THE LEHMAN BROTH­ERS STORY SIG­NI­FIES GRIT

Hindustan Times (Gurugram) - - Ht Think! - KARAN THA­PAR Karan Tha­par is the au­thor of The Devil’s Ad­vo­cate: The Un­told Story The views ex­pressed are per­sonal

Yes­ter­day was ten years since the col­lapse of Lehman Broth­ers and the fi­nan­cial cri­sis that sparked off. A decade later one of the most talked about plays in Lon­don is the story of this for­mer in­vest­ment bank. I saw it last week at the Na­tional Theatre and was riv­eted. It’s hard to be­lieve that the bone dry story of a col­lapsed bank could make for such en­thralling theatre. The au­di­ence sat spell­bound through the en­tire three and a half hour pro­duc­tion.

Called ‘The Lehman Tril­ogy’, the play tells the story of the bank and does this with just three char­ac­ters on stage. To be­gin with, they play the three orig­i­nal Lehman broth­ers, Henry, Emanuel and Mayer. As the play de­vel­ops the three start to act as their own sons and neph­ews. Yet at ev­ery given mo­ment it’s per­fectly clear who they are and, though de­tailed, the story they tell is both easy to fol­low and to­tally grip­ping.

It be­gins with the first busi­ness the Lehmans set up. It was a small fab­ric store in Mont­gomery, Alabama. If my mem­ory is cor­rect, it was some­time in the mid-1840s. From this small ven­ture the Lehmans took the next big crit­i­cal step. They be­came mid­dle­men buy­ing cot­ton from nearby south­ern plan­ta­tions and sell­ing it on to north­ern mills. No one had done this be­fore and the profits were re­mark­able.

The civil war hit them badly. But soon Emanuel, by then based in New York, ex­panded the fam­ily en­ter­prise and they be­gan to op­er­ate as mid­dle­men for steel, rub­ber and other trad­able com­modi­ties. It wasn’t long be­fore the Lehmans re­alised that money was the best com­mod­ity to trade. They could make money by deal­ing in money and thus they be­came a bank. This in­evitably ex­panded into a fi­nance cor­po­ra­tion with stocks and bonds re­plac­ing hard cash as the traded com­mod­ity.

The Sec­ond World War pro­vided fresh op­por­tu­ni­ties for profit and soon the Lehmans es­tab­lished in Europe as well. Bobby was the last Lehman to head the fam­ily busi­ness. Dur­ing his life he was the in­spi­ra­tion not just for greater profits but for a vi­sion that set the com­pany apart from al­most ev­ery other. In a sense Lehman’s col­lapse be­gan with his death though the bank it­self con­tin­ued for a bit longer.

This is not a nat­u­rally dra­matic story and yet three men on stage made it grip­ping. To do so they used com­edy and drama, satire and mimicry, so­lil­o­quies and si­lence. But above all else they spoke di­rectly to the au­di­ence. They weren’t speak­ing to each other but to every­one in the au­di­to­rium. It cap­tured at­ten­tion.

So that you never for­get the de­noue­ment that ends the Lehman story, the play be­gins in the early hours of the morn­ing af­ter the bank’s col­lapse with a jan­i­tor clean­ing the premises. It ends with the sound of an unan­swered ring­ing phone – the call that con­firmed there was no life­line for the bank. The story of the Lehman fam­ily and their evolv­ing busi­ness is told in be­tween.

When the cur­tain fell on the last act the au­di­ence rose as one to their feet. The ap­plause was loud and con­tin­u­ous. No one seemed in a hurry to stop clap­ping and start walk­ing out. But I couldn’t re­sist a twinge of sad­ness. Lehmans may have taken ir­re­spon­si­ble risks but the spirit that cre­ated the bank de­served to con­tinue. It was, af­ter all, the spirit of ad­ven­ture, am­bi­tion and dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion. At its height it was cap­i­tal­ism at its best.

AP

■ File photo of traders re­act­ing af­ter the US mar­ket col­lapse in 2008

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