The Little Foxes Don’t Add Up (comment on the Shaw Festival play)

No one expects plays to have air-tight plots. But the premise of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (currently playing at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and reviewed in another of my posts) is all full of holes.

As the play opens, the Hubbards (Ben Hubbard, Oscar Hubbard, and their married sister Regina Gibbens, played by Tallulah Bankhead in the original 1939 show) are planning to go into business with a business mogul from Chicago (Marshall) to build a cotton mill in their Mississippi town. They believe that a mill located so close to the cotton fields (this is 1900) will make them all rich.

Marshall is to put up the lion’s share of the money ($400,000), but has agreed to accept a mere 49 percent interest in the business. For the remaining 51 percent, the three Hubbards will put up only $225,000 (each will invest one-third of that sum, or $75,000), although they are expected to use their local political clout (and bribes, we assume) to get water rights for the mill.

So when they incorporate, Marshall will get 49 percent of the stock, and each of the Hubbards will receive 16.33 percent in return for their $75,000 investments. (Could Lillian Hellman have really thought the average theater-goer would be able to keep all these percentages and figures straight?)

As the play unfolds, the siblings are jostling for position. Ben and Oscar are nervous because Regina’s husband Horace is away in Baltimore and hasn’t yet committed to putting in their $75,000 share. Regina tells her brothers that Horace is holding out for a bigger share of the new business. Ben is agreeable, so long as it comes out of Oscar’s share, not his. A sordid tale of intra-familial extortion and blackmail unfolds.

There are two glaring problems with this storyline.

First, why would an experienced investor like Marshall agree to put so much money into an enterprise a thousand miles away from his home, in return for a mere minority interest? With business interests in Chicago and New England, Marshall won’t have much time to spend in Mississippi keeping an eye on his investment. And we know enough about the unscrupulous Hubbards to be sure they’ll take advantage of their controlling interest.

Given control of the company, the Hubbards will rape it. They’ll make all their friends and relatives highly paid vice-presidents. (In the play, Oscar is already demanding that his son Leo be “taken care of.”) They’ll make sweetheart deals with local businesses and take kickbacks.

So why would Marshall agree to let the Hubbards have 51 percent of the company, knowing that the Hubbards would surely see to it that no dividends are even paid? A shrewd man of business like Marshall would never let himself get into such a situation.

Equally implausible is the notion that any of the grasping Hubbards would ever part with $75,000 in return for a mere 16.33 percent interest in the business. The idea, of course, is that together the siblings would have a controlling interest. But the family alliance would be dangerously unstable. Any of the Hubbards could desert the family at any time for a new alliance with Marshall.

None of the Hubbards trusts any of the others. So why would Ben Hubbard, the savviest of the Hubbards, invest $75,000 knowing that it would be possible for either the treacherous Regina or Oscar to pool a 16.33 percent interest with Marshall’s 49 percent interest to give the two of them majority control? If that happened, Ben and Oscar would be squeezed out of management, and Marshall and Regina would take all the profits of the business.

None of these characters would be so naive as to enter into such a precarious business arrangement.

If I were defending Hellman against charges of a badly conceived plot, I might argue that the playwright did, indeed, expect the Hubbards to get their comeuppance (after the play ends) through Marshall’s allying with (say) Oscar to gain control of the cotton mill. (Hellman never wrote a sequel to 1939’s The Little Foxes, although she did write a pre-quel, Another Part of the Forest, produced in 1946.)

But Hellman surely never had any such thing in mind. First, she despised Marshall as much as she despised the Hubbards. Second, she made the Hubbards all equally despicable, so that a scenario in which one of the Hubbards might ultimately out-maneuver the others would undercut the moral of the play. Hellman’s plan (as explained in my earlier post) was never for these capitalist dogs to cannibalize each other, but for the masses to rise up and slaughter them all in the streets.

There is no good explanation. Perhaps Hellman simply didn’t understand the dynamics of corporate control. More likely, in her ideological zeal, she simply failed to notice that the business arrangement on which her plot turns was unrealistic.

Published in: on June 12, 2008 at 11:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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