The Children's Hour Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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.

The Children's Hour Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Children’s Hour was a shocking play for its time. It was based on an actual incident in nineteenth century Scotland, in which a pupil accused her schoolteachers of lesbianism. The word itself is never spoken in The Children’s Hour, but the mere hint of it—the innuendo that there is something “unnatural” going on between Martha Dobie and Karen Wright—is enough to damn them in the eyes of their community. Mary, the child who levels the charge against her teachers, has been spoiled by her grandmother and has learned early how to manipulate adults. Her doting grandmother is shocked by Mary’s allegations and takes it upon herself to withdraw Mary from the school and to advise other parents to do the same.

It is the power of the lie, of a child’s tenacious unwillingness to speak the truth even when it means the ruin of several lives, that accounts for the enormous power of the play. Mary is mean, plain evil, a point Hellman makes shrewdly in scenes that show how Mary intimidates a schoolmate into lying to support her charge against the teachers. Hellman works her audience’s emotions into a fine sense of outrage at how a big lie is capable of gripping a society’s imagination. Not a political play in itself, The Children’s Hour nevertheless has political implications, as it exposes the way mass psychology can be manipulated to serve falsehood. Realizing the importance of this theme, Hellman directed a revival...

(The entire section is 592 words.)

The Children's Hour Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman’s first successful drama, was an immediate sensation because it concerns lesbianism, a subject that the American theater had previously ignored. For Hellman, however, the intended focus was the maliciousness of society in its rush to judgment and its willingness to condemn and ostracize those who are wrongfully accused.

In the play, two young women friends, Martha Dobie and Karen Wright, run a New England girls’ school. Mary Tilford, a student, determines to avenge herself on the women for what she sees as unnecessary discipline. Mary leads her grandmother, the influential Mrs. Amelia Tilford, to believe that Martha and Karen have an “unnatural affection” for each other.

Parents believe the unproved accusations and pull their children out of school. In a confrontation scene with Mrs. Tilford, Martha attacks Mary’s credibility and maintains that Karen and she are innocent of the accusations. They are defended to no avail by Karen’s fiancé, Dr. Joseph Cardin, who is Mrs. Tilford’s nephew. By act 3, the women have lost their court case against Mrs. Tilford and have no hope of reopening their school. Although Dr. Cardin offers escape by starting a new life in Europe, his doubts about the relationship between the two women surface, and he and Karen part. Martha, who has vehemently denied any reality to the lesbian accusations, finally admits to Karen that she has been in love with her and has been...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

The Children's Hour Summary

Act I
The Children's Hour opens in the living room of a New England farmhouse that Martha Dobie and Karen Wright have...

(The entire section is 1276 words.)

The Children's Hour Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the living room of the Wright-Dobie private girls’ school, seven girls aged twelve to fourteen conjugate Latin verbs and read aloud from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600). Fussily trying to teach the girls elocution, decorum, and sewing—all at once, to the girls’ amusement—is school cofounder Martha Dobie’s aging aunt, former actress Lily Mortar. Student Mary Tilford, tardy for the study session, explains that she was detained gathering April flowers for Lily. When grateful Lily sends “sweet” Mary for a vase for the flowers, Mary disdainfully sticks her tongue out at a classmate.

When twenty-eight-year-old Karen Wright enters, the girls’ tone changes...

(The entire section is 1090 words.)