Days to Come
After her smash success with A Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman followed up with Days to Come, a melodrama with a political agenda that received eight performances in its original Broadway run. One of her weaker efforts, there’s still quite a bit to admire in Hellman’s sophomore effort.
Written and produced at the depths of the Great Depression, Hellman’s biggest risk here is skating close to giving us a communist propaganda play. Not as heavy-handed as Clifford Odets, this play makes clear Hellman’s leftist agenda, and that agenda would be one that would dog her career and life for decades. While the Odets comparison is an easy one to make, less obvious are the Chekhovian echoes.
Whereas personal inaction in the face of societal upheaval is a Chekhovian theme, it’s the struggle to act that makes Chekhov’s major plays masterpieces. Here, if Hellman’s main characters (at least the men) have any sort of inner conflict, it’s a struggle to remain inactive. Both sides of the political conflict are poised to respond to the opponent’s provocation, one that never intentionally comes. What’s more, the story hinges upon Andrew Rodman, a character Hellman wrote to be intentionally weak. That’s a risky move. Here the union organizer and the strike breaker are far more compelling than the company owner, even though both make clear they are only doing a job and have almost nothing at stake. In The Cherry Orchard, Lopahkin is compelling not only because he’s a man of action, but because he cares deeply about Raynevskaya. He will destroy the village in order to save it. In Days to Come, a brush factory struggles to withstand a workers’ strike, and not even the workers seem all that interested in the factory’s survival. Only Hannah, the cook, has the personal resources to take action and the courage to face the consequences.
At this point in Hellman’s career she was being seduced by the siren call of Hollywood, with The Children’s Hour being produced as the film These Three. Days to Come reads like a penultimate draft, and based upon her entire body of work, it’s clear that had she been able to maintain focus this script could have ranked as high or higher in her body of work. But Hellman allows the philosophical heart of the story to be upstaged by the romantic melodrama. The drama’s resolution is a little too unearned and inconvenient, with our leading lady sacrificing a reputation she’d long ago lost in order to save a man she hardly knows.
There’s just no other way to say this. The third act is a mess. Filled with many on-the-nose, unrealistically self-aware speeches, suddenly characters that have done nothing but show contempt for one another are baring their souls with sympathy and understanding. Like a Greek tragedy, the war takes place offstage, and we get to hear about it in a speech from the worker, Thomas Firth. His is a beautifully written speech, and one any actor would kill to play. But it is swamped by other characters describing far less compelling inner conflict which drains the play of any dramatic tension and interest that might have been built in the second act.
That said, as one would expect, Hellman creates vivid characters, and not unsurprisingly most of the women are far more dynamic than the men. The notable exception is the spinster sister, Cora Rodman. Hellman is not kind to unmarried women in general, but she will at least sometimes give them humor and pathos. Cora is flat and unappealing. None of the characters in Days to Come are really likeable or admirable. Only the supporting character of Firth can elicit a sad emotional connection with the audience. But Cora is repellant and woe unto the actor saddled with the task of bringing her to life. Even the kitchen maid, Lucy, with a handful of lines is more interesting than Cora.
That’s not to say there isn’t value in this script, if not exactly enough to warrant a major production. There are challenges for a director to solve, and some rich scenes for actors to mine. And actor seeking a compelling audition monolog could not do better than sifting through Days to Come. And dare I say, analyzing this script has given at least one playwright food for thought as he prepares to embark on another storytelling journey.