The Little Foxes is a tale of a greedy, grasping, family trying to create an empire by lying to each other; by using ruthless tactics; by violating the all-important concepts of southern family, love, and support; and by striking at each other like pit vipers. Lillian Hellman’s play has been produced successfully in community theaters and in revivals since its debut in 1939. The universality of its multiple themes accounts for its longevity. The themes of injustices against people of color and ethnic minorities, against women, and against workers have remained constant. Capitalism appears at its worst, with hints at ways in which Marxism and communism might help to counter its evils.
Hellman also deals with opposites and conflicts: Family contention and rivalry; marriage for money or status rather than for love; manipulation as a way of life for getting what one wants; the old South of genteel aristocracy and the changes brought by the North; agrarian culture and industrialism; the freed slaves who have not gained true freedom or any serious respect; false fronts of family harmony covering thieving, conniving, unscrupulous behavior; and disregarding morality for personal gain.
The play’s characters, though often despicable, are real, behaving as one would expect. They are richly drawn, if not multidimensional. Hellman can elicit some sympathy for the unsavory characters, considering the circumstances of their backgrounds, but mainly she makes audiences identify with the good people and marvel at how evil the bad can be. Having Regina sit quietly while her husband struggles to get his life-saving medication is a chiller, as is her announcement that she hopes he dies soon. Hellman’s play shows unscrupulous business people happily tromping on others. Made clear as well are the attractions of the South for northerners, who know blacks will work for subsistence wages and will not threaten with union talk.
Hellman’s prose is spare, direct, and to the point. She had been convinced that drama best suited her style, given that she did not care for description. Indeed, even with the plays, she avoided stage directions and parenthetic asides, making each word count and have impact.
Hellman’s work has special significance because it conveys her mind-set without espousing a cause. At no time does she take a political stand. She does not proselytize, though anyone knowing about her personal activism and associations can see her objections to a system that subverts the worker, takes little notice of the poor, and privileges the accumulation of money and power.