Left-wing ideology (again) in Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday

We’re tired of being assured by essayists in theater programs that the vintage plays we’re about to see are still “relevant”.  Why wouldn’t they be? Why would any great play lose its “relevance”?  Human nature doesn’t change from one century to the next, and what else is a great play about?

But sometimes a play’s “relevance” jumps up and barks in your face.  When we heard the following lines a couple of weeks ago at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-in-the-Lake, Ontario) in the opening scene of Born Yesterday (first produced in 1946), we thought for a moment that a few new lines might have been specially added to the script.   Here’s a Washington journalist (Paul Verrall) talking to a Washington hotel maid (Helen):

Helen: Changed much, do you think?
Paul: What?
Helen: Washington?
Paul: Not enough. I could stand a little more change. The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.

This made us think immediately about the President who swept into office as the candidate of “change”.   How many Americans who voted to elect Barack Obama are wondering why it is that, six months later, our troops are still in Iraq, the cabinet still includes George W. Bush’s Obama changeSecretary of Defense, Hillary Clinton’s in charge of foreign policy, there’s been a “surge” in the war in Afghanistan, the prison at Guantanamo is still full, and the federal deficit has tripled in only six months?!?

A “little more change,” indeed!

But what a curious line playwright Garson Kanin (writing at the end of 1945) put in the mouth of Paul Verrall: “The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.”  Did Verrall really think the idea of the war was to bring about change?  What other agenda for the second World War was there but to defeat fascist aggression?

In fact, in 1945 the far left was thinking opportunistically, much like Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, that “you don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste.”  The ruin left by the war gave the left an opening to push through a long list of socialist programs, and in Britain and other European countries that’s mostly what they got. Paul Verrall’s complaint (presumably his creator Garson Kanin’s as well) was that the government was wasting its chance to do something radical in Washington.

Garson Kanin

Garson Kanin

Now Emsworth hasn’t succeeded in learning anything in particular about Garson Kanin’s politics.  They never seem to have made much of a splash, unlike the views of Lillian Hellman, J. B. Priestley, Leonard Bernstein, and of course Bernard Shaw, all people of the left, all admirers of the Soviet Union in their day, and all artists whose work has been at the Shaw Festival the last couple of seasons.

But we can gather something of Kanin’s ideology from Born Yesterday.  It’s a brilliant comedy. But embedded in it is as much leftist propaganda as in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (as we catalogued in this post after seeing the play at the Shaw Festival last year) and J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (which we dissected in this post after seeing that play at the Shaw last summer). 

Helen: Listen, you know what they charge for this layout?
Paul: Two hundred and thirty-five a day. [This was 1946; Harry Brock had rented a hotel suite that would probably cost $5,000 a day in 2009.]
Helen: Listen, anybody’s got two hundred and thirty-five dollars a day to spend on a hotel room there ought to be a law.
Paul: Too many laws already.
Helen: While I’m getting eighteen a week I don’t see why anybody should spend two hundred and thirty-five a day.
Paul: For a hotel room.
Helen: That’s what I say.
Paul (smiling). I know some people who’d call you a communist.
Helen (darkly). Tell them I’m thinking about it. Seriously.

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman

We hate to sound like a broken record, but Born Yesterday leans on the same leftist themes of “class struggle” and capitalist venality as the Hellman and Priestley plays. Harry Brock in Born Yesterday is a corrupt business tycoon who’s made a fortune, not by building a better mousetrap, but by ruthlessly stomping out competition.  Like Ben Hubbard in The Little Foxes, he’s an enemy of the working man — his mistress Billie Dawn casually lets it slip that Harry actually arranged the murder of a labor agitator who was trying to organize a union.  And like Ben Hubbard, Harry gets ahead by bribing public officials to eliminate competition. 

Daily_WorkerYet in his play, Garson Kanin has Harry Brock claim that he’s a champion of “free enterprise.”  Harry was actually just the opposite; monopolization and thuggery are enemies of free-market capitalism. But the radical left had a stereotype to promote — the capitalist as corrupt and brutish — and that’s what Kanin made Harry Brock. Harry might as well have been one of the cartoon capitalists in The Daily Worker.

We’re not aware of any direct evidence that these left-leaning playwrights were consciously parrotting a prescribed party line in their plays. Yet how curiously similar are some of the speeches in The Little Foxes, An Inspector Calls, and Born Yesterday! Here’s Addie in Hellman’s The Little Foxes:

Addie: “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.

Here’s the Inspector in An Inspector Calls:

Birling: “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth.”

The Inspector: “They might. But after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.”

And here’s Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday:

Billie: Well, all this stuff I’ve been reading — all that Paul’s been telling me . . . All of a sudden I realized what it means. How some people are always giving it and Soviet mansome taking. And it’s not fair. So I’m not going to let you any more. Or anybody else.

Talk about sticking to your talking points! Was Garson Kanin, like Hellman and Priestley, hoping for the day when Marxist revolution would come to the United States and Britain as it had in Russia? We don’t know, but consider one of the last lines in Born Yesterday, after Harry Brock is roundly defeated:

Brock (to Devery): What’s goin’ on around here?
Devey: A revolution.

Not enough color at the Shaw Festival?

(October 2008) To his dismay, Emsworth has belatedly learned that the diversity police have been hectoring Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, for not bringing more actors of color, more directors of color, and more plays by playwrights of color, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The hue and cry is being led by one Andrew Moodie, who is apparently a Canadian playwright of some distinction. (Emsworth makes no pretense of being up on contemporary theater, especially in Canada.) Moodie’s campaign, which he calls “Share the Stage,” was seconded not long ago by J. Kelly Nestruck, the redoubtable theater critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, who claims he was “suddenly struck” earlier this year with how “white” the Shaw’s company was.

The wedge here is the Shaw Festival’s friendly competition with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an institution which Nestruck patronizingly says is now up to snuff, diversity-wise.  Jackie Maxwell gets credit for “gender diversity” (what an dreadful phrase!) at the Shaw Festival, but they’re blaming her for not trying hard enough on race.

Well, now — how is she to do this at the Shaw Festival? It’s an institution whose every season is anchored around two plays by Bernard Shaw himself, a white guy who wrote plays about white folks. And all its plays (per the Festival’s “mandate”) are supposed to have been written, or at least set, during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

We pause for historical reflection.  Here in Rochester, we’re steeped in the American suffrage movement, because Susan B. Anthony lived here and her 19th-century home, now a museum, is here.  History tells us that before the Civil War, abolitionists and suffragettes made common cause.

But Anthony’s relationship with Douglass (together again in bronze in a Rochester park) cooled when black leaders wanted to put women’s rights on hold while civil rights for black people were being consolidated. So there’s a tiny touch of irony when Jackie Maxwell is accused with putting racial diversity on the back burner now that she has gotten “gender diversity” at the Shaw.

There are plenty of new plays by and about people of color. But unless they’re set before 1950, they’re not plays that the Shaw does. So how, exactly, is the Shaw Festival supposed to diversify, color-wise?

Well, Moodie and Nestruck want the Shaw Festival to feature more actors of color in plays by Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward. After all, when The Glass Menagerie is played in Bombay, doesn’t it have an Indian cast? When they do Blithe Spirit in Lagos, isn’t the cast Nigerian? There are people of all ethnic backgrounds in Ontario (as in New York State). So if Denzel Washington can play Brutus (see the picture above, with Stratford Festival veteran Colm Feore, in the foreground, as Cassius, in a Washington, D.C. production last year), why can’t there be a black Undershaft at the Shaw Festival?

If that were to be, Emsworth would nominate Derrick Lee Weeden. On the basis of his breath-taking performance as Othello at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater last winter (with Paul Niebanck as Iago), Emsworth ranks Weeden with the best actors we’ve seen in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, not excluding Christopher Plummer or the late William Hutt. But Weeden is, regrettably, not part of the Shaw’s repertory company, and the Shaw Festival is at a disadvantage in trying to recruit an actor of his ability. (He’s acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years; see this link.) The Shaw Festival doesn’t do either Shakespeare or contemporary plays, and from 1856 to 1950, there just weren’t that many important plays written by or about people of color.

There’s no reason why actors of color can’t be cast in many Shaw plays, as indeed they sometimes are. As Mr. Nestruck points out, Nikki M. James has one of the lead roles in Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival this season. But in many cases, color-blind casting in a Shaw play would tend to confuse audiences and to distort social relationships that are at the heart of the plays.

And many Shaw plays are largely concerned with subtle gradations of class, and with interactions between English people of different ranks of life. Pygmalion is the story of a poor flower girl who encounters a rich, upper-class intellectual. Getting Married (one of the highlights of the Shaw’s 2008 season, highly recommended by Emsworth) has a lot to do with a lower-middle-class greengrocer’s relationship with the family of an English bishop.

The precision with which Shaw sketched class relationships in his plays is at the core of his genius. So how disorienting would it be for audiences if a person of color were cast as either the greengrocer or the bishop in Getting Married? In 1902, could a black greengrocer possibly have been on such familiar terms with an upper-class white family? — we’d be asking ourselves. Or would a white greengrocer really relate in such a way to a black English bishop and his wife? The didactic Bernard Shaw fervently wanted people to think about his plays — but those are not the questions Shaw wanted his audiences to be asking. A director shouldn’t interject race where it would confuse.

Or take Mrs. Warren’s Profession, also at the Shaw Festival this year (see the Emsworth review). The most interesting relationships in the play are between Mrs. Warren, the former courtesan with lower-class origins, and her middle- and upper-class friends (and former clients) in the aristocracy, the arts, and the church. What would happen to the already challenging social dynamics of these relationships if either Mrs. Warren or the men were black actors? Indeed, since the paternity of Mrs. Warren’s daughter is in question, how would it be anything but confusing if all these actors were not of the same race?

Race is already an element in many American plays that the Shaw Festival performs, just as it is in many plays by contemporary black playwrights (like Mr. Moodie, one assumes). Where a character’s ethnicity is part of the play, an ethnically appropriate actor is needed. Would anyone cast a white actor in an August Wilson play? Of course not — black actors are needed to portray African-American culture. Mr. Moodie says one of his plays wasn’t considered by the Shaw Festival because it called for more black actors than the Shaw could muster. I’m betting that Mr. Moodie wouldn’t be happy if white actors were cast to play black characters in his plays.

In The Little Foxes, playing this year at the Shaw Festival, Lillian Hellman’s key lines about the Hubbard family’s exploitation of black people wouldn’t make much sense if the actors portraying the Hubbards were themselves black. On stage, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make sense unless Atticus Finch looks like a white man and Tom Robinson looks like a black man. In fact, since interracial marriage was rare in England and North America before 1950, casting a husband and wife as persons of different races in Shaw-era plays would often be jarring and incongruous.

Mr. Moodie and Mr. Nestruck might argue that audiences today simply overlook an actor’s skin color. Maybe so. After all, every theater performance requires an audience to suspend disbelief to one degree or another.

But a director needs to be careful how far she imposes on audiences. As I commented in an earlier post, one of the problems with Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival this year was the director’s decision to make both sets of parents of Romeo and Juliet mixed-race couples. It was a seriously distracting element.

Theater is visual, and appearance has always mattered in casting. We audiences strain if an actor doesn’t look the part. We wouldn’t buy the Shaw Festival’s Michael Ball as Jack Tanner, because he’s too old. We wouldn’t buy Deborah Hay as Tanner, either; she’s too female. (But at the Stratford Festival next year, we’re going to buy Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell!) We don’t buy Eliza Doolittle unless she’s truly pretty enough to dazzle a prince at the Embassy Ball.

Ethnic appearance won’t be important for every Shaw-era play or character, but it matters often enough that a director usually has little discretion as to the racial composition of her cast. Sometimes, of course, the question of race can be neutralized by choosing all-black casts, as was done, apparently with success, for a recent Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, among other distinguished black actors. Could the Shaw Festival mount an all-black production of Private Lives or Waiting for Godot? It could happen, one supposes — they’re plays with small casts.

But in general, the Shaw Festival’s perennial need for a relatively large company of white actors will tend to preclude all-black casts. To Emsworth’s sorrow, for the late August Wilson, a fellow native of western Pennsylvania, is one of his favorite playwrights, that probably means that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, plays comfortably within the Shaw Festival’s mandate, aren’t likely to be presented there. But you can’t have everything everywhere.

Couldn’t the Shaw Festival hire well-known actors of color for particular productions? That’s not its policy. The Shaw Festival casts from its own repertory company. So even if Morgan Freeman were willing to commit several months to acting in Niagara-on-the-Lake (don’t we wish!), it’s not the Shaw’s practice to bring in “stars” to play lead roles. Should the Shaw Festival redefine itself or change its policies to placate the diversity establishment? This member doesn’t think so.

Left-wing playwrights at the Shaw Festival (comment on The Little Foxes)

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.

An Inspector Calls and old-fashioned propaganda at the Shaw Festival

On their face, how could two plays be more different than An Inspector Calls and The Little Foxes?  (Both are in repertory at the Shaw Festival throughout its 2008 season; I review An Inspector Calls in this post and The Little Foxes in this post)  In one play, a police detective explores the life and untimely death of a young woman in an English industrial town; the other deals with greed and infighting in an Alabama family.

Yet these plays — a British mystery classic and a classic American drama — were cut from the same cloth. They have parallel plots, parallel themes, even parallel characters.

Two capitalist families

In The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman gives us the Hubbards, a family of Alabama cotton merchants whose money has still not given them a unsatisfactory social position.

In An Inspector Calls, written only six years later, J. B. Priestley gives us the Hubbards’ English counterparts, the Birlings, a family of manufacturers in an English industrial town. The Birlings’ money has still not given them a unsatisfactory social position.

Two unholy business alliances

Each play begins with a dinner party. In The Little Foxes, the Hubbards are toasting a proposed business alliance with an industrialist from Chicago. The new partners count on avoiding the labor agitation that plagues industry in the north by building a cotton mill in the Hubbards’ southern town.

At the dinner party in An Inspector Calls, the Birlings are also celebrating a business alliance, the engagement of their daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son of their principal business competitor. Arthur Birling and Croft expect the marriage alliance to lead to business understandings that will yield higher prices and suppression of labor agitation.

Two lead characters motivated by social ambition

In The Little Foxes, Regina Hubbard intends to leverage her new business relationship into a prominent social position in Chicago society.

Similarly, An Inspector Calls finds Arthur Birling angling for a knighthood.  With a title and a connection with the socially superior Crofts, he hopes to vault into the upper echelons of English society.

Two sons

Each family has a dissolute son in his early twenties. Leo Hubbard works in his uncle Horace’s bank and embezzles. Eric Birling works in his father’s office, drinks, and embezzles. Both young men patronize brothels.

Two daughters

Each family has a daughter in her late teens. The Hubbards plan to marry Alexandra off to her wastrel cousin Leo to keep all the money in the family.  Alexandra is the only member of the family with a moral or social conscience (her aunt Birdie has strong humane instincts, but she is one of the Hubbards’ victims, not properly a family member).

The Birlings plan to marry Sheila Birling off to the son of a competitor to consolidate their financial and social standing. Sheila is the only one of the Birlings with much of a conscience; she sees that her father’s factory workers “aren’t cheap labour — they’re people.”

Two indictments

Each of these two plays indicts a capitalist family on multiple counts of crimes both personal and social.

By the end of The Little Foxes, we know that the Hubbards strike their women, teach their sons to steal, hunt for sport while the poor go hungry, beat their horses, keep mistresses, blackmail one another, cheat black folk, charge usury, corrupt public officials, and beat down attempts by working people to organize. (I complain about Lillian Hellman’s use of the Hubbards as whipping boys for American capitalism in this post.)

Initially, the Birlings seem far less dreadful. We learn, however (as do the characters themselves), that they are guilty of the same sorts of crimes.  Arthur Birling has discharged and blackballed a factory employee for having the temerity to ask for two shillings more per week (think Oliver Twist) and trying to organize a strike. Sheila Birling gets the same unfortunate girl discharged from a job as a shopgirl for looking at her the wrong way. Crofts, the future son-in-law, finds the girl unemployed and hungry, makes her his mistress, then abandons her.  Then the Birlings’ wastrel son meets her, now a prostitute, uses her, and gets her pregnant.  At the end of her rope, the girl seeks charity from a private aid society controlled by Mrs. Birling, who turns her away.

Two soap boxes

Each playwright divides the world neatly into those who take and those who are taken from.  In The Little Foxes:

Addie: “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.

In An Inspector Calls:

Birling: “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth.”

The Inspector: “They might. But after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.”

Putting out somebody’s talking points

In an otherwise excellent essay in the program for the Shaw Festival‘s production of An Inspector Calls, Professor John Baxendale softpedals the play’s political implications.  Far from implicitly condoning violent Soviet-style revolution, he says, Priestley was not even promoting his political party’s radical legislative agenda.  The essay maintains that Priestley was merely seeking to foster feelings of mutual responsibility among his countrymen.

The play is not about social reform [says Professor Baxendale], better health care or full employment, important though these things are, but about a vision of how life could be different if we acknowledge the truth that we are all members of one another.

Indeed, at first blush that seems to be what the Inspector is saying when he deliveres his grand, melodramatic, climactic speech:

One Eva Smith has gone — but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their hopes and fears, their suffering, and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.

But warm fuzzy communal feelings and private charity were not what either J. B. Priestley or Lillian Hellman were about.  Nor did they have in mind the Biblical admonition to “love thy neighbor”; nothing could have been further from Priestley’s mind than the Christian communalism of the second chapter of Acts.

His message, instead, was that if Britain and America refused to accept socialism, bloody times were ahead, and mercy could not be expected.  And so Priestley ended the Inspector’s grand lecture with exactly such a grim warning:

We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.

Professor Baxendale asserts that the Inspector’s “fire and blood” language refers to the two world wars, rather than to revolutionary violence, but this is not a fair reading.  Priestley made no attempt in this play to disguise his admiration for Soviet socialism.  In explaining the methods of the Inspector to her family, Priestley has Sheila Birling allude explicitly to Lenin’s famous boast about capitalist rope when she says, “No, he’s giving us rope — so that we’ll hang ourselves.”

One can almost believe that these two extraordinarily talented dramatists, Hellman and Priestley, were working from a list of Marxist “talking points” for their plays:

* Portray all capitalists as instinctive monopolists and enemies of organized labor
*Caricature capitalists as holding extreme, selfish, individualist points of view
*Portray them as willing to pimp their own daughters for gain
*Portray their sons as thieves and as sexually ravenous
*Portray private charitable institutions (like Mrs. Birling’s) as corrupt and degrading
*Portray private ownership of land as unjust
*Show the world as divided into “us” (the worker class) versus “them” (the capitalist class)

Little wonder that An Inspector Calls and The Little Foxes turned out to be practically the same play!

Priestley preached the party line that capitalists were on the wrong side of history and that Soviet-style socialism represented the best hope for mankind.  Early in An Inspector Calls, set in 1912, he has Arthur Birling complacently telling his family how nicely the world is shaping up.  There’s no war coming, he says, just “a few scaremongers here making a fuss about nothing.” Look at the new aeroplanes, look at the automobiles, “bigger and faster all the time,” look at the huge new ocean liner set to sail the next week, the Titanic. In thirty years, Birling assures his family, labor troubles will be a thing of the past, and the world will have forgotten “all these silly little war scares.”

Writing in 1945, Priestley expected his audience to smile sadly at Birling’s unfilled prophecies. How short-sighted Birling and the capitalists were, we are to think!  And not only that: Birling was predicting “peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere — except of course in Russia, which will always be behindhand, naturally.”  Wrong about the Titanic, wrong about Russia!

In fact, Priestley was worse than a poor prophet; he failed to see what was before his own eyes. Like so many other fellow travelers, Priestley believed that the great socialist experiment in the U.S.S.R. had already succeeded; in fact, the blood of millions in eastern Europe had been shed only to sustain a brutal Soviet regime in which the tyrannical old bosses had been replaced by murderous new bosses.

In his preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession (also part of the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, but not scheduled to open till early July), Shaw was forthright about what he intended to accomplish in his plays: “I am convinced that fine art is the subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective means of moral propagandism in the world . . . .”  In An Inspector Calls, J. B. Priestley proved himself Shaw’s staunch disciple.

See my review of the Shaw Festival’s production of An Inspector Calls in this post.

See my review of the Shaw Festival’s production of The Little Foxes in this post.

The Little Foxes at the Shaw Festival (a review)

(June 16, 2008) What a difference a director seems to make! At the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), the cast of The Little Foxes is practically the same as the cast of Getting Married (six actors appear in both plays). (I review Getting Married in another post.) In the Shaw comedy, everything comes off like clockwork, and the fun never stops. But the Lillian Hellman drama leaves you waiting for a climax that never really comes.

Emsworth previews the shows on the 2009 Shaw Festival playbill at this post.

I have already complained at length about the ferocious Stalinist ideology of The Little Foxes in this post; in another I have griped about the holes in Hellman’s plot. Despite these objections, the play is a near-masterpiece. Hellman’s characters are frighteningly real, every word in the script tells, and the story builds to what ought to be a shocking denoument.

But not in this production. For the first half of the play (by far the best half) the great questions are whether Horace Gibbens is really going to come home to the nest of snakes that is the Hubbard family (his wife Regina and her brothers Ben and Oscar), and whether he will go along with the siblings’ scheme that he join them in investing $75,000 into a new cotton mill business. When Horace finally does come home, disabled in body but determined to frustrate the machinations of his wife and her brothers, the lines are drawn, and we all brace for heavy weather.

But just when you expect to be squirming in your seats and wiping your perspiring palms on your pants, this production lets you down. Laurie Paton, who is Regina, is an outstanding actress, but here she neither looks or acts like the Jezebel she is supposed to be playing; she looks too pleasant. Nor does David Jansen, as the likeable and sympathetic Horace, project the steely resolve needed for him to win the war of wills with his wife. Between these two sparks do not fly, and in their scenes together the tension does not build.

And so, at the play’s climax, we are not nearly as afraid for Horace, or for his and Regina’s uncorrupted daughter Alexandra (Krista Colosimo), or for any of the other characters, as the playwright wanted us to be. Nor, for a play with harsh political overtones, are we fearful for America, as Lillian Hellman fervently wanted us to be. As for Alexandra, who represents Hellman’s hope for revolution and a more “just” America, Ms. Colosimo is made to deliver all of Hellman’s shrill, socialist soapbox lines at the end of the play at the same high pitch.

I cannot see Peter Krantz, a Shaw Festival regular who plays Oscar Hubbard in The Little Foxes, on the stages of the Shaw Festival without a return of the visceral feelings that he aroused in those that saw him as the predatory pervert in the Shaw Festival’s production of The Coronation Voyage several years ago. My reaction is quite unfair to Mr. Krantz, and after seeing him in Getting Married as the sympathetic, comic Boxer, I thought I might have shaken this unfortunate association. But his character in The Little Foxes is every bit as repulsive as his character in The Coronation Voyage, and as Oscar Hubbard he quite undid the salutory effect of his portrayal of Boxer.

The veteran Shaw actress Sharry Flett is simply wonderful in The Little Foxes as the gentle, abused, alcoholic, but still hopeful Birdie Hubbard (Oscar’s wife). She inspires both our pity and our affection, and the scenes in which she is disrespected or worse are exquisitely rendered. The Shaw’s production is worth seeing for her performance alone. Also highly satisfactory is Lisa Codrington in the meaningful and thematically important role of Addie.

For more about the storyline of The Little Foxes, see this post. For comment on the political implications of The Little Foxes, see this post.

The Shaw Festival’s production of Terence Rattigan’s outstanding 1943 play After the Dance is reviewed in this post.

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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