[Marxism] ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ Criticizes Capitalism, at $2,000 a Seat

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 21 15:28:17 MDT 2019


NY Times, April 21, 2019
‘The Lehman Trilogy’ Criticizes Capitalism, at $2,000 a Seat
By Ginia Bellafante

Since its American debut at the Park Avenue Armory last month, “The 
Lehman Trilogy” has had New Yorkers of a certain breed held tightly at 
the forearms. A play about money and decline, it has been chewed over by 
those still on top.

The show was virtually sold out long before it opened, with tickets for 
the best seats costing more than $400. Tickets for some of the final 
performances have now reached $2,000 on StubHub, at which point you 
might consider flying to London — the production returns there next 
month — spending a night at Claridge’s and buying a royal-baby 
saltshaker with whatever is left.

We are lingering in a moment in which there is a fashion, or even a 
giddiness, for spending large sums of money on theatrical experiences 
that explore the foundations and promises of American capitalism. 
Commenting on the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s singular effort in 
this vein, The Harvard Business Review ran a piece three years ago 
titled: “Hamilton’s $849 Tickets Are Priced Too Low.” The point was that 
there were so many people with plenty of money desperate to see the show 
that too much power was redounding to scalpers.

But the fact that there were — and remain — so many people willing to 
spend so many hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a single evening 
of live theater suggests something else as well. Technology has so 
democratized the consumption of culture — much of it of impressively 
high quality — that it is possible for virtually anyone to stream nearly 
anything at any time. Naturally, a new system of status was bound to 
evolve. The housekeeper can watch “The Crown,” but only the mistress of 
the penthouse can see the musical sensation that has won 11 Tony Awards 
on her own schedule.

During its run, “Springsteen on Broadway” had tickets that sold for as 
much as $850. But resale platforms made them available for many times 
that — so it was possible to pay $8,000 to immerse yourself in Bruce’s 
world of vanished working-class hope. Or you might have realized that if 
you had that kind of money lying around to spend on two hours at the 
theater, you may be the root from which the problem weed is spreading.

The “Lehman Trilogy” has in its soul a critique of these imbalances, but 
its criticisms are facile and anodyne enough to offend no one benefiting 
from them. A history play, enacted by performers of incredible stamina 
who spend close to three and a half hours on stage, it tells the story 
of the Lehman brothers — Henry, Emanuel and Mayer — from their arrival 
in the United States as poor Bavarian immigrants in the middle of the 
19th century to the downfall of the bank they eventually created, more 
than 150 years later.

Coming to this country, the Lehmans went straight to Montgomery, Ala., 
where the cotton business was roaring. They opened a dry goods store but 
at some point epiphany struck. They realized they could potentially make 
lots of money serving as middlemen between local cotton plantations and 
northern mills. The play is not entirely blind to the flaws of its 
characters but bundles up sufficiently under the pup tent of hagiography 
to have us assume that the Lehman brothers invented the notion of 
brokering, a tradition that predates them by at least a millennium. (The 
word “broker,” just so you can keep this fact on hand, derives from 
“broceur,” meaning “small trader” in a style of regional French spoken 
in the eighth century.) Cotton led to business in other commodities and 
ultimately to money lending and a banking empire.

The play’s creator, the Italian dramatist Stefano Massini, mines a 
well-established idea: that as the Lehmans, and by extension modern 
capitalism, moved further and further away from the intimate business of 
buying and selling tangible things to focus on shifting money around for 
maximum profit — developing abstract financial instruments that ordinary 
people could not possibly understand — virtue gave way to corruption.

“The Lehman Trilogy’’ is not an angry play; it would like you to believe 
that the greed of dynasties and the values of bloodline are superior to 
those of the scrappy interlopers who inherit corporate lines of 
succession when the founding families have either died off or retreated 
to lives of spirituality.

In Mr. Massini’s understanding, trouble found its true engine when the 
last of the actual Lehmans ran Lehman Brothers and management was given 
over to the ambitious roughnecks in the trading division rather than the 
well-mannered investment bankers who had been in charge. Something 
precious was gone. But what exactly?

By completely omitting something terribly obvious — that the original 
fortune was made on the backs of slaves — the play suggests that the 
real evildoers were not the kindly young men from Bavaria who sold cloth 
and simply saw expanding opportunities but the 21st-century financiers 
who ignited an economic crash, besotted by the idea of bundling subprime 
mortgages into tranches.

“The Lehman Trilogy” comes with an easy appeal to wealthy audiences 
beyond the mere fact that it’s a play about an investment bank. It 
affirms the idea that there is a hierarchy of greed and that some forms 
are more benign than others. What is the harm of passing down outsize 
wealth from one generation to another, or the tax system that so eagerly 
supports it?

Ultimately, the play coaxes you into leaving with a sober skepticism 
about the complexities of modern finance that you probably already had 
before the curtain rose. It just won’t let you feel too guilty.

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