Hellman, Lillian: General Commentary

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

LILLIAN HELLMAN: GENERAL COMMENTARY

MARY LYNN BROE (ESSAY DATE 1981)

SOURCE: Broe, Mary Lynn. "Bohemia Bumps into Calvin: The Deception of Passivity in Lillian Hellman's Drama." In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin, pp. 78-90. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

In the following essay, originally published in 1981, Broe examines Hellman's use of passivity in her plays, maintaining that its use often ran counter to the social stereotype associated with female characters.

Her face like a thousand year old siennese mask sheds time in runnels, etched with the vivacity of a life lived passionately and well. Undaunted, she has visited battle fronts during bombings, foraged bayou country for wild duck, scarfed jambalaya and raccoon stew, whisked contraband in a hatbox across the German border. She is as much at home decapitating snapping turtles as she is captivating the world of high fashion clad in a Balmain dress or a Blackgama coat. Her "spit-in-the-eye" rebelliousness can change mercurially from rampaging anger to demure deference.1

Although at every turn "Bohemia bumps into Calvin" in her character, Lillian Hellman is seldom linked with the concept of passivity. In both the political and literary establishments, she has become one of the foremost authorities on decisive action and pure forcefulness. According to one critic, "Miss Hellman dreams of living successfully by masculine standards: honor, courage, aggression."2 Yet in An Unfinished Woman she admits: "I feel at my best when somebody else drives the car, gives the orders, knows me well enough to see through the manner that … was thought up early to hide the indecision, the vagueness." In An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento, both autobiographical works, the apparent powerlessness that begins as a consistent social pose is a paradoxical one: in incident after incident, the social posture quickly becomes the means to her most penetrating insights. Passivity—both a triumph and a compensation wrested from years of female victimhood—functions as an artistic means to spiritual-moral development in Hellman's writing. "If you are willing to take the punishment, you are halfway through the battle," she announces, recalling herself as a child who, having run away from home, understands the advantageous manipulative power of absence. And later, "I was ashamed that I caused myself to lose so often," she remarks to Hammett, who, when rebuked by her, grinds a burning cigarette into his cheek. From characters such as her childhood maid Sophronia, Dash Hammett, Horace Liveright, Dorothy Parker and friend Julia, she learns the vital function of being morally free to be socially passive. Whether she leaves the judgment of others inconclusive, or "refuses to preside over violations against herself," Lillian Hellman employs passivity in the autobiographies as a vehicle for powerful action, compassion, and finally, moral authority.3

So, too, in her major plays.4 Any reevaluation of her drama requires our acknowledgment of her use of passivity in its variegated forms as a catalyst for truth-telling, deception, and most importantly, self-deception: all recurrent themes in her plays.

Lillian Hellman's plays redeem the impediment of a social role of passivity as a calculated artistic choice in a curious, perhaps unlikely, way. It is less Hellman's theme of passivity than her structural reworking of the quality within each drama that reclaims these plays from labels of infectious villainy or triumphant duplicity. For it is no longer illuminating to see her characters in the simple categories of initiators of evil, the "despoilers" who execute their destructive aims on the one hand, or the "by-standers" who, because of naiveté or lack of self-knowledge, suggest evil as the "negative failure of good."5 Rather, passivity redefined to include aspects of deception and moral disguise is both thematically and structurally crucial to any reevaluation of Hellman as a significant contemporary playwright. As Addie in The Little Foxes (1939) says: "Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. And other people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain't right to stand and watch them eat it" (p. 182). The socially negligible female characters, the ones who "stand around and watch them [the locusts] eat," actually control the more brutishly powerful, but often in indirect, unobtrusive ways. As General Griggs (The Autumn Garden [1951]) might say of their passive behavior, it is simply a way "to remain in training while you wait" for the big moments, the turning points in life. The minor female characters—Lavinia, Birdie Hubbard, Sophie, Lily Prine and Lily Mortar—candidly, if unwittingly, reveal dramatic "truth" in certain situations. By their revelations they catalyze the outcome of dramatic action. Thus the socially negligible become the dramatically invaluable.

Of course, passivity is not a foreign concept to female authors and characters of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Victorian literature is replete with its Mrs. Gamps (professional servants of deaths and entrances), Maggie Tullivers and Edna Pontelliers, whose place is more to suffer than to do. From Thea Elvstead's blond snivellings in Hedda Gabler to Blanche Dubois' begging the gallantry of a gentleman caller, to Sylvia Plath's bedding down in a "cupboard of rubbish," at home in "turnipy chambers" among roots, husks and owl pellets, the passive role has become a pejorative image of a lot of hand-wringers, retiring mealy-mouths, or women playing Galatea to some man's Pygmalion. These female lives seem to guarantee that the meek are not so blessed after all, but simply cursed with social insignificance. No wonder then that one critic has described the circumstance of so many passive women characters as a sentimentally disinvolved torpidity, never deliberate, but always lending a strong impression of sluggish flies hatching indoors in early winter.6

But fortunately a number of contemporary thinkers have redefined passivity, retrieving it from the convention of social role to the authority of moral virtue, from a limited stereotype to a limitless capacity for real feeling, intelligence and choice. Mary Ellmann has likened the workings of the stereotype to the dynamics of Negro apathy: once the social restriction is placed on the group, the characteristic inactivity is found and then called innate, not social.7 And in studying Victorian women, Patricia Meyer Spacks suggests that the lack of social opportunity is less an impediment than a chance for moral and emotional fulfillment. Assuming an unfashionable pose, Spacks defies the old saw that a limited social status necessarily creates a limited personality.8 Mahatma Gandhi, moreover, elevated passivity beyond either politics or stereotype to a creed of personal ethics that emphasized integrity as a form of struggle. According to Gandhi, one could gain a moral authority worthy of The Sermon on the Mount or the Bhagavad-Gita by "Satyagraha," an act of the mind and will. If we bear in mind this brief history as we look at five Hellman plays, we see that an apparent social disadvantage actually allows a distinct capacity for being as a moral individual, or catalyzes action that permits such moral truth to be recognized.

In The Children's Hour (1934), Hellman dismantles the social stereotype of passivity in Aunt Lily Mortar and her parodic distortion, Mary Tilford. Early in the play, the decaying ex-actress Lily Mortar is overheard calling the relationship of the headmistresses of a New England girl's school "just as unnatural as it can be." Her words, repeated to and distorted by Mary Tilford, bring about the suicide of one of the women, who actually does acknowledge so-called unnatural feeling for the other. By shrewdly calculating the cliché of social passivity (the demure silence of an abused child), Mary blackmails and manipulates both her grandmother and a fellow student into the character assassination of Karen and Martha, the head-mistresses. She engineers her "great, awful lie" into acceptable truth by exaggerating a social stereotype.

In the course of the play, Aunt Lily Mortar makes a career out of absence, omission, and inadvertence. Living in the days of steamer trunks and roadshows, Lily has made theatrics her domain, chatter her trademark. For Lily the natural thing is the socially customary, courtesy a mere matter of breeding, passivity an unconscious and uncritical way of life. In the play's opening scene, Lily and the schoolgirls are involved in a "great show of doing nothing," their theatrical passivity itself a lie for gainful learning. Here the beaux arts of womanhood become useless, truncated labors, images of incompletion. Hair is being cut as irregularly as Latin verbs are conjugated. Haphazard sewing and basting complement the fake social graces. Theatrics replaces the candor of labor. Unwittingly, Lily herself points out the deception, calling their labors simply women's "tricks."

Perhaps the most critical meta-theatrical moment in this opening scene is Lily's hammy reading of Portia's "mercy" speech from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.9 On Lily Mortar's lips, these celebrated lines dwindle to a mere elocutionary exercise just as the truth she utters central to the outcome of action is but an overheard perception. Portia's moral and verbal disguise contrasts with Lily's inadvertent catastasis of the play's end. (Hellman at once sneers and laughs at the element of "pretend" that infects the stage: as she says the playwright's "tricking up the scene" is the only fitting response.) But ironically, it is the three lines Lily omits that seem to anticipate the outcome of the dramatic action in The Children's Hour : "Therefore, Jew / Though justice be thy plea, consider this / That in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation."

No one does see salvation in the girl's school where universal deception is rampant. Although Mary Tilford is exposed for her malignant manipulations, and Mrs. Tilford, her rich granny, recants her character slander, both events occur too late to save either Martha's life or the headmistresses' careers. Moreover, Lily's verbal omissions in the first scene foreshadow her crucial absence when Karen and Martha need her witness for their trial. Muttered asides and throwaway lines, Lily's words emerge only indirectly as canny truths about the other characters: "I love you that way—maybe the way they said" (p. 62), Martha admits to Karen following Lily's charge of "unnaturalness"; or Lily's comment that "one master passion in the breast … swallows all the rest" (p. 9) accurately describes Mary's maliciousness, Mrs. Tilford's righteousness, as well as Martha's love for Karen before the play ends. In one of Hellman's best deceptions of the intractable theater audience, Lily Mortar has the force of a daft Cassandra.

Mary Tilford is the theatrical caricature and complement to Lily Mortar's genuine social weakness. Mary feigns homesickness, fainting, even a heart attack in a Grand Guignol representation of weakness. Even though this whiner has her facts wrong in the play's Inquisition scene (there is no keyhole in the headmistress's bedroom door, as Mary claims, nor is the other headmistress's room near enough for the girl to overhear anything), Mary turns her calculated passive behavior into a triumph over authority and maturity, as once again moral disguise and meta-theatrics are closely linked. She is coyly frail, consciously retiring in scenes with Mrs. Mortar, her grandmother, and Dr. Cardin. She blackmails Rosalie, her chum, and then defers to Rosalie's facts. As an innocent bystander who sees and hears only inadvertently, she never once utters an incriminating word of her own. But in the end of the play, her mummery of passivity does her in, does not triumph.

Just as meta-theatrics permits moral disguise in Lily's incomplete Portia and Mary's failed Inquisition, so too does it become a metaphor for other forms of playing in The Children's Hour. Even structurally, the play proves deceptive. All the truth-revealing scenes are interrupted so that the continuous action of dramatic unravelling and revelation are missing from the play. By such sleight of structure, Hellman shifts the focus from blackmail, extortion, and lesbianism (more melodramatic topics) to the quiet business of redefining a moral capacity. The headmistresses' tense, oblique exchange of feelings about Karen's impending marriage is interrupted by Joe, Karen's fiance, with his talk of the black bulls "breeding in the hills." Eavesdropping girls behind the door halt Lily Mortar's discussion of Martha's "un-natural" sentiments for Karen. And as Mrs. Tilford begins to elaborate that "something horrible" is wrong with Karen, the young woman herself arrives to ask, "Is it a joke, Joe?" mistaking villainy for comedy. Hellman suggests complex new moral possibilities for passivity by giving a dramatically central role to the indirect revelations of Lily Mortar. At the same time, she mocks the theatrics of social passivity by linking it with moral disguise in both Lily and Mary Tilford. She will elaborate these possibilities throughout her playwriting career.

Hellman's general theme of duplicity is more specifically focused on two women characters and their portraits of passivity in The Little Foxes. Regina Hubbard Giddens feigns the role of the inept and demure Southern belle in a character study that is, in words Hellman once used to describe Dorothy Parker, a combination of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth. "I don't know about these things," Regina postures. "I shouldn't like to be too definite," she demurs about the family's business bargaining terms (p. 149). But Regina knows both terms and money. She has been systematically juggling her family's lives and fortunes for a long time. She puts her own daughter up for forty percent collateral in a deal, using her also as bait to get an invalid husband home. When told that her husband is dying, Regina can't understand "why people have to talk about this kind of thing" (p. 168). She uses her husband's reticence about committing money and finally even his death as bargaining tools that she wields sharply against her brothers. Outwitting the thieving Hubbards, she gets seventy-five percent of the money for herself, in an actively malignant parody of passivity. Once again, moral dissembling, social passivity, and meta-theatrics are linked in the character of Regina.

The dramatic complement to Regina's feigned passivity is the battered Aunt Birdie. Though Birdie is repeatedly belittled by her family, who claims she'll get a headache if she babbles too much truth—"that's a lie they tell for me," she knows (p. 183)—Birdie reveals the play's central and ironic truth. Flighty and high on elderberry wine, felled by a case of the hiccups, she nevertheless sets the shadowy standard for moral judgment in The Little Foxes. Early on, she begins telling more truth than the Hubbards care to hear: she recognizes ethical values. Although her father gave his life as a soldier in the war, she sees through the senseless "killing just for killing." She supports Horace's wishes when he is being pawned by the family's expediency and laments, "If only we could go back to Lionnet." But Birdie's values and her words are not so much nostalgia for an aristocratic past than desire for sources of information and power whereby Horace and Alexandra are able to check Regina's financial and personal manipulations. Birdie, the magpie chatterer who seems financially dominated and personally insignificant, utters the central, empowering moral judgment in the play. What she tells is that Oscar has "made their money charging awful interest to ignorant niggers and cheating them on what they bought" (p. 182). Her emotions are candid and unconventional, even if she does deliver them as pathetic memories and throwaway lines. She hates her own son Leo, warns her niece Alexandra against family dependency ("Don't love me. Because in twenty years you'll just be like me"), and debunks the myth of romantic love between herself and her husband: "Ask why he married me … My family was good and the cotton on Lionnet's field was better. Ben Hubbard wanted the cotton and Oscar Hubbard married it for him" (p. 182).

In the opening scene, Birdie criticizes the unethical behavior practiced by the new Southern industrialists and hints at what will become of the Hubbards in their ruthless use of one another. The information and influence she provides Alexandra and her allegiance to Horace prompt the younger woman's final refusal. Birdie's words give her "the courage to fight" instead of being "one of the people who stand around and watch." While good may not be rewarded or evil sufficiently punished in The Little Foxes, Hellman does expand and explore the character of those "little foxes whose vines have tender grapes" through the figure of Aunt Birdie. In Birdie's intoxicated asides, truth is given ultimate, though unlikely, power over apparently active evil. If not redeemed, the passive are victims redefined.

In The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes both Mary's pose as a battered child and Regina's feigned Southern belle routine set the stage for a very different sort of passivity. These two self-conscious dramas contrast with Birdie's intoxicated asides that narrate the Hubbard history, and Lily's erratic Portia and words whispered on the staircase—both of which create the circumstances on which the dramatic outcome of each play depends. The real moral quality of passivity (which Birdie in particular represents) triumphs over feigned artifice as it exists in Mary and Regina's meta-theatrics.

In Another Part of the Forest (1947), Lavinia claims to have a good memory. And indeed she has. Keeping her all night vigils, wandering about "colored" churches clutching her Bible, Lavinia is easily dismissed as a babbling, mad hanky-wringer. She even lives in silence for a decade on Marcus's promises that "next year they will talk." Like Ghandi, Lavinia literally and morally clings to the truth with an act of mind and will that proves her personal integrity. Unlike the old aristocratic Bagtrys, whose backward nostalgia "got in the way of history," Lavinia's throwaway comments make a curious kind of sense. "It's not easy to send your own husband into a hanging rope," she admits. For despite her dismissal as a crazy pipedreamer, Lavinia knows the truth about the viper's tangle of Hubbard family history. "Imagine taking money for other people's misery," she mutters about Marcus's rise to fortune. Years before, privy to her husband's cheating and lying—now a family trademark—she has recorded events in her Bible. Her facts prove that Marcus has run a blockade to scalp salt to the poor and dying during the war. She also knows that by his action he had been responsible for the Union massacre of twenty-seven Confederate boys in training camp.

Stifled now by a corrupt family, Lavinia tries repeatedly to air her secret, but fails. Instead, she develops an escape fantasy of teaching poor black children "the word" she has never uttered, only clutched. Unlike Mary Tilford's or Regina's postures, Lavinia's pretending functions as an imaginative moral restitution for the deceptive silence she has kept for over sixteen years. "There's got to be one little thing you do that you want to do, all by yourself you want to do it" (p. 332), she insists.

Once again in the Hellman canon, meta-theatrics—now in the form of Lavinia's pipedream of escape—becomes the vehicle for moral disguise. The hand-wringing, babbling Lavinia is really lucidly oversane. She is immune to bribery and nostalgic myths, just as she knows the difference between sacred vows and a bad marriage. Throughout the play, her asides reveal information about the suspicion cast on the family by Marcus's actions, about the "hot tar and clubs and ropes that night" (p. 377). But the truth she finally utters in act 3 allows her son Ben to check Marcus's power as well as his words, which, as Lavinia reminds them, do not match his actions. Supremely guileless, Lavinia toys with that gap between language and reality that has supported Marcus's fictive life: "Why Marcus," she reminds her husband about the incriminating information the prostitute Laurette has just volunteered, "The girl only told the truth. Salt is just a word, it's in the Bible quite a lot. And that other matter, why, death is also just a word" (p. 372).

Lavinia borrows words from her Bible, if not to prompt justice in the play, at least to offer a more lucid understanding of the nature of "truth" on which the dramatic action turns. "I only have what I have," she announces. Truth is neither brute power nor written facts, but "whatever people want to believe," Lavinia knows, "I'm not going to have any Bibles in my school. That surprise you all? It's the only book in the world but it's just for grown people, after you know it don't mean what it says" (p. 391). The chicanery of nearly every member of the family backfires, as Lavinia finally "tells the truth to everybody," clutching her Bible. She deals various members of the family symbolic gifts at the end of the play, proving not only the restoration of her memory, but her degree of moral sense that is not shared by even the shrewd Regina or the greedy Ben. Lavinia, perhaps even more than Mrs. Mortar or Birdie, deceives by redefining a social role of passivity as a capacity for moral understanding, fulfillment, even nuance.

With The Autumn Garden (1951), Hellman moves from crass entrepreneurs and claptrap confrontations to the muted haze of middle-life. In a world subtly Chekhovian—and in a play Hellman reluctantly admits is her best—she makes nostalgia a form of consciousness. Pity and compassion are the only bonding possible among weak, aging characters. Under the cabbage roses of the once grand Tuckerman boardinghouse, each character seems stalled in a particular version of the past—unfinished paintings, mothy romances, worn family legacies. Each is sunken into an after-dinner doze of self-deception: "I think as one grows older it is more and more necessary to reach out your hand for the sturdy old vines you knew when you were young and let them lead you back to the roots of things that matter" (p. 483). But it is precisely this waste that Hellman warns against in Autumn Garden through the action of two negligible women characters.

The dramatic situation develops when Nick Denerey, artist manqué with cosmopolitan pretensions, returns to the "summer mansion" of his childhood in order to grab onto those "sturdy old vines" just as they were twenty years before. His memories have never matured, however, only inflated his enormous capacity for myth, philandering, flirting, and do-gooder meddling. One night, on a drunken "rampage of good-will," he compromises the maid Sophie, who is Frederick's affianced. Servants and friends in the provincial town quickly learn the scandal of the boardinghouse. Ironically, the publication of the news combined with Sophie's ingenuity serves to rescue this indentured Cinderella from a miserable future life with Frederick Ellis and his mother. The outcome of the dilemma depends upon a few pungent perceptions of an old dismissible grandmother, Mrs. Ellis, who warns Sophie about the consequences of the gossip and saves her from a disastrous marriage of convenience with the son.

By virtue of their outcast status or age, both Sophie and old Mrs. Ellis are late examples of Hellman's artistically tooled "passives" who reclaim a social label as a dramatic strength. Both Sophie and Mrs. Ellis join the gallery of Lavinias, Lily Mortars and Birdies, catalysts for action who capitalize on a formerly narrow social quality, dramatically retrieving it. Amidst all the ruin of wasted lives, both of these characters manage to act realistically, not to doze or deceive. They stand in contrast to Rose, the "Army manual wife," who with fluttering eyelids and heart staves off the divorce that her husband the General so desperately wants. Like the faded buttercup Rose, or Ned Crossman, the boarder who makes his valedictories to a bottle of brandy, most of the other characters beg reality never to correct the "indefinite pronouns" of their Southern gentility.

Bored with this passel of self-deceivers, Mrs. Ellis has a strong grasp of the real issues of life—power, sensuality, money: "I say to myself, one should have power, or give it over. But if one keeps it, it might as well be used, with as little mealy-mouthness as possible" (p. 503). Like Granny in Albee's American Dream, who debunks myths by turning them back on the family, Mrs. Ellis is a straight shooter with a razor-sharp tongue who has built a solid financial empire for herself. She uses her power and her overheard words to create the situation that saves Sophie. Walter Kerr has compared her to "the goddess Athena in a snapbrim fedora," delivering her haymakers with aplomb.10 She knows that it's easy to afford the luxury of morality when somebody else "clips the coupons." She readily admits that the happiest years of her life are those she has spent in solitude since her husband's death. She chides Nick for inflicting his bear hugs, friendly pats, and tiny bursts of passion: "One should have sensuality whole or not at all." Mocking him as one of the "touchers and leaners," she asks if he doesn't find "pecking at it ungratifying." When Frederick discovers that his writer-friend Payson's real attraction to him is money, Mrs. Ellis orders him to "Take next week to be sad. A week's long enough to be sad in" (p. 509). She knows well the system of patronage in which people like Fred, a professional proofreader and simp, must pay for the interest of people like Payson with their literary coteries. Like Lily Mortar's words, Mrs. Ellis's non sequiturs (such as her speech that "nobody in the South has tapeworm anymore") describe candidly the parasitic relationships that surround her—Frederick and Carrie, Nick and Nina, Constance and Nick, Payson and Fred, Rose and the General.

Sophie, another minor female character, has a central dramatic role. She is the impoverished European niece, "indentured" to the family for her cultural and social status. Like Mrs. Ellis, she is far too pragmatic to be arrested in self-deceptions. In the words of General Griggs at the end of the play, Sophie spends her life "in training" for the big moment of her escape. Perceptually, verbally, and morally, she piles up a lot of little moments to stand on. Seemingly tongue-tied and retiring when she first appears, in the course of the play Sophie manages wry words for, and rare understanding of, the others' pretenses. She knows that decisions are made "only in order to speak about changing them." Quite matter of factly she says: "You know it is most difficult in another language. Everything in English sounds important. I get a headache from the strain of listening" (pp. 473-74). And to Constance: "I think perhaps you worry sometimes in order that you should not think" (p. 520). Sophie sees the social facade of Constance's romantic malingering: "Such a long, long time to stay nervous. Great love in tender natures.… It always happens that way with ladies. For them it is once and not again: it is their good breeding that makes it so" (p. 480). Sophie admits the bargain she is striking with Frederick (the exchange of social position for sexual cover); knows the prevalent social code for women ("little is made into very much here"); and knows also that "somehow sex and money are simpler in French" (pp. 536-37) than in the indirect metaphors and oblique rhetoric employed by the Ellises and Denerys.

Sophie is shrewd about the female ploys she uses to threaten Nina Denery with exposure of her husband's seduction: her word is ominous, but, held in reserve, carries the power of Lavinia's clutched Bible. "We will call it a loan, come by through blackmail" (p. 537), she says of the five thousand dollars she extorts as escape money with which she will return to Europe. She realistically turns Nick's playful charm-seduction-disposal game back on him by demanding the exact commission he was to receive for doing a portrait of Rose Griggs's homely niece. Most significantly, the trade value of her bargain, that is, her role as marriage counselor, is not lost on Sophie: "How would you and Mr. Denery go on living without such incidents as me? I have been able to give you a second, or a twentieth, honeymoon" (p. 538).

Linked in a socially negligible partnership, but oracular in their throwaway lines, Sophie and old Mrs. Ellis support one another both in dramatic action and verbal power. Now we see the collaboration of the passive, dismissible characters, extremes (impoverished youth to wry old age) on the continuum of life. With realistic savvy about money as power, they use the meta-theatrics of their social roles not for moral disguise, as do Regina and Mary Tilford, but as means to physical escape or greater self-awareness. Through their final camaraderie, we realize that Autumn Garden issues a stern warning reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's early stories: life is a valuable and precious trust whose capital must be invested early and wisely, set in a committed direction and tended energetically before mid-life, or its returns will never be reaped. If it is squandered, the Sophies of the world will deceive themselves into becoming Rose Griggses.

In Toys in the Attic (1960) the demented child-bride Lily Prine wanders about in her slip or with a nightgown over her dress, desperately trying to babble the truth of her suspicions about her roué husband, Julian Berniers. But the world of the Berniers sisters does not promote either candor or truthfulness: they dote on their pasts, on their renegade gambler brother, and on the colognes and candied oranges they trade with each other every week. As Carrie Berniers remarks to her sister, "Funny how you can live so close and long and not know things, isn't it?" (p. 687).

Like flighty Birdie Hubbard or muted Lavinia, Lily has knowledge but not audience, awareness but not articulation. She knows her husband talks every evening at six with "the not such a young lady with the sad face" (p. 701), the same woman seen with him on an Audubon Park bench. Lily cannot quite connect Julian's loss of the Chicago shoe factory with his current wealth that takes him away for so much of the day and permits him to buy ball gowns, pianos, and flaming red mantillas. When she guilelessly asks her questions, whispers her vagaries about the "not happenings of the night before," and mutters hallucinatory non-sequiturs, Lily is stifled by her husband Julian. He sends her to her room, locks her in a hotel, or reprimands her that "That's not the way to be married" (p. 702). As Lavinia clutches "the word" in the Bible, Lily Prine totes with her the "sacred knife of truth" (for which she traded her wedding ring in a morphine den), waiting for the moment when she might wield it.

The moment comes when Lily can tolerate no more of her husband's suspected infidelity. She phones Cyrus Warkins, the husband of the elusive other woman. In a babble of typical non-sequiturs, baby talk, and illogical words, she begs him for "just one more year with Julian," thereby revealing the liaison with Warkins's wife. But Lily's action—that slice of the "sacred knife of truth"—cuts grossly, mangles the truth.

The real stakes are far more dangerous than Julian's fictitious adultery. Julian's actual venture is a shady but lucrative business deal based on a tip about a couple of acres of swampland precious to Warkins. Warkins's wife, a sentimental old flame of Julian, has put him onto the scheme to rob her brutal husband of his fortune. Because of Lily's call, Charlotte Warkins is slashed up, Julian robbed and mugged by hired thugs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

PATRAKA COMMENTS ON THE "JULIA" EPISODE OF HELLMAN'S MEMOIR PENTIMENTO

Heroism itself is no longer the province of males, of fathers and sons vested with familial authority, when Hellman relocates acts of courage within a matrix of female friendships. The story marks the way Julia depends on this friendship to seduce Hellman via letters to come to Europe, recognize the gravity of what was happening, and risk carrying money across the border to Germany to secure the release of those interned in concentration camps. Even the props of this resistance work—fur hat and candy box—portray the paraphernalia of femininity as a strategy to defeat fascists instead of as a trivialized comic device. In its focus on female friendship, "Julia" historicizes the role of emotion and personal feeling outside the family and marriage in relation to politics.

Patraka, Vivian M. Excerpt from "Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine: Realism, Gender, and Historical Crisis." Modern Drama 32, no. 1 (March 1989).

Although Lily slices deeply with her knife of truth, she mismanages truth, which seems to have its own aesthetic momentum. She is not the catalyst for the dramatic outcome so crucial to the lives of the Berniers sisters. Curiously, her action returns Julian to a state of passivity, impotence, and dependency on his maiden sisters, who with their cloying affections, paltry fictions, and meagre savings, require his need for their very survival. As Anna says to Carrie after a painful confession scene: "I loved you and so whatever I knew didn't matter. You wanted to see yourself a way you never were. Maybe that's a game you let people play when you love them. Well, we had made something together, and the words would have stayed where they belonged as we waited for our brother to need us again. But our brother doesn't need us anymore, and so the poor house came down" (pp. 745-46).

Like so many Hellman characters, the negligible Lily has the oblique lucidity of the mad, as well as the practical savvy that is, literally, too direct for the Berniers' attic world of mismanaged truth: "I spoke to Mr. Warkins and told him to ask her to wait for Julian for one more year. After that, if Julian doesn't want me—Where would I ever go, who would ever want me? I'm trouble, we all know that. I wouldn't have anywhere to go" (p. 748). Just as the crusty, bohemian Albertine Prine steps in and returns Lily's knife of truth to the gypsy den, fetching back her wedding ring, so, too, does she return her daughter to her husband, counseling her in life-saving deceptions. Like Carrie, whose incestuous feelings for Julian have surfaced through Lily's action, Albertine Prine realizes that "you take your chances on being hated by speaking out the truth." She says to Lily, "Go in and sit by him. Just sit by him and shut up.…Can you have enough pity for him not to kill him with truth?" (p. 750).

Lillian Hellman plays passivity in her minor female characters the way a jazz musician ranges over musical notes. She improvises variations on a chordal progression that vibrates from Lily Mortar to Lily Prine; from inadvertent truth-telling to conscious moral restitution and shrewd self-awareness; from moral disguise (Lily in The Children's Hour ) to physical escape (Sophie in The Autumn Garden ). Close examination of the negligible women in each of the five plays suggests that Hellman is a consummate trickster both in characterization and in theme—a role for this contemporary dramatist only broached by current criticism. She never appears to be the drum banging melodramatist that critics of her work have insisted. As if to defy what she calls the "pretence of representation" in the theatre, its claptrap as well as its "tight, unbending, unfluid, meagre" form, Hellman cleverly tailors a socially assigned role—passivity—into variegated moral and dramatic authority. And the artistic as well as the moral clout of passive characters has grown increasingly complex as Hellman's playwriting has matured over a quarter of a century. Sophie is surely a more wry, sophisticated blackmailer than Mary Tilford; Mrs. Ellis, more consciously skilled than Lavinia in reversing family events; Lily Prine, a more thorough "undoer" than Lily Mortar. And in the case of Regina's wiles or Mary Tilford's theatrics, Hellman tricks up a counterpoint to the authentic truth-tellers, those who clutch their own word with stubborn personal integrity.

By a painful arithmetic of craft, Lillian Hellman reexamines language, theatrical convention, and the calculated effects of acting and staging, as well as passivity. Shunning "labels and isms," she formally realizes the hazards of moral, verbal, and theatrical absolutes in the effect of these minor characters on the dramatic outcome. Her "spit-inthe-eye" rebelliousness proclaims that the just and the worthy are never adequately credited by social labels, no more than her dismissible women are justly summed up by the inelastic social appearance of passivity. The writer's skill prevails, Hellman insists, not society's foibles: "The manuscript, the words on the page, was what you started with and what you have left … the pages are the only wall against which to throw the future or measure the past."11 Hellman's words—but especially the words and actions of the passive women in five major plays—suggest not only new possibilities for moral being, a new range of expression for female behavior, but also a new approach to reevaluating Lillian Hellman's playwriting skills.

Notes

  1. Surely one of the best recent portraits of Hellman as a spunky, rebellious life force is John Hersey's essay, "Lillian Hellman," New Republic, 18 Sept. 1976, pp. 25-27. Hersey speaks of her outside the formal politics with which she is often associated: "She cuts through all ideologies to their taproot: To the decency their adherents universally profess but almost never deliver" (p. 27). The phrase "Bohemia bumps into Calvin" is Hersey's.
  2. Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination (1975; reprint, New York: Avon, 1976), p. 381.
  3. An Unfinished Woman (1969; rpt., New York: Bantam, 1970), pp. 164, 23, 167; Pentimento (1973; rpt., New York: New American Library-Signet, 1973).
  4. Citations are to The Collected Plays (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1972). Page numbers appear in the text.
  5. Doris Falk, Lillian Hellman (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1978), pp. 29-34.
  6. See Mary Ellmann, Thinking About Women (1968; reprint, New York: Harvest Books, 1968), pp. 78-82. Ellmann bases her discussion on Samuel Beckett's Malloy.
  7. Ellmann, pp. 81-82.
  8. Spacks, chapter 2, "Power and Passivity," in The Female Imagination.
  9. Meta-theatre departs from tragedy or psychological realism to produce, instead, the calculated effects of acting and stage design. In something "meta-theatrical," we are convinced not of reality, but of the reality of the dramatic imagination before the playwright has begun to exercise his/her own. In brief, meta-theatre or meta-theatrics suggests the inherent theatricality of life or an event. See Lionel Abel, Metatheatre (New York: Hill and Wang, 1963).
  10. Walter Kerr, "A Nearly Perfect 'Autumn Garden,'" New York Times, 28 November 1976, sec. D, p. 42, col. 4.
  11. Pentimento, p. 151.