Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 26: Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939)
I can’t help but think that when this play about a bitter, greedy family in the Southern states of America premiered in London in 1942 (with Richard Attenborough as Leo) the country had more pressing issues at hand. Indeed it only ran for 37 performances, but it was much more of a success in New York.
The Little Foxes is set in the spring of 1900 and focuses on the Hubbards, a rich family about to invest in a Chicago firm to expand their cotton business. Three siblings – Ben, Oscar and Regina – are each investing a third but Regina needs the help of her wealthy but distant and rather ill husband Horace since she was left out of her father’s will. Regina, a sort of hostile Southern Belle who was played by Bette Davis on film and Elizabeth Taylor in a New York and London revival in the eighties, even agrees to a smaller share if her daughter Alexandra can marry Oscar’s son Leo to ensure the money is kept in the family. But whereas she is cold and materialistic, Horace (on his return) is idealistic and warm-hearted. He wants to leave some money to the black maid, and is exhausted by the family making so much money at the expense of cheap labour or cheating someone else out of money. He is therefore reluctant to put up his part of the money, thus threatening the deal. What Horace eventually learns, however, is that Leo has stolen some bonds from a safety deposit box which he, Oscar and Ben can use in lieu of money to seal the deal.
Horace plans to make a new will leaving the 80,000 dollars’ worth of bonds (which Leo et al plans on returning) to Regina and the rest to daughter Alexandra, for whom he wishes a better life away from the greed and money swindling of the family. Indeed, Oscar’s wife Birdie is subdued and laments that she’s never had a happy day and that Oscar only married her for her family’s money. She is trapped (like a caged bird) and wants better for her niece.
It’s here where I wrote quite a concise paragraph of the rest of the play but I thought I’d cut it out as it was full of spoilers. What’s important is that there is a lot of double crossing, scheming siblings and warring over money. Indeed there’s a lot of plot to get through and Hellman shows good technique even if it might seem a bit rickety now. There’s the fate of the deal being decided by the frail man; the out of reach medicine bottle; the contents of a safety deposit box. What’s more is that there are about eight fairly meaty roles in the play, something which the original reviews noted: it is a play that ‘bestows viable parts on all the members of the cast’ (Brooks Atkinson). But despite its pace, it is such a frustrating play to read because of the many stage directions. Specific or just fussy, it becomes more and more difficult having to negotiate and visualise all the many ‘Oscar crosses down to front chair left centre’ etc.
Aesthetically, it could be an Oscar Wilde play. Hats and gloves and fancy drawing rooms, I would argue that Hellman doesn’t quite capture the heat or air of the south in the same way as Tennessee Williams. But there’s no faulting Hellman for writing such a gripping and multifaceted family melodrama even if it is old fashioned now. Having said that, you never fully appreciate how high the stakes are outside the house in The Little Foxes. It’s not until the end when Ben looks forward to the new century as one of opportunity and wealth. I also think that the irony is lost that that is only the perception of the rich white man. Behind the Hubbard household, there is a story of slavery, cheap labour on the cotton fields, industry, money (plenty of it!) and overall the changing face of America. And it is captured here in this crucible of family greed and money.
"Catch the foxes for us,/ The little foxes that are ruining the vineyards”.
We’re half way through #ReadaPlayaWeek 2016!