By the time the curtain came down on the opening-night performance of The Children’s Hour at Maxine Elliott's Theatre on November 20, 1934, it was impossible to miss the irony in the title of Lillian Hellman’s drama. Whereas Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s beloved fireside poem of that name had evoked “voices soft and sweet,” Hellman’s tragedy traced the consequences of a lie told by a mean-spirited little girl—and, for good measure, confronted the taboo subject of lesbianism.
There are, though, more ironies associated with the circumstances of this production and how it reflected the playwright’s life than in the script itself.
By now, it is obvious that in her late-life memoirs, Hellman engaged in all kinds of prevarication. She created autobiographical fancies not so much to deny shameful incidents in her life as to transform herself into a heroine no one could be—and, exhibiting the same trait as the girl Mary Tilford of The Children’s Hour, to tear down others (notably, Ernest Hemingway).
Though Hellman would continue to write for the theater for more than two decades, the hallmarks of her subsequent style would be present here: unflinching engagement with provocative subject matter; writing the kind of realistic, “well-made play” that began with Henrik Ibsen; clearly definable lines between good and evil; and a resort to melodrama.
In the early-to-mid-‘70s, it was fashionable to regard Hellman as a champion of liberalism and free thought because of her defiance of the House Committee on Un-American Activities; as an avatar of feminism, as one of the first women to enjoy a string of successes on Broadway; and as perhaps a more accomplished memoirist than a playwright (or screenwriter), given her bestselling trilogy An
Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time.
Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time.
All of these notions, the passage of time revealed, were overstated, and The Children’s Hour in certain ways shows why. As its protagonists—two women who run a school who are smeared by a vengeful student’s false accusation that they are engaged in a lesbian relationship—attempt to recover their livelihoods and reputations, they are unable to make any headway, even with the support of one woman’s fiancé. An utterly reasonable doctor, the latter is unprepared—in the same way that mainstream liberals would be at the height of McCarthyism, Hellman would later feel—to fight a pathological liar. Implicitly, an abuse of power on a small scale—the destruction of lives in a small town—becomes repeated and magnified in American society as a whole.
In The Children’s Hour, the personal might certainly have been political, as a later generation of feminists would say—but sisterhood was hardly powerful. The two teachers, Karen and Martha, find no support from other women for their cause.
Just how high the stakes were in this production can be seen in the comment by Hellman’s producer (and, with the departure of longtime companion Dashiell Hammett for Hollywood, her temporary lover) Howard Shumlin, “This play could land us all in jail.” The first strong hint of trouble came when one actress after another turned down a chance at the two major roles, which offered what should have been catnip to them: some of the strongest, most complicated characterizations seen on Broadway to that point.
The playwright may have cultivated the image of a tough woman who refused to be intimidated by powerful men. (She even later claimed that, when theater owner Lee Shubert slapped her leg down while ordering her to “get your dirty shoes off my chair," she shot back: “I don’t like strange men fooling around with my right leg, so don’t do it again.”) But, in light of all the high stakes for this show, her drunkenness on opening night might have been more than simply a case of the jitters for a first-time Broadway dramatist.
Even after casting was finally done, censorship proved a difficult obstacle. In London the following year, the Lord Chamberlain, working only from a script, forbade permission to mount the show “because of its theme.” Similar bans went into effect in Boston and Chicago, with the result that, even in some of the most liberal, urban places in the United States, audiences could not see The Children’s Hour until the film starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine opened in 1962.
As I discussed in a recent post, Hellman’s posthumous reputation was darkened by both a libel suit she relentlessly pursued against Mary McCarthy and the revelations produced during the discovery phase of the litigation about Hellman’s distortions of her personal history. In contrast, The Children’s Hour was accompanied by contretemps concerning an unjust accusation that she had followed history too closely.
The critic John Mason Brown took Hellman to task for not acknowledging, in the program’s playbill, that the conflict in the play had been inspired by a Scottish case in the Victorian Era. But Hellman, no more than other playwrights, was under no compulsion to write in a playbill about a historic incident that she had, in effect, translated for modern audiences—and in any case she had, in a newspaper interview broadly distributed before Brown’s comments, mentioned this case that had inspired her.
In the wake of the gay-rights movement, many critics no longer see much dramatic tension in the lesbian theme that seemed so sensational in the 1930s. But audiences that have had the chance to read The Children’s Hour or see it performed have no such qualms, for they agree with Hellman’s contention that lesbianism is not the principal point of the play.
That was reinforced when Hellman adapted her play for the screen in 1937. Her screenplay circumvented restrictions on depicting gays and lesbians in Hollywood’s Production Code Administration by converting this homosexual triangle into a heterosexual one. She was not unduly bothered by this change, she observed, because the play was actually about the power of a lie.
Critics have generally regarded that initial adaptation, These Three (1937), as superior to the later version helmed by the same director, William Wyler—even though the passage of a quarter-century had allowed Wyler to depict the lesbianism charge with a freedom impossible before.
In fact, modern audiences are likely to regard Hellman’s theme of the destructive power of gossip and deceit as even more relevant today than when she wrote the play. Twenty-four-hour cable television, the Internet and social media have vastly expanded the geographic reach of an accusation—and, as many distraught teens and their parents have discovered, the resulting harm to reputations.
Not that Hellman regarded adolescents—or, for that matter, younger children—as innocents. Four decades before movie audiences would be stunned by devils who took on the form of children in The Exorcist and The Omen—two decades before theatergoers tried to come to grips with the spectacle of the homicidal girl at the heart of Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed—Hellman had shown, through spiteful sprite Mary Tilford, that teens could, as easily as King Richard III, “set the murderous Machiavel to school.” So much of the seepage in dramatic intensity in the third act of The Children’s Hour occurs simply because Mary, who sets the plot in motion, can no longer spin her webs.
Though censors tried to hinder productions of The Children’s Hour at every turn, contemporary reviewers were, by and large, far more generous to Hellman. When the board that approved Pulitzer Prize selections bypassed Hellman for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in favor of Zoe Akins’ less problematic adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novella The Old Maid, critics reacted with such consternation that they created an alternative, the Drama Critics' Circle Award. (Hellman would be honored with that prize two times: for Watch on the Rhine and Toys in the Attic.)
No Hellman drama would equal the 691 performances of Hellman’s Broadway debut—though The Little Foxes (1939) has become more of a favorite with regional theater companies (including a 2009 Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production, which I reviewed here).
Much to her chagrin, the questions raised about Hellman’s veracity seriously devalue her value as memoirist. But the critics of her stagecraft have also been proved wrong by time. Not only have her themes demonstrated continued relevance to modern audiences, but actors have also found her roles substantial, as demonstrated with The Children’s Hour by the West End appearance of Elisabeth Moss as Martha and Keira Knightley as Karen at the Comedy Theatre in London three years ago.