Lillian Florence Hellman

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Lillian Florence Hellman

Lillian Florence Hellman (1906-1984), American playwright, wrote a series of powerful, realistic plays that made her one of America's major dramatists. She explored highly controversial themes, with many of her plays reflecting her outspoken political and social views.

Lillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans on June 20, 1906, of Jewish parentage. In 1910 her family moved to New York City, where she attended public schools. She studied at New York University (1923-1924) and Columbia University (1924). Her marriage to Arthur Kober in 1925 was dissolved in 1932.

She worked as a manuscript reader for Liveright Publishers before becoming main play reader for producer Herman Shumlin. In 1930, ready to drop her idea of being a writer, she was dissuaded by Dashiell Hammett, who became her lifelong mentor and partner.

Major Works Invited Controversy

After a "year and a half of stumbling stubbornness," Hellman finished The Children's Hour (1934), based on an actual incident in Scotland. The action of the play is triggered by a child's accusation of lesbianism against two teachers, which leads to one woman's suicide. The play reveals Hellman's sharp characterizations and explicit, moral comment on a theme considered dramatically untouchable at the time.

In Days to Come (1936), a play of family dissolution as well as of the struggle between union and management, Hellman's dramatic touch faltered. However, her next play, The Little Foxes (1939), ranks as one of the most powerful in American drama. Set in the South, it depicts a family almost completely engulfed by greed, avarice, and malice.

During World War II Hellman wrote two plays. Watch on the Rhine (1941), an anti-Nazi drama about an underground hero, received the New York Critics Circle Award. The Searching Wind (1944) championed anti-fascist activity and criticized the failure of influential Americans to halt the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. In Another Part of the Forest (1946), Hellman again portrayed the Hubbard family of The Little Foxes; she also directed the play. Autumn Garden (1951) lacked the usual ferocity of her dramas but was a touching and revealing insight into a Southern boardinghouse. The style of the play is sometimes compared to Anton Chekhov's work. Toys in the Attic (1960), a devastating portrait of possessive love set in New Orleans, won her another New York Critics Circle Award.

Work Outside of the Theater

Hellman demonstrated her versatility as an author with a witty book for the musical Candide (1956); adaptations of two plays, Montserrat (1949) and Jean Anouilh's The Lark (1956); and her departure from realism in the humorous play of Jewish family life, My Mother, My Father and Me(1963). She also edited The Letters of Anton Chekhov in 1955.

Hellman published three memoirs dealing with her career, personal relationships, and political activities (including her scathing criticism of the House Unamerican Activities Committee headed by Joseph McCarthy): An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). There was much discussion at the time about whether the content of these memoirs was greatly enhanced by Hellman.

Hellman received honorary doctorates from several colleges and universities. Her theatrical awards included the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1941 and 1960); a Gold Medal from the Academy of Arts and Letters for Distinguished Achievement in the Theatre (1964); and election to the Theatre Hall of Fame (1973). She also received the National Book Award in 1969 for An Unfinished Woman and a nomination in 1974 for Pentimento: A Book of Portraits.

Further Reading

For insights into Hellman's personal world, see Lillian Hellman, An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (1969), Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). Critical assessments of her writings can be found in Barnard Hewitt, Theatre U.S.A., 1668 to 1957 (1959); Allan Lewis, American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre (1965); Walter J. Meserve, ed., Discussions of Modern American Drama (1965); Jean Gould, Modern American Playwrights(1966); and John Gassner, Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions (1968).

See also Mellen, Joan, Hellman and Hammett, Harper Collins, 1996, for a highly criticized account of the stormy relationship between these two talented writers. □