Hellman, Lillian: Title Commentary

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The Little Foxes
The Children's Hour

The Little Foxes


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Of course I believe in women's liberation, but it seems to make very little sense in the way it's going. Until women can earn their own living, there's no point in talking about brassieres and lesbianism. While I agree with women's liberation and ecology and all the other good liberal causes, I think at this minute they're diversionary—they keep your eye off the problems implicit in our capitalist society. As a matter of fact, they're implicit in socialist society, too, I guess. It's very hard for women, hard to get along, to support themselves, to live with some self-respect. And in fairness, women have often made it hard for other women. I think some men give more than women give. The world seems so sharply divided into people who get so much for giving nothing and those who get nothing and give so much. Dashiell Hammett used to say I had the meanest jealousy of all. I had no jealousy of work, no jealousy of money. I was just jealous of women who took advantage of men, because I didn't know how to do it.

Ephron, Nora. Excerpt from "Lillian Hellman Walking, Cooking, Writing, Talking," 1973. In Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

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The Children's Hour


SOURCE: Griffin, Alice, and Geraldine Thorsten. "The Children's Hour. "In Understanding Lillian Hellman, pp. 27-38. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

In the following essay, Griffin and Thorsten discuss the moral implications of The Children's Hour.

"This is not really a play about lesbianism, but about a lie," said Lillian Hellman, describing The Children's Hour to a reporter. "The bigger the lie, the better, as always."1 Opening on Broadway on 20 November 1934, the play centers upon two young women who open a school for girls and are destroyed when a malicious student charges them with lesbianism. By emphasizing the characters of Karen Wright and Martha Dobie and developing action that is as believable as it is theatrical, Hellman drove home her serious theme and achieved, at the age of twenty-nine, an immediate hit that would run for 691 performances.

Because lesbianism was a taboo subject in 1934, the play was banned in Boston, Chicago, and London. Despite its critical and public success in New York and France, it failed to earn the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1935 because of its subject matter. New York theater critics protested by forming the Drama Critics' Circle, which has been presenting its own awards ever since.

Although The Children's Hour was a shocking, controversial play that took courage to write and to produce, it contained certain safeguards that made it morally acceptable. The charge that Karen Wright and Martha Dobie are in a lesbian relationship is untrue, for it is the fabrication of teenager Mary Tilford, a prototypical "bad seed." Karen is in love with and engaged to Dr. Joe Cardin. Martha, who begins to suspect toward the end of the play that she may be a lesbian, commits suicide immediately after sharing that revelation with Karen. In compliance with the 1930s view of homosexuality, she pays with her life for her "crime," an action to satisfy the most conservative audience.

While the sensationalism of the subject had to account in some part for the play's success, Hellman, who considered herself primarily "a moral writer," is concerned here with the harm done by so-called "good people," who do not challenge evil. It is the theme of Hellman's best-known play, The Little Foxes, and was to recur in her writing and her life from 1934 on. The character who accepts Mary's lie at face value is her wealthy grandmother, Amelia Tilford, a patron of the school.

Hellman found her plot, at the suggestion of Dashiell Hammett, in a chapter about an Edinburgh lawsuit called "Closed Doors; or, the Great Drumsheugh Case," in Bad Companions, a book written by law historian William Roughead. She retained such elements of the original account as the fourteen-year-old student's false charge; her resolute, patrician grandmother; the difficult, interfering aunt of one of the women; and the close relationship between the two teachers—one nervous and high-strung and the other stable and placid. Hellman added a fiancé for Karen (to clarify at the onset the fact that the charge is a lie), developed all of the characters, and carried the action forward with ever-increasing tension. The amazing final scene combines the characters' self-revelation and discovery with the kind of theatrical punch that would mark Hellman's plays in the future.

As women are central to Hellman's plays and memoirs, they reflect women's position in society at the time of writing. Karen and Martha are women who earn their own money and achieve the power and independence this brings. Unlike Regina in The Little Foxes, set in 1900, who without money is dependent on what she is given by or can manipulate from men, these women in their late twenties have the teaching and administrative skills that have made the school a success.

Joe, who is more egalitarian than most men were at that time, supports Karen's desire to continue her career after their marriage and respects the women's dedication to the school. In the second scene of act 2, after Mrs. Tilford has summarily withdrawn Mary from the school and warned others to do the same, he champions the women to his aunt: "They've worked eight long years to save enough money to buy that farm, to start that school. They did without everything that young people ought to have … That school meant things to them: self-respect, and bread and butter, and honest work."

Young Mary Tilford is so appalling yet mesmerizing a creation that audiences mistook her for the central character and could not understand why she was absent from act 3. Even critics were baffled and faulted Hellman's structuring of the play, but Hellman never intended her as the main character or planned for her to be "the utterly malignant creature which playgoers see in her." Hellman explains that "on the stage a person is twice as villainous as, say, in a novel."2 The fact that Mary's lie is of a sexual nature intensifies its impact. In the thirties, children, especially girls, were shielded from sexual information and were believed to be uninterested in sex until late puberty. Mary's lie succeeds because adults in her community find it inconceivable that she should know about a lesbian relationship unless she had seen actual evidence of it, and Mary is clever enough to disguise how much she has learned from reading illicit French novels. In telling her story to her grandmother, she gives a convincing portrayal of young innocence unaware of the import of what she is saying. Another reason Mary still has the power to horrify is that Hellman anchors her behavior in reality, drawing upon memories of her own childhood bullying and lying to get her way.3

Because Karen is a teacher who believes in being fair and treating the granddaughter of a patron the same as the other students, Mary cannot wheedle her way out when Karen catches her in a lie about picking flowers for Mrs. Mortar, a bouquet she actually found in an ashcan. That Mary will not retreat from so trivial a lie, despite Karen's sympathetic appeals, foreshadows Mary's obduracy in act 2 in defense of her far greater lie. Her blackmailing and bullying of schoolmates in order to run away from the school are also the same techniques she will use in the second act to maintain the lie that allows her the freedom of life with her permissive grandmother.

Mary's grandmother, Amelia Tilford, is a type who will appear regularly in Hellman's plays: the wealthy widow who has been content to be provided for handsomely first by her father and then by her husband. Whether Hellman's portrayal is positive, as it is of Fanny Farrelly in Watch on the Rhine, or less sympathetic, as here with Mrs. Tilford, the character is a woman who does not think for herself but has inherited her views, principles, and status from the men in her life. Because her principles are hers only superficially, Mrs. Tilford deserts them when she is confronted with a crisis. One would expect her to investigate Mary's story and to confront Karen and Martha first with what she has heard. However, the lie Mary tells so challenges Mrs. Tilford's concept of the right order of things that after only the most cursory questioning of its truth, she is stampeded into acting. Mrs. Tilford also is led astray by self-righteousness, another failing of which Hellman is critical in the plays. Not only does Amelia Tilford believe her opinions are infallible, but so does the community: when she accepts Mary's lie as truth and alerts the parents, they immediately withdraw their children from the school.

Karen Wright and Martha Dobie command attention and interest almost equally until the end of the play. Although both are competent, intelligent, and committed to their work, they differ in the degree to which they are independent. Martha is less so by virtue of her situation and her temperament. It is Karen's small capital they use to start their venture, a financial disparity that means Martha is not on an equal footing. It is Karen who is more determined to be self-sufficient: she objects when Martha suggests that Karen's fiancé discuss Mary's behavior with his aunt, Mrs. Tilford: "That would be admitting we can't do the job ourselves." On the subject of their retaining Martha's aunt, the incompetent Lily Mortar, Karen can act more firmly. In act 1 she asks Martha outright: "Couldn't we get rid of her soon, Martha? I hate to make it hard on you but she really ought not to be here."

At the close of this conversation, Martha, learning that Karen and Joe plan to marry at the end of the term, is stunned: "You haven't talked of marriage for a long time," as if she had lulled herself into believing that the marriage would never become a reality. Karen's response, "I've talked of it with Joe," again points up the difference between them. Karen has both her close friendship with Martha and an intimate relationship with Joe, another claim on her loyalty and love. Martha has only her friendship with Karen, and is understandably fearful of losing the one relationship that has emotional resonance for her. Their earlier discussion of vacation plans highlights Martha's greater need for Karen and Karen's somewhat unrealistic attitude about the impact her marriage will have on their lives. Martha has envisioned a vacation for just the two of them, like one they had during their college years; Karen's vision is similar, except it is just the three of them. Whether or not Karen is willing to admit it, her marriage will make a difference, and Martha's outcry is the anguish of the one who stands to lose the most from the changes it will bring.

To balance Martha's dependency, Hellman endows her with a sharp sense of humor. This is not a play rife with humor; the issues it deals with are too somber for that. But the occasional wit that enlivens the otherwise serious dialogue is usually Martha's. When Joe semijokingly boasts in act 1 that the Tilfords are "a proud old breed," Martha retorts, "The Jukes were an old family, too."

Conversations with Aunt Lily Mortar suggest why Martha is "nervous and highstrung," tense, with low self-esteem. While Amelia Tilford will gain, at enormous cost, understanding and integrity, Mrs. Mortar undergoes no such transformation. Vain and self-centered, a mediocre actress who no longer can find work, she has been hired as an elocution teacher because Martha feels indebted for her upbringing, despite a childhood with Aunt Lily that was neither happy nor comfortable. Seeing herself as a victim in order to put others in the wrong, Lily twists Martha's offer of a pension, if she will leave: "You're turning me out? At my age! Nice grateful girl you are." She does not leave soon enough, for it is her malicious remarks to Martha, overheard by Evelyn and Peggy, that provide the basis for Mary's lie.

Lily Mortar accuses Martha outright of being jealous of Joe and "unnatural" in her affection for Karen, and compounds this by claiming that Martha was "always like that even as a child." Aunt Lily concludes with, "Well, you'd better get a beau of your own now—a woman of your age," an admonition guaranteed to stir anxiety in virtually any woman's heart in those days. Inspired by mere pique, her malice is an assault on Martha's inmost self, and gains unfairly in strength from her role as Martha's surrogate mother, the person, presumably, who has known her best. Her remarks serve to cast Martha's sexuality in an ambiguous light in act 1 and to make Martha's self-revelation and subsequent action in act 3 believable, although nonetheless shocking.

The tragic events Mary's lie sets in motion affect Karen profoundly, but they are external to her. Her essential self remains intact. Philip M. Armato believes Karen lacks compassion for Mrs. Mortar and Mary Tilford and that these characters treat her as she has treated them. He claims Karen's punishment of Mary is unduly harsh and that Mary is justified in feeling persecuted.4 A careful reading of this scene fails to support this view. Karen is both reasonable and compassionate toward Mary; she also is committed to making a success of her business. Her compassion, therefore, is exercised within the larger context of the school, of ensuring that it is a wholesome environment, with standards of discipline maintained by all students.

Karen's discipline of Mary demonstrates her courage. Given their dependence on Mrs. Tilford's goodwill and financial backing, it would have been easy for Karen to let Mary off with only a token punishment, but she does not. Neither does she shrink from confronting Mrs. Tilford in act 2 to demand an explanation for her abrupt withdrawal of support. Nor in act 3 does she avoid the painful reality that her relationship with Joe is no longer tenable and, with compassion for his anguish, releases him from their engagement.

It is also Karen who has the courage to broach the subject of lesbianism, saying, "But this isn't a new sin they tell us we've done. Other people aren't destroyed by it." But Karen speaks as one for whom the charge is external, imposed on them by the outside world. Martha, on the other hand, internalizes that charge and sees herself through the lens society holds up to her. Underlying the tension characteristic of Martha's personality is a brittleness, at once fragile and rigid, born of her conviction that there is and always has been something radically "wrong" with her. Mary Tilford's lie seems to offer a plausible explanation of the truth about herself.

Despite Martha's wit, her efforts at independence, and her battle against her aunt's attacks, she has achieved neither full self-awareness nor true independence of mind. Hellman explains that "suspecting herself of lesbian desires, not lesbian acts, but lesbian desires, and thus feeling that the charge made against her had some moral truth, although no actual truth," Martha convicts herself of a thought crime and summarily executes herself.5 The evidence she cites—that she has never felt an intense attachment to anybody but Karen and has "never loved a man"—could be construed as indicating a lesbian cast to her sexuality. Neither the audiences nor critics had any difficulty accepting her judgment at face value. Martha feels she is to blame for the disaster that has befallen them, and yet her claims to that guilt are framed in "I don't know" and "maybe." In one short speech, for example, she repeats the word "maybe" four times, giving the scene a disturbing ambiguity. Judith Olauson observes that the "allegations are believed first by the town, then by friends, and finally by the two women themselves."6 Martha may be mistaken about herself, for one of the awful powers of such a lie is to convince its victims to believe the image of themselves devised by their oppressors.

Critics saw Hellman as influenced by Ibsen in her careful plotting, social realism, and use of violence. Jacob Adler cites Martha's suicide, Mary's extortion of money from Peggy, and her blackmail of Rosalie as reminiscent of Ibsen's technique.7 Hellman had a flair for dramatic ways to capture and hold audience attention, but the devices she uses are not for theatricality alone; they are logical extensions of character or situation. In The Children's Hour, Mary Lynn Broe observes, "all the truth-revealing scenes are interrupted so that the continuous action of dramatic unraveling 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."8 By limiting to the first two acts Mary's presence in the play as the agent of destruction, Hellman in act 3 shifts the audience's attention from the means Mary uses to the wreckage that has resulted from her lie.

With an excellent ear for American speech, Hellman employs language and rhythm to convey character. Her preliminary notes describe Karen as the "voice of reason, straight, clear, dull but educated, balanced, unemotionally awakened."9 This contrasts with Martha's more fiery, nervous qualities and tension. Their respective dialogue reveals that Karen's speeches are smooth, stable, verging on brisk, and containing no surprises, whereas Martha's are choppy, fragmented, and wry, with unexpected turns. Hellman's use of language to support and underscore action is evident in the final act, for which her notes indicate that "after the suicide, no one must talk with the same words or rhythms as they have before."10 Through such dislocations of speech, the emotional impact of the tragedy is conveyed, although there is little discussion of the suicide.

The wintry desolation of act 3 is in stark contrast to the hopeful, springtime bustle of act 1, alive with schoolgirls, teachers, and fiancé. A significant drop in energy in act 3 accords with the hopelessness of Karen and Martha, who are the picture of defeat as the act opens, with Karen in an armchair and Martha lying on the sofa. A long two to three minutes of silence indicates to the audience how barren their lives have become. The act proceeds with a further stripping away: first Lily Mortar, then Joe, and finally Martha, so that when Mrs. Tilford arrives to say she has discovered Mary was lying and now wants to make reparations, the irony is complete. Karen's pallid inquiry, "Is it nice out?" hints at the return of hope, and the action comes to a close with commonplaces about the weather signaling the return of normal life.

Not everyone was satisfied with this ending, including Hellman, but she would allow no one else to tinker with her plot. In the course of time, she became convinced that the play should have ended with Martha's suicide. However, for the 1952 revival, she says, "I worked for weeks and weeks trying to take out the last eight or ten minutes of the play, which sounds very easy, as if I could have done it, but I couldn't do it. It had been built into the play … so far back, that I finally decided that a mistake was as much a part of you as a non-mistake, and that I had better leave it alone before I ended up with nothing."11

The success of The Children's Hour opened the door to Hollywood for Hellman as a screen-writer. She adapted the play for the screen as These Three, in which she converted the slander to infidelity to satisfy the Hayes Office's strict moral code. In 1962 The Children's Hour, with a script by John Michael Hayes from an outline by Hellman, was one of the first movies to be made under the liberalized production codes that replaced the Hayes regulations. In addition to its stagings through the years in the professional and nonprofessional theater, two major revivals were to have an impact. The first was in 1952 during the Mc-Carthy era, with the production and its implications about "the big lie" causing a good deal of controversy, being praised or maligned according to one's political inclinations. In 1995 an acclaimed production by the Royal National Theatre in London testified to the endurance of "one of the most compelling works to emerge from the serious American theatre before Blanche DuBois and Willy Loman arrived on Broadway in the late 1940s."12


  1. Harry Gilroy, "The Bigger the Lie," in The Children's Hour: Acting Edition (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1953), 3.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Margaret Case Harriman, "Miss Lily of New Orleans: Lillian Hellman," in Take Them up Tenderly (New York: Knopf, 1944), 102.
  4. Philip M. Armato, "'Good and Evil' in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. Mark W. Estrin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989), 73-78.
  5. Fred Gardner, "An Interview with Lillian Hellman" (1968), in Conversations with Lillian Hellman, ed. Jackson R. Bryer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), 110.
  6. Judith Olauson, The American Woman Playwright: A View of Criticism and Characterization (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1981), 34.
  7. Jacob Adler, "The Dramaturgy of Blackmail in the Ibsenite Hellman," in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. Mark W. Estrin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989), 34.
  8. Mary Lynn Broe, "Bohemia Bumps into Calvin: The Deception of Passivity in Lillian Hellman's Drama," in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. Mark W. Estrin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989), 82.
  9. Carl Rollyson, Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (New York: St. Martin's, 1988), 66.
  10. Manfred Triesch, The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966), 104.
  11. Gardner, "Interview," 111.
  12. Mark W. Estrin, "Introduction," in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. Mark W. Estrin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989), 2.