Source of book: I own this.
A legal colleague of mine has been downsizing a bit, and let my brother and me take what we wanted from the discards. One of the books is a 1948 volume entitled Modern Dramas. What constitutes “modern” has always been a fascinating debate. In this case, Hedda Gabler (1891) was considered to be modern enough. Even more amusing is that this edition (not to be confused with the earlier one - presumably 1941) is labeled “New Shorter Edition.” I have no idea what got cut, not having the longer edition at hand.
Whatever the case, except for the Ibsen (which I owned already), the plays in this book were not in my collection.
In general, plays written by women are more rare than those written by men. Particularly white men, of course. That is changing somewhat in our present times, and I have enjoyed them when possible. But, due to the particular rarity of female-written plays from back in the day, I couldn’t resist starting with Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.
Hellman was quite the character. She had communist sympathies, although she denied being an actual member of the Party. Her refusal to answer questions posed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (Joseph McCarthy’s darling…) led to her blacklisting in Hollywood. In particular, she refused to name names: "To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonourable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."
Her autobiographical writings were accused of being fabricated by furious people who didn’t like how they were portrayed. A defamation lawsuit between Hellman and Mary McCarthy (no relation to Joseph that I know of) was still pending as of her death. She also famously feuded with Tallulah Bankhead (who starred in The Little Foxes) over a charity performance. It’s a long story, and involves Hellman clocking Bankhead with her purse. And that’s just the most juicy of Hellman’s feuds. She was, it appears, difficult. Oh, and she was Dashiell Hammett’s partner for 30 years.
The Little Foxes is an interesting play. It was pretty popular in its day, and has some great moments. It would, however, be difficult to stage today. As a play dealing with the changes in the South with industrialization, it necessarily contains unpleasant elements of Southern culture, such as the use of the N-word, African Americans in rather subservient servant roles (and ones in which they are expected to play to stereotypes), and “plantation porn,” as I would call it. In addition, it isn’t as deep as plays about the South by Tennesee Williams, so it would have more difficulty overcoming the challenges of staging it in a modern manner.
The best part of the play - and indeed Hellman’s plays in general - is the cast of unpleasant characters. The introduction refers to them as “notoriously disagreeable people, some cantankerously venomous.”
The play is set around 1900, somewhere in the Deep South. This is in the post-Gone With The Wind era: the glorious plantation has already had to be sold, even if the older women still remember it with rosy hues. Indeed, the alcoholic Birdie still believes everything would be set right if they just could buy the old place back again. I myself have doubts that her abusive and controlling husband would miraculously improve, but there you have it.
The big event of the play is that some northern investors want to build a cotton gin, and have given the three Giddens siblings an offer that they can retain some control if they come up with enough investment money. But, there is a lot of family baggage to deal with first. The siblings’ father left the family money to just the two sons, leaving the daughter, Regina, disinherited. Ben and Oscar have used their inheritance to build substantial fortunes. Oscar married Birdie to get her family cotton fields, while Ben has built an empire based on cheating poor African Americans. (Using a different word for them, of course…)
Regina is in a bind. She desperately wants to get in on the deal, but her husband, Horace, loathes the whole culture of avarice, and has no intention of contributing. First, she and Oscar propose having Regina and Horace’s daughter Alexandra marry Oscar’s son Leo (who is a spineless flake), but Alexandra is nearly an adult and nixes the idea. Then, Regina sends Alexandra to fetch Horace home - he is receiving medical treatment for a heart condition and seems content to be separated from his nagging wife. Finally, all else failing, Leo steals Horace’s savings bonds from his deposit box at the bank that employs him. Horace finds out, and threatens to say it was a loan (thus cutting Regina out), but dies of a heart attack before he can. Regina threatens to report the theft unless she gets a 75% share - to make up for her disinheritance. At the end, Alexandra (the only truly likeable person in the play) leaves home, disgusted by her relatives and determined to live a better and less selfish life.
Hellman reportedly based the characters (if not the plot) on her own family. Her mother was essentially Alexandra, whose mother mercilessly mocked her father in front of everyone for his lack of business ruthlessness.
There are a whole bunch of memorable and poisonous lines. For example, Regina, contemplating the fortune she hopes to get:
REGINA: (gaily) Certainly. And you won’t even have to learn to be subtle, Ben. Stay as you are. You will be rich, and the rich don’t have to be subtle.
Or, from Ben:
BEN: That’s cynical. (Smiles) Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth.
Later, the relatives try to browbeat Alexandra into agreeing to force Horace to come home, whether he wants to or not. She refused to promise, even to her mother.
REGINA: You’re to tell Papa how much you missed him, and that he must come home now - for your sake. Tell him that you need him home.
ALEXANDRA: Need him home? I don’t understand.
REGINA: There is nothing for you to understand. You are simply to say what I have told you.
BIRDIE: (rises) He may be too sick. She couldn’t do that -
ALEXANDRA: Yes. He may be too sick to travel. I couldn’t make him think he had to come home for me, if he is too sick to -
REGINA: (looks at her, sharply, challengingly) You couldn’t do what I tell you to do, Alexandra?
ALEXANDRA: (quietly) No. I couldn’t. If I thought it would hurt him.
Clearly, Alexandra is the one person who refuses to compromise her morality - although Horace learns to at the end.
Hellman also takes a moment to explain the great truth of American politics, and why the wealthy have been able to pit those they exploit against each other. Ben and Oscar and Horace discuss how Ben got the northern investor to agree to come south. A bit of graft from the governor, and cheap labor.
BEN: Cheap wages. “What do you mean by cheap wages?” I say to Marshall. “Less than Massachusetts,” he says to me, “and that averages eight a week.” “Eight a week! By God,” I tell him, “I’d work for eight a week myself.” Why, there ain’t a mountain white or a town nigger but wouldn’t give his right arm for three silver dollars every week, eh, Horace?
HORACE: Sure. And they’ll take less than that when you get around to playing them off against each other. You can save a little money that way, Ben. (Angrily) And make them hate each other just a little more than they do now.
Horace has finally had enough, and tells Regina so.
HORACE: I’m sick of you, sick of this house, sick of my life here. I’m sick of your brothers and their dirty tricks to make a dime. There must be better ways of getting rich than cheating niggers on a pound of bacon. Why should I give you the money? (very angrily) To pound the bones of this town to make dividends for you to spend? You wreck the town, you and your brothers, you wreck the town and life on it. Not me. Maybe it’s easy for the dying to be honest. But it’s not my fault I’m dying. I’ll do no more harm now. I’ve done enough. I’ll die my own way. And I’ll do it without making the world any worse. I leave that to you.
REGINA: (looks up at him slowly, calmly) I hope you die. I hope you die soon. (Smiles) I’ll be waiting for you to die.
I mentioned earlier that the servant roles are unfortunately stereotyped. That said, the two servants do get a few good lines, particularly the quiet but perceptive Addie. Apparently, the gossip around town is that the new gin will raise living standards - gossip fed by Ben.
ADDIE: ...That’s how Mr. Ben’s been telling the story.
HORACE: (looks at her) They believe it that way?
ADDIE: Believe it? They used to believing what Mr. Ben orders. There ain’t been so much talk around here since Sherman’s army didn’t come near.
HORACE: (softly) They are fools.
ADDIE: (nods, sits down with the sewing basket) You ain’t born in the South unless you’re a fool.
Later, Addie jokes about ailments, in an attempt to shrug off Birdie’s drunkenness.
ADDIE: (nods) And nobody gets growing pains no more. That is funny. Just as if there was some style in what you get. One year an ailment’s stylish and the next year it ain’t.
That’s pretty true today as well. It does seem like ailments - and their cures - go in and out of style. One year it is gluten intolerance, the next nut allergies, the next toxic mold. And the legitimate sufferers get to watch their genuine illness become trendy and popular for a time…
Birdie, very drunk by this time, tells of her late mother, who didn’t like Oscar and Ben, because they were the sorts who killed animals they couldn’t use (trophy hunters) and made their money cheating impoverished and ignorant people. Addie is bold enough to agree.
ADDIE: 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 the people who stand around and watch them eat it. (softly) Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.
That is a great line, “eat the earth.” That’s pretty much how a lot of our industrial corporatism works right now, despoiling the earth, cheating the people who lack the political or economic power to fight back. Alexandra is listening, and turns these words back on her mother at the end. For now, she says what everyone knows is true.
ALEXANDRA: (to Birdie) I guess we were all trying to make a happy day. You know, we sit around and try to pretend nothing’s happened. We try to pretend we are not here. We make believe we are just by ourselves, some place else, and it doesn’t seem to work.
After Horace dies, and everything goes south for Ben and Oscar, now beholden to Regina, she delivers a deliciously poisonous line.
REGINA: You’re getting old, Ben. Your tricks aren’t as smart as they used to be.
While Regina is horrible, so are Ben and Oscar. And, for myself, I have had reason in my own life to think along the same lines. We all get older, and often more careless. If you live by treachery and manipulation, you eventually lose. Even wealth cannot be a protection forever, and it can’t buy love or relationships. At the end of the play, Ben, Oscar, and Regina are all left with just each other. And they hate each other’s guts. They will get their money. And that will be all that is left for them. Alexandra gets the last, devastating lines of the play. She informs Regina that as soon as she is able, she is getting the hell out of Dodge. And nothing Regina can do will convince her to stay.
ALEXANDRA: You couldn’t, Mama, because I want to leave here. As I’ve never wanted anything in my life before. Because now I understand what Papa was trying to tell me. (pause) All in one day: Addie said there were people who ate the earth and other people who stood around and watched them do it. And just now Uncle Ben said the same thing. Really, he said the same thing. (tensely) Well, tell him for me, Mama, I’m not going to stand around and watch you do it. Tell him I’ll be fighting as hard as he’ll be fighting (rises) some place where people don’t just stand around and watch.
REGINA: Well, you have spirit, after all. I used to think you were all sugar water. We don’t have to be bad friends. I don’t want to be bad friends, Alexandra. (starts, stops, turns to Alexandra) Would you like to come and talk to me, Alexandra? Would you - would you like to sleep in my room tonight?
ALEXANDRA: (takes a step toward her) Are you afraid, Mama? (Regina does not answer. She moves slowly out of sight. Addie comes to Alexandra, presses her arm.)
That’s a devastating ending.
The play seems pretty relevant today, which is why it is a shame that it is so dated in form. We still have our tycoons determined to eat the earth, and we still have so many who are willing to run roughshod over any who stand in the way of profits. And we have a rising generation - my kids - who are more determined than ever to not stand by and watch, but to fight hard to make the world better. That is the decision I have made.
For more on Hellman, this excellent article in The Guardian is worth a read.