The Lehman Trilogy review: where did banking’s purpose go?

1st October 2018

Written by

By Sophia Morrell, Chair, Labour in the City

Ten years on from the financial crisis, both the media and City are replete with perspectives on the crisis. However, none takes so profound a journey as The Lehman Trilogy into the genesis of an institution which is the emblem of a sector that lost its way.

The play, written by Stefano Massini and playing at the National Theatre until October 20th, follows the journey of three German Jewish immigrant brothers, Henry, Emanuel and Mayer, who founded their eponymous bank after arriving in sequence between 1844 and 1850 in Alabama. Lehman Brothers began life as a tiny fabric shop in the South, before the ambitious Emanuel grasped the opportunity to push Lehman into cotton trading, buying raw materials direct from plantations and selling them to wealthy producers.

The tale, played with extraordinary stamina over three and a half hours by the three-hander all-male cast, explores the birth of modern capitalism, banking and the Lehman family itself as the business passes down the generations and evolves to reflect both its changing stewardship and a US society in flux. Each milestone event – plantation fires, the civil war, the development of the stock exchange, the 1929 crash – alters the course of the bank by several degrees until it becomes the behemoth we all knew.

It’s an extraordinary piece of theatre for anyone to watch, an absorbing and affecting story about heritage, kinship, ambition and, ultimately, hubris. But for those with an interest in the very substance of finance, it is an altogether different tale. In seeking to understand how and why finance came to be a master rather than servant, watching this narrative helps to pinpoint where banking began to veer onto its current course. In one poignant moment, the second generation Lehman, Philip, cuts off his horrified forebears in a journalist interview about the bank to state that money alone is the secret ingredient in their operation – nothing more and nothing less. When trading moves to Wall Street for the first time, it is stark to see the Brothers are separated from the very things they made their fortune trading. It is a place to trade on the price of iron, far removed from the sight of any iron itself. The presence of Herbert is less subtle, Mayer’s son who is beset by worries about the balance of risk and responsibility within the bank. He leaves to later become a Democrat Governor of New York. We can only guess what might have been if Herbert’s innate sense of fairness had stayed to influence the direction of travel at Lehman.

There is no gotcha moment where the bank is suddenly wrenched from its original purpose; rather it is a gradual slide away into the vacuum. In a time when the question of purpose, of precisely who modern banking is supposed to serve, remains so pertinent, this play is a haunting analysis of where the cracks started to show. Without understanding that history, can we hope to create a finance sector today that serves people fairly and efficiently?

Tickets provided courtesy of the National Theatre.

This piece is part of Labour in the City’s Ten Years On series, which will be marked by an audience with Alistair Darling on October 30th where we launch our collection of insights into the crisis. Register here now: