“Well, there are people who eat the earth and all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.”
— Lillian Hellman, “The Little Foxes”
Playwright and author Lillian Hellman, by any accounts I have read about her, was a tough lady. She forced audiences to take a look at issues that may have had some people squirming in their seats. “The Children’s Hour” (1934) dealt with the devastating impact of a false accusation of lesbianism on two teachers. “Watch On the Rhine” (1941) brought the specter of Nazi menace into a quiet country home outside of Washington, D.C. “The Searching Wind” (1944) was an indictment of anti-Semitism. A woman’s incestuous yearning for her ne’er-do-well brother lurked uneasily beneath the general family dysfunction in “Toys In the Attic” (1960), a work that Hellman stated had autobiographical roots.
Her career as a screenwriter ended when she refused to talk about anyone other than herself before the House Un-American Activities Committee after right wing anti-communist hysterics seeped into the film industry.
“If I had ever seen any (subversion) I would have considered it my duty to have reported it to the proper authorities. But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” she wrote to HUAC members in 1952.
A quarter century would pass before Hellman was accepted back into “respectability” by the movie industry. She acerbically defined Hollywood respectability during an emotional speech at the 1977 Oscar ceremony as, “taking a daily bath when I was sober, not spitting except when I meant to, and mispronouncing a few words of fancy French.”
“The Little Foxes,” which opened in 1939, is probably her most widely remembered and often revived work. Hellman drew her title from a quote in the Bible: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.”
“The Little Foxes” is my favorite American play. (I understand that statement might give the reader the impression that I have a vast knowledge of international plays. Let me assure you, I don’t.) It is a story of moral corruption and the lengths to which a greedy, parasitic family will go to achieve wealth and power; themes that are certainly as relevant and resonant today as they were when the curtain rose at the National Theatre in New York in 1939. Perhaps even more so.
I was reminded of the lines quoted at the head of this column by an interview published in the Wall Street Journal with Charles Koch, the fossil fuel magnate who reigns over the second largest privately owned business in America. (His brother, David, died last year.) Almost everything about Koch Industries is shrouded in secrecy. Inquiries are met with silence because of its status as a “private company.” One thing, however, is crystal clear. There are probably no two people who have caused so much misery, imperiled so much of our planet’s future viability, or operated with such impunity as the Koch brothers, each of whom is now estimated to be worth more than $40 billion.
Charles Koch is the living embodiment of the fox metaphor in the Song of Solomon. He and his cohorts have been laying waste to our vineyards for decades; setting up and funding a national network of so-called think tanks stocked by compensated sycophants who spread Koch-flavored propaganda by pandering to conservatives’ abhorrence for anything that smacks of regulation.
Mr. Koch calls himself a libertarian and the bedrock of the libertarian philosophy, at least as it applies to business, seems to be that corporations unencumbered by rules and restrictions can be depended upon to do the right and responsible thing. That gargantuan fallacy should be considered the Mount Everest of naivety. Cancer wards and cemeteries are full of people who believed it.
In a scathing expose in Rolling Stone magazine, Tim Dickinson wrote: “The volume of Koch Industries’ toxic output is staggering. According to the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute, only three companies rank among the top 30 polluters of America’s air, water and climate: ExxonMobil, American Electric Power, and Koch Industries. Koch Industries dumps more pollutants into the nation’s waterways than General Electric and International Paper combined. The company ranks 13th in the nation for toxic air pollution. Koch’s climate pollution, meanwhile, outpaces oil giants including Valero, Chevron and Shell. Across its businesses, Koch generates 24 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year.”
But now (get this), Mr. Koch claims to have seen the error of his ways. A man who has given millions to Republican candidates who then actively impeded any effort to seriously address climate change, the most pressing — and potentially catastrophic — problem in the world today, has experienced a kumbaya moment and wants to end the destructive and divisive culture in America that he has so vigorously encouraged and financed for half a century. It is hard to know whether to just laugh or to be even more on our guard.
Men with the enormous wealth accumulated by David and Charles Koch invariably get things named after them. There is a David H. Koch Theater in the Lincoln Center complex in Manhattan. It’s a fair bet, however, that if Lillian Hellman was still alive, you would never see her setting foot in it.