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The Little Foxes is a three-act play with only ten characters, seven of whom are related by blood or marriage. Lillian Hellman made no secret of the fact that The Little Foxes was inspired by her mother’s family, the Marxes, who originally lived in Demopolis, Alabama. Regina Hubbard Giddens is said to resemble Lillian’s own grandmother, Sophie Marx Newhouse; Ben Hubbard, her uncle Jacob Marx, who was a successful banker in Demopolis and later in New York; and Birdie, Lillian’s gentle, unworldly mother, Julia Newhouse Hellman. In her memoir Pentimento (1973), Hellman writes that Alexandra is the girl she imagined herself to have been at her age.
The characters in The Little Foxes can be placed in two categories: those who have ruthlessly seized control over their community, for the purpose of self-aggrandizement; and those who, though governed by principle, are relatively powerless. The first group consists of Regina, Ben, Oscar, and Leo and the second of Horace, Birdie, the two black servants Addie and Cal, and the only good Hubbard, Alexandra. The action of the play involves not one but two conflicts. The four rapacious Hubbards, led by Regina and Ben, are all seeking in one way or another to neutralize those who oppose them; meanwhile, they are also involved in a struggle among themselves for power and for property.
The play is set in a small Southern town in 1900. As the curtain goes up, the Hubbards have gathered at the Giddens home to entertain William Marshall, a wealthy man from Chicago who has agreed to help finance a cotton mill. Each of the three siblings is to put up the same amount of money for the venture. Unfortunately, Regina has not been able to get her share from Horace, who is hospitalized with a serious heart condition. In order to get him and his money under her control, Regina sends their daughter, Alexandra, to bring Horace home.
Meanwhile, Regina sees Horace’s recalcitrance as an opportunity to extract a concession from her brothers, an increased share of the property. Always the pragmatist, Ben agrees, with the proviso that it will be Oscar’s share which is diminished for Regina’s benefit. Though he is furious, Oscar gives in, but not before urging that a marriage between his son, Leo, and Alexandra be made part of the deal. At the end of the act, Oscar vents his feelings by slapping his wife.
In the second act, Horace returns, weak and ill, but determined to fight not only the marriage but the cotton mill as well. While Regina is arguing with Horace, Ben and Oscar discover that for once Leo can help them. As an employee of Horace’s bank, Leo will get the bonds out of his uncle’s safety deposit box so that they can be used to pay Regina’s obligation. At this point, it seems that Regina has been outsmarted by her brothers.
In the final act, however, there is a brief period when Horace seems to have won a victory. Having surmised that Leo has taken his missing bonds, Horace informs Regina that he intends to make a new will, one in which everything will be left to Alexandra except the bonds, which now become Regina’s property and her problem. Suddenly, Horace has a heart attack. This is Regina’s opportunity. She refuses to get him his medicine and watches, impassive, as he crawls up to the landing and expires. Immediately afterward, she blackmails her brothers into increasing her cut to 75 percent, which will enable her to live in luxury in Chicago. Her triumph, however, is not complete: The play ends with Alexandra’s rejecting her mother, along with the rest of the Hubbard family and everything they represent.
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Although critics have had difficulty classifying Lillian Hellman as a feminist, certainly women are important in her plays. Sometimes they are good; sometimes they are evil. Sometimes they prey on one another. In The Children’s Hour (1934), for example, a schoolgirl enlists the aid of selfish women in an effort to prove that two teachers are lesbian lovers. Sometimes women prey on men as with Carrie Berniers in Toys in the Attic (1960), who must dominate her brother if she cannot sleep with him. Sometimes they do evil deeds inadvertently, through ignorance or stupidity, as with the childish wife Lily Prine in the same play. Sometimes they are cast as victims, too weak to stand up for themselves against male aggressors, as with Birdie.
In Regina, however, Hellman created a woman as fascinating and as unscrupulous as the title characters in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) and Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1890). It is interesting that although these female protagonists are evil, they also have many qualities that feminists admire, such as intelligence, independence, and strength of will. Regina has still another attribute: She is witty. Evidently there was much about Regina that Hellman herself liked. In interviews, she often expressed her bewilderment that audiences all but hissed when Regina came onstage; she expected them to be amused, if not with her treatment of Horace then certainly by her success in outwitting her scoundrelly brothers.
At any rate, there is something very modern in Hellman’s treatment of the relationship between the mother and daughter in The Little Foxes. When Alexandra stands up to her mother, Regina is delighted. It is immediately after their confrontation that Regina makes overtures of friendship toward her daughter, overtures that come too late. Perhaps in Alexandra she has caught a glimpse of what she once was—the young Regina Hubbard who, in the companion play Another Part of the Forest (1946), was robbed by her father of her dreams and of the man she truly loved.
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*Deep South. Southern-most of the southern states. The South itself is an offstage and onstage presence that is at the very heart of the play. From the earliest moments in the play the South is described almost as a character, with feminine and masculine traits. Regina Hubbard embodies the graces of womanhood in the Old South as she flirts with the northern industrialist William Marshall. Ben Hubbard epitomizes those who, at the turn of the twentieth century, despoiled the South for private gain. The defining characteristics of the South shift from the pre-Civil War agricultural aristocracy that had once ruled, to the new wealth of industry and commerce. The mores and ethos of southern men and women are described as though they characterize the South itself. The audience begins to feel the presence of the South in a tangible way: It is a character in transition. From the ashes of a sentimental past the South will be transformed by a new industrialism bringing northern-style prosperity while exploiting poor white southerners and unlanded black southerners. The Hubbards will, in the end, destroy their beloved South in their drive for power, influence, and status through wealth. They will import the cotton mill along with all the social and economic misery it will cause.
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The Industrialization of the New South
By the turn of the 20th century in the American South, the period and setting of Hellman's The Little Foxes, the Civil War had taught Southerners the wisdom of industrialization and a diversified economy, and now planting was taking second place to merchandising and factory building. The economy was slowly emerging from the depression that followed the war. Cotton was strong in the South because of international trade with the Far East, although the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1900) slowed exports temporarily, recovering just about the time that the Hubbard and Williams cotton mill would have gone into production. Williams's interest in this investment can be explained by the situation in the North, where mill owners were suffering from a decline in the domestic textile market coupled with rising labor agitation for better wages. At first, Northern politicians attempted to chip away at the Southern market advantage by promoting new legislature against abusively long working hours and low wages and by sponsoring bills to guarantee better education for workers, realizing that a more intelligent work force would demand better working conditions and higher pay. But failing to equalize the labor force, Northern investors, like Hellman's Williams, began to build mills in the South, joining ranks with Southern cotton producers to compete more effectively with European manufacturers. At the same time, Southern financiers, from the wealthiest landowners to the family with just a few hundred dollars to spare, conducted fund-raisers to construct mills in almost every town, in an effort' 'to bring the cotton mills to the cotton." With money coming in from both sides, mills sprang up all over the South, along with other kinds of factories. Factory and mill jobs were highly desirable to poor whites and blacks because the wages, although lower than those in the North, were high in comparison to Southern rural standards. Often mills reserved labor jobs for poor whites, causing competition with the black population; mill owners like Ben played one group against another to keep wages low. Ben knew that the situation in the South almost guaranteed that he would be able to keep his promise to Williams regarding low wages and no labor problems. Although no one mentions convict leasing in Hellman's play, its presence in the South in the early 1900s would have bolstered an unscrupulous mill owner's ability to hold wages at a minimum and prevent labor problems. Convict leasing consisted of hiring out prison inmates as strikebreakers and railroad workers, and since African Americans received the longest sentences, they filled the prisons and became, essentially, another form of slave labor in the South, without the paternalism of plantation owners who cared about the welfare of their slaves. Northern versions of convict leasing existed, but as with other forms of unfair labor practices, the North ended them long before their Southern counterparts did, and it was easy for certain investors to take advantage of this lag in order to make a profit.
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The symbolism in this play about the greed and revenge that destroys the Hubbard family and everyone associated with them is subtle but effective. Oscar, the least clever of the three siblings, enjoys his daily sport of hunting wastefully discarding his bounty. He completely monopolizes the local hunting area, thus denying the black population much-needed access to meat. His pastime has symbolic resonances to the "hobby'' he and his siblings make of their struggle for power and wealth, both endeavors involve killing for the sheer pleasure of killing and a drive to dominate others and monopolize resources beyond what is needed. Oscar's pillage is an outgrowth of his underdog status—since he cannot make his siblings do his bidding, he resorts to pillage of the animal world and bullying men of lesser social status. In another instance of symbolism, Horace has what is loosely termed a "bad heart,'' a weakened physical condition that presumably results from emotional deprivation. His heart "ache'' and a broken violin in his safe deposit box, combined with the fact that he has not slept with Regina in ten years, suggest mat Horace cannot thrive in his wife's presence, and he retreats to Baltimore where he lives under the care of doctors, Back home, a few caustic words from Regina push him beyond medical aid and he dies, having failed to stop or even slow down the Hubbards's rapacity. His "bad" or weak heart carries symbolic significance: his association with the Hubbards has ruined him both physically and morally. In other words, Horace "lacks the heart'' to fight, an implication that it takes moral strength, or "heart" to combat evil successfully.
The Well-made Play
Some controversy exists over whether or not The Little Foxes is what is called a well-made play. A well-made play normally contains a plot based upon a withheld secret, steadily mounting suspense relying on precise timing, a climax in which the secret is revealed, and a logical denouement or resolution of all loose ends. Certainly the central story line here—the need for Regina's share of the investment, Horace's refusal, Oscar's secret plan to steal the needed funds from him, and the resolution in which Horace permits the theft as penance to Regina—moves to fulfillment with remarkable clarity and speed. However, the play leaves a number of enormous loose ends untied, and these unresolved plot details throw into question the applicability of the label, well-made play. At the final curtain it remains unclear whether Ben will pursue with any success his threat to expose Regina's complicity in Horace's death. (Perhaps Hellman left this open in order to provide closure in the third play of the trilogy, which she never completed.) Other unresolved plot details also belie the category of the well-made play—an important character, William Marshall, appears only in Act 1 and never returns to the stage; Leo's culpability in the theft remains officially undisclosed, and Horace never rewrites his will or has his triumphant moment of confrontation over the Hubbard's crimes. Taken together, these loose ends contribute to a sense that the evil of the Hubbards remains unchecked, a sense that Hellman clearly meant to convey, since it corresponds to her oblique accusation that those who only "stand and watch" are complicitous in the designs of the evil. Hellman concerned herself very little about the applicability of labels to her work, saying, as quoted in Conversations with Lillian Hellman: "It's newspaper idiots who make these distinctions between well-made plays, or magazine idiots. It seems to be a very dull idea to worry about."
Throughout its stage life, The Little Foxes, full of high intensity and the relentlessly malicious Hubbards, has withstood the charge that it is a melodrama, that is, a play in which emotional sensation holds more importance than character motivation and psychological depth. At the end of a typical melodrama, good characters are duly rewarded while bad characters are punished for their foul deeds. Of course, the purposely unresolved ending of The Little Foxes, which was to be followed by a third play in the planned trilogy, does not suit the dictionary definition of a melodrama. Critics have also debated over whether The Little Foxes is "serious theater" or mere melodrama, the distinction being that serious theater causes the characters and the audience to reflect on the larger philosophical implications of the central conflict whereas melodrama simply presents the struggle between good and evil as pure entertainment. The extent of introspection inspired by this play is limited to the charge that "it ain't right to stand and watch" the eaters of the earth (i. e., the Hubbards and their like), a criticism vaguely directed at the audience. On the other hand, The Little Foxes takes the genre of melodrama to a new dimension with its witty dialogue and taut plotting. Hellman uses all of the stock-in-trade of the melodramatics to expose a social problem, that to ignore the doings of social malefactors is a destructive form of passivity. If this is melodrama, it is socially responsible melodrama.
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1900s: During the industrialization of the New South, Southern labor laws and practices were more exploitative of workers than those in the North, giving owners of Southern factories and mills a decided profit advantage over their Northern counterparts.
1939: After 1935, the National Labor Board assured that workers had the right to organize, a national minimum wage was established by the Wages and Hours Act of 1938, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organized workers by industries, giving workers stronger bargaining power with employees; however to many Americans alarmed by the continued intolerable conditions for factory and migratory workers, socialism became an attractive political option.
Today: Union membership is in decline since widespread labor issues no longer exist. However, in spite of vigilance over the enforcement of fair labor laws, inequities still exist for hundreds of illegal immigrants secretly confined to "sweatshops' ' where they work long hours in substandard conditions at below-minimum wages.
1900: In spite of emancipation in 1865, African Americans were actively disenfranchised by Jim Crow Laws in the South that prevented them from voting or receiving fair trials, and schools and public places were legally segregated. 115 lynchings were recorded in this year.
1939: Some Southern African Americans migrated north to escape Jim Crow laws, where they met with resistance from European immigrants threatened by this new source of cheap labor; those who stayed in the South continued to experience the oppression of the Ku Klux Klan and segregationist policy.
Today: The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s ensure voting rights to people of any race or color and schools and workplaces are becoming more racially diverse, although the effects of long-term oppression continue to plague contemporary African Americans.
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Lillian Hellman adapted The Little Foxes into a screenplay in 1941 that starred Bette Davis as Regina and won critical acclaim for director William Wyler and cameraman Gregg Toland, later famed for his deep-focus camerawork in Citizen Kane. The black-and-white film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but received none.
In 1949 Marc Blitzstein premiered an opera adaptation called Regina with original libretto and music. Although it ran for only a few months, it fared better than the usual Broadway opera.
An NBC television drama based on the play was broadcast in 1956, and starred Greer Garson. It was produced by George Schaefer, with a screenplay by Robert Hartung, and was broadcast as an episode of' 'The Hallmark Hall of Fame'' series.
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Adler, Jacob. Lillian Hellman, Steck-Vaughn, 1969. A biographic monograph that contains the first detailed analysis of Hellman's plays. Adler praises Hellman as an important American follower of the Ibsemte tradition.
Bills, Steven. Lillian Hellman: An Annotated Bibliography, Garland, 1979. One of three annotated bibliographies of Hellman's work.
Discovering Authors, Gale, 1995. A cd-rom reference source containing an overview of Hellman's works and career.
Estrin, Mark W. Lillian Hellman: Plays, Films, Memoirs, G. K. Hall & Co, 1980. Estrm's annotated bibliography is the most recent and the most complete one available.
French, Warren. The Thirties-Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Everett/Edwards, 1969. A scholarly work that analyzes the key contributions in three genres produced by American writers in the 1930s.
Goodman, Charlotte "The Fox's Cubs- Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams," in Modem American Drama: The Female Canon, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. Makes a strong case that Hellman's The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes influenced Miller and Williams, who were coming of age m the 1930s when those plays came out.
Kronenberger, Louis "Greed," in Stage, April 1,1939, pp 36-37,55. A positive review typical of those that greeted the triumphant opening of The Little Foxes on Broadway.
Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman, Twayne, 1979. An early study of Hellman's life, completed before her death in 1984. MacNicholas, Carol "Lillian Hellman," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale, 1981, pp 276- 94. A biographical entry with summaries and critical analyses of Hellman's plays.
Riordan, Mary Marguerite. Lillian Hellman, A Bibliography: 1926-1978, Scarecrow Press, 1980. An annotated bibliography. Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy, St Martin's Press, 1988. Rollyson's unauthorized biography traces links between Hellman's plays and her life, some of which had not been noted by earlier critics. Reports the finding that Hellman had been a member of the Communist party, a fact she denied throughout her life.
Turk, Ruth. Lillian Hellman: Rebel Playwright, Lerner, 1995,128 p. A biography written for the young adult reader Contains photographs.
Bryer, Jackson R. Conversations with Lillian Hellman, University Press of Mississippi, 1986.
Estrin, Mark W. Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, G K Hall & Co., 1989.
Hardwick, Elizabeth. "The Little Foxes Revived," New York Review of Books, December 21,1967, pp. 4-5.
Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman, Simon and Schuster, 1986.
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Estrin, Mark W., ed. Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. The excellent introduction to this volume presents an overview of Hellman’s career as a dramatist. Many of the essays, including an especially interesting study by Mary Lynn Broe, deal with The Little Foxes.
Falk, Doris V. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. Introduction to Hellman’s overall literary career. Chapter on The Little Foxes reveals Hellman’s use of research material, creation of nine drafts, and inclusion of her own family background into several of the characters.
Going, William T. Essays on Alabama Literature. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1975. Contrasts the kindly Preston family in Augustus Thomas’ sentimental comedy Alabama (1891) with Hellman’s “evil and conniving” Hubbards in what is called a “melodramatic tragedy.” Both plays have references to the industrialization of the South through the use of Northern capital.
Hellman, Lillian. Conversations with Lillian Hellman. Edited by Jackson R. Bryer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. A collection of interviews, arranged chronologically. The index points to more than fifty references to The Little Foxes.
Hellman, Lillian. Three. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. Contains Hellman’s well-known autobiographical works An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time. In the chapter in Pentimento entitled “Theatre,” she discusses reflections of her own family in The Little Foxes. Also includes vivid but admittedly one-sided descriptions of Hellman’s offstage feud with Tallulah Bankhead, who played Regina.
Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Solid survey of Hellman, the writer and the individual. Attempts to correct misinterpretations of Hellman’s Southern background and political philosophy. Analysis of The Little Foxes is thoughtful.
Moody, Richard. Lillian Hellman: Playwright. New York: Pegasus, 1972. First important book-length examination of Hellman’s work. Readable, by important American theater scholar. Long chapter on The Little Foxes scrutinizes play itself as well as circumstances surrounding first Broadway production.
Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Sympathetic portrayal of Hellman’s life. Features a cast of characters who played important roles in Hellman’s life Chapter on The Little Foxes examines the writing of the play and its first Broadway production. Lengthy bibliography.
Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. Biographical investigation that attempts to bring disparate elements of Hellman’s life and literary work into resolution. Survey of The Little Foxes focuses on its initial New York City production and an analysis of play.