The Lehman Trilogy

If you happen to visit New York City soon, get tickets for “The Lehman Trilogy”, the three-and-a-half-hour play that traces the story of three generations of the family that founded the company whose collapse in 2008 symbolized and fueled the world-wide financial disaster. 

Originally written in Italian by Stefano Massini and adapted to English by Ben Power, the play is directed by Sam Mendes and masterfully acted by three British actors (Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester) who alternate between acting out and narrating the story, and incarnate many different characters. It takes place in a rotating glass set that portrays an investment banking office surrounded videos that transports us to the various geographical locations and time periods that span the century-and-a-half epic.

Having read raving reviews that present the play as an indictment of American capitalism, I was prepared for patronizing moral lessons and a manipulative rendering of the story of American business as seen through this company that started as a tiny dry-goods store in Alabama founded by Jewish immigrants from Bavaria and became one of the greatest investment banks of the United States.

But no. Although the hubris, the greed and the moral laxity of three generations of Lehmans is in display, there is enough nuance, humor, proximity to the complex psychology of the characters and homage to their ability to survive a Civil War, a Great Depression, and two world wars through entrepreneurial creativity and adaptation to the real world to stir empathy among the audience. The last member of the family to be actively involved in the company was out of the picture by the end of the 1960s, which excludes its responsibility in what happened in the years leading to 2008. Yes, the play traces the light and the darkness of American capitalism through the story of the Lehman brothers, whose original business was dependent on slave labor for fabrics and, later, cotton trading, and who, after having been involved in bankrolling, and profiting from, several other commodities, railways, computers and financial instruments that informed the success of American capitalism, eventually evolved into a monumental enterprise that lost its moral bearings and a sense of the connection between finance and enterprise.

Because the play is not primarily about finance (no play that focused on the financial intricacies that led to the Great Recession could mesmerize an audience for three and a half hours), important elements of the Lehman story are necessarily missing, namely those perverse political incentives that created the conditions for the crisis of 2007/8. Absent from the story of “The Lehman Trilogy” is the manipulation of money by the central bank through low interest rates after the bursting of the dotcom bubble at the turn of the century; the asset-price inflation this generated; the political regulations that in the name of helping the downtrodden acquire real estate pushed the banks to relax lending standards, and the institutional environment that, in a world of fractional banking, led financial institutions to take up short-term debt to invest in long-term assets that kept rising and rising—until one day they did not and the house of cards built on subprime lending came tumbling down.

None of this, of course, exonerates institutions such as Lehman Brothers from the grave irresponsibility, lack of judgment and corruption that was involved in their financial shenanigans. I mention it because if moral lessons are to be extracted from the play, we need to take into account the whole real-world story. But my point is this: despite the interpretation some of the media are pushing, the play is not an unabashed condemnation of American capitalism at all. It is rather a tale of success and failure, immigration and roots, enterprise and hubris, power and its limits, resilience and creativity in the face of adversity, and, yes, moral decay and ultimately the confirmation that the passing of times presents enormous challenges to the preservation of the values, vision and corporate foundation of the original generation. 

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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