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Comparing Hellman's Play to Classic Greek Drama

(Drama for Students)

In interviews Hellman has acknowledged her debt to Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov as models of dramatic structure (she even edited an anthology of Chekhov's letters), but she never articulated her ties to classic Greek theater, the ultimate source of the genre called tragedy. Yet the two plays of her planned but uncompleted trilogy, The Little Foxes and its "prequel," Another Part of the Forest, show considerable resemblance to classic Greek tragedy, especially to Aeschylus's trilogy, the Orestiea. At the same time, Hellman's plays truly represent their time period, the modernist era, in their cynicism and their lack of a true heroic figure. On top of that, the quietly disturbing condemnation of passivity in the face of social ills move the play beyond the realm of pure tragedy to a unique dramatic genre that combines the best of classic tragedy with the best of the morality play.

As in Greek staging, what Aristotle termed the three unities of time, place, and action are respected in The Little Foxes: all of the events take place in one setting, over a short three-week period, and no extraneous incidents mar the relentless action of the lean plot. Hellman's trilogy contains a father's betrayal of his children, interference in betrothals, deceit, and murder, all themes common to Greek mythology and drama. There is cyclical revenge whose stoppage is central to the trilogy, and there is at least one character who wishes to end the familial cycle of revenge. But, unlike the typical classic Greek story, no character appears capable of ending generations of deception and revenge.

In the Greek myth that most closely resembles the structure and story of Hellman's planned trilogy, Orestes and his sister Electra put a stop to several generations of vengeance murders in their family, the House of Atreus, by themselves murdering their own mother and her lover. Aeschylus dramatized their story in the Oresteia, which begins with the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemestra and her paramour, Aegisthus. Their motive is not to rid themselves of an unwelcome spouse, but revenge for Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, an act that her mother Clytemestra never forgave. Child killing goes back to Agamemnon's paternal ancestors, when a father killed his son and served him at a banquet. In another case Atreus (Agamemnon's father) serves his brother a dish of his own children as an act of revenge. In a slight departure from this motif, Agamemnon kills his daughter to solicit the gods' help in the Trojan War. He tells Iphigenia she is setting sail to marry Achilles, but she is bound for a sacrificial, not a wedding altar. The cycle of betrayal, child murder, and revenge ends when Orestes and Electra avenge their father Agamemnon's murder through matricide.

The story of the House of Atreus and the plays of Aeschylus would have been familiar to well-educated writers like Hellman. Just a few years before Hellman began to design her Southern tragic trilogy, Eugene O'Neill reworked the last part of this myth into a New England setting. O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) is also a dramatic trilogy, and it contains a virtuous character named Lavinia, who, like the Lavinia in Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, helps a family avenger. Hellman apparently decided to make her affinities to Greek tragedy more clear when she wrote Another Part of the Forest, because she includes numerous references to Aristotle, father of literary criticism about tragedy. She also alluded to her essential departure from Greek purism when she described the Marcus Hubbard mansion as "something too austere, too pretended Greek," in Another Part of the Forest.

Hellman's malevolent Hubbard family is a veritable House of Atreus when it comes to revenge and intrigue. However, in place of corporal murder of child or parent, Hellman substitutes financial and emotional "murder," a topic more in keeping with the modernist period in which she wrote. As in the Greek myth, the curse is...

(The entire section is 6,189 words.)