Four plays down for Emsworth so far in the 2008 season of the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), and each one the work of a deeply committed leftist! Consider:
J. B. PRIESTLEY, playwright for An Inspector Calls. (See the Emsworth review in this post.) One of England’s leading radical socialists from the 1930s through the 1950s, a politician as well as a writer. A founder of the socialist Common Wealth Party. Favored permanent wage controls, nationalization of industry, and public ownership of land.
LILLIAN HELLMAN, playwright for The Little Foxes. (See the Emsworth review in this post.) More than a mere “fellow traveler.” Openly admired Stalin and his methods; indifferent to the efficient brutality with which he eliminated opponents; approved the Soviet occupations of Finland and Poland. Traveled to Russia in the late 1930s while Stalin was intentionally starving millions of Ukranians; found nothing in the U.S.S.R. to criticize and much to admire.
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, playwright for Getting Married. (See the Emsworth review in this post.) Britain’s leading socialist thinker from 1890 until his death in 1950. Admired Lenin, Stalin, and Mussolini; praised the U.S.S.R. Opposed Britain’s involvement in both world wars. Not only promoted radical socialism, but used his plays to attack the cultural and economic institutions that held England together: the Christian religion, the institution of marriage, private ownership of property, the free enterprise system.
LEONARD BERNSTEIN, composer for Wonderful Town. The epitome of ‘60s radical chic. Notorious as an uncritical supporter of left-wing causes during the 1960s; his high-society parties to raise money for the Black Panthers were lampooned by Tom Wolfe in his essay “These Radical Chic Evenings.”
Bernstein gets a pass, since the script and the lyrics to the songs in Wonderful Town were written by others, since the music is glorious, and since it’s hard to find anything ideological in this wonderful American musical (the Shaw’s production of which I enthusiastically recommend; see my review).
But the Priestley, Hellman, and Shaw plays positively burst with leftist cant. And Shaw’s anti-capitalist Mrs. Warren’s Profession is yet to come in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season!
If I took account of a playwright’s principles in deciding whether to see a play, I might have given The Little Foxes a pass. But the play had a high reputation, and we had enjoyed Hellman’s The Autumn Garden at the Shaw a couple of years ago.
But my, how that woman hated our country! The Little Foxes is disguised as a character study in greed and selfishness and a portrait of a dysfunctional family; in fact, it is a rant against American capitalism and a barely disguised call for violent revolution.
In The Little Foxes, the already wealthy Hubbard family (Southern merchants and bankers) are trying to round up capital to build a cotton mill in their town.
But the Hubbard brothers and their sister, we learn, are every bit as rapacious and corrupt as the French aristocracy before the French Revolution, or the Russian nobility before the October Revolution of 1917. Hellman wants us to feel that the Hubbards, and the world of American business and finance for which they stand in the play, deserve the same fates as those French and Russian aristocrats.
Consider all the sins and vices Hellman inflicts upon the characters in her play:
The Hubbards were the children of slave-owners, just as many of the Russian aristocracy murdered by the communists in 1917 had owned Russian serfs. Hellman has Ben Hubbard make the offensive comment that he’d put his aging cook out to pasture “if we hadn’t owned her mother.”
The Hubbard brothers got rich by cheating black people on staple goods and by charging them usurious interest. The Hubbards plan to use their political muscle, probably through bribes, to get water rights for the new mill for practically nothing.
Illustrating the Marxist propaganda point that capitalists grind the faces of the poor by turning them against each other, the Hubbard brothers brag that they’ll be able to keep wages low at a new cotton mill by playing the poor whites off against the poor blacks. They assure their new business partner from Chicago that no labor union will ever be allowed to get a foothold in a cotton mill in their town.
An exquisite touch borrowed from Les Miserables: Just as the French aristocrats famously used to put mantraps in their forests to maim peasants who hunted small game to feed their starving families, Oscar Hubbard goes out hunting every morning in his large, privately owned spread and leaves his dead game to rot, even though malnourished townspeople haven’t had meat in months. He promises to have the law against trespassers.
Reinforcing the link to the doomed French and Russian monarchy, Hellman names the sister “Regina.” Preoccupied with fashion and spending money, like Marie Antoinette, she is both the strongest-willed and the most heartless of the siblings. Regina doesn’t hesitate to blackmail her own brothers to get a larger interest in the new cotton mill.
In one of the play’s crudest scenes, Oscar Hubbard encourages his own son, Leo, to steal a packet of valuable bonds from a safe deposit box.
Reminding us again of those inbred monarchical families: the Hubbard brothers and Regina connive to marry Leo to his 17-year-old first cousin, Alexandra. Fortunately, Alexandra despises Leo because of his cruelty to animals, among other reasons.
When Oscar’s wife, Birdie, warns the girl of the matchmaking plot (“don’t you see, they’ll make you marry him, Zan”), Oscar strikes his wife – perhaps the most shocking moment in the play.
Who would defend such people? Wife-beaters, corrupters of children, animal-abusers, cheats, thieves, swindlers, and usurers, bribers, blackmailers, oppressors of the poor, enemies of the working man!
True to Marxist stereotype, Hellman takes care that the only characters in the play with any moral sense are the “oppressed” characters. Oscar’s ill-usage of his wife Birdie has beaten her down and driven her to drink, but she still has enough spirit to become indignant over the way her in-laws “made their money charging awful interest to poor ignorant n***s and cheating them on what they bought.” The Hubbards’ black servant Addie lays out the moral justification for a class-based revolution:
Well , there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. (Softly) Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.
At the end of Hellman’s play, the spunky Alexandra remembers Addie’s remark, flexes her youthful muscles, and sets off to mount the barricades:
Addie said there were people who ate the earth and other people who stood around and watched them do it. And Uncle Ben said the same thing. (Tensely) Well, tell him for me, Mama, I’m not going to stand around and watch you do it. Tell him I’ll fighting as hard as he’ll be fighting some place where people don’t just stand around and watch.
Hellman wants us to understand that the Hubbards are not just small-town characters, but are cut out of the same cloth as the wealthy, despised industrialist tycoons of the day. Driving home the connection, she has Ben Hubbard invoke Henry Frick, the steel magnate (also a noted art collector), in a toast to the success of the cotton mill venture:
It was Henry Frick who said, “Railroads are the Rembrandts of investments.” Well, I say, “Southern cotton mills will be the Rembrandts of investment.”
The Little Foxes lacks integrity. There has always been sharp practice in business, but merchants succeed in the main by being honest, by living up to their contracts, and by giving customers what they promise. The industries founded by Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, and Henry Ford dramatically improved the lives of all Americans, and as philanthropists they gave much of their fortunes back to the public – which can still view Henry Frick’s Rembrandts, Vermeers, and Van Dycks at the art museum (The Frick Collection) he built on Fifth Avenue.
Hellman could have given us an fair picture of a representative slice of the business world, even a sour slice (we think of Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance, produced at the Shaw a few years ago, among many examples). But that never would have served her purpose. She knew that revolution would never come in America unless Americans came to view all capitalists, from Andrew Mellon down to the local cotton merchant, as useless leeches, irredeemably corrupt. She wanted us as fellow revolutionaries.
In The Little Foxes, the Hubbards never get their just deserts; in Hellman’s worldview, justice is not possible in a capitalist society. Her play ends, instead, with the little foxes still on the loose. She leaves the task of bringing them to bay, and setting on the dogs to tear them to pieces, to us.