Massini’s original text, a novel in verse, has now been issued in English for the first time, in a translation by Richard Dixon. It’s a monster, a 700-page landslide of language with no obvious speaking parts. But it’s apparent right from the start that Massini is the real thing. His writing is smart, electric, light on its feet.
At the same time, his book ominously circles the big questions: Were the original three Lehman brothers and their descendants heroes or villains? Did they inject spirit and muscle into the American experiment, or were they simply cowbirds, laying eggs in other bird’s nests? The answers are complicated.
Less complicated is the criticism, articulated most exactly by Sarah Churchwell in a New York Review of Books essay, that Massini’s play glosses over the Lehmans’ participation in the slave trade in Alabama. Future productions should have to pinch and zoom in on these realities.
Henry emigrates to America. Having arrived, he
can smell the stench of New York
all over him:
a nauseating mix of fodder, smoke and every kind of mold,
such that, to the nostrils at least,
this New York so much dreamed about
seems worse than his father’s cattle shed,
over there in Germany, in Rimpar, Bavaria.
He moves south, to Alabama, for the sunshine. Bertolt Brecht, another Bavarian, 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 do his two brothers shortly thereafter. They are in constant motion, making sure their materials are the finest and their prices the lowest.
They perfect, if not invent, the all-American idea of the middleman. They become brokers, buying cotton and selling it elsewhere. Their business expands to coffee, oil and coal, and eventually to electricity, railroads, planes, comic books, Hollywood and computing. They enter banking, and the idea of what they do becomes increasingly abstract.