Monday, May 25, 2015
BECOMING EVIL: LILLIAN HELLMAN’S "THE LITTLE FOXES"
At The Goodman Theatre in Chicago through June 7, 2015
By David Chack
Near the beginning of The Little Foxes, the Chicago businessman William Marshall, who is being courted by the Hubbard family for his company in opening a cotton mill, says that he isn’t in business for any kind of high-minded values – apparently referring to socialism or workers rights ideologies. He just wants to make money and the Hubbards are the kind of people whom he can do that with because they are “…partners who so closely follow the teachings of Christ.”
(L to R) Shannon Cochran (Regina Hubbard Giddens), Michael Canavan (William Marshall), Mary Beth Fisher (Birdie Hubbard), Dan Waller (Leo Hubbard), Dexter Zollicoffer (Cal), Steve Pickering (Oscar Hubbard), Rae Gray (Alexandra “Zan” Giddens)
The moment is nearly a throw away. But in an insightful direction, Henry Wishcamper the play's director, has the entire Hubbard family pause, take in the phrase, and then go on. In so doing he creates an unspoken, even a secret acknowledgement between the members of the Hubbard family that they do not follow the teachings of Christ and this reflects the back-story that is Lillian Hellman’s own Jewish family.
Jews in the South were a different breed from Jews of the North. Acutely aware of their differences in a region that was demonstrably Christian, they found acceptance in their stereotyped role as Jews who were seen as necessary in matters of money and business. And in fact Hellman’s family came from Demopolis, Alabama where the play is set, they were in business, and they were a successful banking family. Her maternal grandmother, who the matriarch in the play Regina Hubbard Giddens is modeled, evidently never missed an opportunity to mock and belittle her father for his poor business sense in front of her and her mother. (Southern Literary Trail) (Jewish Women’s Archives)
In using her family as models for the Hubbard family in The Little Foxes and because she never mentions that they are Jews, Hellman felt free to make them into the stereotyped Jewish family that their neighbors expected them to be. They are greedy and avaricious and Regina is so vengeful that she orchestrates an act so horrible that not even the rest of her family can envision it.
Shannon Cochran (Regina Hubbard Giddens)
Hellman also references her own life as a Southern Jew in the daughter of Alexandra or Zan, who breaks away from her family at the plays end to join left-wing progressives. Many of those she joined with were Jews in New York City, also putting Zan (aka Hellman) in the tradition of Jewish leftists.
When Hellman wrote The Little Foxes anti-Semitism was at its height in the world. In her personal writings she has said that when she went to pre-war Nazi Germany in the 1930s she really felt what it was like to be a Jew. Hellman felt the darkness that was to descend on Europe and consequently on the world. In my interview with the play's director Henry Wishcamper, he told me that the anchor speech for him was, "The people that eat the earth, are like the locusts of the Bible. And then there are those who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes just standing by is as evil as doing the evil itself. They aren't doing anything to make the world better."
For us to know the crypto-Jewish story, as well as the events in Hellman’s time, we then see a complex and psychological portrayal in The Little Foxes that shows a Jewish family that has been poisoned by their “outsiderness” in the South, no matter how successful they become. Consequently the play shows that they have become the demons their neighbors see them as.
Wishcamper is relentless in his depiction of this family that implodes through their need for power and also driven toward their destination of darkness. The performances are searing from the portrayals of the Hubbards to the African-American domestic help Cal and Addie. This group of outsiders, though on different levels of power, are all hurtling towards an end that will drive them to the only solution, which is exile – exile from family and exile from the South.
Interestingly and even mythically Hellman brackets the evil through the play’s title The Little Foxes, referencing The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible. The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon is one of the great love poems in literature. The phrase “the little foxes” (2:15) is about how the little foxes will ruin the king and princess' vineyard of love. Many have written that this is Hellman’s metaphor for the beauty of the South and that the Hubbards are the virulent little foxes who will ruin it and lay it to waste.
But bearing in mind that the Hubbards are the crypto-Jews of the South, the “little foxes” is the oppressive evil of prejudice and racism that infiltrates the vineyard. And the vineyard is the Hubbard family itself. In other words, this place that Jewish families had hoped to have as their home and that they would make into a beautiful and intoxicating vineyard, is instead infected by prejudice born from hateful stereotypes, racism, greed, and power. The great irony is that the Hubbard family, unlike old Mother Hubbard of the nursery rhyme, is made into the "shylock" that their neighbors wish them to be.
The Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Through June 7, 2015
Director Henry Wishcamper