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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.

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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),...

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