there is only the dance
On Saturday afternoon I found myself at the National Theatre to watch The Lehman Trilogy having my tiny socks knocked off. The play, taking place over three hours and change, charts the origins, rise and - ultimately - fall of Lehman Brothers. Except, in the spirit of the Kermodean adage that Jaws is not about a shark and Tinker, Tailor… isn’t about spies, that isn’t really what it’s about: it’s about how humankind’s desire for control will always betray us. It starts in 1844, with Henry Lehman - followed to America by his brothers Emanuel and Mayer - starting a small business in Montgomery, Alabama. Each brother is distinctively different, described as the Head (Henry), the hand (Emanuel), and the potato (Mayer) - although Mayer later becomes the “kiss-kiss” as he displays his skills at wooing planters to sell the brothers their cotton.
The three actors who play the three brothers (Simon Russell Beale as Henry, Ben Miles as Emanuel and Adam Godley as Mayer) embody all the characters who appear within the play, becoming, over time, each others’ nephews, grandsons, rivals - and wives. Incredibly, this is at no point confusing: all three actors are quite remarkable (I expect remarkable as the norm from Russell Beale, at least, but he was matched character for character). It is also important for the unfolding of the story, not just because we feel the presence of the founding brothers throughout the developing history of Lehman Brothers, but because the original characteristics of head, hand and kiss-kiss stay with the actors down the generations. So Henry, the head, becomes Philip, Henry’s utterly composed nephew who has the determination to observe the world so closely that every move is strategic, not risky. Emanuel, the hand, becomes Herbert - Mayer’s son - a man who always ‘has a problem with this’ (emphasised with a pointing finger) and who ends up in politics rather than operating in the hermetically controlled world of his cousin Philip. And Mayer, ‘kiss-kiss’, who we might even call the heart given his role as mediator between the brothers and as the wooer of the first cotton planters to sell to them; Mayer becomes Bobbie, Philip’s vibrant, engaging and engaged son, who manages to be into art and horse racing as well as finally taking the reins at the family firm.
This matters because the play is about who these people are and how who they are enables the rise and fall of their business. There are two moves in the narrative that are particularly relevant in this how: the move from immigrant to American; and the move from three brothers to two cousins to one man - and they both affect how these core characterstics play out in the world. Henry, Emanuel and Mayer are Jews from a small town in Bavaria: their heirs are not. The transition is made manifest as Emanuel pulls Mayer from Alabama, where the youngest brother wants to rebuild the community, to New York, but it is emphasised in the writing. Borrowing much of its style from ancient oral epics - notably Homer - set phrases recur and repeat, creating points of reference for both narrator(s) and audience. One of these markers is repetition of the three brothers’ hometown set in contrast to the description of their sons’ and grandson’s birthplaces and identies, which explicitly describe how they are disconnected from these roots. Another is the phrase Baruch Hashem (with God’s help): regularly repeated by Henry and his brothers, almost completely absent by the final act. Its disappearance is accompanied by the steady reduction in the practice of sitting shiva: a full week for Henry, three days for Mayer, three minutes for Philip, and no time at all for Bobbie.
The shortening of the shiva isn’t just about the transition from imigrant, observant Jew, to American non-observant, it is also about the shrinking of the family who would sit shiva. Emaneul and Mayer sit shiva for Henry; by the time Bobbie dies, there is no one left. And this has implications, too. While Henry is, ‘always right’, there is a balance between the three brothers. When Henry dies, Mayer and Emanuel exist in a back-and-forth tension, until Philip emerges - but the balance is not restored: he supersedes them, and them removes Herbert, who might provide some balance to him. With Philip’s exercise of control, Bobbie is able to be distracted with his other interests - until the Wall Street Crash.
But the control that Emanuel seeks and Philip and then Bobbie hold is illusory. Each man has a fear: Emanuel of being run down by a fast approaching train, Philip of being buried under what he has built, and Bobbie of the tower he has built collapsing. The weakening connection to family history, including the loss of the inbuilt assumption of the existence and will of God (Baruch Hashem) and of family members who get to have a say, means that the key characteristics of these men aren’t checked or balanced - and the ways that they try to stay in control of the world leads them out of control. This is most clear with Bobbie, in the ever-accelerating final act, as he is seduced by the promise of the unifying power of the computer and by the possibilities of trading, which responds to every tiny shift of the market and can be read - and for Bobbie, therefore controlled. This seduction is done on stage as a dance, Bobbie living and dying to the beat (and yes, you really do want to see these three actors do the twist).
And here I want to come back, again, to the disappearance of the phrase Baruch Hashem. There is an Augustinian idea, currently prominent in discourse about Christian discipleship, that ’you are what you love’: that the things that you love and desire govern your ways of living and being, or your actions and pursuits. The Lehman Trilogy makes this manifest. At the start the three brothers appear to have a relatively healthy relationship with their business and profit-making. They shut the shop on Sababath (which means they’re open on Sundays, which gets a laugh) and remind themselves that God’s will is at play. After major fires in Act I they come up with a scheme that will help them and help their community (or at least, the white landowning part). Mayer seeks to repeat this after the civil war. But for the older Emanuel, followed by Philip and Bobbie, fear of their nightmares drives them forwards, towards the pursuit of more success and more control and away from the idea that God’s will is a thing to be lived and reckoned with.
Bobbie’s nightmare is of a tower of Babel, boxes collapsing as the forces that should hold them up fall to support each other, something that is made immediately clear by a scene in which two young guns seek to persuade him to invest in computers with the promise of a grand unifying language that will hold humanity together on its journey of economic growth. However, while Babel is, on the surface, a story of God punishing humans for daring to try and come up to his level - and this punishment is the creation of languages that means that humans will no longer be able to coordinate so well that they might be able to achieve a god-like status. But not all punishments are bad for us, and to be reminded that you are not a god is healthy. The diversity of languages created at Babel contributes to a diversity of identities and communities and to a struggle to communicate across them. But in this struggle, you have to learn to pay attention to other people: you have to learn to negotiate gaps in what it is possible to say verbally and read body language instead, and to accept that there will always be things you do not know and cannot control about the world.
In the Four Quartets T. S. Eliot wrote:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, … Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
At the heart of this is an idea that life is a dance, that as the world keeps moving we move with it - but around a still centre: God. It acknowledges a lack of control, in that we cannot stop the world moving, but also finds a peace and stillness with in it, so that the dance retains a rhythm rather than spiralling out of control. This still point is absent from Bobbie’s dance. He is riding the wave, always moving, always groving. The dancer thinks he is in control, following the regular rhythm of the twist, but is rather controlled by it, unable to stop - until he drops, dead on the table.
And once he drops, the family business follows.