The Little Foxes Revived

The Little Foxes

by Lillian Hellman, produced by Saint Subber, directed by Mike Nichols
Lincoln Center Repertory Theater

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.