Now, sitting on her sofa, she wrote: how did America begin. To defeat America she had to learn who America is. She wrote: Trump, a minor factor in nature, no longer existed. She wrote: what are the myths of the beginning of America. She was beginning to excite herself. She wrote: the desire for religious intolerance made America or Freedom.– Olivia Laing, Crudo (2018).
What are the myths of the beginning of America? One answer could be that it’s a myth ‘America’ really began at all. What we mean when we talk about the ‘beginning’ of America is a reference to a point in time that, in the grand scheme of planet Earth’s existence, happened relatively recently. There was land, and there were people living on that land, long before ‘America’ as people commonly understand it came to be.
It would, therefore, be more accurate to ask something like: ‘What are the myths of the beginning of modern America?’ or ‘the U.S.A’ or similar. It remains, however, a great question, particularly through its inclusion of the word ‘myth’. America – and I realise the inadequacy of writing this from the viewpoint of an outsider who feels like she’s gazing at a giant rock formation through a telescope, wondering what Trump ‘means’ as much as what water on Mars ‘means’ – seems more like a concept than a country. It feels like a set of ideas or ideals, ones that become increasingly difficult to spell out, define or defend the harder you try. Hence why ‘myth’ is such an apposite word. America is a concept, but – like ‘Britishness’ – it’s a slippery eel of a concept.
The Lehman Trilogy, originally written by Stefano Massini and adapted for the National Theatre by Ben Power, is a fairly typical story of modern Americanness, but one made more dramatic by the scale of wealth and power accumulated over the course of only a few generations, and the significance and fame of the investment banking firm that bore the family’s name. Its ‘typicality’ stems from being a story of European immigrants arriving in America and following the American Dream of transformation which, for the Lehmans and many others, meant operating as successful self-made businessmen.
There are many factors that make The Lehman Trilogy fascinating to watch. One is the narrative arc which takes in over 150 years of American history, a period including the Civil War, the Wall Street Crash, the two world wars (although interestingly, neither are significantly dwelt on) and the eventual financial crash of 2008 that seared the name ‘Lehman Brothers’ into the minds of many people, including those otherwise not that interested in economics or banking.
The second is that, as piece of theatre, it’s gorgeously, slickly, sexily designed by Es Devlin. The rotating glass box the three performers (Adam Godley, Ben Miles and Simon Russell Beale) inhabit is a whirlpool of time periods and locations, but it’s notably precarious, a mantelpiece ornament always on the verge of shattering. It’s also dwarfed by back-wall projections showing images of the overwhelming, physical expanse of America’s land and sea.
The third is how Sam Mendes, as director, takes this epic and distils it down to three men in a monochrome world. Visually, this is pretty much the closest you can get to a theatrical production replicating a black and white movie. There’s extremely little about the staged story that is extraneous or baggy, a virtue created equally by Mendes’ direction and Power’s adaptation. What’s clever about it as a script is that it appears simplistic – ‘stripped back’ or whatever the term of choice is – when there are actually many brilliant and subtle things occurring with tense and first person/third person interchanges, all of which result in a play with the aura of book pages turning. The Lehman Trilogy doesn’t feel like watching a story, it feels like being told a story. A campfire story. A myth.
And the fourth is that the big, overarching, drum-beating narrative is perhaps the least interesting part of the whole. The tale of the Lehman Brothers, from three German Jewish immigrants to the name on a bust financial firm in 2008, is littered with shards of other stories including the ones represented here only by silence or a brief remark. If this is a story of the American Dream, then it is as much a story about what – or who – that Dream does not include.
When the first brother arrives on American soil, his glimpse of New York is coupled with a common immigrant experience: the loss of his name. Hayum becomes Henry, and Lehmann loses an ‘n’. From that moment onwards, more fragments of identity are shed as successive generations become more entrenched as ‘American’. The first thing to go is their Germanness, but not long afterwards it is their Southernness, because even within America there is a hierarchy, one designating New York as the dreamiest part of the Dream. The family’s faith and traditions also morph. No one explicitly states that a modern version of the firm cannot close for a week in accordance with Jewish mourning practices, but no one needs to – by the time the company is registered on the stock exchange, the rules of participation are as implicit as they are explicit. To participate in this money-making America, the last thing a person is welcome to do is to stop, reflect, mourn – especially when that coincides with the suggestion of ‘foreignness’.
But along with being a story of exclusion or, what a person needs to lose in order to fully sign up to ‘Americanness’ (their cultural, religious, geographical identity), it’s also a story of exploitation. The Lehman Brothers’ early success in their new homeland is predicated on doing business with cotton plantations in Alabama. Their personal success – a rags-to-riches trajectory – relies on them being direct beneficiaries of the slave trade and valuing ‘doing business’ above even the briefest moment of moral questioning. When the Civil War happens, the brothers don’t appear to even debate what each side is fighting for, let alone choose a side to be on. Instead, they sit back and remain straddling the north-south divide on the look out for a future opportunity to make more money.
Fast-forward to the 2000s and the end of Lehman Brothers as a business, and America – like Britain – remains a country of deep inequality, one in which the existence of the super-rich relies on the existence of the super-poor. It might not be as overt as literally doing business with Alabama plantation owners, but parallels remain all too clear. More than that, the ripple effect of the financial crash that included the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers impacted more on disenfranchised, impoverished, marginalised Americans than wealthy ones, thus helping to keep in place centuries of inequality that often overlap with racism.
I didn’t go looking for a quote about America in Olivia Laing, I fell on that completely by accident whilst reading Crudo in the bath. Instead, I went searching through E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., in part because both books bear many similarities to The Lehman Trilogy. In the latter, I found:
U.S.A is a slice of a continent. U.S.A is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a publiclibrary full of old newspapers and dogearerd historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A is the world’s greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills. U.S.A is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A is the speech of the people.
Speech: a mechanism used to tell stories. Or, to create myths.
The Lehman Trilogy is on until 20 October 2018 at the National Theatre. Click here for more details.