Dramaturge Notes on The Little Foxes

Notes on the Play

Elizabeth C. Ramírez, Ph.D.


About the Playwright

Lillian Florence Hellman was born in 1905 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Her childhood was spent in New Orleans and New York City, and she studied at New York University for two years.  She married Arthur Kober, a playwright and press agent, in 1925.  The couple moved to Hollywood in 1930 where Kober worked as a screenwriter and Hellman took a job at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a reader.


Hellman met Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), the American writer who created what is often referred to as the hard-boiled school of detective writing, with such works as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, both of which led to numerous films, and in the 1930s and 40s he wrote for the movies.  Hellman divorced Kober and she began a three-decades long relationship with Hammett.


Her first play, The Children’s Hour, opened on Broadway in 1934, a controversial plot concerning two teachers whose lives are ruined by a student who maliciously accuses them of being lesbians.  The play ran for 691 performances; Hellman wrote the screen adaptation for the subsequent film.  The Little Foxes opened on Broadway in 1939, and Watch on the Rhine followed in 1941, winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.  Hellman’s screenplay adaptation of The Little Foxes followed the next year, bringing Hellman a nomination for an Academy Award.  Hammett adapted Watch on the Rhine and earned his own nomination for an Academy Award.


Among numerous recognitions, Hellman won the U.S. National Book Award in Arts & Letters in 1969 for An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir.  During the 1970s she taught writing at several universities and received honorary degrees from Brandeis University, Smith College, Columbia University, and Yale University.  She died of a heart attack in 1984


(See Linda Briley-Webb and Rachel Webb, Women in American History: A Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia and Document Collection, Vol 3, 233-234).


A Brief Production History


Before Tennessee Williams explored the topic of the dysfunctional Southern family, “long a staple of American drama,” Lillian Hellman “got there first, creating indelible characters in a warring family in a small Southern town at the dawn of the 20th century in her drama, ‘The Little Foxes’” (Rick Fahey’s On Boston Stages, 19 Feb. 2019).  In his review in The Washington Post, following a production of the play at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C., Peter Marks called attention to this play as predating “by several years such 20th century landmark dramas as Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘Tennessee Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ and though those works are granted much more exalted perches in our canon, you detect thematic antecedents in ‘Foxes.’”  He added:  “the portrait of rancid capitalism, detailed in the Hubbards’ reputation for cheating in business, prefigures the shoddy tossing aside of Willy Loman by his company in ‘Salesman.”  And in Hellman’s depiction of alcoholic wounded Birdie Hubbard . . . there are intimations of the dissipation of Williams’s eternally tragic Southern belle, Blanche DuBois” (Peter Marks, “Mary Helgenberger and Company Give Lillian Hellman Her Due in ‘The Little Foxes,’” The Washington Post, 3 Oct. 2016)


In The New York Times review of the premiere of the New York production on February 15, 1939, the noted reviewer, Brooks Atkinson, wrote:  “As a theatrical story-teller, Lillian Hellman is biting and expert.  In ‘The Little Foxes,’ which was acted at the National last evening, she thrusts a bitter story straight to the bottom of a bitter play.  As compared with ‘The Children’s Hour,’ which was her first notable play, ‘The Little Foxes’ will have to take second rank.  For it is a deliberate exercise in malice—melodramatic rather than tragic, none too fastidious in its manipulation of the stage . . . But out of greed in a malignant Southern family of 1900 she has put together a vibrant play that works and that bestows viable parts on all the members of the cast” (Atkinson, 16 Feb. 1939).


In his review, Atkinson mentioned the work of the leading female actor and the substantial role that Hellman had given her:  “None of the new plays in which Tallulah Bankhead has acted here has given her such sturdy support and such inflammable material” (Atkinson).  This role rejuvenated Bankhead’s career in the United States when Hellman introduced the play to Broadway which resulted in a run of over 400 performances (Richard Self, DC Metro Theatre Arts, 25 Apr. 2017).


With regard to the rest of the characters, Atkinson wrote:  “It would be difficult to find a more malignant gang of petty robber barons than Miss Hellman’s chief characters.  Two brothers and a sister in a small Southern town are consumed with a passion to exploit the earth . . . .  It is an Inhuman  tale.”  He also tells us that the title comes from the Bible:  “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines; for our vines have tender grapes,” adding that:  “Miss Hellman has made an adult horror-play.  Her little foxes are wolves that eat their own kind” (Atkinson).

Chris Jones, in his review about the production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, wrote:  “At one point in the play, the amoral entrepreneur Ben Hubbard delivers a prescient little speech about the future.  Soon, he opines, America will open up and throw out all the genteel aristocrats who run the place.  They’ll be replaced by people like himself—opportunistic entrepreneurs who see the merits of greed.  ‘They will own this country,’ he says” (Chris Jones, “All of the drama in the Goodman’s ‘Little Foxes’” (Jones, Chicago Tribune 17 May 2015).


The play’s history shows us how major female actors have taken on the challenging role of the leading character, Regina Giddens, to notable success.  Bette Davis starred in the film, directed by William Wyler, and released in 1941, and Elizabeth Taylor performed the part in 1981.  The review that appeared of the film on August 22, 1941, written by Bosley Crowther, for The New York Times, was entitled “’The Little Foxes,’ Full of Evil, Reaches the Screen of the Music Hall.”  Crowther remarks that “no one who saw the play need be reminded that Miss Hellman was dipping acid straight when she dipped this fearful fable of second-generation carpet-baggers in a small Southern town around 1900.  Henrik Ibsen and William Faulkner could not together have designed a more morbid account of inter-family treachery and revoltingly ugly greed than was contained in Miss Hellman’s purple drama of deadly intrigue in the Hubbard clan . . . And Miss Davis’s performance in the role which Talluluh [sic] Bankhead played so brassily on the stage is abundant with color and mood . . . ‘The Little Foxes’ will not increase your admiration for mankind.  It is cold and cynical.  But it is a very exciting picture to watch in a comfortably objective way, especially if you enjoy expert stabbing-in-the-back” (Crowther, 22 Aug. 1941)


About Elizabeth Taylor’s performance, Frank Rich, in his review for The New York Times, lauds the work both of Taylor and Maureen Stapleton who played Birdie.  Rich notes about Taylor that:  “It may have taken a long time for her to get to Broadway, but she has arrived in high style.”  He adds:  “Elizabeth Taylor has found just the right vehicle to launch her career as a stage actress.  And she rewards the role of Regina Giddens, that malignant Southern bitch-goddess, with a performance that begins gingerly, soon gathers steam and then explodes into a black and thunderous storm that may just knock you out of your seat . . . .  No doubt it’s superfluous to point out that Miss Taylor has charm, grandeur, and sex appeal.  The news here is that she has the killer instinct, too – and the skill to project it from the stage” (Rich, 8 May 1981).


In the review for the Arena Stage production in Washington, D.C., in 2016, entitled “Marg Helgenberger and Company Give Lillian Hellman Her Due in ‘The Little Foxes,” Peter Marks starts by asking “What is Regina thinking?  The question lingers enticingly all the way through Arena stage’s immaculate revival.  And in the guise of a cold-as-steel Marg Helgenberger, self-protectively calculating Regina Hubbard Giddens is indeed a gorgeous enigma, wrapped in red silk and guile” (Marks, The Washington Post, 3 Oct. 2016).  Helgenberger had been on CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” for a very long time.  This review stands out because Marks examines the women of the time as reflected in the drama:  “The play turns on a humiliation imposed on women of the time, by which the sons inherit their father’s wealth and daughters must marry well to make their fortune.  The drama may posit Regina herself as a brute, revealed in one particularly unforgivable (and theatrically socko) act late in the play.  But it also provides a humanizing rationale for why Regina, regarded as an alluring nuisance by her brothers, must be even more ruthless than the men.  She is less than a hero but more than a villain” (Marks).  As Marks notes, the ensemble was helping Arena Stage “build a strong case for playgoers of this century looking anew at a major American playwright from the last one.”  Hellman would have appreciated this acknowledgement rather than the terms usually ascribed to her, namely, “female” or “woman” playwright she so often heard and drew her dismay.


Probably the most notable production of The Little Foxes in our own time is the recent Manhattan Theater Club’s, running from April 18 to July 1, 2017, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in New York.  The play featured Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, swapping the parts of Regina and Birdie.  As Alexis Soloski writes in The New York Times, “Regina Giddens is a flower of Southern womanhood.  That flower is a Venus flytrap.”  She adds that in this “nimble, exhilarating revival,” “Regina coerces, deceives, manipulates and maybe even murders.  How graceful she is, how charming.  And how carnivorous.”  Soloski notes that “Hellman’s play, which sent the author bushwhacking through what she called ‘the giant tangled time-jungle’ of childhood memory and family legend, has never quite held the stature it deserves . . . .  In Regina, whose individualism is refined rather than rugged, Hellman created one of the stage’s antiheroines and a glide bomb of a role.  Now, in Daniel Sullivan’s production, two actresses get to detonate it . . . Regina’s is the flashy part, Birdie’s the devastating one.”  But why have the actors switch roles?  As Soloski points out: “Regina shows how wicked a woman can become when she steps out of line,” and in Birdie we see “how broken when she doesn’t.  To have these actresses switch from night to night stresses that in a world like this women can’t win . . . .  Yet Regina does.  Unlike her peers – the Heddas, the Clytemnestras, the Lady Macbeths–Regina is a woman whose comeuppance never comes . . . Regina is even magnanimous in victory, telling her disapproving daughter, ‘Do what you want; think what you want; go where you want’ . . . Regina will” (Soloski, 2 July 2017).


About The Play Then & Now


The Little Foxes is a work of its time, and the language and references reflect the attitudes of the times, and the references are integral elements in the themes of the play.


Several reviewers refer to the relevance of the play now, “perhaps even more than it did for audiences in 1939” (Richard Self, DC Metro Theater Arts).


Kelly Romack Macblane, in her review entitled “Citadel’s Little Foxes Resonates for Today’s Women,” posted in chicagostage.com, October 1, 2018, writes:  “I was curious what a play written by a woman in the 1930s would be like today—what story it would tell.  And what I saw was a world that didn’t feel that different from our own: where women are often controlled by men, where men are believed over women, where women are shamed into silence.  It was both sad and telling that the world Hellman was writing about almost 80 years ago reflected so brightly today.  This has been a particularly hard week for many Americans, especially women [right at the time of the Kavenaugh hearings in Congress].  Personally, I have had many moments of contemplation and conversation about women, how we are viewed and how we are treated.  So it was inevitably through that lens that I sat down to see Citadel Theatre’s production of Little Foxes.”


MacBlane writes about striking notes that the Director, Kristina McCloskey, had written in the program:  “When the revolution comes, will you think of yourself first?” and “How long will you just stand around and watch?”  She adds:  “Lillian Hellman was blacklisted in the 50s after refusing to name names in front of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) as they tried to expose Communists in the United States.  It was clear Hellman was a woman of some conscience who was willing to take a stand.  During the play, Addie, the maid . . . says to the young Alexandra . . . ‘There are those who eat the Earth . . . and other people who stand around and watch them eat.’  Alexandra . . . ponders these words and, in a speech that reminded me of other works of art written by communist-leaning writers, Alexandra expresses that maybe she will be someone who won’t stand around and watch.  There is hope that she can bring a change.  Hope that we can bring change” (Kelly Romack MacBlane, Chicagoonstage.com, October 1, 2018).


Alice Kessler-Harris, a Professor of History and a Past President of the organization of American Historians, has written numerous articles and a book about Hellman and her politics, and in her article entitled “What Lillian Hellman Knew,” she writes that “We can continue to flog Lillian Hellman for her sins, for she does, after all, emerge from the archives as a self-aggrandizing and often frightened individual who compensated for her fear with an abrasive moralism that many found offensive.  She was briefly a Communist, and like many others, she lied about her membership in the party.  Or we can begin to explore the meaning of Hellman’s politics in her generation, to ask questions about the goals of those who saw their American world in unconventional ways, to explain the cultural and political tensions that drove a democratic society to marginalize some of its most critical members.  If we do that, we might learn something from Lillian Hellman.  We might begin to understand the deeper meaning of the politics and society in which she was engaged” (Kessler-Harris, Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 April 12, Vol 58, Issue 34, pp.  10-12).


In his book entitled The History of Southern Drama, Charles S. Watson includes a Chapter  entitled “The Southern Marxism of Lillian Hellman,” where he examines Hellman’s association with African Americans.  Watson writes:  “Like most middle-class southerners of her time, Hellman encountered the working class primarily as black servants.  In her memoirs blacks are a constant presence, as they were in the lives of all southerners of her generation, but the respect in which she held them was most unusual.  The dramatist’s closest contact was with her nurse and friend Sophronia Mason, an impressive woman, who probably served as the model for the cook Addie.  Hellman noted that Sophronia and her family were well respected in New Orleans black [Negro] circles.  ‘Sophronia was the first and most certain love of my life,’ she wrote.  Lillian considered her the anchor of her youth and kept up the acquaintance.  Once, when Hellman broke her nose, Sophronia took the child to the doctor but gave her this stern advice: ‘Don’t go through life making trouble for people.’  In The Little Foxes Addie repeats such injunctions to Alexandra, who was partially based on Hellman herself—as was Regina” (Watson, U P of Kentucky, 1997, pp. 135-136).


The dramatic force of The Little Foxes owes much to the theory of class struggle, which is evident in the overthrow of the aristocratic class by the capitalists.


Given our politics today, it is Interesting that Hellman was writing during the time of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, that is, a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations enacted by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the U.S. between 1933 and 1936.  It responded to needs for relief, reform and recovery from the Great Depression. Whatever its success or failures, the New Deal represented a struggle to curtail the freewheeling capitalism of the 1920s in favor of a belief system that reverted to more egalitarian goals.  President Roosevelt captured the shift in his second inaugural address: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, he remarked, “it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”


The goal of the so called second New Deal we hear about today seems to be not merely to alleviate destitution nor to guarantee equality but, rather to restrict inequality and, by doing so, to extend citizenship rights to a greater public.  To those, such as Hellman and her partner, Dashiell Hammett, who believed that the United States had not done enough to curb capitalism, some form of socialism or even communism seemed a preferable alternative.  But even as they sought to curtail capitalism, both Hammett and Hellman articulated a strong antipathy to totalitarianism and an equally strong commitment to democracy” (Kessler-Harris 733).

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