Hellman found the story upon which she based this play in a nineteenth century criminal case recounted in Bad Companions (1931), by William Roughead. In that story, two women who headed a boarding school in Scotland were falsely accused of lesbianism by a student in 1810. Though Hellman’s source also emphasizes the theme of lesbianism and the problems of defining and controlling female sexuality, Hellman herself, in talking about the play, tended to deemphasize the lesbian theme. She spoke of it as a play about good and evil, about class power, and about scandal-mongering. The theme of scandal-mongering, or the “big lie,” came to seem more important when the play was revived in New York in 1952, shortly after Hellman’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where she refused to name acquaintances who might have been connected with suspected communist organizations. She managed, however, to avoid the fate of her lover, Dashiell Hammett, who was imprisoned in 1951 for contempt of Congress when he refused to give names.
To later scholars, the play’s sexual themes seem central because the outcome turns on an accusation of lesbianism. The power of this accusation depends upon silence not merely about lesbianism, but about female sexuality as a whole. No one in the play can say the word “lesbian,” not only because New York playgoers were queasy about the subject in the 1930’s but also because to the characters the very idea is an unspeakable horror. When Joe questions Mary about her story, Amelia is most horrified at the prospect that he will make Mary name what she claims to have seen. All the characters believe lesbianism to be so defiling and corrupting that the very charge proves guilt and, that if the young girls hear of it, they themselves are liable to be infected. Even Joe’s love for Karen cannot prevent his suspecting her. Once Mary has accused the teachers of lesbianism, a specter looms behind the action. This specter may be understood in part as the assumed instability of female sexuality, an instability that requires the most rigid social control.
In this school for adolescent girls, sexuality is not spoken of. The girls know that they must satisfy...
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