Comparing Hellman's Play to Classic Greek Drama

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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...

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pretended Greek," inAnother 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 patrilineal, coming from the line of the father, Marcus, like a depraved king, rules and dominates his Southern domain, which he has won through a relentless siege upon his neighbors' money and land. His worst sin (betraying the location of confederate troops and lying about it) is revisited upon his offspring, who vie with each other over who will prevail as the most devious backstabber. Hellman makes other adjustments to the Greek model of tragedy as well. In her modern story characters seek after power as did Greek characters, but they do so by waging economic war as predatory capitalists cheating the poor, not by conquering lands as mighty warriors battling equally mighty foes. In addition, sacrifice has evolved from a religious sacrament to an empty habit. Animals are "sacrificed" in The Little Foxes, not to appease the gods but for base entertainment. Birdie tells Oscar, "I don't like to see animals and birds killed just for the killing. You only throw them away." The theme of a marriage derailed also appears in Hellman's two plays, but, again, with a difference, A father (Marcus) obstructs the marriage of his daughter, but whereas Agamemnon offers his daughter to the gods, she (Regina) performs her own "sacrifice," offering herself to a man she cannot love (Horace) in order to gain access to his money.

In Hellman' s play, money is a source of wealth and also a marker of power. As Hellman said, in an interview reprinted in Conversations with Lillian Hellman: "Money's been the subject of a great deal of literature because it ... isn't only money, of course, it's power, it's sex; it's a great many other things." To Regina money equals mobility—with the profits from the cotton mill, she will escape the stifling Southern town to Chicago and belong to a smarter social circle, one that measures the status of its members by the clothes and jewels they wear. To her brother Oscar, money is a way to reclaim power from Ben, the older and shrewder brother who pauperized his siblings and their father in Another Part of the Forest using blackmail. Power is important to Oscar; he compensates for his submission to his father and Ben by bullying economically and socially stymied black people. Money in and of itself does not answer any of Ben's needs; he intends to remain a bachelor and already owns more than he spends. To Ben, money is an end in itself, and his form of depraved capitalistic dynasty-building is the ultimate target of the Marxist criticism Hellman levels in this play.

The correspondences between Hellman's Hubbard family and Greek myths about the family Atreus drift apart when the last generations are compared. Orestes and Electra are heroes who dare to put a stop to generations of revenge through their courage and perseverance. In The Little Foxes, Alexandra corresponds to Electra; however, Alexandra does not live up to Electra's courageous moral standards. At the end of the play, Alexandra threatens to fight the "eaters of the earth," but her threat is aimed vaguely and indirectly "some place" instead of right here where the eaters have taken hold. Alexandra mumbles her suspicion that Regina killed Horace, but has led too sheltered a life to stand up to Regina in court, or impede her from going to Chicago, nor can she stop her uncle Ben from continuing to cheat the townspeople. Alexandra expresses Hellman's Marxist philosophy, but she lacks the vitality to achieve a revolution. Hellman said of her, in an interview in Conversations with Lillian Hellman: "She did have courage enough to leave, but would never have the force or vigor of her mother's family." Even more significantly, there is no corresponding Orestes figure in The Little Foxes to avenge Horace's death and end the cycle for good. Alexandra she has no siblings to assist her as did Electra, because Regina has not slept with Horace in 10 years. That Hellman deprives her audience of a strong avenging figure suggests a cynical attitude toward the state of affairs in the South of 1900, the year of the play's setting, an attitude one may easily extend to include the present of 1939 when the play opened, as well as the present of the 1990s. As Ben says early in the play, "Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth."

The single remaining male Hubbard heir is Leo, son of Oscar and Birdie, who combines the weaknesses of his mother and the lost Southern aristocracy (ineffectiveness in a ruthless world) with the grasping rapacity of his father and the rising class of capitalist merchants (who compromise ethics for wealth). Leo may exceed his father in evil-mindedness, but he lacks the family shrewdness and vitality necessary for financial success in the New South. It appears that the family vigor, though dissipated, will not disappear, however, since Leo enjoys his "elegant worldly ladies" in Mobile, and through whoring will populate a world of Hubbards. Even without Leo's contribution, the Hubbard syndrome is already pervasive in the world portrayed by Hellman in The Little Foxes. Ben warns that "there are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren't Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country some day." The Hubbards are like an impersonal scourge on the earth that Addie compares to the locusts of the Bible, and she wonders whether one can consider oneself virtuous while ignoring their presence. She concludes: "Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it,... Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.... Sometimes I think it ain't right to stand and watch them do it." The passivity Addie deplores but shares is a theme that Hellman will return to again and again in later plays. In The Little Foxes a moral message quietly threads its way through the spectacle of the Hubbards' acts of deceit and revenge. In this respect Hellman's work seems more aligned with the morality play than tragedy. In a morality play, allegorical figures representing human vices such as greed and malice struggle for possession of a human soul. To the extent certain Hellman's characters are categorically evil, they fit the description of the fiat, one-dimensional characters of the morality play.

The title of Hellman's play comes from the Bible, an idea consistent with a pervasive moralizing tone expressed mostly by Addie. Hellman includes in the inscription the whole passage from the Song of Solomon: "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines; for our vines have tender grapes." The lines imply that if no one catches them, the little foxes will despoil the newly budded vines of precious grapes. In Hellman's play, the Hubbards are "little foxes" despoiling the lost glory of the New South in their greedy rise to power, and they are poised to rise even further on the wave of industrialization that swept over the New South in 1900. The Little Foxes is what one critic has called a social melodrama, a tragedy with a moral. Aristotle defined tragedy as a dramatic action that excited and then purged pity and fear, a spectacle that cleansed the audience of these emotions. But The Little Foxes provides no such service. It contains all of the elements of classic tragedy, but instead of a cathartic action, the play leaves the audience with a nagging sense of unfulfilled moral obligation. Critic Louis Kronenberger's 1939 review in Stage magazine said that the play "denies us all sense of tragedy," leaving the audience feeling "not purged, not released, but still aroused and indignant." It leaves audiences feeling sullied, fearing that they, like the latent and unprovidential heroes Horace, Addie, and Alexandra, lack the fortitude to involve themselves in stopping the plundering of the "little foxes" of the world, and can only stand idly by, being entertained by the spectacle of their rapacity. Herein lies the power of The Little Foxes, a play that concerns an age 100 years past and that is formatted in a dramatic structure, the tragedy, that predates Christ. This social melodrama, or whatever term one applies to it, continues to captivate audiences no longer enmeshed in the debate between Marxism and capitalism. The underlying themes of greed and revenge continue to strike a responsive chord in audiences whenever the play is revived, and its terse, witty dialogue and tense, streamlined plot draw each new audience under its remarkable power.

Source: Carole L. Hamilton, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997

Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes and the New South Creed: An Ironic View of Southern History

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If one looks for a copy of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes in a chain or suburban mall bookstore he is not likely to find it. More often than not, however, the clerk will produce one of the author's memoirs, such as Pentimento or An Unfinished Woman. The ready availability in bookstores of what critic John Lahr describes as Hellman's "quasi autobiography" testifies to the success with which, beginning in the late 1960s, she transformed herself from a playwright into a prose writer, thus gaining in the final stage of her career "both a new public and new fame.'' By contrast, the relative scarcity of her plays reflects the decline of her reputation in this genre during the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years there has been a modest resurgence of interest in Hellman's plays. For example, during its 1993-94 season, the Royal National Theater in England mounted a very successful production of The Children's Hour. Still Lillian Hellman's reputation as a playwright in the 1990s remains markedly lower than it was in the late sixties, when she abandoned Broadway and its increasingly dismissive critics and launched into her thoroughly successful autobiographical venture.

Robert Heilman, in his analysis of Tragedy and Melodrama on the Modern Stage, represented a substantial body of scholarly opinion in 1973 when he observed that The Little Foxes, Hellman's most acclaimed and most frequently revived play, “teeter[ed] between the slick and the substantial," with the slick ultimately predominating. Elizabeth Hardwick, however, mounted the most provocative and stimulating, as well as the most damaging, critique of Hellman's plays. In a brief but powerful essay for the New York Review of Books, Hardwick used the occasion of the 1967 Lincoln Center revival of The Little Foxes for nothing less than a complete reassessment of its author's place in the hierarchy of modern American drama.

In her essay Hardwick observed that Hellman's plays exhibited "an unusual mixture of the conventions of fashionable, light, drawing room comedy and quite another convention of realism and protest." She judged this combination of conventional dramatic technique and equally modish 1930s radicalism to be awkward and unfortunate. Turning to a more specific examination of The Little Foxes, Hardwick argued that over the years the play had metamorphosed from a melodrama attacking the rapaciousness of capitalism into a melodrama concerned with "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." In Hardwick's view, a play that in the 1930s had seemed to strike a stylishly leftist pose now evoked in the 1960s a more fundamental, if subtle, nostalgia for an idealized Southern past, a past rooted ultimately in the antebellum plantation system.

Although Hardwick's observations on the conventional nature of Hellman's dramatic approach are apt and penetrating, there is good reason to question her contention that the interpretation of the South's past conveyed in The Little Foxes is essentially sentimental, pervaded by nostalgia for a plantation golden age. Indeed, as her research notes for the play clearly indicate, Hellman was concerned almost to the point of obsession with the factual accuracy of her dramatic portrayal of the turn-of-the-century South. She compiled over 100 pages of amazingly detailed material covering every conceivable aspect of both American and Southern economic and social history between 1880 and 1900, with particular emphasis on the South's agricultural and economic development during these decades.

In compiling her notes Hellman drew from period descriptions and commentaries on the South, such as Julian Ralph's Dixie or Southern Scenes and Sketches (1896), Philip Alexander Bruce's The Rise of the New South (1905), and Clifton Johnson's Highways and Byways of the South (1913). She also culled information from more contemporary and more leftist works, such as Howard Odom's An American Epoch (1930), T. S- Stribling's The Store (1932), and Matthew Josephson's The Robber Barons (1934). From these sources she compiled information of a general social nature, including the observation that in the South when traveling away from home the mother "must accompany her young lady everywhere." Though this brief social observation may seem inconsequential, Hellman would put it to good dramatic use in delineating Regina Hubbard's materialistic and decidedly unsouthern-lady-like character when, at the end of Act I, she sends her daughter Alexandra unchaperoned to Baltimore to retrieve her ailing husband, despite the obvious disapproval of the black servant Addie. She also collected in her research notes remarkably precise economic data, such as the price for a dozen eggs in the South in the 1890s (10 cents); and she even found a few direct quotes in her sources, most notable Henry Frick's observation that "railroads are the Rembrandts of investments," which were apposite enough to be incorporated into the text of The Little Foxes.

If Lillian Hellman was, as Elizabeth Hardwick contends, partially motivated by a compulsion to romanticize the Old South in The Little Foxes, the playwright provides absolutely no evidence for this thesis in her research notes. What these pages of detailed observations and facts reveal is a passion for historical accuracy in her depiction of her characters and setting that suggests the saturation realism technique of fellow American writers Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis.

Turning from Hellman's research notes to the text of The Little Foxes, a reader finds plentiful evidence of the uncompromising realism and the sharp irony in which the author took justifiable pride. Moreover, the play's historical sensibility, viewed from the perspective of the 1990s, seems anything but antiquated, sentimental, or nostalgic. A careful reading of the opening act reveals a subtle, unsentimental, and complex understanding of the South's postbellum history well removed from the naively romantic historical vision that Hardwick claimed to have encountered in the play. Par from using The Little Foxes to purvey an anachronistic agrarianism, the drama's introductory act reveals a sharp understanding of the paradoxical role that the myth of the plantation South played in establishing a new commercial-industrial order below the Ma-son-Dixon line.

The Little Foxes opens at the Giddens's house, where Regina Giddens and her brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard, are entertaining Chicago plutocrat William Marshall, hoping to attract his Northern capital to establish a textile mill in their Alabama town. Oscar's wife, Birdie, excited by Marshall's interest in music, is sending a servant to bring back her album, a record of her parents' musical trips to Europe which includes a program signed by the great Wagner. Birdie is checked, however, by her husband, who scolds his wife for chattering to Marshall "like a magpie'' and who observes that he can't imagine that the industrialist "came South to be bored with you." Birdie's hurt and bewildered protest that she talked to Marshall simply because "some people like music and like to talk about it" is confirmed soon after when Marshall asks again to see the Wagner autograph and insists that Birdie play the piano.

It is evident that Hellman is setting up, with considerable dramatic economy, what at first glance may seem a too-obvious contrast between her grasping Hubbards and the genteel Birdie. The Hubbards—Regina, Ben, and Oscar—are the foxes of the play's title. Rapacious and unscrupulous, they easily crush the fragile Birdie, the delicately nurtured flower of antebellum plantation society. Like Faulkner's Snopes family, they give their allegiance to no creed and serve no interest but their own. As Another Part of the Forest later reveals, they not only have not served, but have actively collaborated against their native region's sacred cause during the Civil War. Birdie, in contrast, reflects the breeding and cultivation that has been popularly ascribed to the Southern plantation aristocracy, a cultivation that the wealthy and sophisticated Marshall recognizes and admires.

Given this vivid contrast between Birdie, originally of Lionnet Plantation, and her pile-driving Hubbard in-laws, one may well be surprised when Marshall opines that the Hubbards represent the remarkable capacity of "Southern aristocrats'' for having "kept together and kept what belonged to you." It is perhaps the remarkable social opacity which Marshall seems to betray in his observation that prompts Ben Hubbard to reply. "You misunderstand, sir. Southern aristocrats have not kept together and have not kept what belonged to them.'' Ben proceeds to explain in some detail the distinction between the Hubbards and the planter-aristocracy that dominated Alabama before the Civil War. Ben observes that Birdie's family, bound as it was to the land, lacked the capacity for adapting to the profound changes brought about by the Civil War. To Marshall's observation that it is difficult to learn new ways, Ben responds in a distinctly hard-bitten manner:

You're right, Mr. Marshall. It is difficult to learn new ways But maybe that's why it's profitable Our grandfather and our father learned the new ways and learned how to make them pay. (Smiles) They were in trade Hubbard Sons, Merchandise Others, Birdie's family, for example, looked down on them To make a long story short, Lionnet now belongs to us. Twenty years ago we took over their land, their cotton, and their daughter.

Interest in this scene falls especially on William Marshall. Not only is he willing to accord the Hubbards the status of aristocrats, he seems neither pleased nor overly interested in hearing Ben's cataloguing of the reasons his family fails to measure up to the standards of this exalted class. He ironically observes—"a little sharply" in Hellman's stage direction—that, in emphasizing the difference between Birdie and the Hubbards, Ben makes "great distinctions." Apparently the social differences Ben describes between the old landed aristocracy and the new commercial plutocracy are picayune and irrelevant to Marshall. Though he clearly sympathizes with Birdie, who is the agonized victim of Ben's gloating, his sensitivity to her humiliation does not lead to any doubts about the wisdom of his business association with the Hubbard clan.

A careful analysis of this scene suggests that Marshall is neither so socially opaque nor so naive as his original remark about the Hubbards being "Southern aristocrats" might have suggested. He is astute, sophisticated, and cultivated enough to recognize the difference between the delicately bred Birdie and the rather crass Hubbards; but he is obviously a man who, like his new business partners, allows himself few illusions. Responding in amusement to Ben's piously hypocritical assertion that "a man ain't only in business for what he can get out it," Marshall confesses that "however grand [Ben's] reasons are, mine are simple: I want to make money and I believe I'll make it on you." This brief speech expresses a sentiment worthy of the foxiest Hubbard.

William Marshall associates his new business partners with the old Southern aristocracy, not because he erroneously assumes that they are the real things, but because it suits his economic purpose to label them aristocrats. His impatience with Ben's detailed explanation of the rise of the postbellum Southern nouveau riche comes in part from the fact that Ben is explaining social nuances that Marshall undoubtedly has detected but that, to suit his business aims, he would rather not have articulated. As he tells the Hubbards, they need not labor to justify themselves to him: "Now you don't have to convince me that you are the right people for the deal. I wouldn't be here if you hadn't convinced me six months ago."

If Hellman's opening scene reveals anything, it reveals the irony that the trappings of the aristocratic plantation myth can be manipulated to further the most antithetical of designs. This irony acquires added depth when one realizes that it is the Northern industrialist who invests his partners with the mantle of Southern aristocrat. Yet Hellman demonstrates that the Hubbards are also quite capable of utilizing the Old South myth to advance their ambitions. Regina's Southern belle exterior gracefully masks a savage heart. Marshall's prediction that in Chicago the ladies will "bow to your manners and the gentlemen to your looks" is probably not mere flattery.

It is Ben's farewell toast to Marshall, however, which most effectively illustrates the ability of the Hubbards to use and manipulate Southern traditions with which they have essentially no temperamental identification. Ben explains to Marshall that in the South “we have a strange custom. We drink the last drink for a toast. That's to prove that the Southerner is always on his feet for the last drink." Ben's toast is to Southern cotton mills, which "will be the Rembrandts of investment," and to "the firm of Hubbard Sons and Marshall, Cotton Mills" Only later does he confess to his brother that the Southern custom he evoked is non-existent. "I already had his signature. But we've all done business with men whose word over a glass is better than a bond. Anyway it don't hurt to have both." One imagines that the only gentlemen in this play whose word over a glass would constitute their bond are Birdie's ancestors, the vanished sires of Lionnet Plantation.

Examining the earliest manuscript version of The Little Foxes in which the cast of characters and the plot of the play are definitively established, one is impressed by the numerous minor revisions Hellman made in later versions of her work to heighten its suggestiveness and sharpen its focus. In the early version, for example, Ben responds to Marshall's impatient assertion that Hubbard makes "great distinctions" by countering: "Why not? They are important distinctions." Ben's reply in Hellman's final version is both more subtle and more suggestive: "Oh, they have been made for us. And maybe they are important distinctions.''

A similar thickening of dramatic texture and sharpening of focus is achieved a few lines later when Birdie rises to the defense of her family against Ben's implied charge of reckless extravagance. In the early version she responds to Ben's observation that Birdie's family had "niggers to lift their fingers" by sharply interjecting: "We were good to our Negroes. Everybody knew that.'' In the final version she adds an additional comment: "We were good to our people. Everybody knew that. We were better to them than...." At this point Regina quickly interrupts her sister-in-law by observing, "Why, Birdie. You aren't playing." The audience should have little trouble imagining to whom Birdie was about to compare her family's benevolent treatment of their "people." Hellman's slightly revised exchange works more elliptically and more skillfully to suggest the cruelty and the intelligence of the Hubbard clan as well as Birdie's impotence in the face of their common malice.

If a reader is impressed by the thoroughness and the subtlety of Hellman's revisions of her opening act, he will be equally impressed by the firmness with which Hellman had obviously grasped her Hubbard characters from the earliest version of The Little Foxes, by the completeness with which she understood from the very beginning the irony of their role in linking the South's plantation past with its industrial future. In both early and final drafts Marshall has no illusions about his Southern business partners, but he is convinced that the Hubbards are the right people for his purposes. In neither early nor final draft is he interested in fine Southern social distinctions. In both versions his purpose is boldly stated: "I want to make money and I believe I'll make it on you."

In both early and final drafts, Birdie offers her plaintive wish that Lionnet be restored. In both versions Ben indulgently labels her dream a "pretty picture." In both, Birdie goes on to dream of a lost Eden where nobody loses his temper or is "nasty-spoken or mean." In both, the futility of her first wish is matched by the pathetic quality of her second—that her husband Oscar stop shooting "animals and hinds." And in both, Oscar brings an abrupt halt to her distracting chatter. In the early manuscript he impatiently and somewhat querulously observes: "Very well. We've all heard you. Now don't excite yourself further. You will have one of your headaches again." In the final version his sentence is shorter and more brutal. “Very well. We've all heard you. That's enough now.'' Birdie's fragile dreams of an idealized Old South have been casually smashed by the Hubbards, New South apostles who brush the concerns of this pathetic relic of Southern ladyhood aside so that they can snarl and squabble over the spoils of their prospective partnership with Yankee capital.

From her earliest to her final draft of The Little Foxes Lillian Hellman maintained a fine and subtle understanding of the profoundly ironic way that the Edenic myth of the plantation South had come to serve in the promulgation of a new and fundamentally antithetical Southern economic order. Indeed, her play can fairly claim to be prescient in its historical understanding, anticipating by more than three decades the ideas of historian Paul Gaston in The New South Creed: A Study of Southern Mythmaking. In his book Gaston investigates the way Southern advocates of a New South sought to tie the articles of their creed (reconciliation between sections, racial peace, and a new economic and social order founded on industry, scientific research, and modern farming methods) with the values of the old plantation South. His book makes clear that during the postbellum Southern economic revival both the mythic Old South creed and the New South creed flourished side by side and that a Northern industrialist and a native New South spokesman alike not only tolerated the romantic view of antebellum Dixie but embraced and promoted it, along with their visions of a new economic order. The explanation of this strange exercise in doublethink is not as recondite as one might assume. In the words of Gaston, “the romance of the past was used to underwrite the materialism of the present."

Gaston's book examines in impressive detail the Southern paradox that C. Vann Woodward had wittily and succinctly expressed in 1951: "One of the most significant inventions of the New South was the 'Old South'." But even earlier, as the text of The Little Foxes makes abundantly clear, this Old South/New South paradox had been intellectually apprehended and dramatically examined by Lillian Hellman. She understood as a playwright what historians Woodward and Gaston would also come to understand, that the vision of an orderly postbellum South dominated by a strong and enduring antebellum aristocracy provided the sort of picture of traditional social stability that appealed to the conservative temperaments of Northern businessmen like William Marshall and that encouraged the southward flow of Yankee capital to sharp and often unscrupulous Southern entrepreneurs like the Hubbards.

Hellman was probably able to look with clear and undistorted vision at the South and its cherished myths because she was neither fully Northern nor fully Southern in her temperament. As biographer William Wright has explained, her ancestors represented "a fascinating yet little known aspect of American history: the quick rise during the nineteenth century in the deep South of a number of Jewish families from immigrant poverty to mercantile power." Hellman's Marx and Newhouse relations were wealthy Southerners, but they were Southern Jews who had established their fortunes not as slave-owning planters but as merchants. As transplanted Alabamians living in New York, they combined Southern inflected manners and tastes with a ruthlessly pragmatic personal style. Hellman eventually intuited the deep discrepancy between their polished exteriors and the baldly materialistic content of their Sunday dinner conversations, "full of open ill will about who had the most money, or who spent it too lavishly, who would inherit what, which had bought what rug that would last forever, who what jewel she would best have been without" (Unfinished Woman). She would eventually employ this understanding of her relatives in creating the Hubbard clan, characters who achieve both a universally human dimension and a specific social identification as representatives of a new post-bellum Southern class of ambitious and opportunistic nouveau riche.

But even though Hellman had no illusions about her grasping apostles of a modern industrial South, she refused to buy into the counter myth of an idyllic plantation past. Katherine Lederer is correct when she argues that there is a marked degree of ironic detachment in Hellman's characterizations which critics such as Elizabeth Hardwick have been unwilling to recognize. Rather than seeing Birdie as a nostalgic symbol of "besieged Agrarianism'' Lederer describes her more accurately as "a silly, lost, pathetic woman, representative of a class that learned nothing from the Civil War, that felt that being 'good to their people' made them superior to William Faulkner's Synopses and the Hubbards." Hellman's unique position as a not-quite-Southern offspring of a Deep South Jewish mercantile family made it possible for her as a dramatist to look with equal irony and dispassion on both the South' s rage for progress and its infatuation with a hopelessly romanticized aristocratic past.

Lillian Hellman is guilty, as Elizabeth Hardwick persuasively argues, of her share of melodramatic contrivances of plot and hackneyed leftist postures in The Little Foxes, The tone with which she develops characters such as Alexandra and Horace Giddens seems uncertain and unresolved. But Hellman's play also demonstrates considerable dramatic strength and toughness of spirit. There is no reason for burdening it with the charge of historical sentimentality. Far from being intellectually naive, The Little Foxes conveys, among other insights, an astute understanding of the way the moonlight-and-magnolia vision of a dead Southern past was used in postbellum Dixie to validate a fundamentally restructured but equally sterile Southern present.

Source: Ritchie D. Watson, Jr. "Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes and the New South Creed: An Ironic View of Southern History" in the Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXVm, no 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 59-68.

Review of The Little Foxes

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As drama critic for the New York Times from 1925 to 1960, Atkinson was one of the most influential reviewers in America. As a theatrical story-teller Lillian Hellman is biting and expert. In The Little Foxes, which was acted at the National last evening, she thrusts a bitter story straight to the bottom of a bitter play. As compared with The Children's Hour, which was her first notable play, The Little Foxes will have to take second rank. For it is a deliberate exercise in malice—melodramatic rather than tragic, none too fastidious in its manipulation of the stage and presided over by a Pinero frown of fustian morality. But out of greed in a malignant Southern family of 1900 she has put together a vibrant play that works and that bestows viable parts on all the merabers of the cast. None of the new plays in which Tallulah Bankhead has acted here has given her such sturdy support and such inflammable material. Under Herman Shumlin's taut direction Miss Bankhead plays with great directness and force, and Patricia Collinge also distinguishes herself with a remarkable performance. The Little Foxes can act and is acted.

It would be difficult to find a more malignant gang of petty robber barons than Miss Hellman's chief characters. Two brothers and a sister in a small Southern town are consumed with a passion to exploit the earth. Forming a partnership with a Chicago capitalist, they propose to build a cotton factory in the South, where costs are cheap and profits high. The Chicago end of the deal is sound. But Miss Hellman is telling a sordid story of how the brothers and the sister destroy each other with their avarice and cold hatred. They crush the opposition set up by a brother-in-law of higher principles; they rob him and hasten his death. But they also outwit each other in sharp dealing and they bargain their mean souls away.

It is an inhuman tale. Miss Hellman takes a dexterous playwright's advantage of the abominations it contains. Her first act is a masterpiece of skillful exposition. Under the gentility of a social occasion she suggests with admirable reticence the evil of her conspirators. When she lets loose in the other two acts she writes with melodramatic abandon, plotting torture, death and thievery like the author of an old-time thriller. She has made her drama air-tight; it is a knowing job of construction, deliberate and self-contained. In the end she tosses in a speech of social significance, which is no doubt sincere. But The Little Foxes is so cleverly contrived that it lacks spontaneity. It is easier to accept as an adroitly designed theatre piece than as a document in the study of humanity....

As for the title, it comes from the Bible: "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines; for our vines have tender grapes." Out of rapacity, Miss Hellman has made an adult horror-play. Her little foxes are wolves that eat their own kind.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, in a review of The Little Foxes in the New York Times, February 16, 1939, p 16.


Critical Overview