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September 21, 2018 by

A Forgotten Lillian Hellman Play That Deserves Another Chance

Set in a small town in Ohio and revolving around a workers’ strike at a brush factory, Lillian Hellman’s little-known play, “Days to Come,” was a resounding flop when it debuted on Broadway in 1936. Hellman, who had enjoyed great acclaim for her first play, “The Children’s Hour,” went on to even wider success and fame with her next play, “The Little Foxes.” 

But at the opening night of this one, her second-born, as she recalled in her 1973 memoir “Pentimento,” she stood at the back of the theater, sensed that things were going wrong, and vomited. Then she saw William Randolph Hearst and his six guests walk out during the second act. Bad reviews and a quick closing followed.

 

So anyone considering the new off-Broadway production at the Beckett Theater at Theater Row might approach it with a little trepidation. But that’s not necessary.

The play turns out to be a complicated but riveting drama that explores the issues of money and morality, family relationships, social justice and women’s place in society—issues that Hellman often pursued in her writing and that resonate today.

She grew up in a Southern Jewish family, where she perhaps acquired her passion for justice, and became–despite her flaws and contradictions–a beacon for many feminists and left-wing reformers. This new revival, presented by the Mint Theater Company, which specializes in resuscitating forgotten plays uses a 1971 version of the play to which the playwright made “small revisions and emendations.” This version was first used off-Broadway in 1978, the play’s only other New York revival, to a much warmer reception–though the initial disaster is better remembered.

The Mint Theater production, which has been extended to run through Oct. 6, invites another look not just at the drama itself but at Hellman’s whole career, which contained the same kinds of ambiguities and complexities that distressed critics and audiences 82 years ago.

One element that is rarely discussed is Hellman’s depiction of women. She made their roles important in “Days to Come,” a play that could easily have focused almost entirely on men, since they are the ones running the brush factory, striking against it, and called in by the owners to break the strike with violence. The whole play could be about them. But Hellman instead makes it a family affair, which is part of what left many 1936 theatergoers confused and unsatisfied. They were expecting a different kind of play (as did some critics of the current production). And left-wing admirers of Hellman’s political views were likely expecting a definitive pro-labor outcome, which Hellman was unwilling to provide. 

Most of the action takes place in the living room of the Hubbard family, which owns the factory. The first scene shows the housekeeper, Hannah (Kim Martin-Cotten), demanding that a maid, Lucy (Betsy Hogg), hand over her wages because “the boys need it.” We learn that Hannah, a strong-willed and forthright woman, is referring to the strikers, and that she is also stealing food from the Hubbards to feed the long-suffering strikers, as she boldly admits later on. She is an unambiguous hero.

The most prominent female character is Julie Rodman (Janie Brookshire), whose husband, the willfully naive Andrew (Larry Bull), has just authorized the hiring of a gang of strike-breakers. He seems to be the only person who thinks the new guys will step in to make brushes, while everyone else realizes they are there to make life even more miserable for the workers.

Julie is a wandering soul, both literally (she takes frequent long walks) and figuratively (her life has no direction). Julie, who is practiced at having affairs (as was Hellman, who openly had numerous lovers despite an early marriage and a 30-year relationship with Dashiell Hammett, an active lover himself), sympathizes with the workers and ends up falling for Leo Whalen (Roderick Hill), the union organizer guiding and aiding the strikers. She wants to help him, but the way she manifests it is by offering herself sexually during a surreptitious visit, unwittingly bringing grave danger to many people.

Toward the end, Hellman allows Julie to explain her reckless behavior, and she starts out sounding like an awakening feminist. “I didn’t want to marry. I didn’t want to live here. I wanted to make something for myself, something that would be right for me,” she tells her husband and others in her living room.. “I took the wrong way. But I thought someday I might find somebody who–”

Well, not so feminist. But also true to the times, and still a way of thinking for many women, who rely on finding the right partner to lead them to what they desire rather than making it for themselves. Yet feminism doesn’t preclude partnership, after al. The play’s ambivalence on whether romantic love can offer women what they need still feels fresh.

 Andrew, Julie’s husband, is just as misguided, trying to be a moral man but acquiescing to an immoral route toward keeping his wealth and his stature. His sister, Cora (Mary Bacon), is partly a comic-relief character but still believable. Self-absorbed and exuding a haughty feeling of entitlement, she embodies the stereotype of a Jewish American Princess, an image Hellman surely did not plan to evoke. 

It is well-known that Hellman based the bickering, avaricious business-owning Southern family at the center of  “The Little Foxes” on her own contentious relatives, though she left out the Jewish part. In “Days to Come,” the family is also not identified as Jewish, and very probably is not intended to be, though one imagines Hellman drew from her own background.

As in other aspects of her life, about which she was never entirely truthful (notably in “Pentimento,” in which she wrote about a close friendship, which proved to be non-existent, with a Nazi-fighter named Julia, portrayed by Jane Fonda in a movie version), Hellman often fudged things. Her motivation was in part practical. She wanted her plays to be universally accepted and didn’t think Jewish-centered plays would draw as many theatergoers or as much attention. Though not religious, she always identified herself as Jewish.

Later in life, Hellman was asked to consult on bringing Anne Frank’s diary to the stage (she declined to write it herself because, she said, she would make it too depressing) and nixed an early adaptation for being “too Jewish.” On the other hand, she is credited with being instrumental in creating the more generic version that ultimately made it a hit, and a consciousness-raiser for many non-Jews. She also wrote a powerful, unequivocally anti-Nazi play, “Watch on the Rhine.” But when in 1963 she finally wrote about an explicitly Jewish family in “My Mother, My Father and Me,” she was accused by Walter Matthau, who played the father, of having written an anti-Semitic play. She disagreed. 

Hellman’s conflicts and contradictions are part of what make her fascinating. Likewise, the shifting, shaded nature of “Days to Come”–good people doing bad things, a woman seeking independence finding herself dependent, a heroic servant unacknowledged while an egotist comes away unscathed–makes it artistically valuable now.