Monday, November 27, 2023

Lehman Trilogy on stage: history and who gets credit

We were in the audience last week for The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini, now playing at Canadian Stage in Toronto.  It's a remarkable show: the first act seems not much more than a lecture in 19th century economic history, and yet it manages to be a theatrical powerhouse, as three actors introduce us to the origins of the Wall Street investment bank in a retail shop in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1840s. The next two acts of the trilogy, on the 20th century descendants of the founders and then on the investors and speculators who ran the firm into the ground in 2008, may go on a little long. It is still proof of the magic of live theatre -- and a credit to the three actors who carry the whole play (and its enormous word count) through.

There's an odd historical echo in the program -- in all the programs, apparently, from the London West End where the English language version originated, to Broadway where it won Best Play a couple of years ago, and to the Toronto production. The credits page carries the following statement.

Peter Chapman is author of THE LAST OF THE IMPERIOUS RICH: LEHMAN BROTHERS 1844-2008, a leading reference on the history of the Lehman family.

Is this the playwright's generous tribute to a historian who inspired him, or maybe a carefully negotiated lawyering to appease an author demanding his contribution be acknowledged? Who knows? Chapman is a British financial journalist and the author of a number of business histories.

The Lehman Trilogy has little to say about the way the family fortune originated in slavery-dependent businesses in the antebellum South. I thought the set design of the CanStage production made that clear enough in a subtle but unavoidable way. But here's a thoughtful review of the play that argues too much has been elided.  

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