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Chapters of the Fall by Stefano Massini

February 16, 2014 26 comments

Chapters of the Fall. Saga of the Lehman Brothers by Stefano Massini.

chapitre_chuteStefano Massino is a young Italian playwright and his Chapters of the Fall details in three chapters the saga of the Lehman brothers. The first chapter Three Brothers, covers the years from 1844 to 1867. The second one, Father and Son relates the span of 1880-1929 and the last one The Immortal, goes from 1929 to 2008. The first chapter describes the arrival of Henry Lehman in Montgomery, Alabama, where he founded a store selling fabric and clothes. His brothers Emanuel and Mayer soon emigrate to America too and they join their forces to develop their business. Soon they start selling raw cotton to  Northern businessmen and settle in New York. The second chapter describes how Philip Lehman, Emanuel’s son develops Lehman Brothers, which is now a bank. The third chapter is about Robert Lehman, the last member of the family to operate the bank and the subsequent change in management eventually leading the bank to its fall.

Apart from the saga of this specific family, the play recounts the history of capitalism in America. Sure, there aren’t many details. But still, the big moves and changes are visible. The Lehman Brothers start by selling cloth and goods needed in plantations. It’s tangible. Then, they accept raw cotton as payment for goods and start selling raw material. They shift their profit towards a trading activity, working as middlemen between the North and the South. The Civil War destroys this business but they manage to float and come out of it unscathed. They relocate in New York because the trading is done there. They participate to the creation of Wall Street, know Mr Dow and Mr Jones who will create the Dow Jones. They accompany the changes in the economy. They turn from revenues from agriculture to revenues from industries and then from financial markets. They turn their back to the South and invest in the West through railroads. Philip Lehman will be the one to invest in railroads and to forever change the company into an investment bank. Supporting weapon industries helped the bank surviving several crisis and the Lehman involved the bank in financing innovative parts of the economy. (Cinema, television, electronics)

The first chapter is very clear. The second shows well the modernization of society and how the economy bolted and crashed in a wall in 1929. It pictures how greed and easy money turned people into madmen wanting more. The New Deal was voted and the State started to regulate the economy, to Robert Lehman’s dismay. The third chapter is more blurred. After Robert Lehman’s death, the bank is more and more driven by stock markets and traders take control of the company. Robert Lehman died in 1969. To me, the 1970s were the decade that paved the road to power to politicians who deregulated everything, at least in the USA. The 1929 crisis was a bit forgotten and greed was again a way of living. Until the fatal crisis of 2008.

When the theatre warned us that Chapters of the Fall would last 3:50 hours, I thought “Oh, dear, I hope it’s gripping.” And yes, it is. If you ever have the opportunity to watch this play, go for it. It’s entertaining and educational. It gives a good overview of the construction of capitalism. It’s not judgemental. It states facts and pictures how a family turned a growing business into an empire by adapting quickly to the changes in their environment. The play is really well written. The story is told by the brothers in a light tone. They are storytellers, using repetitions in the text like magic phrases in a fairy tale. It was directed by Arnaud Meunier and he managed to create the right atmosphere and he picked wonderful actors. It lasted 3:50 and my attention never failed. The stage set was sober and the images on a screen behind the stage brought the spectators to New York, to Wall Street and to a trade room. Societal changes seep through the text when the men evoke their marriages and wives. Emanuel and Mayer simply fall in love. Philip chooses a wife like he’s doing a merger or picking a good horse. Robert marries three times since divorce is accepted. The progressive loss of rituals when a Lehman dies pictures the loss of values. When Henry dies, the business is closed for a week and all the Jewish rituals are respected. When Emanuel dies, Philip doesn’t imagine closing the bank for more than a day. Life doesn’t stop on stock exchanges, even for the death of a founding partner.

I’ve read L’Argent by Zola and he describes exactly the same mechanism. Money calls for more money. People are focused on stock exchanges and stock rates. They put more money than they should in stocks and follow anxiously the outcome. They lose sight with the brick and mortar economy and live on the illusion that the market can rise forever, and of course it can’t. Robert Lehman had seen the 1929 crisis coming but Philip Lehman was in too deep to act and prevent the catastrophe. It seems we are unable to learn from our past mistakes and keep on believing in illusions. There were severe downturns in the stock markets in the 19thC too. The 1929 crisis brought havoc to the world and still, we forgot. I always wonder how we can be so forgetful. History recalls what it wants and the human mind accommodates their memories until they are liveable. But wait, that’s for the billet about The Sense of an Ending…

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