Lillian Hellman’s second play, Days To Come, was a flop when it premiered on Broadway in 1936. Sources differ on why — but it certainly wasn’t the writing.
The well-acted production that opened Sunday, smoothly directed by J.R. Sullivan for the Mint Theater Company, at the Beckett Theatre at Theater Row, proves a fascinating family drama set in a time of economic hardship and labor unrest. This Days To Come, the first in New York in 40 years, makes a compelling case for the play’s continued relevance.
The action concerns the well-off Rodman family, of Callom, Ohio. Andrew (Larry Bull, understated) is the seemingly milquetoast patriarch, supporting his haughty sister Cora (Mary Bacon) and mysterious wife Julie (Janie Brookshire) with the profits of the family brush factory, the town’s reason for being since time immemorial. But it’s the Depression, and when Andrew fails to convince factory foreman Tom Firth (Chris Henry Coffey, brutal and real) of the necessity of a ten-cent pay cut, a strike breaks out. A union organizer (Roderick Hill) and a strike-breaker (Dan Daily), both in from out of town, take sides. Things don’t end well.
How things fall apart is what makes Days to Come so interesting. “It’s the family I’m interested in principally,” Hellman said in an interview in the New York Herald Tribune. “The strike and social manifestations are just backgrounds.” When the union organizer, Leo Whalen, stands tentatively on a soapbox and raises his fist, he laughs at himself quietly; later, Julie approaches Leo under the guise of learning more about social inequality but is revealed only to be looking for companionship. She breaks off from her questioning to ask, heart-breakingly, “Do you think I’m pretty?”
Hellman doesn’t ridicule her characters for their concern with the everyday over sweeping historical trends. As the play emphasizes, the question of the rights of workers in the abstract is comparatively unimportant when confronted with quotidian harsh realities – a child killed in a battle between strikers and strike-breakers, or families starving for lack of work. The Rodman family’s petty jealousy and mournful inadequacy translates directly to their oppression of the workers, which comes across as basically accidental – Firth and his fellow laborers are merely caught in the crossfire of sibling rivalry.
The play’s applicability to today’s political situation, therefore, works by contrast: In the Trump era, when every individual act is seen as either resistance or implicit support, the personal is the political; in Days To Come, the political is the personal.
The great success of this crisp production is the sympathy it engenders for its somewhat hapless characters – that’s at least partially thanks to Harry Feiner’s wonderful set, which, from moment one, fosters an impression of reality that never fades. But largely it’s because Sullivan allows the interpersonal drama to bleed through the social commentary. The social realist aspects of the play had been covered before, by Marc Blitzstein, among others, but Hellman displayed a more direct interest (as in her masterpiece, The Little Foxes) in what the family does to capitalism, not necessarily what capitalism does to the family.
Sullivan’s choices honor the theatrical era of the play’s origin as well as our own: Young Jean Lee’s recent Straight White Men addresses the same feelings of personal uselessness in the face of unyielding social strata experienced by the oppressed and the elites alike. Days to Come poses big questions to which its characters do not know the answers, and perhaps never will. Whether it’s refusing to fight back against violent strike-breakers or, in the end, choosing not to take out one’s failures on others, these characters recognize that, in a reactive world, perhaps the bravest and most difficult choice is not to react at all.