Capitalism and the Fall of Man

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
Page 1 of 1

Two plays and one big message from London

CAPITALISM DIED many deaths. Its resurrections from the ashes of socialist fatalism had already lost their novelty. Still, the proverbial crisis in capitalism keeps the Cassandras in business; it continues to make convenient socialists out of suddenly deflated free marketeers; and it alone sustains the moral absolutism of anti-globalists. There are still people out there who remind us that the argument capitalism claims to have finally won in the last century remains unresolved. They tell us that the wealth gap is so wide that it’s impossible to romanticise the creativity of the capitalist. They despise the vulgarity and inequalities of the McWorld, its inherent inhumanity. It invalidates the idea of a just world. So capitalism must die. It does, once in a while.

The one in 2008 was momentous. It crashed when it looked invincible, and that too in a world which had already abandoned socialism for good. It crashed when only archival socialists wept for the phony theologies of equality, and when the last masters of the universe lived on Wall Street. And every fall, every rupture, in history is personalised by one morality tale, one totemic legend. In 2008, it was the Lehman Brothers. Its sudden fall made American capitalism almost bankrupt; it made all of us poorer, and some of us wiser. The eternal had become ephemeral, bringing to an end the mythology of the American Dream. When the curtain fell on a stage littered with shattered lives, the crash of capitalism was as emotionally exhausting as a Greek tragedy.

In The Lehman Trilogy by the Italian playwright Stefano Massini, first staged in Paris six years ago, American capitalism is dramatised as a generational saga, beginning with a dream and the magic of distance, ending with a fatal ringing of the telephone. The history of capitalism here is the history of migration, of the movement of man and his desire, his fantasies and follies, his greater ability to build a collapsible monument for himself. I saw the version adapted for the English stage by Ben Power, and directed by Sam Mendes, at London’s Piccadilly Theatre. The epic never looked so intensely spartan, and in more than three hours of riveting theatre, the humanisation of wealth was stretched between the solitude of the migrant salesman to the temptation of gods.

The eternal had become ephemeral, bringing to an end the mythology of the American Dream

It begins with the arrival of Henry Lehman, a Jew from Bavaria, in New York, on September 11th, 1844. He starts his picaresque from the cotton capital of Alabama, and soon he is joined by his younger brothers Emanuel and Mayer, setting the stage for one of capitalism’s most resourceful dynasties. As salesmen, bankers, builders, buyers, and lenders, they made money not to spend, but to make more money; and there was nothing untouched by the ever-expanding dreams of the Lehman clan, be it railways, automobile, airlines, entertainment, or politics. They were survivors and adventurers; they assumed they had the wherewithal to cross the boundaries of desire wealth could create in man. The thrill was the pursuit; the fall was a tragic error, an existential sham.

The grandeur of the original European production of The Lehman Trilogy was provided by the psychedelic passage of history in capitalism’s holy land. Spanning 150 years of man’s ingenuity in wealth creation, it was an overpopulated saga. The English adaptation is a triumph of re-imagination by two originals, Power and Mendes. The entire saga is played by three male actors, mostly speaking in third person, who cross generations as well as gender. Call it an amazing piece of theatrical reductionism, but what it achieves is sensational. It’s as if the Homeric has been downsized with a sense of humour. In their virtuoso performance, Simon Russell Beale, perhaps the last of the classical actors on stage, Adam Godley and Ben Miles, become narrators and enactors of a long stretch of history, the remains of which still make us cautious. On a glassy stage filled with cardboard boxes, and the shifting backdrop made spectacular by laser technology, the three mimic the passions and pathologies of capitalism to the music of time.

In its moral extremism, The Lehman Trilogy is very Old Testament. In its political resonance, it is here and now: no wall is unbreachable for the most enterprising migrant. And at another level, it is the story of history’s loneliest traveller, the Jew, struggling to reduce the distance between promise and land.

In the biography of capitalism, we have come to the narrative point where poignancy has been replaced by pornography

BARNEY FEIN TOO carries within him the legacy of the Jewish traveller, lonelier and bathetic in the end. Fein is a fat, Viagra-propelled, Harvey Weinstein-like movie mogul in Bitter Wheat, the new play by David Mamet, who is also the director. In the biography of capitalism, we have come to the narrative point where poignancy has been replaced by pornography. The words are sharp, visceral, and savage, and they are always so in a Mamet script or play, and the man who utters them here epitomises the priapic vulgarity of power, played to poisonous perfection by John Malkovich. He is the play. He is its rotten soul. He is a fat god steeped in self-pity, a victim of glandular punishment, and another misread Jewish story in America. Dialogues are arrows in Bitter Wheat; seductions and repudiations are abrupt and in bad taste. The individual aesthetics of Fein is far removed from the award-winning movies he makes.

When I watched it at its premiere in London’s Garrick Theatre, the world it portrayed looked like one resisted by a Lehman, whose celluloid venture didn’t go beyond a King Kong. In spite of Malkovich’s scene-stealing flamboyance, Bitter Wheat is an old fashioned production, maybe deliberately so. Mamet is more interested in the message than the method. In the end, you can’t miss the message from another shattered American dream: even the vulgarian is worthy of tragic isolation. The worst movie Fein has never made is his own life.

POST SCRIPT: And Brexit politics provides the theatre of the absurd, in which Britain’s most popular politician and the frontrunner for Tory leadership is not allowed to have a quarrel with his girlfriend in the privacy of her flat. Across the wall, Guardian variety vigilantes are listening with tape recorders.