Massini’s original text, a novel in verse, has now been published for the first time in an English translation by Richard Dixon. It is a monster, a 700-page landslide of speech with no obvious speaking parts. But it is clear from the start that Massini is the real thing. His writing is intelligent, electric and light-footed.
At the same time, his book ominously circles the big questions: Were the original three Lehman brothers and their descendants heroes or bad guys? Did they inject spirit and muscle into the American experiment or were they just cows that laid eggs in other birds’ nests? The answers are complicated.
The criticism that Sarah Churchwell made in a New York Review of Books Essaythat Massini’s game glossed over Lehman’s participation in the slave trade in Alabama. Future productions should have to pinch and enlarge these realities.
Henry emigrates to America. Arrived, he
can smell the smell of New York
all over it:
a disgusting mix of feed, smoke and all kinds of mold,
so that, at least to the nostrils,
this New York has dreamed so much
seems worse than his father’s cattle shed,
over there in Germany, in Rimpar, Bavaria.
He moves south to Alabama to enjoy the sun. Another Bavarian, Bertolt Brecht, had never been to Alabama when he wrote “Alabama Song” (also known as “Moon of Alabama”) in the 1920s. One wonders what Henry expected. He arrives, as does his two brothers shortly afterwards. They are in constant motion and ensure that their materials are the best and their prices are the lowest.
They perfect, if not invent the all-American idea of the middleman. They become brokers, buy cotton and sell it elsewhere. Their business spans coffee, oil and coal, and finally electricity, railroads, airplanes, comics, Hollywood, and computers. They are entering banking and the idea of what they are doing is becoming increasingly abstract.