Lillian Hellman's the Little Foxes and the New South Creed: An Ironic View of Southern History

Article excerpt

If one looks for a copy of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes in a chain or suburban mall bookstore he is not likely to find it. More often than not, however, the clerk will produce one of the author's memoirs, such as Pentimento or An Unfinished Woman. The ready availability in bookstores of what critic John Lahr describes as Hellman's "quasi autobiography" testifies to the success with which, beginning in the late 1960s, she transformed herself from a playwright into a prose writer, thus gaining in the final stage of her career "both a new public and new fame" (Lahr 93). By contrast, the relative scarcity of her plays reflects the decline of her reputation in this genre during the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years there has been a modest resurgence of interest in Hellman's plays. For example, during its 1993-94 season, the Royal National Theater in England mounted a very successful production of The Children's Hour. Still Lillian Hellman's reputation as a playwright in the 1990s remains markedly lower than it was in the late sixties, when she abandoned Broadway and its increasingly dismissive critics and launched into her thoroughly successful autobiographical venture.

Robert Heilman, in his analysis of Tragedy and Melodrama on the Modern Stage, represented a substantial body of scholarly opinion in 1973 when he observed that The Little Foxes, Hellman's most acclaimed and most frequently revived play, "teeter[ed] between the slick and the substantial" (301), with the slick ultimately predominating. Elizabeth Hardwick, however, mounted the most provocative and stimulating, as well as the most damaging, critique of Hellman's plays. In a brief but powerful essay for the New York Review of Books, Hardwick used the occasion of the 1967 Lincoln Center revival of The Little Foxes for nothing less than a complete reassessment of its author's place in the hierarchy of modern American drama.

In her essay Hardwick observed that Hellman's plays exhibited "an unusual mixture of the conventions of fashionable, light, drawing room comedy and quite another convention of realism and protest" (5). She judged this combination of conventional dramatic technique and equally modish 1930s radicalism to be awkward and unfortunate. Turning to a more specific examination of The Little Foxes, Hardwick argued that over the years the play had metamorphosed from a melodrama attacking the rapaciousness of capitalism into a melodrama concerned with "a besieged Agrarianism, a lost Southern agricultural life, in which virtue and sweetness had a place, and more strikingly, where social responsibility and justice could, on a personal level at least, be practiced" (4). In Hardwick's view, a play that in the 1930s had seemed to strike a stylishly leftist pose now evoked in the 1960s a more fundamental, if subtle, nostalgia for an idealized Southern past, a past rooted ultimately in the antebellum plantation system.

Although Hardwick's observations on the conventional nature of Hellman's dramatic approach are apt and penetrating, there is good reason to question her contention that the interpretation of the South's past conveyed in The Little Foxes is essentially sentimental, pervaded by nostalgia for a plantation golden age. Indeed, as her research notes for the play clearly indicate, Hellman was concerned almost to the point of obsession with the factual accuracy of her dramatic portrayal of the turn-of-the-century South. She compiled over 100 pages of amazingly detailed material covering every conceivable aspect of both American and Southern economic and social history between 1880 and 1900, with particular emphasis on the South's agricultural and economic development during these decades.

In compiling her notes Hellman drew from period descriptions and commentaries on the South, such as Julian Ralph's Dixie, or Southern Scenes and Sketches (1896), Philip Alexander Bruce's The Rise of the New South (1905), and Clifton Johnson's Highways and Byways of the South (1913). …