Study Guide

The Children's Hour

by Lillian Hellman

The Children's Hour Essay - Critical Essays (Drama for Students)

Critical Overview

Two versions of The Children's Hour have been staged. The original was used in the play's very successful premier at the Maxine Elliot Theatre in New York, starting on November 20, 1934. The play, produced and directed by Herman Shumlin, ran for a record-breaking 691 performances and immediately established Hellman's durable reputation. It also provoked considerable controversy.

The second version, staged in 1952, failed financially, although most critics and reviewers praised it. Hellman, in addition to making minor revisions in the script, directed the production. It opened at the Coronet Theatre on Broadway on December 18, ran for 189 performances, and later went on the road to play in Chicago, a city that had originally banned the work. Controversy still surrounded the piece, but the grounds had shifted away from the lesbian theme to the work's relevance to the congressional anti-communist hearings then in progress. It was in 1952 that Hellman, already blacklisted in Hollywood, was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Much of the notoriety surrounding the first production was based on what at the time was perceived as its sensational content. Shumlin knew the play would shock the audience, and so did Lee Shubert, the Elliot's owner, who, Hellman recounts in her memoir Pentimento, complained during rehearsals that the production "could land us all in jail." However, the New York authorities merely winked, though officials in Boston, Chicago, and London banned public performances of the play outright

The critical judgments passed on the initial staging were mostly favorable. Reviewer Ide Gruber, in Golden Book, was quick to label it a "powerful and gripping" adult drama, "well-written and well-acted." A few hailed Hellman a new genius of the "well made" play in the tradition of Ibsen and Anton Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard), touting, too, her courage as a writer willing to put her new career in harm's way with a frank treatment of a taboo subject. For Percy Hammond, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, the play had the power to make the audiences' "eyes start from their sockets," in scenes moving "so fast they almost tread upon one another's...

(The entire section is 922 words.)