They were one of the most prosperous and highly regarded families in America for more than a century, but in our time their name is synonymous with financial ruin. The Lehman Brothers and their descendants built an investment bank that was supposedly too big to fail — until it imploded in 2008, taking the American economy down with it.
Now comes Stefano Massini’s hit London production of “The Lehman Trilogy,” directed by Sam Mendes, in which three illustrious British actors (Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley) play three generations of the ultra-wealthy Jewish family. It runs for a month at the Park Avenue Armory beginning in late March, with the London production’s acclaimed set made up of a rotating glass cube, created by designer Es Devlin, that recalls the cardboard boxes that the laid-off Lehman employees tearfully carried out the revolving doors as the press cameras rolled.
Massini, who lives in Italy, is a Roman Catholic with a passion for Jewish heritage that dates to his childhood. It was sparked when his father, who owned a factory in Milan, saved the life of an employee who had collapsed at work; the grateful worker, who was Jewish, insisted on giving his boss’ son a Jewish education. Massini broke into directing with a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in Florence in 2002 and won an award two years later for a play he had written called “The End of Shavuot” that was produced in Milan.
“The Lehman Trilogy” ran for five hours when it was staged originally in Paris in 2013. Adapted and translated from Massini’s text by Ben Power for the London production, the new three-hour version begins in 1844 with the arrival in New York of Henry Lehman from Central Europe. Three years later, he is living in Montgomery, Ala., as the owner of a dry goods store along with his two brothers, Emmanuel and Mayer.
When a huge fire bankrupts the local plantations, the Lehmans begin to accept payment in cotton, thus taking on the role of middlemen in the Southern economy. Undaunted by the loss of Henry to yellow fever, the two remaining brothers move to New York and amass so much wealth that they become bankers. But as one generation follows another, the bonds among the family members, along with their ties to their religion, progressively weaken. The play ends on the verge of the bank’s fall.
As Power told an interviewer in a joint appearance with Mendes that took place on the stage of the London production (and can be viewed on YouTube), he recalled that his task was to take a long, “shapeless” poem (with no characters listed) and locate the underlying “architecture.” For example, he remarked that shiva is observed three times by the characters as each generation gives way to the next. But as the characters become more assimilated, the length of the mourning period progressively decreases. Power called that “the most beautiful, essentialized version of that loss of faith.”
Hasia Diner, who teaches American Jewish history at NYU, told The Jewish Week that the Lehman Brothers, who came from a cattle-dealing family in Bavaria, were well-suited to the role of intermediaries even before their journey to the United States. “Cattle dealers went between the peasants and landowners,” she explained. By speaking different languages and being plugged into different economic networks, she said, “they got the edge over their competition.”
After they arrived in America, Diner said, the Lehmans and other Central European Jewish immigrants continued what she called the “creation of a Jewish economic infrastructure that became a passport to phenomenal wealth.” Yet she pointed out that the Lehmans, in particular, also displayed an impressive commitment to public service, as one sees in the 20th-century careers of two of Mayer Lehman’s sons: Herbert Lehman, who became governor of New York and then U.S. senator; and Irving Lehman, who was chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals.
Because one of his congregants is a wig and makeup artist for the National Theatre, Rabbi Daniel Epstein, the spiritual leader of the Cockfosters and N. Southgate Synagogue in North London, was asked to consult with the cast of “The Lehman Trilogy.” In an interview, the rabbi said that Massini’s play is saturated with references to Jewish ritual, from the lighting of the chanukkiah to pre-Passover cleaning, giving him a lot to explain to the actors.
But the play clearly struck a chord with audiences; it was sold out for months, and the rabbi predicted that it will have even greater resonance in New York, where the majority of the play is set and where Jews are so much more visible. “Anglo-Jewry is more subdued,” Rabbi Epstein observed. “Jews don’t want to be in the news every day,” as they have been with the stream of perceived anti-Semitic comments made by Jeremy Corbyn, who leads the Labour Party.
Then again, the rabbi views the play as a cautionary tale that applies to Jews and non-Jews alike. As he wrote in a program note that appeared in the London production’s playbill, “It is not the perils of persecution that undermine our morality, but rather the unlimited access to freedom and opportunity that can be society’s undoing.” ✿
“The Lehman Trilogy” runs March 22-April 20 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave. For tickets, $95-$300, visit armoryonpark.org or call the box office at (212) 933-5812.