Essay on Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour.

September 5th, 2011

The story goes that Lillian Hellman was a writer in search of a subject when her new lover Dashiell Hammet passed her one of his own research sources – a story of whispering and defamation in a girls’school.

Hammett, who had written the Maltese Falcon, and created the detective Sam Spade, based on his own years working for the investigation agency, Pinkerton’s, had a vast and odd collection of true-life unsolved stories. He reckoned Hellman should give up her fiction and try drama – she was already summarising scripts for MGM – a job she disliked, but that gave her a wide insight into how to make a drama work.

The 1930’s were the years of the Great Depression in America: movies were one of the few growth industries, but on Broadway there was real interest in finding plays that could take on social issues. Eugene O’Neill had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for his play-cycle, Mourning Becomes Electra – an update of Aeschylus’s The Orestia. O’Neill re-combined small-town politics with big themes of loyalty, ambition, revenge, and the role of the State.
Like O’Neill, Hellman understood that small-town America is America. Her country was best seen under a microscope, not viewed through a telescope. How better to talk about paranoia, prejudice and power, than in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a girls’ school? Set the school in a small town where everybody knows everybody and some are related, and Hellman had the mix for a powerful drama.
The Great Drumsheugh Scandal is essentially the plot of The Children’s Hour. It happened in Edinburgh in 1810 – but if O’Neil could update a Greek Myth, Hellman wasn’t going to worry about history in Scotland.
Miss Pirie and Miss Wood ran a school and were accused of sexual impropriety by a pupil, whose grandmother sued the teachers and ruined the school. Edinburgh worthies claimed that there was no such thing as lesbianism, or if there was such a thing, it wasn’t happening in Edinburgh. An interesting aside here is that James Barry was enrolled at the Edinburgh Medical School at the time – the Dr Barry who turned out to be a woman when examined on his deathbed.
Hellman’s play alters the character of the pupil-spy, no doubt for political reasons; the Edinburgh girl was half Indian, and had been born in a scandal of her own, to the upper-class son of the grandmother who ruined the school. The girl seems to have been sexually aware, and it is possible that she herself was abused, though not by the women in the school.
Hellman avoids all this, perhaps because of issues of colour in the States, or perhaps because the political Left has a bad record on the link between sexual abuse and male power. Generationally, Feminism was yet to make such a link explicitly political.
Hellman’s difficult little girl, Mary, is an orphan packed off to boarding school by her grandmother. She is an attention-seeker, and a bully. There is not really much suggestion that she is in love with her teachers or her classmates. She is liar romantically attached to her own lies.
Hellman adds the character of Doctor Joe to the story, He is a straightforward, all-American guy, who is about to marry Karen Wright, the more ‘feminine’ of the two teachers. He is related to the tell-tale Mary, and to her grandmother, whom he begs not to proceed with the defamation of the women.
Hellman had an unerring sense of what makes drama. Joe is not there to provide a love interest; he is there to provide ambiguity.
Karen is more or less indifferent to him, not because she may or may not be gay, but because she puts everything into the school she and Martha have been working to build for eight years. In that sense both women display a single-minded dedication normally assigned to men. They are career-women – and that in itself comes to be held against them both as ‘unnatural’.
It is worth remembering that America, the world’s democracy, had great difficulty with women who were independent of men, either economically or sexually.
When the play was revived in 1952, Hellman was summoned before the committee for Un-American Activities. She avoided a gaol sentence, but was blacklisted as a writer, for her left-wing politics, but perhaps her sexual politics too.
This was the decade after the War, when the US wanted women out of their wartime work, back in the home and serving their menfolk. The independence of Martha and Karen in The Children’s Hour is an un-American as their lesbianism, and seems fatally tangled up with it. Like Edinburgh in 1810, 1950’s America didn’t have lesbians.
In the same year as Hellman’s blacklisting, the young writer Patricia Highsmith, whose first novel Strangers on a Train, had brought her fame, could not publish her second novel under her own name: The Price of Salt, (now titled Carol), is about a lesbian relationship.
Hellman wasn’t lesbian or bi-sexual. Yet her Dr Joe character isn’t introduced to shore up heterosexual values, or to make anybody feel more comfortable – quite the opposite.
Karen’s relationship with Joe makes us ask ourselves: Whom do we love and how do we express that love? Does society decide on love, or do we? What makes it fine to love Joe and immoral to love Martha?
When, in the last shocking act of the play, Martha realises that she does love Karen, the power is not so much in the revelation as in the re-valuation. How can any of us know ourselves, or live honestly in a society that tells us how to feel and how to think? As Hellman knew, the best censorship is self-censorship.
Martha realises that she has been a stranger to herself. Karen suddenly understands how deep is the bond between them. Neither woman can any longer trust the society they were brought up to believe was benign. Martha shoots herself – as Hedda does, in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler. The gap between her inner and outer worlds is too great and cannot be bridged.
The play has had two film versions. These Three, filmed in 1936, reworked the story into a heterosexual love triangle, with Joe as a hunky hero, thus degrading the women’s independence, and reducing the power of the plot to the usual business of women who fight over men.
In 1961, it was remade more faithfully as The Children’s Hour, with Audrey Hepburn as Karen and Shirley MacLean as Martha. But there is nothing convincing about the sexual ambiguity, and Hepburn has to be saved to a convincing Hollywood heterosexuality, where the nasty past will be put right by a happy home and a husband.
In theatres though, the play as it stood was a huge hit, and neither audience nor critics shied away from its painful difficulty. When it was passed over for the Pulitzer Prize, because of its subject matter, influential critics who had raved about its power and truthfulness, set up their own award, -The Drama Critics Circle Award – and gave it to Hellman. Even so, the play was still banned in some US states and cities, and in London had to be put on at The Gate theatre club, because of our censorship rules. In Paris it was staged as The Innocents.
Why is sexuality such a problem? Why does it continue to be so? Sexual expression is the most fundamental form of human expression, and as such should be a place of individual freedom, and not a site of social control.
Only a few years before Hellman’s play, Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) had been banned in Britain. EM Forster had refused publication for his own homosexual novel, Maurice until after his death.
In 1934, when Hellman’s play was running on Broadway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas had arrived in New York from Paris, to be lionised, but not to be lesbian. The fact they had been together for 27years was irrelevant; they were ‘companions.’
Hellman herself did not live as a woman ‘should’; she was not monogamous and she always worked for a living. She had an acute sense for the ways in which difference is tolerated until it can become a scapegoat for hatred. Within ten years, that is what would happen to German Jews – like Hellman – under Hitler.
Fast-forward another ten years, and America, land of the free, was busy with its own style of inquisition and incarceration.
As Hellman was standing before the Committee for Un-American Activities, and her play was back on Broadway, Arthur Miller was writing The Crucible (1953), a dramatisation of the Salem witch trials, and a play certainly influenced by The Children’s Hour.
The Crucible and The Children’s Hour don’t date because we are still caught in the issues they raise; lies, whispering, power, propaganda, the size of the system – whether in a small town or national government, and the hope for an end to man’s inhumanity to woman and man. A hope for dignity, freedom, and love.