“Everything built here was built on a crime,” the doctor says. “The roots run so deep that you can’t see them, but the ground beneath our feet is poisoned. It had to end like this.”
That, of course, is a warning that the pattern of reckless gain and the resulting pain will repeat itself: in the 1929 crash, which Lehman Brothers managed to survive by changing again, and in the 2008 crash, which didn’t. It’s also a signal that the company’s founders—whose deaths, when they come, are meant to move us, and do move us—were not the ethical violators of their more vulgar descendants.
With an understated, cinematic score by Nick Powell played live by Candida Caldicot on an upright piano, “The Lehman Trilogy” is structured in three parts. It follows Emanuel and Mayer to New York, and their family through successive generations, whose patrons we first meet in childhood.
So here’s Emanuel’s son Philip (Beale), a shark-to-be, as an open-mouthed toddler urged to parade his cleverness in front of guests. Here is Philip’s son Bobby (Godley) as a cheerful 10-year-old whose father mercilessly dismantles the boy’s love of horses as creatures rather than merchandise.
And most enchanting is Mayer’s son Herbert (Lester), a future governor and senator, as a thumb-sucking 3-year-old who plays with his father’s beard, and later as an honest 9-year-old in Hebrew school, objecting to it. divine massacre of the innocent children of Egypt.
As horrible as some of the Lehmans get (but not Herbert; never Herbert), the fact that they are young dampens our feelings towards them later on. That is human nature. What’s troubling is which people we see portrayed in this saga of capitalism, which people the piece helps give us a clear picture, and which people we should vaguely imagine or not at all. Proximity shapes our sympathies.
“The Lehman Trilogy” exists because of the mounting financial disaster that extinguished Lehman Brothers in 2008, but the perspective is very much from the top of that deluge. Any evil that comes down is an abstraction at best, as it was in 1929, when the piece shows us the suicides of desperate stockbrokers, but none of the pain radiating from lower social strata. And slavery, the founder of the family feast, is kept in the shadows, to one side.