By Melissa Rodman with additional reporting by Bill Marx
Mint Theater Company’s choice to revive Days to Come is more intriguing than Lillian Hellman’s muddled play.
Days to Come by Lillian Hellman. Directed by J.R. Sullivan. Streamed by NYC’s Mint Theater Company through February 21.
Playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) insisted on looking forward, not backward. Sort of. “Long ago I made a rule not to return to finished work: communion with what was ended seemed to me unhealthy,” she wrote in the introduction to her 1942 volume Four Plays. “The work of the years before, or last year, or last month, was far away as childhood, and your chance was ahead and not behind,” she added. But the publication of Four Plays, which contains The Children’s Hour (1934), Days to Come (1936), The Little Foxes (1939), and Watch on the Rhine (1941), might be one way of looking forward — a way to learn something from an earlier cultural milieu by revisiting the past.
And that is exactly what the New York–based Mint Theater Company is all about. The company is propelled by a mission to “scour the dramaturgical dustbin for worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or neglected.” As the first offering of its 2021 Silver Lining Streaming Series (the fruits of having its earlier productions filmed) the Mint is presenting a video recording of its 2018 revival of Hellman’s Days to Come.
Mint’s choice to revive Days to Come is more intriguing than Hellman’s muddled play. The Mint’s well-furnished production design, including upbeat transitional music, is not enough to invigorate what remains a dated script that wasn’t all that effective when it first played on Broadway. (The play closed to bad press after only seven Broadway performances, six by Hellman’s count.) Decades do not seem to have made much difference to the text’s quality: the cast could not infuse dynamism into one-note characters trapped in static scenes.
The plot takes the form of a hazy snapshot of a brush-factory-owning family, the Rodmans, who cut workers’ wages and have to deal with a strike. The clan hire thuggish strikebreakers from out of town in the hopes of resuming production; everything unravels when violence breaks out and the dirty familial laundry is aired. On paper, selected aspects of the labor-friendly story seem promising, such as Mrs. Julie Rodman’s extramarital flirtations and violent deaths in the striker and strikebreaker camps. Hellman’s script, however, submerges the possibility of drama in a sea of monotonous conversations and structural ambiguity. In addition, although the plot ostensibly hinges on the strike and the negotiations to end it, an unbridgeable distance — a detachment — is placed between the characters and the troubles into which they’ve been dropped. Absent from the stage are scenes from the factory floor, picket lines, and the downtown brawl; these actions occur offstage and are discussed primarily in the Rodmans’ living room, often via an overarching moralizing tone. (Scenes on the picket line made it onstage in John Galsworthy’s far superior 1909 drama about labor and management strife, the epic Strike.).
What’s more, the final beats of Days to Come are far from satisfying. Hellman is overly concerned with the doings of the privileged class. On the one hand, we know from the beginning that Julie had an affair with her husband’s closest friend, Henry Ellicott; we can track how Andrew’s haranguing, complaining sister, Cora, despises her sister-in-law, Julie, and how Andrew has long detested both Ellicott and Cora. On the other hand, the fates of others, such as the whereabouts of the Rodmans’ spunky maid, Hannah, are left inexplicably hanging.
Hellman herself called Days to Come a “failure,” acknowledging in the Four Plays introduction, “I spoiled a good play.”
I returned to the amateur’s mistake: everything you think and feel must be written this time, because you may never have another chance to write it. I knew a woman like Cora and I hated her, and that hate had to go in the play; I knew a woman like Julie, I pitied her, and that pity had to go in the play; I had been raised with the Ellicotts of the world, and what I felt about them had to go in the play, too; I knew Leo Whalen [the union organizer] and I wanted to say how much I respected men who work for other men. I wanted to say too much.
What we have here is too much dramatic fodder and not enough dramaturgical shaping. The past doesn’t always have that much to say to the future.
Melissa Rodman writes on the arts, and her work has appeared in Public Books and the Harvard Crimson among others.