What Lehman Brothers Tells Us About American Capitalism

Ben Power, who adapted the play “The Lehman Trilogy,” talks about the eponymous family’s role in the creation and destruction of American wealth
Lehman Brothers played a pivotal role in the 2008 financial crisis, but long before that it was at the center of an American economy that moved from slavery to industry to finance. In his English-language adaptation of Stefano Massini’s play The Lehman Trilogy—which just opened on London’s West EndBen Power explores how an immigrant family’s tales of fortune and greed reveal the rot in our economic system. He talks about the play with our Economics Editor, Aaron Freedman.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Aaron Freedman: Why tell the story of Lehman Brothers? Is it because their story is unique, and there’s something in it that is really exceptional? Or is it that it’s a perfect stand-in for this sort of larger narrative, of the history of American capitalism?

Ben Power: The choice to first tell this story was made by Stefano Massini, who wrote the original play in Italian. I don’t think it’s an accident that he started writing it at the end of 2008. I think he saw the coverage of the bankruptcy, and how its collapse was of huge significance. Not just for investment banking in the U.S. but international economics. He wanted to know why and how this had happened. That question led him all the way back to, 1844 when Henry Lehman arrived on the docks of New York.

So to answer your question, I think they are perfect as an example of the immigrant story, and of American economic history. From the fact that they head to the South, and the story becomes the story of the history of Alabama in the 1840s and ’50s. The fact that the company splits and is based in New York and Alabama by the 1860s. So it literally experiences the Civil War inside itself, as well as outside.

Then every beat from then on, they are right there participating. In some cases even instigating every great movement of American social, political, and economic history through the second half of the 19th and the whole of the 20th century. I’m certain that there other stories one could tell which would give you a lot of that. But this one, this particular one, really gives it use, and it has the extraordinary ending that it has.

For me, the big revelation, when I first read Massini’s text, was the way in which the account of Lehman’s behavior before and after the 1929 crash was so helpful to understanding what happened and what didn’t happen in 2008. That’s where I think, taking the long view is really useful. You know, we’re only a decade on from the financial crises. Or certainly from the bit of the financial crisis where Lehman cracked. It’s very hard to already be able to analyze, certainly in the way that this play wants to analyze, the movement up to and subsequent to that event. But in 1929, we can look at it with quite a lot of perspective.

One of the things that struck me about the play is that the 2008 actually doesn’t get that much attention. I could certainly have imagined you doing a more thorough treatment, with all the high drama of Dick Fuld in the boardroom, etc. Why did you make the choice to not do that?

Well I think we all felt that we had seen that story told a lot. There’s like two or three dramatizations on screen already, and a couple on stage, of literally that moment, that weekend in the boardroom of Lehman Brothers. It is fascinating and there are these characters like Fuld who are really compelling, but what our director Sam Mendes and I talked about a lot was the fact that we hadn’t seen anything push deeper than that, down into the tectonic plates on which the company in 2008 were standing. We wanted to understand the relationship between the bank that this family founded and ran, and the corporation that collapsed in the fall of 2008.

So for someone who’s trying to makes sense of sort of what happened in 2008 and the dynamics of the economy today, why is it important to know the history of the Lehman family?

I mean listen, I’m not an economist. I make theater. But what I would say is there’s a very clear movement that the play dramatizes. From the literal, to the abstract. When the first generation of Lehmans open their fabric store they have a pile of cotton fabric on the floor that that they sell to people. People give them something material and they give them something material back. But then they move through several layers of abstraction. They start to take in raw cotton, so they’re not selling product, they’re just selling raw material that they’re brokering from plantation to factory. So there’s a change there. Then quite quickly, when the move to New York happens, the abstraction goes even further. As one of the characters says, “They’ve never seen a field of cotton in New York.” They’re trading the word, not the thing itself. The thing itself is elsewhere. People are paying money for a word. Then quite quickly people are paying money for numbers. Then it’s just numbers. It’s just numbers moving in air. There’s no cash. There’s no product. No corporations to launch. As Philip Lehman says at one point, “It’s just pure finance.”

One of the reasons I think this makes good theater is because theater is about us all deciding if something is real, when it might not be. We’re really used to, in a theater, that illusion failing. Or there being a crisis of faith. When the play comes to talk about the crash in 1929, one of the bankers who’s losing everything says, “What if everyone stops believing all at the same time?” What if everyone stops this process of abstraction and says they want the thing itself back? They want their money. There is no money. That, I think is somehow the core of what the movement of the increasing complexity of economic systems in the West through the 19th and 20th centuries. It is this story of things getting further and further away. The people doing the deal on the trading floor, and the thing itself—the reality of whether this family has enough money to pay this mortgage. One of the big ideas that the play is trying to articulate is how you move from the human, from the corporeal, from the real, to the entirely abstracted. If you do, how hard it is to stay in control of that.

Do you feel like there’s a certain inevitability to that move towards abstraction? Or were there points at which different decisions could have been made, to prevent this disconnect between the massive money that can be gained in finance and the reality of ordinary people and things and commodities?

It definitely feels to me that that movement into abstraction doesn’t necessarily have to include a sort of complete abdication of moral responsibility. But there is a link between a culture of hyper-aggressive self-interest and profit. That goes along with the abstraction. So the more abstract, the more sophisticated the model. The more ruthlessly the profit is pursued. The play is interested in the sort of sensational elements of that. The way in which a banker in the late 1960’s can stand on the newly inaugurated Lehman trading floor and see these young men, and it’s bestial. There’s sort of none of the decorum that they associate with. None of the care that they associate with their industry is evident. There is something sort of feral in their eyes. It’s no accident that, as the play says, Fuld’s nickname is “the Gorilla.” There are things like his desire to have red meat waiting for him on his desk when comes in in the morning. These things are vivid and sort of theatrical and sort of beside the point. But they are also are indicative of an attitude towards finance as blood sport. That seems self-evidently dangerous.

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