‘I like ‘Little Foxes,’ but I’m tired of it,” the playwright Lillian Hellman told The Paris Review in 1965. She might think differently were she to see the current Broadway revival of her best-known play, starring Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon.
Why might that production catch Hellman’s eye? Those actors alternate with each other in playing two roles: the lead character of Regina Giddens, and the supporting character of Birdie Hubbard.
For less capable actors, the difference between the two characters, both middle-aged, upper-class white women living in the South at the beginning of the 20th century, might induce whiplash. Where Regina is steely, ambitious and absolutely sure of herself, Birdie is wilting, deferent and disconcertingly girlish.
While not exactly opposites in character, the women have adopted nearly opposite responses to a world that, in its absolute reliance on the power of men, has forced them into situations that neither of them finds habitable.
Regina has never recovered from the long-ago insult incurred when her father left his fortune to her two brothers, Oscar and Ben, with no portion left for her. That decision spurred her to enter into a marriage that has been, at best, miserable. She has been a cold wife to her husband, and, the audience is led to believe, an exacting, impersonal mother to her daughter, Alexandra. It’s her brother’s business ventures, and the prospect of greater independence in the North, that bring out her passion.
Birdie, born into the old Southern aristocracy, married Regina’s brother Oscar Hubbard; the Hubbards, to Birdie’s mother’s disdain, were a family of new money. Under Oscar’s merciless abuse, coupled with her biting disappointment in their buffoon of a son, Leo, Birdie has retreated into both alcohol and a willfully myopic fantasy of her youth. As her two vices destroy her, she is sustained by a profound connection to Alexandra, a love for music and a love for animals, all of which, at various points, Oscar tries to suppress.
At the performance I saw, Nixon played Regina and Linney played Birdie. Each seemed, frankly, made for her role. Nixon’s Regina entered the play so charming as to appear almost gilded; at its crest, close to winning all she wanted, she was nearly vampiric; at its close, facing unforeseen, intimate consequences to achieving her ambition, she showed, with a quietly tragic surprise, an unexpected pathos.
Linney, on the other hand, appearing in Birdie’s few scenes, was appropriately mercurial, shifting from eager, childlike joy to absolute despair with an astonishingly believable quickness. Her Birdie wants to be a child, but knows she isn’t one; she wants the plantations of her childhood, but exhibits a panicked deafness to mentions of the pain they created; she wants to be a mother, but she cannot control her contempt for her child; she wants quiet, but creates, almost desperately, noise.
Hellman, who was born into a Jewish family in New Orleans but resisted classifications of all kinds, certainly wouldn’t have wanted anyone to call her a feminist; in that Paris Review interview, she stated tersely, “I don’t like labels and isms,” and spoke disparagingly of a breed of “lady writer[s],” who composed “the kind of stories where the man puts his fork down and the woman knows it’s all over.”
Yet “The Little Foxes” — which takes its title from a verse in the biblical Song of Solomon that reads, “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom” — is a strident damnation of masculinity. With the exception of Regina’s two black servants, whose resigned kindness would reassure if it didn’t suggest itself as necessary for their survival, and perhaps Alexandra, neither a woman nor a man in the play is strictly likable. The key difference is that the women are unlikable largely because of the contortions that men have forced them into. The men are just unlikable.
While Hellman resisted calling herself a communist, she certainly sympathized with communism, and the play’s other great villain is the new, industrialized capitalism engulfing the country. (“There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren’t Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country someday,” Ben Hubbard says, toward the play’s close.) The tasteful wealth of Regina’s living room, in which the play takes place, belies an extraordinary rot at the heart of her family — that of greed.
In that, the play’s setting takes on surprising significance. The grand old house becomes a symbol of a multitude of things: the displacement of the Southern aristocracy that Birdie mourns; the oppression of the servants, Cal and Addie, and their forbears, surely slaves; the avariciousness of the Hubbards; the intolerably stifling circumstances the characters see as defining their lives, and the limits that, in retaliation, they cruelly impose on one another. As opposed to certain recent dramas set in parlors because, practically, it makes sense, Hellman’s characters find themselves returning to the Giddens house, again and again, because there is simply nowhere else to go.
Hellman told The Paris Review that she intended “The Little Foxes” to be the first installment of a trilogy, one play taking up with Regina, now in Europe, two decades after the action of “The Little Foxes,” and the other with Alexandra, who “was to have become maybe a spinsterish social worker, disappointed, a rather angry woman.”
In fact, she wrote a prequel to the play, “Another Part Of The Forest,” in 1946 — “The Little Foxes” dates from 1939 — but never followed her characters into the future.
It’s a fact that gives pause, as by the end of the play every familial alliance has frayed. The characters, having retreated to various individual corners within their already circumscribed lives, are isolated in newly extreme ways.
It’s a chilling illustration of the dangers of “isms” that Hellman spoke about to The Paris Review. Having defined themselves away from each other in service of their own personal “isms” — put another way, their obsessions, both narrow and all-engrossing — they’re doomed to remain, forever, ambitious and adrift.
Hellman could have saved them, but something about them didn’t make her want to give the effort; “I’m tired of the people of ‘The Little Foxes,’” she said. In the deft hands of Linney, Nixon and their skilled colleagues, the audience is in little danger of feeling the same. But we can imagine, palpably, the characters’ exhaustion with themselves. Seen from the outside, it’s a tremendous thrill.
Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture fellow. Follow her on Twitter, @TalyaZax