From the Left



The hole in the moral heart of 'The Lehman Trilogy'

Richard Cohen on

The hottest ticket in New York at the moment is "The Lehman Trilogy." Its limited run is sold out, but tickets are available from brokers. They can go for $1,900 a seat, which, I know, is astronomical. But, take it from me, it's well worth almost any price -- mine was a gift. It is an astounding play with only one fault: It fails to mention that Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman were slave owners.

The three brothers, immigrants from Germany, established their business in Montgomery, Alabama, before the Civil War. They first had something like a general store, then they branched into the trading of cotton, then coffee and, eventually, pure investment banking. By then, they had relocated to New York City, where the firm of Lehman Brothers became a pillar of the financial community. Mayer's son, Herbert Lehman, became governor of the state and later a U.S. senator.

Lehman Brothers, of course, collapsed in 2008. By then, the Lehmans were gone, and the firm had passed into the hands of traders -- not bankers -- none of whom was a descendant of the founding brothers. The play depicts how this happens, but before the end comes a marvelous beginning -- an immigrant's tale evoking the American dream, which the Lehmans had gilded in gold. Lehmans would go on to fund funded the oil industry, Pan American Airways, the rise of television, "Gone with the Wind," "King Kong," and, on Broadway, "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Marlon Brando. The Lehmans had the touch.

The immensely informative playbill for the show tells us that the play's author, the Italian Stefano Massini, "utilized his own background in the Jewish faith" to place religion at the center of the story. The Lehmans were Jews, not orthodox, but observant of certain customs, particular honoring the period after a death known as shiva. When Henry dies suddenly of yellow fever in 1855, the store closes for the full seven days. Over time, the deaths of the other brothers are accorded a lesser period of mourning. The suggestion is clear: The Lehmans were losing their moral foundation.

Maybe. But what of the morality of slavery? On this, the play is silent. You may wonder as you watch what the Lehmans were thinking as they went out to Alabama's plantations to buy cotton -- how they felt about slavery -- but they never say. It was only after the show, later that night, when my curiosity interfered with sleep, that the internet disclosed that the Lehmans had owned seven slaves. This hardly made them exceptional. Other financial firms were similarly tainted, including JP Morgan. In the South slavery was considered essential -- worth fighting a war over, as a matter of fact.

What to make of this? Should the playwright have acknowledged that the Lehmans owned slaves? I think so. But I have to appreciate that a play is an effort at miniaturization, of compression -- this play has only three actors -- and the introduction of slavery might well have taken the play in another direction. After all, one cannot merely mention the Holocaust casually and not expect an emotional reaction.

And what is there to say about slavery? Its evil is not in question. It's hard to comprehend that it's part of our national heritage. We did that? We bought and sold human beings? We broke up families and whipped and burned and murdered? Yes, we did. There is not much more to say except what the play did not: Ordinary people did this. Ordinary people were monsters.


To not mention slavery is in itself a statement -- of disinterest, of unimportance, of lesser importance, of something. Would an American playwright, confronted on a daily basis with the economic, cultural and historical ramifications of slavery, have made the same decision? I can't imagine it. It would be tantamount to writing a play about Germany in 1933 and not even mentioning what was happening to the Jews.

"The Lehman Trilogy" has gotten rapturous reviews, but usually with no mention of the hole in its moral heart. I too was dazzled by its three actors -- who hold the stage for three and a half hours -- and by the staging, which consisted of one surprise after another, and even the lighting. It was a marvelous, unforgettable night of theater, a riveting reminder of why "live" is so alive. It was also, in retrospect, a reminder about what we all need reminding of.


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