The Children’s Hour is a combative play that challenged the moral values of contemporary American society. Its story is about two women who run a private school for girls. When they are unjustly accused by a pupil of being lesbians, outraged community members withdraw their children, forcing the school to close. When one of the women realizes that she is sexually attracted to her colleague, she commits suicide.
Before Lillian Hellman wrote The Children’s Hour, several Broadway plays had addressed lesbianism; however, her own play struck harder at the pieties and conventions of contemporary life. It suggested that intolerance could result in witch-hunts ruining careers and lives. As much as its implied sexual content, the play’s implicit political content led to its censorship. In 1952, during the midst of McCarthyist attacks on leftists and communists, for example, Hellman’s leftist political beliefs made revival of The Children’s Hour again a cause célèbre. The Broadway production of the play was not censored; however, copies of the play were removed from overseas U.S. libraries, and Hellman was blacklisted in Hollywood.
Hellman adapted her play to the screen in 1936, changing its title to These Three and altering its plot, so that it involved a heterosexual love triangle instead of lesbianism. A more faithful adaptation was filmed in 1962, when censorship standards had been relaxed.