Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697

New York theater critics gave enthusiastic reviews to The Little Foxes, and Tallulah Bankhead's portrayal of Regina still ranks high on the list of the most brilliant performances on Broadway. The smash hit opening of The Little Foxes in 1939 followed Hellman's highly successful The Children's Hour (1934) and ...

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New York theater critics gave enthusiastic reviews to The Little Foxes, and Tallulah Bankhead's portrayal of Regina still ranks high on the list of the most brilliant performances on Broadway. The smash hit opening of The Little Foxes in 1939 followed Hellman's highly successful The Children's Hour (1934) and Days to Come (1936), a failure that closed after a handful of performances. Her third effort catapulted her into the New York theater limelight, a status she enjoyed for the rest of her life, even though she wrote only five more original plays. In spite of strong competition from hit plays running at the same time—The Philadelphia Story with Katherine Hepburn, a Cole Porter musical called Leave it to Me that made Mary Martin a star, Laurence Olivier playing in No Time for Comedy, and the record-breaker Life with Father, a play that would see over 3,000 performances—The Little Foxes was hailed as "the year's strongest play" by a Life magazine critic and ran for 410 performances. The taut engineering of the plot garnered immediate attention. A Time critic described it best, saying that Hellman made "her plot crouch, coil, dart like a snake." Over the years, Hellman's deliberate plot craftsmanship has brought reproach as well as praise; in a review of a 1967 Lincoln Center revival, New York Review of Books critic Elizabeth Hardwick faulted the play for failing to do justice to the complexities of its underlying story and condemned the plot's intricate construction as "quite awkwardly managed." Hardwick's comments included the accusation that the play lacked the elements of a true tragedy, galvanizing Richard Poirier, Edmund Wilson, and other notable critics to write eloquent rebuttals in the next issue. Hellman's play has been alternatively condemned and lauded as representative of the genre of the well-made play, meaning a play whose tight plot structure leaves no loose ends, where each and every event contributes to steadily mounting tension that is resolved at the unveiling of an important secret. Those critics who dub The Little Foxes a well-made play cite the relentless, chess-like move and counter-move of the Hubbards's game of blackmail and revenge that cumulates in Regina's apparent triumph over her brothers at the end of Act Three. However, the play leaves some untidy loose ends that push it out of the neat category of the well-made play, such as the hovering threat that Ben may find proof of Regina's agency in Horace's death. A paradigmatic well-made play would not leave such matters unresolved. Critics have also debated whether the well-made play itself represents good or bad drama, a debate that Hellman chose to ignore; in response to an interviewer's query on the prognosis of the well-made play, Hellman quipped, as quoted in Conversations with Lillian Hellman: "Survival won't have anything to do with well-made or not well-made ... I don't like labels and isms. They are for people who raise or lower skirts because that's the thing you do for this year." The other criticism leveled at Hellman is equally ephemeral, namely that The Little Foxes is pure melodrama, that is, a play more concerned with emotional sensationalism than with reflective thought. That the play addresses social issues through the genre of melodrama led one critic to call it a "social melodrama." More recently, Mark Estrin took all of these critics to task for failing to notice the satiric humor of the play; he claimed that early reviewers "tended to take the works too seriously.'' Hellman admits that humor was her intent, saying in one interview quoted in Conversations with Lillian Hellman:"I think Regina's kind of funny" and "the brothers amuse me." The play has certainly withstood the test of time, having frequent revivals to showcase reigning stars such as Elizabeth Taylor (1981).

Over time, critical opinion has shifted from focusing upon the evil inherent in the industrialization of the New South to the more general view of the themes of greed and revenge and the sin of idly standing by as they go unchecked. Literary scholar Warren French wrote that neither The Little Foxes nor Hellman's earlier dramatic success, The Children's Hour, would ever "become period pieces as long as malice and greed make the world wobble round."

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