‘Lehman Trilogy’ explores the demise of a financial empire: Buyers beware!
Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley in The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre, London / Mark Douet

National Theatre’s The Lehman Trilogy, showing in theaters around the world, is a brilliant, tragic cautionary tale—that needs to come with a warning label!

Stefano Massini wrote his three-act chronology of the rise and fall of the Lehman business for radio. It was translated into 11 languages and staged throughout Europe. Ultimately Lehman was adapted by Ben Power and Academy Award winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty), with runs in London and New York and streamed through the U.S. in special movie house presentations.

Mendes pared the cast to three, with Sir Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley playing all roles, irrespective of age or gender. The set is a large glass cube portraying office space, designed to show background changes in place and time.

The narrative starts with Henry Lehman’s emigration from Bavaria to the U.S. in 1844. The 23-year-old son of a Jewish cattle merchant sets up a dry goods store in Montgomery, Alabama. Henry’s younger brothers Emanuel and Mayer join him by 1850 to establish Lehman Brothers. From their business trading cotton, the brothers grew into a regional commodities trading brokerage firm, then to New York City into finance banking.

Through deft acting, creative staging and comedic touches, the evolution of the family business story mirrors the growth of the Lehmans’ adoptive country. The play rests the success and ultimate failure of the Lehman enterprise on the character of their strong familial ties and religious beliefs, as well as their timely, wise decision making. Thus it is too easy to see the company’s faltering as a failure of faith and family.

The first generation of American Lehmans, the immigrant brothers Henry, Mayer, and Emanuel were strong family men, quite religious, with conservative though adaptive business practices. Later generations of Lehmans are shown to be less conservative in religious practices, family allegiances, and business dealings. In fact, the trilogy races through its last third in its eagerness to fix blame on later Lehmans. The impression Mendes leaves us with is that the seeds of Lehman demise are to be found in this soil.

Sam Mendes is certainly an adroit social critic. But here he trims the plant instead of pulling up the roots. The Lehman tragedy is not one of character, certainly not personal, as much as a failure of the huge Ponzi scheme of capitalism that cannibalizes itself every ten to fifteen years. The Lehmans had built their fortune on slave cotton and even had owned slaves themselves (not mentioned in the play!). They had escaped many of the depredations of the Civil War, shifting their headquarters north. They had benefited from two world wars and weathered the Great Depression.

The Lehman empire foundered as part of the American economic system’s failure in 2008 and more specifically because it exposed itself to unwise, unsustainable risk of reliance on derivatives. Mendes has done us a great favor with such an entertaining critique. He would have done us a greater favor with a clearer presentation of American economic history and the structural flaws in the system— and how we are all involved in its consequences.

A trailer for the show can be viewed here.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!