The Lehman Trilogy: Fact as Fairytale
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(Stefano Massini’s Lehman Trilogy, text adapted by Ben Power for the National Theatre 12 July 2018 – 20 October 2018)

 

‘The tightrope walker is still a young man’. This is the artful opening sentence of ‘Wall Street (1881)’, the second section of Part Two of The Lehman Trilogy. It seems innocent enough. Next, we learn his name, Solomon Paprinskij. From his suitcase he takes a coiled hoop of steel wire. He attaches it to two lampposts 50 feet apart. He is ready. What is missing? Courage. He takes a slug of cheap brandy. Then he takes up his position and starts to walk:

Light, deft, perfect.

Solomon Paprinskij.

It’s a miracle:

He walks on air.

We are told he is the best tightrope walker in the city. And finally, finally, that he will perform from morning till night, ‘just a step away / from the very new door / of the New York Stock Exchange’ – a place of stocks, of shares, of futures.  His youth, disclosed so casually in the opening sentence, is implicitly aligned with the newly constituted stock exchange. The adverb ‘still’ promises a future. It gestures forward. The other implications are skill, danger, precariousness, courage – and magic, a miracle, but a miracle we can understand, a miracle for everyday use, from morning till night. We are guided from the purely factual to the emblematic. When the disguised sleight of hand, the delayed equation of acrobat and institution, is revealed, we never go back to question the facts on offer. Solomon Paprinskij, still young, is palpable, convincing, heel and toe, the steel wire cutting into his soft leather pumps. As it were. Unquestionable. There.

He is the author Stefano Massini’s invention. A total fiction.

The Lehman Trilogy is a poetic account, not accountancy.

*  *  *

The action is a series of snapshots, selected from Massini’s original text, beginning with the firm in its birthday suit (1844) and ending with the firm in its coffin (2008). It begins with the arrival in New York of Henry Lehman, a Jew from Rimpar in Bavaria. He opens a fabric shop in Montgomery, Alabama, and is joined by his two brothers, Emmanuel and Mayer. They are assigned symbolic roles in the business, broadly brushed with comedy: decisive Henry is the head (because, as founder, he is in ultimate charge); irascible Emmanuel is the arm (with executive function); and Mayer is the potato, Spud, there to ensure the Head doesn’t oppress the Arm, or vice versa. Spud is the spirit of compromise, ostensibly ineffectual, but discreetly influential.

Being in a cotton-producing southern state, they begin by trading in cotton and other fabrics, including denim. They expand, supplying dry goods and equipment to the surrounding plantations.  (An expansion opposed by Emmanuel but expedited by Mayer the Potato.) The cotton fields are consumed in a catastrophic fire – from which, finally, the Lehman brothers profit. They lend money to the plantation owners and are paid in raw cotton come the harvest. They sell the cotton to the northern factory of ‘Perfect Hands’, Teddy Wilkinson.

In 1855, Henry dies of yellow fever. Quickly, the surviving brothers realise they need more raw cotton to maximize their profit and offset the transport costs. A wooing process of the plantation owners is undertaken – first, unsuccessfully, by the tactless, impatient Emmanuel, and then, successfully, by Mayer and his new wife Babette, a pianist. Their negotiating tool is… music: Schubert and Chopin are brought to the table.  She plays, the owners accede. The magic of music. It isn’t accountancy. The Lehman brothers become ‘middlemen’, a new business concept.

Emmanuel opens an office in New York on Liberty Street. He takes a wife, the daughter of a cotton buyer, Louis Sondheim.  At the wedding of Emmanuel and Pauline, after a brisk, commercial courtship, the guests from North and South quarrel – a harbinger of the Civil War, which almost destroys the Lehman enterprise as trade closes down. Mayer persuades the governor of Alabama to divert state funds so the Lehman brothers can become a bank and rebuild the infrastructure of Alabama.

The Lehman enterprise then moves to New York,  where Emmanuel is one of the founders of the New York stock exchange. They deal in coffee, they invest in railways, they fund the Panama Canal. Already, Philip, the son of Emmanuel, is a prime mover in the railways investment and the instigator of the Panama Canal project. Emmanuel and Mayer are reduced to figureheads and signatories to the work of others.

Actually, there is some significant economy with the truth hereabouts. The French first had the idea of the canal but abandoned it after engineering difficulties. In reality, Philip Lehman wasn’t the visionary projected by Massini’s play. The USA took over and completed the work between 1904-1914. Mayer Lehman died in 1897, Emmanuel in 1907.  So the episode in which Emmanuel and Mayer propose investing in houses for workers and are magisterially trumped by Philip’s Panama Canal proposal has been cropped for mythical effect. The reality wasn’t quite so decisively magical. The indicative word ‘miracle’ recurs several times in the play.

Philip is in due course superseded by his son Bobbie, who invests in television and the movies, notably King Kong. Bobbie’s main task is to survive the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Depression.

Mayer’s children include the difficult, questioning sceptic Herbert, who eventually leaves the family business for politics, giving Philip a free hand.  (Henry has had no children. He is unmarried.)  Philip’s son Bobbie is the last of the Lehman dynasty to run the Lehman enterprise. He invests in computers but diversifies the power-base until non-family members take over and the firm is dispersed – and effectively doomed.

The National Theatre production is a radical reduction of Stefano Massini’s text and designed to be played by three actors (Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley), the three brothers in their Victorian frock coats. There is a transparent gold and glass box, subdivided into rooms, which rotates when required – an economical but surprisingly versatile and suggestive set by Es Devlin. Black and white back projections are brilliantly succinct and evocative. A line of fire limns the destruction of the cotton crop, saving pages of laborious evocation.

*  *  *

Stefano Massini’s Lehman Trilogy in the 2014 Einaudi edition is 328 pages long. It is written in verse and there are no indications of dramatis personae. The text is a continuous epic narrative in three parts: Parte prima, Tre fratelli; Parte seconda, Padri e figli; Parte terza, L’immortale. (Three Brothers; Fathers and Sons; The Immortal.) The parts are divided into named, numbered chapters: though Massini’s text contains snatches of dialogue, it is a third person narrative poem rather than a play.

For example, this is the arrival by ship from Rimpar in Bavaria, of the circumcised Jew (‘ebreo circonciso’) Henry Lehman in New York in 1844:

He took a deep breath

picked up his suitcase

and, walking quickly,

despite not knowing where to go,

like so many others,

he stepped

into the magical music box

called

America

The literal translation that Ben Power, the deputy artistic director of the National Theatre, worked from is 284 pages long. The press night draft is about half that length at 156 pages, a mere three hours of stage time. In the original Luca Ronconi production at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, there was a cast of fourteen. The current Spanish production has a cast of nine – and is a musical. Other European productions have had between nine and 25 actors. Massini isn’t precious about his work and is, apparently, open to innovation once his original had been faithfully staged in Milan.

The National Theatre team, led by the director Sam Mendes, began work-shopping their version with fifteen to eighteen actors. For example, when Bobbie Lehman enters the action in 1929 at the time of the Wall Street Crash, we see him at the races in his white suit watching his horse come home. The intention was to introduce a new actor as new characters entered the narrative.  After the first day of the workshop, about half the actors were sent home. By the end of the week, there were three actors only: Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley. Simon Russell Beale had suggested that he play all the parts and narrate the entire show. In the event, it was a three-way division of labour, misleadingly described as a tour de force of acting. The acting is excellent but it isn’t an Alec Guinness Kind Hearts and Coronets virtuoso turn of serial transformations. Verbal inflection, an acceptable hint of caricature, an alteration of pitch by Russell Beale, for example, is enough to suggest a woman. It is an indication, economical and pragmatic, not an embodiment.  At one point in the text, a doctor’s name has been pragmatically changed from Everson to Beauchamp – because Russell Beale’s Dutch accent was less identifiable than his French.

The Lehman project came about in February 2015 when Sam Mendes was reading the obituaries of his exemplary friend the director Luca Ronconi. Much was made of Ronconi’s production of this eight-hour lyric play. Intrigued, Mendes and his company commissioned a literal translation and brought the project to the National Theatre.

When you translate from a foreign language, a crucial problem is repetition in the original. In our own language, we can gauge exactly, instinctively, how much repetition is acceptable, what is allowable and what is histrionic. If you think of Hemingway and Joan Didion, you realise this is an area of fine distinctions. Here are two writers whose repetitions verge on the mannered but who manage to impose their rhetoric as legitimate if idiosyncratic style. Robert Frost’s poetry revisits the whole notion of repetition in poetry, since poetry, in principle, welcomes repetition as a trope distinguishing it from prose.  But Frost tests the principle to destruction by his anti-lyrical, conversational, prosaic repetition: ‘He fell at Gettysburg or Fredericksburg, / I ought to know – it makes a difference which: / Fredericksburg wasn’t Gettysburg, of course’ (‘The Black Cottage’). Repetition in Tennyson is confidently lyrical, flamboyantly certain of itself: ‘Always I long to creep / Into some still cavern deep, / There to weep, and weep, and weep / My whole soul out to thee’.  Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ is poised (brilliantly) between the heightened and the bathetic, between romantic and ironic: ‘I grow old… I grow old… / I will wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.’ Frost is the benchmark in ‘New Hampshire’ for the deflationary demotic: ‘I met a lady from the South who said / (You won’t believe she said it, but she said it).’ Risky even in prose. In poetry, radical, an alteration of the verbal economy.  So repetition even in one’s own language is a matter of subtle calculation, of balancing risk and reward. In another language, it is problematic.

The literal translation of the Lehman Trilogy is, in the estimation of Ben Power, florid and over-written. As for Massini’s Italian, it isn’t easy for a non-native speaker to know precisely. For example, when the third of the Lehman brothers, Mayer, is wooing Babette Newgass, his wife-to-be, he is faced with her eight brothers: ’tutti e 8 i figli maschi.’ ‘All 8 male sons’ in the literal translation. On the face of it, a blunt tautology, unless there are transitioning sons. Even if acceptable in Italian – poetry being a special case perhaps – it is out of the question in English – and duly cut by Ben Power, much of whose version is an exercise in studied compression. It has to work in English. As it triumphantly does.

Story is the other area of reduction, the resistance and refusal of digression, however interesting. Irving Lehman, another son of Mayer Lehman, becomes a Supreme Court judge – part of the Lehman dynasty take-over. But is dropped from the National Theatre version which concentrates instead on his brother Herbert’s movement from finance into politics as the Mayor of New York.  Herbert’s inborn iconoclastic questioning, his intellectual independence  (obvious from the moment we see him as a young boy terrorising the rabbi Lewinsohn by disputing his interpretation of the plagues of Egypt) is set against Bobbie Lehman’s rescue of the business. Herbert and Bobbie are ideologically in conflict: Herbert represents pro bono politics while Bobbie is bound by business considerations. There is no role for Irving the Supreme Court judge in this stream-lined account. Equally, there is no room for the two accountants hired in Montgomery to serve Lehman Brothers Cotton: Peter Morrys ‘with two rabbit teeth’ and Isaac Singer, an accountant suggested by Rab Kassowitz.  Let the two lost accountants, debits on the floor of the editing suite, stand for a hundred other abbreviations. The National Theatre version is a fine directed spray, not Massini’s gushing hydrant. (The literal translation shows Massini’s own performance cuts to his text.)

In the episode ‘Horses’, at the National, there is no Jewish anti-Semitism, no dislike of Russian Jews (Carrie Lehman, Philip’s wife: ‘The fact is that the Jews of the last ten years / are all Russian or worse’), no Jew York (‘one out of four citizens / has a Jewish last name’), no mention of Jewish racial prejudice (black help is impossible or undesirable in the home), no competition between Jewish families.  According to Ben Power, these cuts were made in the interest of speed, not for reasons of pudeur. Other cuts include Lehman investment in World War One after the American entry, the alliance with the anti-Semitic Henry Ford, prohibition.

Nor does the National Theatre version pursue Massini’s hints at Biblical allegory, a kind of Old Testament sub-text. At the end of some sections there are Biblical references and the text is ghosted by ideas of the Golden Calf, Goliath, King David dancing, Jonah inside the whale (here, a shark). This version concentrates on the central story line – from the rag trade to riches.

These economies and other edits create narrative lacunae now and then, which require some patching. I asked Ben Power how much of his final text was his work rather than Massini’s. His estimate was 20%. Those lines quoted at the beginning of this piece – ‘It is a miracle: / He walks on air’ – are written by Power.

*  *  *

So, the Massini text reduced by 50%, 20% added by Ben Power.  The Lehman Trilogy is a new thing, not a translation, but an adaptation, a reconfiguration. Not quite a musical, but definitely a new concept selected and shaped from Massini’s original.  Audiences go into the Lyttleton with the telos in mind – the 2008 financial meltdown, the TV pictures of Lehman employees with their belongings in boxes, exiting the Lehman building. Ben Power inadvertently acknowledged this ingrained presupposition when he described Massini’s long poem as an ‘eight hour lyric play about the collapse of Lehman Brothers’ (my italics). We know how the story ends and we may be expecting an exposition of the intricacies of financial failure, an enquiry like David Hare’s The Power of Yes: a dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis or Adam McKay’s film The Big Short. We get something far more surprising – the story of success in adversity. Failure is almost a footnote. Actually, what we get is a fairy story about a dynasty.

For example, Massini invents a dwarf who works the three-card trick. Not an ordinary person. A dwarf. Staple of the fairy tale. Philip Lehman watches him, watches the cards, knowing that if he watches carefully enough he will always be able to pick out the Queen. This is the parable of his financial acumen, of patience, persistence, determination, his visionary ability to see, for example, that rather than housing for workers, Lehman Brothers should inaugurate the Panama Canal project. The winning card, as it were, not the obvious card. The other, obvious example is the invented tight-rope walker, Solomon Paprinksij. ‘He walks on air’ is a perfect emblem of the stock exchange where the commodities are notional, conceptual trades. (Another image is the lamp that burns without oil. Yet another is the new game of tennis invented by Miss Mary Outerbridge: keeping the ball in the air.) The stock exchange is made out of words, hence Mayer the Potato’s silence in New York, the city of words. He has already been superseded. Like his clothes and dress style, he is out of date, old-fashioned. On the day of the Wall Street Crash, Paprinskij falls for the first time:

It’s an ordinary morning

and it’s the end of the world.

A fairy tale moment, a big gesture.

(And two lines that are Ben Power’s contribution. Just as the emphatic concluding lines of Paprinskij’s introduction in 1881 are also his: ‘This street of miracles. / Where every day / men walk on air.’)

In due course, Philip will state the principle that their flour is money: ‘we are merchants of money’; ‘our flour is money’.

The three Lehman brothers in 1844 are Henry, Emmanuel and Mayer: the head the arm, and the potato. The simplified idiom, the poetic shorthand here, is taken from the fairy tale, not the historical documentary. The narration belongs to the fairy tale in its ritualised repetition. There are motifs – the ever-changing sign outside their premises, the bucket of paint used to create alterations, the brass handle of the shop door that sticks, the cold breeze caressing the ear that foreshadows problems (the loss of the cotton crop in a conflagration, the Civil War, the Wall Street Crash). These touches are recurrent notes struck formulaically to reinforce the fairy-tale narrative of three brothers who consistently, magically, transform disaster into success. Why? Because they are chosen, a significant word in a Jewish context and here underlined by the idea of Passover and chametz. (leavened bread, as the Ben Power version usefully explains.) Fairy tale meets theological favouritism.

And this combination explains why the Lehmans are always able to reverse apparent disaster. When the cotton crop is consumed by fire, they finance the recovery, advance money, and are paid in raw cotton, which they trade. Following the Civil war, they found the Bank of Alabama and use state monies to rebuild the business sector destroyed by the war.

It makes perfect sense for all the parts to be played by the actors who played the original three brothers in Montgomery because the success of the firm is dependent on the financial and magical DNA of the Lehman dynasty. When the firm is taken over by outsiders, by Lewis Glucksman (a Hungarian) and Pete Peterson (a Greek who assumes a Swedish identity) in 1965, the end is already in sight. In 1969, Bobbie Lehman, the last of the family dies. In 1984, Lehman Brothers is acquired by American Express. Dick Fuld takes over the running of the firm and the end is nigh.

In Seize the Day (1956), Saul Bellow attempted to write the Stock Exchange. After all, his brothers were all in business. ‘Late-morning trading was getting active. The shining numbers whirred on the board, which sounded like a huge cage of artificial birds. Lard fluctuated between two points, but rye slowly climbed.’ A poor attempt, for Bellow, at poetry. The Lehman Trilogy captures the magic of business by literally making it magical, by ignoring the number-crunching, the finagling, the fixing, the accountancy.  The nearest we come to the sub-prime mortgage crisis and its selling-on of bad debt is the young Lew Glucksman taking damaged marble lamps from his father’s stock and selling them on the street.

The beautiful innovation of The Lehman Trilogy is the way it triumphantly overturns theatrical precedent, theatrical preconception. Dialogue and dramatic conflict are the stuff of drama. The Lehman Trilogy dispenses with both for the most part. There are examples – Ruth Lamar’s friction with her second husband Bobbie Lehman, for instance; and the original three brothers have their disagreements, usually resolved by Henry the eldest Lehman – but the bulk of the three hours’ playing time is narration, telling the story, setting the scene, describing the characters. We are closer to fiction than conventional drama. And the fiction we are closest to is the fairy story. The play is a recitation – in verse. We don’t learn how business works: plantation owners are persuaded by Mayer’s wife Babette playing the piano. The governor of Alabama is persuaded by Mayer to give the brothers money to rebuild the state economy because Mayer invokes the magic word Trust. No reasoning is involved. Bobbie’s sleep is disturbed by a dream of Babel. Computers promise a universal language. So the computer age is ushered in so Bobbie Lehman can sleep undisturbed. An unlikely story. But a compelling story, shorthand for success, for the conversion of failure into prosperity, for the transformation of frog into princely sums of money.

In Massini’s original, the play ends with an Epilogo: ‘Monday Lunch’. The three original Lehman brothers and Philip and Bobbie are there. Herbert the senator is also there. ‘Six old men / wait for the news.’ The telephone rings. Henry answers it. Lehman Brothers is over. They decide to sit shiva for the firm as they did in Rimpar, Bavaria. Tellingly, shiva, the period of mourning the dead has been systematically truncated throughout the century, ending with three minutes of silence for the death of Philip Lehman. Now they go back to their roots and the full ritual observance:

E mattina e sera

reciteranno il Qaddish

come usava laggiú in Germania

a Rimpar, Baviera.

At the close in the National Theatre production, this epilogue was cut and rewritten. The three principals in the nineteenth-century frock coats enter the inmost set and observe the dawn sun, as they did in Rimpar, dreaming of America, right at their beginning. The telephone rings, is answered, and the employees of Lehman brothers leave the building carrying their boxes of personal possessions.

*  *  *

There are plans afoot for a Broadway transfer. US audiences are traditionally hospitable to theatre that celebrates success. The financial failure on Broadway of Lucy Prebble’s Enron, it was said, was down to its subject – financial failure. There are already accommodations in train to address the issue of the Lehman brothers’ involvement with slavery and the plantations prior to the West End transfer and the subsequent move to Broadway.  Ben Power: ‘I am minded – there is space for – a little more specificity re the brothers and slavery.’ I think it may encounter other problems, arising out of the #MeToo movement. Some feminists are likely to be dismayed by the portrayal of the wives in The Lehman Trilogy. They are marginal: Emmanuel’s wife Pauline Sondheim is in effect part of a business deal. Emmanuel’s pitch is that he is a rich Jew who is going to be richer – and that Pauline should consult with her father. To save money, Emmanuel’s bouquet of flowers, brought to the wooing, is put in a vase between encounters.  Babette, Mayer’s wife, is more romantically conceived but the commercial aspect of the union is clear: Mayer has to explain the concept of the middleman. And her business use is clear when she plays the piano as part of Mayer’s wooing of planation owners.

When Philip, Emmanuel’s son, decides to take a wife, it is so he can then devote himself to more important things. He makes a list of potential wives and gives them marks – eventually choosing not the perfect wife, but Carrie, the second best, an act of implicit pragmatism. Not until Bobbie’s first wife Ruth, a hard-bitten divorcee, does a woman assert her personality, her angularity.

These cipher wives, these chattels, the dominance of the profit motive, are presented as comedy – and are very funny in its portrayal of the Lehman tunnel vision and its perfunctory attitude to love – but it may not play well in contemporary America in the current climate.

There are also plans for a US TV serial version of the Lehman Trilogy. Massini, Ben Power told me, has written a further 100 pages. A TV version will require a complete, and possibly destructive, make-over.  The use of direct narration – key to the piece’s theatrical revolution – will have to be replaced by extended dialogue, by conventional dramatisation, by scenes. The extraordinary continuum of story-telling that makes The Lehman Trilogy such a surprising tour de force – breaking all the rules and remaking our idea of what will work in the theatre, of what is theatrical – will be reversed in favour of conventional staging.


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