The popular play “The Lehman Trilogy” offers a unique perspective, but its portrayal of women gives rise to important questions.
“The Lehman Trilogy” spans more than 150 years. The multi-generational saga begins as the first Lehman steps off the boat from Rimpar, Bavaria into New York City in 1844. *Henry’s two brothers, Emmanuel and Mayer follow him to the United States in short succession. The story journeys to Montgomery, Alabama, then returns to New York City, until the Lehman enterprise implodes into nothingness with the subprime mortgage driven financial collapse of 2008.
The story is newly-told in a novel-in-verse and a play that enjoyed great success in London at the National Theatre and in the West End, and in New York at the Park Avenue Armory and on Broadway at The Nederlander, where I saw it. And enjoyed it. And wondered. About the women.
This is a story about men. Generations of men. Making lots of money, it hardly matters how. In clothing. In cotton. In sugar. In coffee. In railroads. The list goes on. In banking. In money making more money. And there is a very clear boundary between the work, which is done by men, and the family, in which, yes, there are some women; though you wouldn’t know it from this family tree, which appears at the beginning of the novel-in-verse.
I’ve heard of the virgin birth, which is improbable enough to found a religion upon. But this is an innovation—men replicating without the need of women. What new cult may arise? Or has the cult already achieved worldwide dominance and it is called patriarchy?
Here’s some counter-cult. I want to spotlight the women of “The Lehman Trilogy”.
Men Playing Women Versus Vice Versa
In the play, there are only men on stage. A few women appear, all too briefly, embodied with zest and great brio by the cast of excellent male actors. I delighted in the respectful, yet playful portrayals of the women by Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Adrian Lester.
I am a fan of cross-gender representation in theatre. I wish there were more, particularly women-playing-men. Donmar Warehouse’s “Shakespeare Trilogy”, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, starring the unforgettable Harriet Walker is just one example. The whole cast was pure wow. Not to say that there aren’t all-male troupes who offer exceptional performances—as, for example, Mark Rylance and troupe in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in 2013.
There are two elements of men playing women, which get stuck in my throat. First, it seems to be a monumental task for a man to represent a woman without a scintilla of condescension. Too often though there is a whiff of how-silly-are-women, how-fragile-and-shrill, how-lacking-in-rationality. Mostly, this was not so in “The Lehman Trilogy”; just a slight aftertaste on my tongue.
The second element that sticks is that men-playing-women is not only historically the most common cross-casting, it remains so. A play that may have the courage to cast across race, such as “Hamilton”, did not have the courage to cast across gender for the main roles. In the chorus women played men, but even then, in the version I saw on Broadway, this nod toward inclusivity was marred by the costume choice. The men wore loose knickers. The women’s knickers were camel-toe-tight, lest we forget these actors had vaginas.
Is this deep cultural conditioning? Whereas women are able to access their masculine energy with a certain ease, men still struggle to tap into their feminine energy without in some way exaggerating it. Men have more power. To give that power away, even in the simple portrayal of a woman on stage, cuts against an acculturation that began generations ago. Being a man is not only genetic, it is epigenetic.
As much as I admired the performances in “The Lehman Trilogy”, how invigorating would it have been if one of the cast members had been a woman (or female-identifying)?
The Few Women Who Make It Into the Play
So far, I’ve talked about the performances. How about the content? Note—I could not find any publicly available copies of the script. My references here are to my memories of the play and my reading of the novel-in-verse. Or, to be more precise, my skimming-for-the-women. I slowed to a reading pace for the women only.
The few women who appear in the play are notable. As represented, they are strong-minded, intelligent, even feminist (of a sort) and then largely relegated to behind-the-scenes. Mayer’s wife, Barbara Newgass (Babette) teaches piano; a skill that gains Lehman Brothers’ access to the salons of the wealthiest plantation owners, exponentially expanding their cotton trading business (this is made clear in the novel and glossed over in the play). Emmanuel’s eventual-wife, Pauline Sondheim, sends her suitor away repeatedly (in a fun bit of scripting and staging), until he shows deference to her decision-making power in their match and stops giving sole authority over her life to her father.
Only two more women of any note are mentioned in the play.
Philip Lehman’s wife Carrie Lauer. Carrie literally scores top marks in Philip’s precisely manic spreadsheet calculation of twelve women’s qualities for wifedom.
Carrie, for example, is scored this way—
Score: 160 out of 200
The spreadsheet scene is a lively moment in the show, as Adam Godley plays each woman in succession to Simon Russell Beale’s discerning Philip. Let me pause to name the eleven women who did not top the chart: Adele Blumenthal, Rebecca Ginzberg, Ada Lutman-Disraeli, Sarah Nachman, Paulette Weisz-Mann, Elca Rosenberg, Deborah Singer, Lea Heller Herzl, Mira Holberg, Laura Roth, and Tessa Gutzberg (who is deemed perfect in summary, but her inability to have children grants her a score of useless).
In deference to the women so easily dismissed, I’m going to do what the novel and play did not do for the male characters. I’m going to score Philip—
Nature: Mortally quant
Learning: Extreme rationality
Summary: Greed for Control
Score: High maintenance utilitarian
The last woman to appear in the play is Ruth Lamar, who, for a brief time, is Bobbie’s frank talking, cigarette smoking, television-watching, bored-to-tears-at-home wife.
The Women Who Did Not Make It Onstage
More notable still are the women left out of the play. Women who prove the adage—behind every great man is a great woman. First off, surprise—Henry has a wife, too. She may even be one of the big reasons he stayed in the US in the first place. After all, he had a fiancé back in Rimpar (Bertha Singer), to whom he was supposed to return, pockets lined with gold. In the novel, she is described as the “female essence of pallor.” His wife, Rosa Wolf, is anything but wan. The scenes of their meeting and courtship in the book are of two stubborn, business savvy people falling in love and mutual respect; ahead of their times for the mid-1800s.
I re-tell the story to honor this woman whose bright spark was buried beneath her husband’s moneyed name.
The two meet when Rosa tugs too hard on the perennially sticky door to Henry’s store, breaking glass everywhere and cutting herself. He refuses to offer her a free handkerchief to swab her face. Rather than buy a square of embroidered cloth to clean her wounds, she uses his tie. From there, the relationship progresses. He begins to offer her discounts. She tells the world about the discounts, which turns out to be a genius marketing move. He counters with a sign in the window, “Discounts for preferred customers only.” Everyone wants to be a preferred customer. The race to more profits is on.
Later, Rosa and Babette run the kitchens that secure the brothers’ ongoing business success. All deals are done over lavish lunches and dinners. Not in restaurants. Mayer gets enormously fat to match his profits, while the women run the kitchen.
I want to note here that the kitchen was staffed by slaves. In fact, in the spirit of naming all the women who are not mentioned in the play, the Lehman’s first slave is a fourteen-year-old girl, Chloe. Other female slaves mentioned in the novel are: Tilde, Dora, Sissi and Birgitta. That the Lehman’s profited from slave labor was never in doubt. They lived in the South. They traded in cotton. That they also owned slaves is glossed over in the novel and completely left out of the play.
Also left out of the play is another serial-women sequence that contrasts with Philip’s spreadsheet. This time it is Henry’s son, David, a player, who is deployed to seduce the daughters of 12 transport magnates, in an effort to gain Lehman access to their father’s salons. At first, David succeeds in his faux-passionate mission. Under a series of false names, he promises all the women marriage. The fraud continues until some letters fall into the wrong hands and he is temporarily disgraced and disavowed by the family.
Most of the women didn’t even rate names in the novel. Here are the ones who were graced with such individuation: Sissy, Polly, Christie, Minnie, and Yvette. They don’t have last names because their fathers were given coded nicknames, such as Mr. Milky Chicago, to more easily identify them amongst the Lehman Pretenders to the Transport Throne.
Sigmund’s (Babette and Mayer’s son) succession of secretaries rated inclusion in the novel, too: Vivian Blumenthal, Miss McNamara, Sally Winford, and Loretta Thompson.
Plus, the Female Lineage Begats
In addition to the women who are minimized in the play and those who don’t even make it to the stage, there’s all the daughters, granddaughters and wives left off the family tree who make fleeting appearances in the novel (this will get biblical):
- Rosa and Henry’s daughters—Bertha (weird, named after his ex-fiancé) and Harriett.
- Their son Dreidel’s wife, Helda.
- Pauline and Emmanuel’s daughters—Eveline and Harriett.
- Their son Bobbie’s first wife Ruth Lamar, second wife Ruth Owen and third wife Lee Ariz Lynn.
- Babette and Mayer’s daughters—Hattie (Harriett, the Lehman family loves that name) and Settie (Lisette).
- Their son Arthur’s wife, Adele Lewisohn.
- Their son Herbert’s wife Edith Altschuls (though first he wooed her sister Eva) and their son Peter’s first wife Lisbette Gutman and second wife Peggy Rosenbaum (who bore him two unnamed daughters).
- Their son Irving’s wife Sissi.
- Their son Sigmund’s wife (also his cousin!) Harriett (the one who is Pauline’s daughter).
- Then Harriett and Sigmund’s sons Harold and Allan married Bibi and Tessa, respectively.
The Importance of Giving Women Their Space
Phew. All those women take up a lot of words. And that’s not even all of them. There are more women who appear on Lehman family trees, but who are not included in the novel at all. For example, in addition to Hattie and Settie, Babette had two more daughters—Clara and Evelyn. Interestingly, on the real Lehman family tree, Harold and Allan are actually Evelyn’s sons, not Harriett and Sigmund’s (as in the novel).
I could descend on down the generations, but I will refrain. Imagine how many pages, novels and plays all these women would take up, if we granted them all their full stories.
I offer that as an invitation. *I am using names as they appear in the novel.
Simon Russell Beale, Howard W. Overshown and Adam Godley will perform in “The Lehman Trilogy” at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles from March 3 through April 10, 2022.