from Bavaria. He settles in Montgomery, Alabama and opens a store selling clothing and farming tools, where he is joined by his two brothers. The immigrant ethos of self-reliance and hard work is strong. Financial innovation begins early. The brothers buy cotton from local farmers and sell it to factories in the north. “We’re middle men,” the youngest, Mayer, explains to his sceptical future father-in-law.
As the family’s wealth grows, traditions fade. When Henry dies, his brothers close the shop for a week to mourn. By the time Robert “Bobbie” Lehman, the last family member to run the firm, passes away more than a century later, his colleagues barely pause. Markets no longer have time for sentiment.
With assimilation comes financial abstraction. The brothers move to New York and trade commodities such as coffee, coal and iron but no longer handle the actual goods. Investigating an opportunity to finance a railroad, Emanuel Lehman is shocked that the business consists of nothing more than a line drawn on a map. His son Philip sees the potential profit: he’s interested in numbers with lots of “zeroes, zeroes, zeroes”.
The detachment from reality is complete when the firm embraces computerised trading. The giant panoramic screen behind the stage – which first displays Alabaman cotton fields and then the New York skyline – becomes a digital blur. The play does not attempt to explain how subprime mortgages were repackaged into the supposedly safe bonds that helped trigger Lehman’s demise in 2008. There’s no need: the scope for self-delusion is clear.
The history – adapted by Ben Power from Stefano Massini’s play – is punctuated by crises, most of which Lehman turns into opportunities. After a massive cotton fire, the brothers finance new crops. Following America’s destructive civil war, the firm secures state funding to start a bank. During the Wall Street crash of 1929, Lehman survives by bringing in partners from outside the family.
The story is told by three actors who are on stage for the play’s three hours. As well as portraying the brothers, they switch into a range of other characters – children, girlfriends, wives, business partners, rabbis – all the while dressed in the original black garb of the founders. This is funny but also serves as a constant reminder of the firm’s origins.
The action takes place in a large, rotating glass-and-steel box that is part corporate boardroom, part executive office. It’s filled with stacks of cardboard boxes like the ones Lehman’s employees used to carry their belongings after the bank collapsed. As the action unfolds in a single-room Alabama store, or the racecourse where Bobbie Lehman watches his horses, this backdrop is an intimation of the firm’s ultimate fate.
The play pays little attention to the firm’s modern history. It summarises the battle for control between banker Pete Peterson and trader Lewis Glucksman, both sons of immigrants, and suggests the latter’s victory over the former helped determine the bank’s course. Lehman’s sale to American Express and subsequent spinoff in 1994 barely warrants a mention. Dick Fuld, the firm’s final chief executive, only makes a brief appearance.
Director Sam Mendes achieves something more important, though, by forcing his audience to re-examine a familiar story through fresh eyes. “The Lehman Trilogy” reduces the complexities of finance to their human essence: ambition, inspiration, trust, greed, and hubris. The story will resonate when memories of Lehman’s failure are as faded as the pictures of the brothers who founded it.
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