"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Little Foxes–Bad Family, Passionless Play

Regina, Ben, Oscar, and Leo Hubbard in Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes are unethical, greedy, and selfish. 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 each other.  The play, however, is predictable and obvious about the jealousies and suspicions which are common and inevitable. It remains narrow and familiar, a plot-driven display of family excesses but never achieves the dramatic impact It is about all families and their inevitable jealousies but never achieves even the simple melodramatic enthusiasm of the early plays of O'Neill, let alone the powerful works of Edward Albee.

Image result for images playbill little foxes

Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  is also a play about family greed, ambition, and duplicity. Williams wrote:
“ 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.

Image result for images cat on a hot tin roof

The Hubbards of The Little Foxes have none of the passion of Cat, a play which makes no simple assumptions or conclusions.  Brick and Maggie have histories, emotional records, social ambitions and sexual doubts.  Maggie is willful and ambitious, but almost necessarily so because of her background; and Brick is hobbled, indecisive, and inconclusive because of his family's privilege and his overweening sense of morality.  By comparison Regina, Ben, Oscar, and Leo are stick figures who move the plot along rather than feature at the center of it.  As a result The Little Foxes is a mechanical, obvious play.  One may be interested to know how far these unattractive characters will go and just how low they will sink to achieve their ends – but one doesn't care about any of them. 

In a complicated plot of business dealings, stolen bonds, deceit and deception, the play resembles The Perils of Pauline and other B-dramas of last century. 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.  

Image result for images the perils of pauline

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.  At first he acts responsibly if not nobly, 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.

If looked at more generously the play might have merit because of its unvarnished display of human nature.  Greed is placed within a larger context.  We are all like the Hubbards.  Yet O'Neill, far more convincingly than Hellman, wrote of the jealousies, contest of wills, manipulation, and selfishness of families and implied that such dysfunction was inevitable. Edward Albee hated families for their inbred deception and emotional cruelty but understood that they were necessary for maturity.  By comparison Hellman's play is predictable and misses the opportunity to suggest more.

Image result for images mourning becomes electra

Regina is the only interesting, compelling character because she takes greed and venality to another level.  Like the heroines of Ibsen (Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilde Wangel) she is ‘beyond good and evil’.  She miscalculates, runs afoul of her simple and good-natured husband whom she mistakenly thinks she thinks she has dominated completely, and decides to murder him, blackmail her brothers, and get her money.  She does this without compunction, without a second thought.

Regina may be admired for her Nietzschean will, 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 because he is so practical and political in his scheming.

Image result for images iago olivier othello

In summary, The Little Foxes is a play about family members behaving badly but is predictable and melodramatic.  There no powerful individual relationships and any character could play these plotted roles.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.