Last week I was fortunate to see The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman, at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Regarded as one of the best melodramas of the twentieth century (the film, starring Bette Davis won no less than 8 Academy Awards in 1941!), the play was wonderfully cathartic and entertaining, and especially relevant, though written in 1939. If you are in Chicago, go see it!
The play is a delicious tale of greed and family betrayal, set in post-Reconstruction Louisiana. For those interested in learning about the economic and cultural identity of the post-bellum South, The Little Foxes makes a perfect starting point.
In The Little Foxes, Hubbard siblings Oscar, Ben, and Regina partner with a businessman from Chicago to invest in a cotton mill in their town. Though the siblings had agreed to invest equally and receive equal profits, Regina negotiates for a larger sum out of spite towards her brothers at being left out of their father’s will. Her sick husband, Horace, is at a hospital in New York, and won’t agree to the deal otherwise, she argues. Regina’s power play falls apart when Horace returns home and, repulsed by the siblings’ greed, wants no part of the deal, further sundering his already estranged relationship with Regina. Ben and Oscar make up Regina’s portion of the investment by stealing bonds in Horace’s bank box. Shortly after, Horace suffers an attack, while Regina coldly looks on as he dies. In the end, Regina manages to secure the majority of the profits from the cotton mill by blackmailing her brothers for their theft. But she loses everything when her daughter, having watched the charade, disowns her and runs away.
“They are all Hubbards
and they will own this country some day.”
What is the price of greed? Though Regina’s demise is itself a satisfying catharsis, it is the cultural and economic backdrop of Hellman’s The Little Foxes that make the Hubbards and their avarice so powerful and timely. At the turn of the century, the promise of cheap labor brought industry to the South primarily because it lagged behind the North in its development of workers’ rights and labor unions (“fancy foolin’” as Ben Hubbard calls them). This industrial revolution rejuvenated the merchant class but terribly exploited black workers as well as the environment, stalling the growth of a middle class and resulting in an economic inequality that rivals today’s. “It’s a man’s duty to think of himself,” Oscar Hubbard counsels his son. Their heart-to-heart about the importance of selfishness will make any audience member of today flinch, just as it surely did for Hellman’s audience in 1939. But the most chilling lines are those of Ben Hubbard, prophetically musing on the ubiquity of people like the Hubbards: “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.”
There are a variety of ways you can delve into this period in American history. Here are a few titles to get you started, with Booklist reviews linked when available. The titles with the asterisk were used by the Goodman Theatre’s Dramaturg, Neena Arndt, while conducting research for the actors and audience.
Capitalism, Cotton, the Industrial Revolution and Life in Post–Civil War South
Is capitalism compatible with democracy, as the U.S. has always asserted? This is a sharp-edged, completely fascinating look at American history and the contemporary politics of the haves and have-nots.
Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900, by Jack Beatty
Indicting the Gilded Age, Beatty adopts an essayist’s persona to flay iniquities of the period. Its mystery prompts the author to ask, “What reverse alchemy transformed mass enthusiasm [for politics] into policies disfavoring the masses?”
From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in Maymont House and the Gilded Age South, by Elizabeth L. O’Leary*
The Gardener’s Son, by Cormac McCarthy
This story is about the deep-seated, unending, undefined but palpable pain that exists between the Greggs, a wealthy family that owns and operates a cotton mill in post–Civil War South Carolina, and the McEvoys, a poor family that works at the mill. It is the first published screenplay by McCarthy.
Origins of the New South, by C. Vann Woodward
Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, by Bertram Wyatt-Brown*
About the Playwright, Lillian Hellman
A Difficult Woman: The Challening Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, by Alice Kessler-Harris*
Hellman was one of the most successful American female playwrights, and her own life was exceptionally dramatic. She is remembered as a caustic woman, a tough broad who made excuses for Stalin’s brutality and made her own personal mythology.
Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels, by Deborah Martinson
As controversial as she was accomplished, dramatist and memoirist Hellman has been neglected of late, an omission Martinson, who gained unprecedented access to invaluable archives, corrects in this meticulous, groundbreaking biography.