On February 10, 1949, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman premiered at New York’s Morosco Theatre. Seventeen days later the New York Times published an essay by Miller entitled, “Tragedy and The Common Man.” From that time on, high school and college students would discuss the possibility of an American tragedy: Can a classical tragedy be set in America? Has anyone yet written an American classical tragedy? Why or why not?

Seventy-four years later we have answers:

Yes, a classical tragedy can be set in America.

And yes, an American classical tragedy has been written by an Italian, named Stefano Massini.

That play is The Lehman Trilogy

Like the Greek tragedies, The Lehman Trilogy features only three actors playing the host of characters against a neutral façade (skene). The actors were, at the performance I saw, Peter Sipla as Emanuel Lehman, Mitchell J. Fain as Henry Lehman, and Joey Slotnick as Mayer Lehman. The fact that the three actors are visible under the decades of characters they play in the Lehman Brothers organization, makes Lehman Brothers the corporate tragic hero, rather than any one individual. As with the Greeks, three actors play a host of Lehman family members and non-Lehman characters, sliding easily from one dialect or sex to another. In the style of Trevor Nunn’s historic eight- and one-half hour staging in the 1980s of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the co-directors, Nick Bowling, and Vanessa Stalling made the third-person dialogue seem as natural as the multiple characters simply, yet effectively, suggested.

The skene, designed by Collette Pollard, was a stunning pile of debris and refuse from the almost two hundred years of the Lehman financial Tower of Babel

The actions which Massini gives the characters lead to the tragedy because they are like those of classical Greek tragedy – necessary, genuine, serious, and immutable. As the characters pursue their objectives the audience feels sympathy, understanding, and often admiration. Every so often the Lehman family faces threats to their financial security and thus to their very existence, both moral and physical.

As the Greek tragedies derived their metaphysic from the world of ancient gods and heroes, so the  Lehman metaphisic arises from Book of Exodus, one of the most important books in the founding of America. The Hebrew story of escape from oppression to find freedom under God in a land of milk and honey is what the Lehman Brothers experience in the beginning of the drama.

The recent proliferation of new examinations the Book of Exodus (Dennis Prager, Exodus. God Slavery and Freedom, Leon Kass, Founding God’s Nation. Reading Exodus, and Jordan Peterson’s Exodus. Eight World-Class Scholars in a paradigm shifting discussion of the Book of Exodus) provide the metaphysical background for the Lehman Trilogy, just as the Ancient Greek gods and heroic tales provided the background for the 5th Century B.C Greek drama.

Education in and the practice of living according to The Book of Exodus has caused the Lehman Brothers to strive to align themselves with God and to work within God’s hierarchies, both vertical and horizontal. Prayers and life sustaining rituals and observances characterize their existence as they enter America. However, over time, the Hebrew traditions, which have sustained them, and prospered them, begin to occupy a smaller and smaller significance in their lives and work. As a result, they often appear rudderless or unmoored in their planning. Their dilemma arouses pity for the family as they encounter fearful forces, opponents, problems, and decisions.

The Lehman family goes from happiness to unhappiness, all the while enjoying financial prosperity, until after the last Lehman leaves the management of the company, a disaster befalls which we could see coming. The fall of the House of Lehman is due to hamartia, a tragic flaw which causes the protagonists to err or “miss the mark.”

The dean of Greek dramatic studies H.D.F. Kitto reminds us that the tragic flaw need not be limited to a single individual in the drama:

The unity of a play does not necessarily subsist in one character; it is not Agamemnon nor Clytemnestra who gives this unity to their play…Even when there is, beyond any question, a central and dominant character in a play, we can still, thanks to the modern interest in personality and the individual, entirely misunderstand the degree  of importance which he had in the mind of the dramatist,  and so more or less seriously misunderstand his play.”[i]

Just as the Greek playwrights saw the House of Atreus as the flawed familial body, playwright Massini presents the House of Lehman as the body in which a growing propensity to chase false gods will lead to their catastrophe. More and more they violate the first commandment:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.”[ii]

The individuals’ strong sense of a vertical alignment with God is matched by  equally strong God-shaped horizontal relationships with their family, friends, colleagues, and the public . But each relational axis deteriorates as new secular gods replace the one true God of the Hebrews.

The words of Deuteronomy foretell the tragedy:

        I have set before you today life and death, good and evil. If you hear the commandments of the Lord your God I command you today, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His ordinances and judgements, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you go to inherit. Buy if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but go astray and worship different gods and serve them, I announce to you today, you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land your God is giving you, into which you are crossing over the Jordan to inherit. I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you: I set before you life and death. Blessing and cursing.”[iii]

In both the Greek playwrights’ work, and in Stefano Massini’s play, the main characters, are the type of people requisite for tragedy – those to whom we are not indifferent.  The three original Lehman family brothers, and their descendants, mirror the American immigrant base with which most Americans can relate. All arrived hoping to create a new life in a new society.

Like each Lehman Brother each American arrival thanked God:

Baruch HaShem

They acknowledged that like their Hebrew forbearers they seek to align their lives under the rule of their wise and benevolent God.

By hanging a mezuzah on the side of the office door, they commit themselves to place God above all others. They follow the Shema conscientiously.

From his dry goods business in Alabama, Henry Lehman writes to his father, Abraham, in Bavaria, that he will celebrate Pesach with other Jewish families, including Sachs and Goldmans. They hope to build a temple in their Alabama home.

Following Jewish tradition Henry asks a young woman’s father for her hand in marriage. Henry and his brothers, Mayer and Emanuel, hear of a great fire while celebrating Hanukkah in 1853.

Baruch atah Adonai

eloheinu Melech ha’olam

asher kid’shanu b’mitzvtuv

v’tzivanu l’hadik near

shel Hanukkah.

Henry, dead of yellow fever, the two remaining Lehman Brothers sit shiva and observe all the rules: not to go out for a week, not to prepare food, to ask neighbors for it. They tear garments, as prescribed and they recite the Qaddish every day, morning and evening, curtains drawn, door closed and double locked. The two brothers sit on wooden benches, with untrimmed mourning beards, and observe all the rules of shiv and sheloshim.

Yit-gadal v’yit-kadash sh’mey raba, b’alma di v’ra hirutey, vyam-lih mal-hutey b’ha-yey-hon uv’yomey-hon uv’ha-yey d’hol beyt yisrael ba-agala u-vizman kariv, v’imru amen.

The remaining brothers move their business headquarters  from Montgomery, Alabama to 119 Liberty Street in New York City. Mayer remains in Montgomery, Emanuel is  in New York,  turning Alabama cotton into banknotes. They hire a kosher cook to prepare all meals.

When the Civil War appears, the Lehman Brothers close their Montgomery office. Draft riots in New York set the New York office ablaze. When the brothers become Lehman Bank, an investment bank, the Jewish families in the synagogue sit front to back according to the families who control of the gold market. Gold rather than God is now ordering the human hierarchy.

In 1881, outside the Stock Exchange, what Henry calls the “Temple”, an unknown aerialist named Solomon Paprinskij, walks across a metal wire stretched between two lamp posts. Meyer hopes “all the hot air from all of those yelling mouths, all those words – all those words-, never blows him off his wire.

Phillip writes to his uncle: New York City is like “the lamp in the temple that burns without oil: created by man but, at the same time, a miracle.”

Every night Emanual dreams of the sky opening as it did on Shavot and Hasham handed the scriptures to his people. But in his dream out of the clouds come a train straight at Emanuel.

Trains are all anyone in New York talks about.

Mayer’s youngest son, Herbert, is corrected in Hebrew school for claiming the final plague was HaShem let all the children of Israel die. The correct answer was he let all the “first born” die.

Herbert disputes with the Rabbi: Why let all the innocent children die? Instead of wasting time with plagues, HaShem should have simply killed the Pharoah.

Herbert also had a problem with the fact that on Hannukah only the head of the family may light the candles. His parents try to explain the importance of tradition, but Herbert says he doesn’t care about tradition. He doesn’t believe a brother to be worth more than a sister; he wanted things to be fair, according to his eyes. He enters politics.

When Mayer dies, Emanuel decides to observe the traditional rules of shiva and sheloshim. But instead of sitting shiva for a whole week, they sit for only three days. They say they can’t afford to keep the office closed any longer.

The new sign reads “Lehman Brothers Finance”.

Robert Lehman observes that at Yale he learned that nothing is more passe than a family named bank. A bank should be open to all its shareholders.

The new sign reads: “Lehman Corporation.”

1929; the seventy-year-old aerialist Soloman Paprinskij falls to the ground.

Stockbrokers are killing themselves.

Herbert Lehman, governor of New York, announces in the newspapers: “Together with Roosevelt, I will save America! We will guide you out of the tempest! We will give you a future!”

At the next shiva, there are no funeral beards, the family does not sit against the wall on funeral benches, and no suits are ripped.

Now the Lehmans call themselves Reformed Jews, which means, “We do it our way” The business is closed for three minutes of silence to tell the world that Phillip Lehman is dead.

The Hungarian Lew Glucksman runs the business of buying and selling: a new Trading Division is created. On the wall is a huge portrait of a naked woman covered in gold:


Bobby Lehman is eighty and dances the twist. “He dances like a madman. He dances so hard he doesn’t notice when the ground comes up to meet him. He doesn’t notice that the music has stopped. He doesn’t notice that the last Lehman died dancing the twist.”

September 15, 2008.:

The play suggests that the moment there were no more Lehmans to sit on the board is when things began to go seriously awry. But the audience sees the three original brothers and so the sin and tragedy are that of the Lehman family and, by extension, of America.

The original three brothers appear on stage. They have grow their beards long into

“the mourning beards of shiva and sheloshim. They will respect the law in every precept.And morning and night these rooms will ring with the sound of their voices as they recite the Kaddish.”

As they did in Bavaria.

Os Guiness describes the Sinai Revolution chronicled in the Book of Exodus, as the “Magna carta of humanity”. He quotes John Adams saying, “I will insist that the Hebrews have contributed more to civilize men than any other nation.”[iv] Consequently, the United States Constitution has an amazing number of parallels with the Biblical story in Exodus.

The Lehman dream, the American dream, is dead.

The trilogy ends with the three original brothers back on stage reciting the Kaddish for their legacy, hopes, dreams, and reputation.

Yit-gadal v’yit-kadash sh’mey raba, b’alma di v’ra hirutey, vyam-lih mal-hutey b’ha-yey-hon uv’yomey-hon uv’ha-yey d’hol beyt yisrael ba-agala u-vizman kariv, v’imru amen.

  [i] H.D.F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy, New York: Methuen,1939, p..99

[ii] Exodus 20: 2

[iii] Deuteronomy 30:13-19.

[iv] Os Guiness, The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom. InterVarsity press, 2021.

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