Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes & Alice Kessler-Harris's A Difficult Woman

Lillian Hellman

I had a chance to join a play-reading group.  I cannot act, I never wanted to act, and I did not think I would be an asset to the group. The closest I had come to acting is teaching students to scan and read Latin poetry at sight, and the tranquil chanting of arma virumque cano hardly prepares you for the stage. It was, in fact, an adult student, the only student who read rhythmically and clearly, who invited me to attend the group meetings. They had an annual public play-reading event, and that is what put me off. I realize now I could have served coffee in the background like the directress of NANOWRIMO at Smokey Joe's.  And I could have suggested a reading of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, which I have been reading (silently). 

Hellman's play, first produced in 1939, is an indictment of the immorality of a Southern family.  The premise of The Little Foxes is a shady business deal in 1900.  The greedy Hubbard family connives with a Chicago industrialist "to bring the cotton mills to the cotton." Ben Hubbard, the eldest, in his fifties, is the brains behind the deal; his younger brother, Oscar, and Oscar's depraved son, Max, are the thuggish drones; and their sister, Regina Giddens, a Machiavellian matriarch, schemes to usurp control.

It is complicated. The good characters are remarkably few; none of them is a Hubbard.  They are Regina's daughter, Alexandra, whom Regina want to marry off to Max to keep the money in the family; Oscar's wife, Birdie, a foolish woman who stays drunk to endure being married to a Hubbard; and Regina's ill husband, Horace Giddens, who has been in Baltimore since his heart attack, reevaluating his life.  The family's black servant, Addie, is the heart and soul of the household, and she will do anything to protect the good. 

The 1939 production of The Little Foxes was popular with audiences but panned by critics for being too political, too "well-made," and "melodramatic."  In the context of the Depression, Alice Kessler-Harris says in her new biography, A Difficult Woman:  The Challenging Lives and Times of Lillian Hellman, reviewers interpreted the play as criticism of industrialization and capitalism. Joseph Wood Kruch, a reviewer for The Nation, said, "Plainly the play is directed against contemporary society."   Hellman denied the politics, and said it was a "drama of morality first and last."

Hellman fascinates me. She is surely one of the great American writers, but is she read anymore?  I devoured her memoirs in the '70s:  Pentimento is especially vivid in my memory, and I loved the movie Julia, adapted from "Julia" in Pentimento, and starring Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jason Robards. 

Then Mary McCarthy, another of my heroines, attacked Hellman.  She said on The Dick Cavett Show that "every word [Lillian Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'the' and 'and.'" Hellman sued McCarthy.

There are many instances when the literal truth of Hellman's memoirs was called into question.  You will be hearing more about that from me soon.


Frisbee said...

Ellen has left this comment via email:

those Hellman plays I've seen have been powerful on the stage. When they are turned into movies, they are often so changed and some become terrible. On the biography, just about all the reviewers I've read have written scathing vitriolic reviews of Lilian Hellman as a person. Maybe it's just coincidence, but it does seem as if she's everyone's favorite person to dislike. I can see no reason for this whatsoever. I have nothing against her politics and in her era socialism and communism were bulwarks against Nazism, helped the labor movement, were natural responses to a vast depression. My guess is the reviewers are not telling why they dislike her; they quote Mary McCarthy's famous remark that she lied about everything, but I don't believe that's it either. Maybe they are jealous of some aspect of her career only a person "in the business" could know of. I'm good at dramatic reading and used to read 18th century poetry aloud as dramatic dialogue and vignettes. Ellen

Frisbee said...

Ellen, I will post more about this later, but Kessler-Harris is sympathetic to Hellmanr. Hellman managed to alienate liberals and conservatives alike after Scoundrel Time was published. It is fascinating--in ST she spoke out and named names of people who should have helped others --Dashiell Hammett went to jail for his silence--and then everyone retaliated against Hellman for her honesty in this book, and ganged up on her mistakes.

I'm still pondering what happened, and why.