Home > 2010, 21st Century, History of the USA, Italian Literature, Massini Stefano, Theatre > Chapters of the Fall by Stefano Massini

Chapters of the Fall by Stefano Massini

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment Go to 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…

  1. Brian Joseph
    February 16, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    Great commentary on what sounds like a great play. This story seems to dig deeply onto really important aspects of American history, politics, and economic philosophy. As you allude to, though it takes place in past it is extremely timely.

    Good point about the simplistic, and in my opinion damaging, deregulation craze that has been sweeping America for the past 30 years or so.

    • February 16, 2014 at 7:07 pm

      It’s a great play. It shows the strengths ans weaknesses of the system. On the one hand, it’s full of opportunity. On the other hand, greed without control leads to disaster.

  2. February 16, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Sounds like an interesting play and a challenge to produce. I am always fascinated by the idea that some people can shift with the times while others cannot. Some people have enough vision to grasp that times change.

    We have just lived through the insanity of a housing boom and I’ve seen houses flip time and time again every few months with the prices escalating. It’s been interesting to have a front row seat to this, and it’s still not over.

    • February 16, 2014 at 7:11 pm

      That’s the fascinating part of the story: these men always had the right intuition about the economy, at least until what they were doing remained at human’s height. That’s how I felt. When the bank started to believe itself “unbreakable”, it was fragilized. That’s the fable of the oak and the reed. I agree with you: these visionaries are amazing.

      Is there a reason for this housing boom or it’s just made up by wild investments?

      • February 16, 2014 at 8:18 pm

        Long story… Have you had a housing boom there? I know it’s in Ireland (reading about it right now), the UK and Australia. If I give my explanation, I’ll sound like a conspiracy theorist.

        Suffice to say that home prices soared and everyone bought a ticket to the show: the home owners, the lenders, the bankers. It was like some sort of Ponzi scheme (thinking Zola here). Then home owners maximized credit until the collapse and then came the foreclosures. Some of it was predatory lending so people got into houses that they couldn’t afford (and they should have known better) and then they later lost when they couldn’t continue the payments. I know people who owed zero on their homes who got first second and third mortgages after seeing the ‘value’ of their home triple in just a few years.

        • February 16, 2014 at 8:56 pm

          No housing boom here. Credit is controlled by law : bankers can lend you money as long as the monthly mortgage payment doesn’t represent more that one third of your income. And there’s a law regarding interest rates. They can’t be higher than a certain rate otherwise they’re illegal.

          I don’t understand the last part of your comment. Why would people without a mortgage contract a new one on a home they already own? To get the money to do what? Buy other things? Here you won’t find a banker to lend you for that.

          • February 16, 2014 at 11:19 pm

            Part of the problem was that it became acceptable to have a house payment that was much higher than 30% of your income; plus income was fudged on applications.

            As to why people mortgaged homes that they owned outright (or owed relatively little on), some of it was due to a desire for lavish remodels. Some was driven by a desire for toys (boats, 2nd homes, motorhomes etc).

            SO people whose house was worth, let’s say $150,000 before the bubble, might have seen the house value triple. Some people “leveraged” that worth and took cash out of the home through new mortgages.

            • February 16, 2014 at 11:28 pm

              That’s crazy.

              • February 17, 2014 at 3:19 am

                I wanted to read your review first, Emma, but got sidetracked by your conversation with Guy on on housing booms. Very fascinating and informative. It is nice to know that in French law there is a restriction on interest rates. It must make it difficult to get loans, but it is nice to know that the borrower’s interests are also protected.

              • February 17, 2014 at 9:25 pm

                We tend to be a very regulated country. Too regulated sometimes but it has its advantages.
                The idea of mortgaging a house which is already paid to buy something else is unthinkable here, regulation or not. That kind of bet is just not our culture.

              • February 20, 2014 at 4:30 am

                You said it.

  3. February 17, 2014 at 3:29 am

    Very interesting topic for a play, Emma. It is also interesting that it ran for 3:50 hours. Glad to know that it was gripping and you liked it. It is sad that while starting a business and making it survive and thrive takes a lot of hardwork, losing the whole thing is so easy. It was also interesting to read how successive generations of Lehmanns thought differently about customs and life and work.

    • February 17, 2014 at 9:28 pm

      It really shows History through a story.
      What is sad is that we haven’t learnt anything from past collapses. I don’t know if it’s a lack of memory or sheer arrogance to think we are better than the generation before and that we will not make the same mistake.

      • February 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

        On your comment, Emma – “I don’t know if it’s a lack of memory or sheer arrogance to think we are better than the generation before and that we will not make the same mistake” – it looks like each generation keeps making that mistake and getting their fingers burnt. It is sad.

        • February 18, 2014 at 10:49 pm

          I know. Just read Money by Zola. It’s incredible.

          • February 22, 2014 at 4:04 pm

            I will look for Zola’s book, Emma. Thanks for recommending it.

            • February 23, 2014 at 9:58 am

              You’re welcome, Vishy

  4. February 17, 2014 at 10:29 am

    It does sound very interesting, but I wouldn’t be up for it. Over three hours sounds too daunting. But I would read it, if it exists in book form. I’ll have to have a look.
    I think t’s great that he chose a topic like that for a play.

    • February 17, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      I was glad to watch a play about a societal topic and not just the exploration of someone’s feelings or family dynamic or whatever.
      I like it when literature and theatre are part of our society and use art to focus on economy or news items.

  5. leroyhunter
    February 18, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Some of the stuff that went on in Ireland – remortgaging, multiple mortgages all “guaranteed” against each other – would make your eyes water. People were foolish, no question, but you also had banks targeting locations & demographics and agressively selling “equity release” products. There was pressure and often outright deception used to close deals – and people went off and spent the money on cars, holidays etc. I know a number of former colleagues who now have to work on contracts abroad to pay the bills.

    • February 18, 2014 at 10:49 pm

      You’ll always find unscrupulous bankers, especially if their management gives them stupid objectives.

      That’s why credit is regulated here. I need to amend what I wrote the other day: the total of what you reimburse every month (mortgage, car credit or whatever) must not be superior to one third of your income. And bankers must check it. And you can’t sign for a credit before you’ve left seven days between the moment you got the credit papers and the moment you sign. You’re supposed to take the time to think before you sign the contract.

  6. February 19, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    It sounds a great play – I’d love to see it.

    Enron, the Lucy Prebble play, was fantastic dealing in somewhat related territory. If you get a chance to catch that you absolutely should.

    • February 19, 2014 at 10:04 pm

      You’d probably like it.
      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll keep my eyes open.
      It’s nice to see on stage what’s part of our society. After all, that’s what Molière did with Tartuffe or Les femmes savantes, in his time.

      • February 19, 2014 at 10:44 pm

        Definitely. Lucy Prebble also did a play titled The Effect, which is very good and deals among other things with neuropharmacology and the nature of self. She’s one to watch.

        It’s good to see material that isn’t just a revival, but that as you say is topical just as the stuff we revive originally was.

        • February 19, 2014 at 11:27 pm

          I’ll look her up and see if I can see one of her plays.

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