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