Staging History in The Lehman Trilogy

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.

 

A Critic Question

As I was writing my latest essay for Oregon ArtsWatch, I  found myself turning over a lot of questions about critical best practices. Both as a dramaturg and when I’m reviewing a piece, I find it important to approach a work in the spirit it was created. That is, to accept its premises and goals, to not evaluate it on the grounds of wishing it were something other than what it’s trying to be. But when does it become appropriate– or even important– to ask questions about what a show is trying to be?

Luckily for me, that question more or less exploded into the broader theatre world conversation between the time I submitted the piece and when it got published. This recent review of the musical Big River sparked a contentious conversation (and a snippy letter from the Encores! artistic director) about the role of a critic in discussing not only what a show is, but perhaps what it ought to be. I really admire Laura Collins-Hughes’s willingness to engage not only with the show’s aesthetic merits, but to ask questions about its treatment of gender and especially race. Seeing the backlash to Collins-Hughes’ work stiffened my own resolve on the topic. My piece isn’t really a review of Astoria, of course, and I would have framed the questions differently if it had been– but I still would have asked them.

There is, frankly, limited space on American stages– if one story is being told, another isn’t. If we really are committed to diversity, at some point, we do have to begin evaluating not just what plays are talking about, but what they’ve decided not to talk about.

The Glass of History

In the New York Times a few weeks ago, there was an article about historical accuracy in Oscar-nominated films. The Academy loves accuracy, according to the article, which goes so far as to suggest that having the accuracy of the events it depicts questioned can even lose films Oscars they seemed poised to win.

Unsurprisingly, this made me think about Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s histories are… not known for their complete accuracy, to say the least. The compression of time, conflation of events, and addition and subtraction of characters can make trying to pick the ‘truth’ out of most of the plays, frankly, pointless. Not that this stops people from trying, and you can easily find books and articles enumerating all the things Shakespeare got wrong.

Sometimes, knowing that Shakespeare changed a detail can illuminate something very interesting about his apparent intentions in structuring the drama. Knowing, for example, that the historical Queen Margaret was dead in France well before the events of Richard III, and the famous confrontation scenes between Richard and the female characters have almost no precedent in contemporary sources suggests that Shakespeare was much more interested in the female characters than many contemporary productions seem to be.

But very often, as with the linked article’s suggestion that inaccuracy loses Oscars, the claim of historical inaccuracy seems intended to double as a value judgment. Or, on the opposite scale, “revealing” that many of his details really are accurate after all seems meant to serve as a vindication.

It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare’s audiences didn’t care. None of the Elizabethan or Jacobean history plays have the kind of scrupulous accuracy that today’s audiences seem to demand.

In 1765, Samuel Johnson published his Preface to Shakespeare, which included an entire section enumerating Shakespeare’s faults and flaws. He alludes to inaccuracy, sort of, but specifically refers only to Shakespeare’s tendency towards anachronism, which I would argue is not quite the same as nitpicking all the ways in which he changed around timelines or conflated characters. If there’s anyone you’d expect to be a stickler for facts, it’s a neoclassicist like Johnson– but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.

Writing in 1817, Romantic critic William Hazlitt does briefly note the relative historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s plays, but proclaims them uniformly correct: ‘his plays are in this respect the glass of history’. And, he notes, the places where Shakespeare has had to fictionalize are as good as, if not better than, real history.

In 1837, a printer named Charles Knight embarked on a project to produce an illustrated edition of Shakespeare. He was far from the first to do this, but he intended to distinguish his version in one important way: rather than stage-inspired illustrations, he wanted engravings of the actual settings, the real historical personages, and historically accurate clothing and architecture. In this aim, his Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakespere was, intentionally or otherwise, keeping step with emerging theatrical trends.

Around the 1830s, British actors began returning to what they saw as Shakespeare’s roots. Restoration adaptations which had superseded Shakespeare’s texts in some cases began to be restored (others would last even into the 20th century), and there was a new interest in creating productions with historically accurate, highly detailed sets and costumes. It seems only logical that, with a surging interest in representing the historical periods of Shakespeare’s plays, Shakespeare’s own inconsistent depiction of that history would become newly noticeable– and perhaps newly irritating.

These days, of course, directors are much more likely to say to hell with history and set the plays in any time or place they wish. Our obsession with historical accuracy has drifted away from Shakespeare to more naturalistic forms of media, where we seem to expect that, because the action looks realistic, it ought to fact-check against reality, too.

Tell My Story: Shakespeare and Hamilton

I wasn’t going to write about Hamilton, because after the utter flood of coverage, what’s left to say? But I love history plays, and have spend huge portions of the past year and a half thinking about them– and the more I thought about them in relation to Hamilton, the more of a pattern I began to see with regards to the female characters.

Hamilton’s reclamation of the history play for minority voices is one of its most trumpeted elements– and for English-language drama, the history play is a genre that is deeply indebted to Shakespeare. In addition to his participation in the Shakespearean tradition of layering the patterns of tragedy onto the events of history, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s treatment of female characters in Hamilton also directly evokes tropes and structures made famous by Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous historical scenes is found in Richard II, and depicts privileged people who are nonetheless at the very margins of power: the Queen of England, wife of King Richard II, accidentally overhears from two gardeners’ gossip that her husband has been deposed, that she is no longer queen. She’s so far from power, it has evidently not occurred to anyone to even update her on what is going on.

In another famous scene, female characters are more actively shoved from power: in Henry IV Part One, Lady Percy begs her husband, Henry “Hotspur” Percy, to let her in on the rebellion that he’s planning. She obliquely suggests that she has a double right to the knowledge, as his wife and as the sister of his suspected co-conspirator. Hotspur flatly refuses, and though he agrees to allow her to follow him on his impending journey, he refuses to tell her where they’ll be going or why.

So far, so familiar. Wives left behind by duty-bound, ambition-fueled men, we see that all the time. We even see it in the first act of Hamilton with Eliza Hamilton’s repeated refrain of “isn’t this enough?”, to which Alexander’s implicit answer always turns out to be no.

But with both of these Shakespeare characters– and, indeed, with other women throughout his history plays– there is a slight twist. As King Richard, now deposed, is led away to prison, he bids farewell to his wife and leaves her with a final request: “In winter’s tedious nights sit by the fire/With good old folks and let them tell thee tales/Of woeful ages long ado betid;/And ere thou bid good night, to quit their griefs,/Tell thou the lamentable tale of me.”

Lady Percy actually does this, positioning herself as the true bearer of her husband’s legacy after he is killed in battle, relating tales of his deeds when she thinks they have been forgotten: “[His honor] stuck upon him as the sun/In the grey vault of heaven, and by his light/Did all the chivalry of England move/To do brave acts […] He was the mark and glass, copy and book,/That fashioned others.”

Despite their explicit exclusion from their husbands’ actions, they become the bearers of their stories after their deaths. And the same can basically be said of Eliza in Hamilton. Her aim in most of her scenes echoes that of Lady Percy in most of hers: to persuade her husband to stay home, stay domestic, stay by her side. And both Harry Percy and Alexander Hamilton reject this offer repeatedly, committing great deeds (and not-so-great ones) in a world in which their wives aren’t welcome. Like Richard’s Queen’s eavesdropping revelation of her husband’s deposition, Eliza finds out her husband’s lurid secret when he publishes a pamphlet revealing it to the world.

Subsequently, in her only entirely solo number, “Burn,” Eliza undertakes to “eras[e herself] from the narrative/Let future historians wonder how/Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.” It’s an exciting example of how a dramatist can use gaps in the historical record to fill in a character’s arc– in this case, the fact that the real Eliza Hamilton, for some reason, destroyed her letters– but also points to what she clearly views as her future role: not a player in her own right, but a source of the information with which others may build her husband’s legacy. And, in the final number, when she “put[s herself] back in the narrative,” it is in precisely this role.

The closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” provides an answer to the third clause of its title: Eliza will tell Alexander’s story. It details her fifty-year effort to tell her husband’s story– like Lady Percy, to remind others of the importance of a life she fears is being forgotten.

(It’s interesting, and probably too much to fully cover here, that this precise role also exists in In the Heights, but is filled by the main male character, Usnavi, while his female love interest yearns to escape and rejects the vision of neighborhood loyalty that Usnavi ultimately dedicates himself to upholding.)

The unique ways in which female characters interact with and ultimately propagate historical narratives are strikingly similar in Miranda’s musical and Shakespeare’s later history plays. The women are not quite in the room where it happens, but maybe listening at the door. In Shakespeare, there seems to be an implicit link between their exclusion from the direct action of the play and their ability to assume the role of narrator. It’s fascinating to see how directly this narrative pattern is echoed by Hamilton. If it’s not a conscious look back towards Shakespeare (which I certainly wouldn’t put past Miranda), it’s proof of how deeply embedded Shakespeare’s tropes and structures are within our impulses about how to dramatize history.