New Orleans-born playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) is remembered not only for the gripping dramas she wrote for the stage, but also for the political dramas she played out in her own life. Her communist sympathies were aired before the public at her unflinching testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the Red Scare of the 1950s. This week, Loyola University's revival of Hellman's smashing debut, The Children's Hour, once again reveals the connection between Hellman's writing and her political beliefs.
The Children's Hour was a smash hit in 1934, catapulting Hellman into literary celebrity status at the tender age of 29. The play presaged both of the main literary approaches Hellman evoked in her work: left-wing parables like 1936's Days to Come, a story of strikebreakers who shatter the will of a union town, and complex family dramas like 1939's The Little Foxes, where power and money are fought for over the breakfast table. In The Children's Hour, the lives of two female schoolteachers are shaken when a vindictive young girl at their boarding school accuses them of being lesbians. The lie reverberates around the community, and the school's survival is endangered by the townspeople's fear of contamination. The women, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, internalize the accusation with its witch hunt-like ramifications, leaving them filled with a warped sense of both of righteous indignation and shame.
"There's this sense of sickness or illness due to something that you can't change on the inside that is threatening to others," says guest director Anne Kauffman, visiting this semester from New York University. It was a daring play for the 1930s, and the first film adaptation, 1936's These Three, changed the story to a heterosexual love triangle with an accusation of premarital sex in order to pass the censors.
"The thing that's amazing about Lillian Hellman writing [The Children's Hour] in 1934 is that it was 20 years before she was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee," says Kauffman. The play also anticipates the troubles and injustices that appeared in Hellman's life in the 1950s: false accusations, abandonment by friends, and collective, fearful hysteria.
Hellman's travels with the communist ranks in Spain during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, her visit to Russia in 1944, and her association with Hollywood's leftists and intellectuals during her years as a screenwriter all made her an easy target for then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist movement. (Her longtime lover, novelist Dashiell Hammett, was also known for his leftist leanings.) Hellman took the moral high road at her HUAC hearing, agreeing to answer all questions about her own past but refusing to name any names or discuss anyone else's activities. "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," she wrote to the HUAC.
She narrowly avoided being thrown in jail, and the experience left her blacklisted, nearly bankrupt, and more stubborn than ever. Her first creative act after the hearing was to direct a revival of The Children's Hour. New York author Milly Barranger, who is writing a book on McCarthyism and American theater, has studied Hellman's 1955 revival of the play. "She didn't rewrite it much," says Barranger, "but re-focused the storyline to reflect her experiences with people who made false accusations and ruined people's lives."
Loyola drama department chair and artistic director Georgia Gresham says the play's themes of fear and stigma apply to the current American political climate as well. "Right or wrong, we're very paranoid about things right now," Gresham says. "And that fear can lead us to misconceptions."
Hellman's plays have endured, while so many other dramas from her era vanished into the ether, because she never stints on characterization while trying to make a point. Her plays grapple with heavy issues, but her characters rarely resort to bombastic speeches, instead illustrating how large social concerns play out in their small lives. Kauffman says the message of the play shouldn't be an overwhelming presence, but rather an undertone to contemplate later. "Hopefully the audience will cumulatively or retrospectively see that this points to a larger political reality."
Hellman would certainly approve of the use of The Children's Hour to make a comment on what Kauffman calls the present-day culture of fear. In one of Hellman's three memoirs, Pentimento, she discusses the primary lesson she learned from her experiences with the HUAC: "The McCarthys came, will come again, and will be forgotten."
Since Hellman left New Orleans as a child and spent most her of life in the Northeast, she's been largely left off the list of New Orleans literary stars (despite the fact that her last original work, 1960's classic Toys in the Attic, is set in New Orleans). That her plays haven't been staged frequently in New Orleans contributed to her gradual slip below the local radar. The revival of The Children's Hour gives the city a chance to rediscover a playwright who should be heralded alongside Tennessee Williams. "The embarrassing thing is we didn't even realize that Lillian Hellman was from New Orleans until we started researching it," says Kauffman.
- Schoolteachers Martha (Gwen Sisco, left) and Karen (Kim Lucas, right) find themselves at the mercy of a student (Kristi Jacobs) in Loyola's production of Lillian Hellman's The Childrens Hour.