The Lehman Trilogy
06 February 2023
Gillian Lynne Theatre
4.0 out of 5.0 stars
Booked this as my birthday treat this year! A three and a bit hour play, staged in three acts, featuring three actors in all the roles. The Lehman Trilogy was a huge success in its previous run in 2018, and this time round I finally got to see it too!
The play revolves around the Lehman Brothers financial firm, founded in 1850 and very successful for over a century and a half until they filed for bankruptcy during the financial crisis in 2008.
Act one revolves around Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer Lehman, who moved to the Montgomery, Alabama, USA, from Rimpar, Bavaria in the 1840s. Henry arrived first, opening a fabric and clothing store, which morphed into a dry goods store and later became a cotton broker, buying the raw material from the plantations directly, and selling it to fabric producers.
Through this middle-man-business, they built an empire! Later moving to New York and expanding the business to include railroad bonds and coffee trading.
In act two, the sons of the original brothers get their turn at the business. Philip, and Herbert Lehman turn the business into one of the biggest players in the trading and stock market, following the lives of the next generation of Lehmans and the development of the business.
Act three finally tackles the last generation of Lehmans in the business, as Robert, Philip’s son, takes the helm. Weathering the Great Depression through focussing on venture capitalism, he finally retires and leaves the business in the hands of non-family members. The rest of the company’s history is touched on in much less detail, all the way to the eventual bankruptcy in the next financial crisis.
The play is dynamic and very well produced, especially as it is only three actors taking on the roles of all characters throughout the 150 history of the family business. An interesting examination of how the personalities of the Lehman men changed, influenced by their experiences growing up, the environments they were immersed in.
I do think the play itself could be a bit more critical, not only of the close involvement in slave labour in the beginnings of the firm, they built their wealth on the cotton trade after all and worked closely with plantations to facilitate their rapid expansion, but also the fact that the Lehman brothers themselves owned slaves before the civil war. The whole pre-war bit felt a bit glossed over, romanticised in a way. The exploitation of other people’s misfortunes was a solid factor in the creation of the Lehman Brothers firm, but this is only tangentially mentioned in passing once or twice.
Still, despite its long runtime, it’s a wholly enjoyable play with many ups and downs, funny and tragic moments, observations of the erosion of strong family and religious traditions, the rapid speed with which society has developed over the last two centuries. It’s interesting and had my full attention for the entire duration, aided by the fact that all three actors keep jumping to different characters, all of which are charming, or at least interesting, to watch.
A great show that will surely be a staple production for a while to come.