A brief but significant note: The omission of the history of slavery in The Lehman Trilogy

A friend who works in many roles in the performing arts community joined me for the opening of The Pioneer Theatre Company’s Utah premiere production of The Lehman Trilogy in The University of Utah’s new Meldrum Theatre. He agreed with the assessment in the accompanying review at The Utah Review, especially regarding the outstanding performances by the three actors (Jeff Talbott, William Connell and Seth Andrew Bridges).

One of his comments after the performance I believe encapsulated the premise of the play’s long script came when he said the script resembled a Wikipedia page in attempting to compact the 163-year history of the three Bavarian immigrants into a rapidly moving production. Indeed, there was a near-constant exhilarating rush, emanating from the intimate thrust stage setting in the new theater. Somewhat ironically, The Lehman Trilogy, originally written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, actually contains a great deal more detail than the extant Wikipedia pages for the three brothers, Henry, Emanuel and Mayer. 

What has concerned many critics, especially since the English language version of the play premiered nine years ago, is Part One’s near-complete sidestepping of the issue of slavery in antebellum Montgomery, Alabama and the manner in which the three Jewish immigrant brothers contended with it. Given that Part One of the play, which covers the shortest amount of time represented in the play, it is important to ask how these new immigrants, who had left their homelands where they had experienced antisemitic discrimination, confronted the moral questions of slavery while attempting to carve out their place for economic empowerment and freedom. 

The offices of Lehman, Durr and Co. in downtown Montgomery, 1874. The company formed in 1862 when Mayer Lehman and John Wesley Durr merged their cotton brokerages.

Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna noted that many of the 25,000 Jews who lived in the South at the time of Civil War supported the Confederacy while many of the other 125,000 Jews lived in the North and supported the Union. Sarna summarized some ways in which the Civil War shaped life in the U.S. for Jewish immigrants, some of whom would later regret that they had not opposed slavery. First, “following in the ways of the neighbors could sometimes lead them astray,” as Sarna reminded readers, given the Jewish ancestral history about their own slavery in Egypt and the freedom they achieved which is commemorated with Passover. 

Second, for those Jews who did fight in the war, it was an unprecedented opportunity to take up their military obligations, an opportunity that was not accorded them in their homeland countries. Third, Jews, in the North as well as the South, boasted about their respective regional loyalties, even long after the war ended. Fourth, Jews successfully protested against two prominent instances of wartime discrimination. One originally did not allow members of the Jewish faith to serve as chaplains and the second was when General Ulysses S. Grant expelled “Jews as a class” from the war zone. Later, when Grant was president, he made special efforts to reconcile and correct antisemitic policies, clearing the way to equality for Jewish immigrants and citizens. Finally, the achievement that Jewish participants in the war were responsible for outfitting soldiers on the battlefield gave rise to a large garment industry that would proliferate for decades after the war ended.

In a 2019 New York Review essay, Sarah Churchwell wrote that during the Civil War, the two surviving brothers were Confederate supporters and Mayer knew Jefferson Davis socially. Churchwell wrote, “During the war, the firm successfully ran blockades while issuing the Confederacy with free credit; the Governor of Mississippi sent a public note of thanks in 1864 to ‘Messrs. Lehman & Brothers,’ for accepting ‘Confederate Treasury notes,’ while ‘charging nothing for their trouble,’ to supply the army with cotton and wool for uniforms—despite the blockade that ‘prevented a larger supply.’”

After the war, Emanuel and Mayer were among many white Southerners who were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. When the Lehman brothers had moved to New York, they continued to make deals connecting Southern cotton planters to merchants in the North. Churchwell explained the omission of slavery from the story in The Lehman Trilogy is no trivial oversight. “It distorts the history of Lehman Brothers’ beginnings in the antebellum South, allowing the play to evade the question of whether making money out of money is really more reprehensible than making money out of slaves,” she wrote. “That erasure is, ironically enough, perhaps the most allegorical aspect of the entire story: a history of American capitalism that disavows the central role slavery played in that history.”

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