This play, first staged in 1939 with Tallulah Bankhead starring as Regina Giddens, dramatizes the conflicts between the old and new Souths. Set in 1900 in a small (unspecified) town in the South, it tells the story of the Hubbard family’s attempt to make their fortune through industrialization. Brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard have struck a deal with William Marshall, a Chicago businessman who wishes to build a cotton plant there—as Oscar frequently says, to bring the factory to the cotton rather than the cotton to the factory. However, they require funding from a third party, and expect the funding to come from Horace Giddens, the dying brother of their sister, Regina. Horace has been unresponsive to her pleas to him about the money, as he is away at a sanitarium, suffering from heart trouble.
The Hubbard family, though quite southern, lacks a true aristocratic pedigree, as their money was made through business—as Birdie Hubbard, Oscar’s wife, says (quoting her own mother in her reluctance to marry her daughter to a Hubbard), they are “people who made their money charging awful interest to poor, ignorant niggers and cheating them on what they bought” (59). Birdie was raised in a truly southern aristocratic family on a plantation called Lionnet, and spends most of the play inebriated and reminiscing about how much better life was there. Oscar is openly disdainful and downright rude to his wife, and she in turn dislikes both her husband and their son, Leo. Leo works for Horace at his bank, though he has already been caught stealing from him once. The Hubbard siblings, in addition to their business dealings, are also at work to set get Leo married to Regina and Horace’s daughter Alexandra, in order to further cement a financially lucrative bond with Horace’s money.
Horace returns home with the knowledge that he will die soon, intent to punish his wife and her brothers as well as safeguard his daughter from their clutches. He discovers, in light of his refusal to invest in the Hubbard’s new business deal, that Leo has used his position at the bank to steal bonds from his safe deposit box there, and that Ben has absconded with the bonds and made the deal with Marshall. However, Horace is able to use this knowledge to further his ends, explaining to Regina that, rather than accuse her brothers, he will instead call the money a loan from Regina, and leave the rest of his fortune to their daughter, resulting in Regina’s complete dependence on her brothers after Horace’s death. Their confrontation, however, is too much for Horace’s health, and he dies before changing the will. Regina is able to utilize her position with her brothers, then, to end up the financial winner.
Throughout the play, the conflicts over the changing nature of the South are highlighted again and again. Marshall’s position as an outsider is part of this, as his image of the south as an unchanging aristocratic paradise is shown to be untrue, as Birdie’s drunken romanticism demonstrates. Those who aspire to be like the North, however, like the Hubbards, are also shown to be amoral and corrupt. Truly, the only sympathetic characters in the play are Alexandra and Addie and Cal, the two black servants. These three are the only ones who take care of Horace; Addie, Alexandra, and Horace are also the only ones who show any sympathy for Birdie, who is presented as a pathetic creature unable to survive out of her own time. Still, that the life for which Birdie yearns required the support of the plantation system makes it difficult for me at least to be fully sympathetic for her, as she represents the typical southern plantation novel claims that slavery was an acceptable system for those who treated their slaves “right.” The treatment of the black characters is particularly interesting, especially given the repeated explanation of how the Hubbards earned their money. Addie and Cal are not fully developed characters, but are there to further the plot and provide care for ailing white characters.
Alexandra is presented as the true hope for the future, as she sincerely mourns for her father and rejects any overtures from her mother, even more so after learning the full scope of the machinations which have been taking place. Regina plans to leave the South altogether and follow Marshall north to Chicago, which holds the promise of the kind of life unavailable to her as a southern woman. After all, she claims that her behavior would not have been necessary had her father left her any money, rather than leaving it all to his male heirs. Her brothers, however, refuse this explanation, as Ben repeatedly insists that she would be more successful if she would only be more feminine: “You’d get farther with a smile, Regina. I’m a soft man for a woman’s smile” (73). The play ends with Regina alone, rejected by her own daughter, who plans to leave as well: despite the larger themes of southern identity in the play, perhaps the most pressing question it raises is whether it is possible for the narrow identities allowed southern women to provide any happiness at all. Is it possible for a proper southern woman to be happy?