I’ve been thinking about how the structure of a play itself can reflect its historiographical interests– conscious or otherwise. An interesting case in point is The Lehman Trilogy, adapted by Ben Power from an Italian play by Stefano Massini, and now playing at the National Theatre. It tells the story of the rise of the Lehman Brothers firm, from the arrival of the founding brothers in America in the 1840s to its dissolution during the crash of 2008. It is performed by only three actors– Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles– who between them take on dozens of roles– all of which, through this casting, become refractions of and variations on the original brother they played.

This multi-role casting lends cohesion and continuity to what is otherwise a sprawling story, generations passing on and passing off the torch to the next. It allows us to feel some attachment to later-generation characters who are not as fully developed as their forebears. I was surprised to learn that this was not the case with Massini’s original play: either Powers or director Sam Mendes decided to reduce the original large cast to just three. I think it works artistically for these reasons, but it also is a huge historiographical shift. Instead of an epic story with a cast of dozens, reflecting the sprawl of history, it becomes the story of three great men.

I mean this not in the sense that they are necessarily good or awesome, but that they were powerful and influential– the sense intended in the ‘great man’ theory, or great man history, a historiographical concept first attributed to Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s. It’s a succinct idea, in his words: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

By filtering the entire history of the Lehman Brothers through three actors– and attributing to them the invention of a variety of essential concepts, like that of brokers between farms and manufacturers, government-subsidized building projects, and other economic concepts I only barely understand– they become (literally, in terms of onstage imagery) the only people who can or do make history. The modern banking system is shaped by them and no one else.

This also places the emphasis on the man part of great man. Unsurprisingly, there are a fraction as many female characters as male characters, and none are very important. And because the way the female characters are depicted by these male actors– with exaggerated falsettos and coy expressions– the audience on the night I saw the performance laughed, without fail, every time a female character entered or spoke. The very presence of women in history became laughable, their very speech a joke. Naturally, the casting means that anyone who isn’t white (admittedly not many people in the world of banking, but the Lehman Brothers do get their start dealing with plantations, and there is an oft-referenced but never depicted black overseer character) also cannot exist.

While it can feel inevitable that historical stories center on men in particular– they were the ones doing everything, how could women be involved?– the case of a play like The Lehman Trilogy draws attention to the fact that such assumptions really are just assumptions, not givens. The extreme narrowing of focus forces attention onto everything that is squeezed out of the three-man frame, a reminder of all the stories that this play– and so many histories– leave out. Though artistically successful, and buoyed by three splendid performances, the decision to make three white men the center of history is not the only way to tell this, or any other story.

 

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