The question in regard to Lillian Hellman is not so much, What is her place in the American theater? Rather, it’s, Is she even entitled to one?
Since she burst into prominence in 1934 with “The Children’s Hour” and then consolidated her position five years later with “The Little Foxes,” she has had to counter criticisms about turning out “melodramas” disguised as social or political tracts. She has even been castigated for writing “well-made plays,” as if that was a particularly odious thing for a modern playwright to do.
Hellman, a hellcat who was one of the few leftist writers of the 1950s to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee where to stuff it, has always given as good as she got. Back in the early 1940s, she wrote: “I think the word melodrama, in our time, has come to be used in an almost illiterate manner. By definition, it is a violent, dramatic piece with a happy ending. But I think we can add that it uses its violence for no purpose, to point no moral, to say nothing, in say-nothing’s worst sense…. But when violence is actually the needed stuff of the work and comes toward a large enough end, it has been, and always will be, in the good writer’s field.”
If “The Little Foxes” needs any justification, Hellman’s 1942 credo persuasively provides it. The fact is the play is as shapely and contoured as a Queen Anne table and, in the present revival by A Noise Within, just as sturdy. Sound craftsmanship may not have the glamour one associates with the rough masterworks of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, but there is a lot to be said for a dramatist who knows how to assemble a mechanism, push a button and, without faltering or conking out, enable it to deftly circumambulate a stage for 2 1/2 hours.
Hellman is microscopically examining the venality of a Southern family concerned with making a killing in cotton manufacturing in Alabama. But the family and the geographical location are incidental. These are the shifts and lurches of American capitalism dedicated to acquiring profit and using whatever amoral means that may be necessary. The play draws a disturbing parallel between human amorality and the profit motive.
Its arch villainess, only because her hunger for luxury is somewhat greater than others in her family, is, of course, Regina Hubbard — the role that made Tallulah Bankhead famous and to which her coarse and guttural deviousness was perfectly suited. Deborah Strang has all of Tallulah’s Medea-like vindictiveness and is riveting throughout, as is the entire cast in what turns out to be one of A Noise Within’s most accomplished productions. The directors are Julia Rodriguez and Geoff Elliott.
Hellman, admittedly with Dashiell Hammett’s help and her own obsessive desire to make a mark, produced some high-grade pulp fiction for the stage. The question arising from her work (and it’s as relevant to Hammett’s work as it is to Hellman’s) is, Can cunningly assembled fabrications rise to the level of art? Whatever the answer to that question may be, there is no question they can rise to the level of first-class entertainment. Maybe that’s high enough.
The other item in A Noise Within’s current season is Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” I find that productions at A Noise Within invariably impose a double standard which does not pertain elsewhere. The company is a splendid incongruity in the purlieus of Los Angeles. In eight years, it has managed to maintain a consistently stimulating repertoire with a core group of actors, some of whom have grown — others who haven’t. The presence of a committed classical company in Glendale not only warms the cockles of one’s heart but fires one’s hopes that one day it may turn into something theatrically significant in addition to being simply culturally worthy.
But on occasion, a certain niggling candor forces me to tear the veil of optimistic aspiration from my eyes and confront the company’s efforts without illusion, and I experienced just such an impulse in regard to their “Much Ado.”
Sabin Epstein’s production is as straight as a billiard cue, although nothing like as smooth. It is Shakespeare ladled out from a large tureen in which particles of Molière, Jonson, Wycherley, Congreve, Dickens, Chekhov, Coward and Shaw bubblingly intermingle. A Noise Within provides an Automat of classics rather than servings of haute cuisine in a five-star restaurant — but, almost always, there is a blue-plate special that justifies the repast.
In “Much Ado,” it is Mark Bramhall’s grisly, long-in-the-tooth Benedict — a performance sparked by comic zest, playful mood swings and perfect control of Shakespearean text. Bramhall, being slightly superannuated for Benedict, suggests that his habitual raillery against marriage is beginning to wear thin in a man who is secretly tiring of the bachelor life. And there is also Alan Blumenfeld’s Dogberry, the pompous, malapropian constable whose moral vigilance could easily qualify him as Kenneth Starr’s sergeant-at-arms. Blumenfeld is like an uninhibited “stand-up” doing his act in the middle of the reading room of the British Museum. It is a performance that swings and soars with comic hyperbole in a context which otherwise seems to militate against effusiveness. But surrounding these two distinctive performances is a charmless and remorselessly sardonic Beatrice from Jenna Cole, a gormless and wooden Leanato from Tim Halligan, and half a dozen other portrayals that float like debris around a fragile life raft which contains only a few lucky survivors.
So again, one pads down the winding stairwells of the monumental Masonic mausoleum that houses A Noise Within, thankful they are there, persevering, prospering, their heart in the right place and their goals diligently pursued, but silently wishing that they forsake the beaten path and come to realize that a classic is not a free ride into the realms of high art, but a treacherous summit which has to be reached with skill, insight and ingenuity as well as high ambition.
Charles Marowitz is theater critic for The Jewish Journal