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The Lehman Elegy

books and culture

The Lehman Elegy

A new play dramatizes the fall of a storied company, though its lessons extend more broadly. April 12, 2019
Arts and Culture
Economy, finance, and budgets

Lehman Brothers collapsed more than a decade ago, ushering in a global economic cataclysm that continues to upend world politics. The young people who grew up in its aftermath have increasingly turned against capitalism, ensuring more political and social turmoil to come. If you managed to make it through the last decade of tepid recovery with $581 in disposable income to your name—the going rate for scalped tickets to the sold-out run—you can see the drama of the bank’s rise and fall play out on stage at the Park Avenue Armory, where The Lehman Trilogy runs through April 20. The elegy for a family firm that spanned three centuries makes a mesmerizing drama, illuminating New York and American history along the way. Yet one leaves the theater enervated, rather than enlightened, nagged by a sense of incompletion.

The Lehman Trilogy, like the bank it chronicles, is itself the unlikely product of globalism. As a luxuriously printed, oversize glossy playbill informs theatergoers, it’s the English-language version of Italian writer Stefano Massini’s play, first staged in Paris in 2013, then brought to Milan and, last year, to London’s National Theatre. Three actors—all veterans of the London theater scene—share the sparse stage, which evokes an oversized twenty-first-century office cubicle. They don’t embody their roles so much as narrate them, often speaking of themselves in the third person. “Emanuel Lehman, five years younger than Henry, arrived three years ago,” says Emanuel, for example. It reads tendentiously on the page, but in person, it works, giving the proceedings a quality of inevitability; it also allows the three actors to narrate for successive generations of Lehmans.

Over nearly four hours, and without much in the way of props or a supporting cast, the trio unspools history from 1844 to 2008. In the mid-eighteenth century, Hayum Lehmann emigrates from Bavaria to the unlikely economic hub of Montgomery, Alabama, adopting the Americanized moniker “Henry” and lopping the second “n” off his surname. He’s the first of three brothers to make the journey. Henry, Mendel-turned-Emanuel, and Mayer open a general store, proudly painting “Lehman Brothers” on the door and selling textiles and goods to plantation owners and townsfolk. After a fire destroys the surrounding plantations, the brothers at first see only ruin: “everything is lost,” says Henry. And yet, an epiphany: “Everything now needs to be rebought!” “But the plantations will have no money,” Emanuel points out. Henry’s solution, and the future of Lehman’s business: “credit agreements.” Emanuel is skeptical, noting that he “came to America for money, not for pieces of paper.”

But, of course, it works: the brothers secure their credit with collateral of raw cotton from future harvests and gradually enter the mass-scale business of buying and reselling wholesale cotton. The buyers, the mills, are in the north. In 1860, Lehman Brothers opens an office near Wall Street, close to where the firm will remain for more than a century and a half. The business grows as the nation expands, moving into coffee and, later, investing in railways.

As the first generation gives way to the second, and the rail era to the airplane age, the audience gets a lesson in how the sturdy financing business of the nineteenth century gives way to the emergence of the more abstract business of the twentieth. Emanuel’s young son, Philip, offers an impromptu tutorial to his father’s acquaintance, Charles Dow, “who runs the Wall Street newspaper.” Lehman Brothers’ business, the boy says, isn’t cotton or coffee or coal or “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.” The description is apt, but it’s hard not to hear something troubling in the words.

The Lehman Trilogy explores—or at least nods to—important markers of late-twentieth-century capitalism that helped create the conditions for the financial crisis. By the late 1960s, after the third generation of Lehmans has passed away, no family member is left at the helm; the firm, converted into a corporation with stockholders from the older personal-partnership model, goes through expansions and acquisitions that obscure its origins. Lehman Brothers, now become “a college made up of kids” akin to a hard-partying fraternity, is more enthralled with the faster, easier profits derived from stock and bond trading than with the slower returns on offer from merchant and investment banking. “The trading division tripled its profit in a month. And triple profit is something the partners at Lehman Brothers like,” the long-dead Emanuel narrates. Modern finance, the play implies, was always destined to fail. “Now it is September 15th, 2008,” Henry’s ghost narrates. “Now it is ending. In one minute, a phone will ring and it will all be gone.”

The moral: capitalism was good—until it wasn’t. Yet there’s a lot going on here, and it’s all a bit too simplified. As the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen notes, the play elides the fact that the Lehmans, in their Alabama years, directly owned slaves. It isn’t a puzzle why; getting too deeply into the slavery problem would mean admitting that the more straightforward world of physical commodities was hardly morally purer than the world of financial derivatives, thereby complicating the narrative arc. Then, too, the play never mentions the word “mortgage.” Perhaps an arcane discussion of securitized housing loans would risk missing the larger points, but avoiding the excessive-lending issue altogether is problematic. Narrowly speaking, Lehman failed because of poor banking and trading practices. More broadly, the firm’s failure was just one aspect of a bigger American problem: a dangerous dependence on public- and private-sector debt to fuel its economy, all of it subsidized by record-low interest rates.

Which brings us to why the play may leave theatergoers uneasy: the story feels unfinished. Toward the end of the young century’s second decade, policymakers haven’t yet learned that an economy based on cheap debt can’t go on forever. After Lehman’s demise, Western governments doubled down on the policies that precipitated the crisis, cutting interest rates even further, to near zero. Even now, with record amounts of household and government debt, the Trump administration argues that government-set interest rates—below 2.5 percent—are too high, not too low. As the Lehman family saga comes to an ignominious end, the play suggests the presence of an uncontrollable force. “Bobby Lehman . . . dances the twist,” the long-dead Mayer laments of his grandnephew. “He knows that stopping is not allowed, never allowed. That when you dance you have to dance until you run out of breath.” The words echo then-Citigroup chief executive Charles Prince’s ill-fated words of 2007: “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing,” he told the Financial Times that July.

While the Lehman brothers became Americans, the Lehman Trilogy is a product not of America, but Europe. The final scene—a dozen or so silent, mid-level Lehman bankers, wearing blue shirts and dark sports pants, lining up to hear that they no longer have jobs—took place in Lehman’s London office, not its midtown New York space, and it remains the iconic image of the financial crisis in Europe. This worthy, if imperfect, play is less about Lehman Brothers, though, than about Europe’s own struggle to recover from the global financial crisis, and about far more powerful America’s failure to understand that it can still stop dancing—and engage in more productive economic and financial endeavors—before it runs out of breath.

Photo: Jorge-Royan_Wikimedia-Commons

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