The Little Foxes
Among the contented subscribers at the Lincoln Center revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, I felt the same unease and restlessness that often afflict me at the performances of the APA. Affirmation, enjoyed by that which passes beyond the claim of mere entertainment, will inevitably be a statement of principle, a rebuttal to counter-claims. The de luxe conventional gives the greatest possible pleasure to the public and the critics—you can almost reach out and touch the joy our people feel when these two things, in any aspect of our national life, come together. All we ask is to be left alone, with a certain amount of style.
And yet how wearying is the air in which The Little Foxes drifts, the sky rich with stars, the earth voluptuous with stuffs, the setting heavy and dark, pampered like some plum-plushy whorehouse in which the girls are no longer young but ripe and experienced in giving customer-satisfaction. It was too much from the beginning. What was being produced? Well, a successful production was being produced, a sort of Lincoln or Cadillac.
What is the play about? I don’t think it would have occurred to us to ask that in 1939, when it was first presented. The answer was clear. The Little Foxes was about Tallulah Bankhead—a greedy bitch who, along with her coarse brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard, was the very spirit of ruthless Capitalism and ravening Big Business. This family preyed upon some pleasantly pastoral persons, who chattered aimlessly, drank too much, and were innocently, graciously impractical. The extremity of the pastoral weakness is embodied in the condition of Horace Giddens, Regina’s husband, who is dying of heart disease. The play was a melodrama, mechanically put together, but redeemed as a composition by the energy of Regina and the brutal yet enjoyable piracy of the brothers, Ben and Oscar.
But what odd things time has done to the text—or to us. It appears to me now—perhaps because of a world around us begging for “development”—that the play is about a besieged Agrarianism, a lost Southern agricultural life, in which virtue and sweetness had a place, and, more strikingly, where social responsibility and justice could, on a personal level at least, be practiced. It is curious what a catalogue of sentiment about the Old South the play turns out to be. I do not know whether this represents the author’s conviction, conscious or unconscious, or whether it is the by-product of the plot. First of all the play is divided into Good Characters and Bad Characters. The Good and the Bad cling together in tribal clusters, never tempted to cross the boundaries or to intermingle. Bad are Regina, Oscar and Ben, and Oscar’s son, Leo; Good are Oscar’s wife, Birdie, Horace Giddens, and Alexandra (Regina’s daughter), and the Negroes.
The Hubbards represent the beginning, in 1900, of the industrialization of the South. Birdie and Horace represent “good families” in decline, the planters, ruined by the Civil War. It is hard to think of Regina and her brothers as Southern. They differ from Faulkner’s Snopes family in that there is little of the rural in their nature or in their cunning. In Another Part of the Forest, written later but concerning itself with an earlier period in the Hubbard family, with the previous generation coming to an end ten years before, we learn that the Hubbard father had been scorned by his neighbors for the money he made during the Civil War, money made by selling salt to a desperate people at a huge profit. True, all the Hubbards have what amounts to an inherited craving for money, but they crave even more the pleasure of the pursuit. In the earlier play, Ben Hubbard manages to outwit his own father by getting the “goods” on him, finding the proof of his dishonesty. This advances Ben’s fortunes, but also gives him a sort of aesthetic delight. “Yet I glory more in the cunning purchase of my wealth, than in the glad possession…” Volpone says. The Hubbard brothers and sisters have no illusions about the outside world and yet they treat each other as rival firms.
In The Little Foxes, the plot has to do with the Hubbard family’s desire to invest in a mill that will “bring the machine to the cotton, and not the cotton to the machine.” That this was a sound business idea—and the “wave of history”—I gather from W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, in which he writes, “The total number of bankruptcies among the early cotton mills in the South can literally be reckoned on the fingers of one hand.” True, the conditions in the mills were dreadful and in them the terrible division between the poor mill-hand whites and the rural Negroes began to harden. Yet as threatening to provincial manners as the mills were, it is hard to be confident about setting above them a decaying agricultural life. (John Crowe Ransom, who had been an Agrarian, got the point when the world greeted as immoral Morgenthau’s plan of sending the defeated Germans back to the land.) The spring of the action in The Little Foxes is Regina’s determination to have a share in the new industrial prosperity by getting her dying husband, Horace, to release his money for the cotton mill. This is an idea of great interest, and in Lillian Hellman’s failure to do justice to its complications so much about our theater and our left-wing popular writers of the Thirties is revealed.
To return, for a moment, to the picture of the South in The Little Foxes. It is what you might expect and what many serious historians believe to be a legend, not to say a cliché. Culture and fineness of feeling, indifference to mere money—these are the claims of the plantation tradition. At the very opening of the play, we find Birdie representing Culture. She is looking for her album, in which there is a photograph of Mama and Papa meeting of all people, Richard Wagner, indeed Mr. and Mrs. Wagner. (The mind refuses to imagine the hash that singular culture-hero would have made of Mama and Papa.) Other more profound virtues accompany the love of music. Birdie blurts out pitifully, “We were good to our people!” “Our people” were their slaves, the Negroes, and later their servants. This could perfectly well have been true. Lionnet, the plantation Birdie’s family lost to the Hubbard family, was good land with feckless management, a combination that can sometimes be agreeable to the helpless. Nostalgia in unlucky women is common, and while Birdie is not truly interesting we would not say that she is a serious defect in the play.
What is serious is the lack of tragic conflict or intellectual complication in Regina’s husband, Horace Giddens. Horace was of “good family” again, but he had started as a clerk and worked into being a bank owner. He is dying and leaving an adored daughter. He refuses to give Regina the money to invest in the mill. His reasons are unbelievably idealistic and startling in a man of his time and experience. Stubbornness and hatred of the Hubbards no doubt play some part, but to these Horace adds a a straining nobility, an indifference to mere advantage that make him appear to be simply a puppet in the service of an idea. We are told that in his safety deposit box Horace has his 88,000 dollars and an old cameo, his daughter’s baby shoe, and a piece of an old violin. This iconography is as pure a distillation of the sentimental Old South as one could find. But the truth was, to quote Cash once more, “Hundreds of planters poured into the rising towns to take advantage, in their own persons, of the promised opportunities of industrialism and commerce; and the sons of the planters came in even greater numbers.” It turns out that Horace is against cheaper wages in the South, against exploiting Negroes, against “ruining” the town by industrialization. But we have no reason to associate him with all these fine, advanced ideas. It is as if Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard had been a militant conservationist!
Horace’s failure to feel, even for a moment, the seductive power of the investment in the mill robs the play of all genuine seriousness. Imagine what Ibsen could have done with a man who had the experience of a banker and yet who had genuine hatred for his wife’s greedy desire to make money on a sound and sensible business investment. But Horace rises like an empty balloon of didactic goodness above all the possibilities of his situation. He is, we see, just one of The Good, and nothing will be asked of him.
The Negroes are another deviation from probability and observation. In Toys in the Attic, Irene Worth comes wandering into the New Orleans sunlight on the arm of her Negro chauffeur and lover, not risking her life, and his, as we would think, but simply in their supreme casualness making a point. The servants in The Little Foxes are frequently ready with moral comment peculiarly sententious and convenient. Addie sums up for us, “Yeah, they got mighty well off cheating niggers. Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it…. Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.” (Addie is talking to Birdie and Horace, not to her preacher.)
It seems to me that these lectures, in Lillian Hellman’s plays and in others of this tradition, are addressed as much to the authors’ conscience as to that of the audience. This was also true of some of the popular movies of the period, written by Leftists. In the midst of an effort to fashion an acceptable, successful work, the author’s political beliefs cry out for some part of the stage. It is necessary for the writers to prove something to themselves. The strike leader, the Negro servant, the old Jew will carry the message back to the author that he is really a good man. This problem becomes especially necessary, I think, in Lillian Hellman’s plays because they are an unusual mixture of the conventions of fashionable, light, drawing room comedy and quite another convention of realism and protest. In most of her plays there are servants, attractive people, money, expensive settings, agreeable surroundings and situations for stars. It is typical of her practice that when she writes in Watch on the Rhine of a German refugee coming to America in 1940, he goes not to the Bronx or Queens or even to Fort Washington Avenue, but to a charming country house near Washington. “Large French doors leading to an elevated open terrace.” The play opens with a French housekeeper and a Negro butler.
IT IS NEARLY ALWAYS SAID that Lillian Hellman’s plays are triumphs of craftsmanship. Actually the question of motivation, the construction of a plot, are quite awkwardly managed in most of them. In Autumn Garden the plot finally turns on a disgrace supposedly brought about by a drunken man’s falling asleep on a sofa and thereby compromising the honor of a priggish girl. The plays are full of thefts and letters discovered. The basic plot device is so often unfortunate that the efforts to work it out, skillful enough in a technical sense, become more and more visible and disturbing. This craftsmanship of climaxes and curtain lines and discoveries is a sort of know-how, useful enough in the commercial theater, but paralyzing to the natural development of characters in action. We are too often asked more on behalf of the plot than we can sensibly give assent to.
Behind Lillian Hellman’s plays there is a torn spirit: the bright stuffs of expensive productions and the hair-shirt of didacticism. Between these two, her genuine talent for characterization is diminished. Regina and the brothers go too far. (Why the absurd idea of the marriage between Leo and Alexandra should be added to all the other treacheries one can’t decide.) But they are alive and interesting. The little prostitute in Another Part of the Forest is a striking vignette. That these characters and others should be squeezed to death by the iron of an American version of Socialist Realism and the gold of a reigning commercialism is a problem of cultural history.
A FOOTNOTE on Mike Nichol’s direction of The Little Foxes. It did not seem to me at all interesting or important. He approached the play with two handicaps—piety and money. A small point: at the end I seem to remember the young daughter standing at the door in a cloak and carrying a suitcase. It is night, it is 1900, she is alone and not resourceful. Where is she going, in order to repudiate the villainy of her mother? Where indeed could she go at that hour, in that way? But of course she isn’t going anywhere…just offstage.