Little Foxes – Bad Family, Passionless Play

November 13, 2011

Columbus, MS, Culture

I have just finished reading Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, a play about a destructive, greedy Southern family in 1900 whose principal members have no redeeming qualities.  Regina, Ben, Oscar, and Leo Hubbard have earned the reputation of an immoral, unethical, greedy lot with few if any redeeming values.  They cheat their clients and their partners, charge outrageous interest on loans to their black servants, and deceive, manipulate, and try to outmaneuver and even destroy other family members.

I have just completed a rereading of Tennessee Williams Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and written a blog post on it, focusing on the family, which is what the playwright saw as the central theme of the play:

I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely-charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of common crisis”

Within this storm were individual and powerful relationships, especially those between Maggie and Brick and Big Daddy and Brick.  While the central issue of the play is Big Daddy’s imminent death from cancer and the apportionment of his wealth and the deviousness and maneuvering of all characters to assure their fair share, the play is really about love – that between Brick and Maggie, as unsatisfying and troubled as that may be; and between Brick and his father who have had a standoffish relationship for years, but one which might now change.

The Hubbards of Little Foxes has none of the power and passion of Cat – relationships which stand alone in the greedy and venal machinations of Regina, Ben, Oscar, and Leo; and as a result is a mechanical play, more a melodrama than a drama.  We are interested to know how far the self-serving and greedy characters will go – just how low they will sink to achieve their ends – but we don’t care about any of them.  Alexandra, the daughter of the manipulative mother, Regina, loves and protects her father, is a character without taint.  She is simple, kindhearted, and loving,  Birdie, her aunt, married into the despised and crass Hubbards is the other good person in the play, still right and just after years of abuse by her depraved son, Oscar. 

In a complicated plot of business dealings, stolen bonds, deceit and deception, the play really does resemble The Perils of Pauline or other B-dramas of last century.  We care little about any of the characters.  The goodness of Birdie is admirable – how she can keep her moral rectitude and morality in a corrupt family – but she is no Cordelia, Lear’s loving and honest daughter who assembles and mounts an army to right the wrongs done to her and to reconcile with her father.  Nor is she a Constance in King John who fights for her son with passion, conviction, and honor or Anne, Elizabeth, the Duchess, and Margaret in Richard III

Anne, Elizabeth, the Duchess and Margaret each contribute in furthering Shakespeare’s moral themes in three ways: through their roles as victims which is expressed in their intense lamentations, in their cries for revenge through divine retribution, and in alluding to a higher moral order that transcends men’s actions. In all these ways, the women of Richard III help illustrate how destruction comes about when order is violated, either through the weakness of a king or through the machinations of those who cause civil war by wanting to take the king’s place. Such chaos devastates the individual, the family, and the nation, resulting in moral decay, treachery, anarchy, and profound suffering. (Shirley Galloway, 1992;

Horace, Alexandra’s father and Regina’s wife is the sickly patriarch of the family whose wealth remains inaccessible to Regina and her evil brothers.  He is a good person throughout most of the play, refusing to invest money in their scheme:

I’m sick of your brothers and their dirty tricks to make a dime.  Why should I give you the money? To pound the bones of this town to make dividends for you to spend?  You wreck the town and live on it.  Not me….I’ll die my own way.  And I’ll do it without making the world any worse.  I’ll leave that to you (Act II).

When he finds out, however, that the brothers have stolen his bonds, he acts vengefully to destroy his wife.

Looked at another way, the play has merit, for it shows human nature in the raw.  We all know that “Where there’s a will, there’s a relative”, but this puts family greed in relief.  We cannot turn away from it.  All are implicated, all are contemptible except Birdie and Alexandra who do not earn our praise either.  Alexandra walks away from the family at the end, but that is hardly a heroic action.

As I have written before, I do admire villains who are ‘beyond good and evil’ because they embody what to me is the heart of human nature.  We live within acceptable social bounds of morality and ethics, but when push comes to shove – when family is threatened, or when chances of enrichment present themselves, we do not do the right thing.

I recently watched Quiz Show, a good movie based on a true story of the exposure of the corrupt quiz shows of the 50s, directed by Robert Redford, and starring Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, and Paul Scofield.  There is a scene near the end of the movie when the Morrow character, a lawyer/staffer with a Congressional subcommittee investigating the fraud, and the Fiennes character – Charles Van Dorn – meet.  Fiennes when finally caught by Morrow, says “If you were offered $1 million and a chance to be on network television, watched by 50 million people, and you got the answers to the questions, would you take it?  If you were offered $50,000 a show to read poetry on Dave Garroway, would you take it?” (I have paraphrased this passage).

Morrow of course says no.  By taking the money and implicating himself in the fraud, he not only brings himself down but the august and revered family of Mark Van Dorn, respected university professor and a scion of literary criticism.  “Your name is mine” says the father to the chastened son.  Greed and temporary fame have family consequences.

The point is, we all would take the money – some money, sometime – whether we would like to admit we would or might.  It is human nature.

So Regina fits into this ‘beyond good and evil’ form, but only loosely.  She has miscalculated, runs afoul of her simple and good-natured husband.  She thinks she has dominated him completely and will do what she wants, but she is wrong.  She murders him, blackmails her brothers, and gets her money.  She does this without compunction, without a second thought.  She is as amoral and ‘evil’ as any other great villain.  Unfortunately she is not a great villain because she is so mechanical and practical about her ends and her means. 

In summary, Little Foxes is a play about family members behaving badly – as usual – but is too predictable and melodramatic for my tastes.  There no powerful individual relationships and we feel that any character could play these plotted roles.  I admire Regina for her evil, but she has none of the intricacies of character as Macbeth, Iago, Goneril, or Regan.  She is more like Edmund – the least attractive of Shakespeare’s villains just because he is so practical and political in his scheming.

I will read at least one more Hellman play – Toys in the Attic, perhaps or The Children’s Hour perhaps, and see if I retain my feeling that this is a serviceable but not great playwright.

— Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. His blog contains postings on literature, politics and culture, food and wine, and travel.

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