Generally considered America’s first major female playwright, Lillian Hellman succeeded in her initial attempt at drama by creating The Children’s Hour. It ran longer than any of her subsequent plays: 691 performances, followed by productions on the road and in London and Paris. Being banned in Boston, Chicago, and London only added to its fame. In addition, it twice became a movie, which was known as These Three in 1936 and called by its original title in the 1962 version.
The play’s emphasis on lesbianism shocked audiences during the 1930’s, although several plays on the same theme had appeared on the American stage during the preceding decade: Edouard Bourdet’s La prisonniere (pr. 1926; The Captive, 1927), Katharine Clugston’s These Days (pr., pb. 1928), and Christa Winsloe’s Girls in Uniform (pb. 1933). The clarity of Hellman’s characterizations and her suspenseful plot, realism, serious theme, and indignant tone stirred audiences and critics of the day, who compared the playwright to Ibsen, Eugene O’Neill, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov.
Critics consider The Children’s Hour one of Hellman’s four greatest plays; The Little Foxes (pr., pb. 1939), The Autumn Garden (pr., pb. 1951), and Toys in the Attic (pr., pb. 1960), all set in the American South, also stand out in the Hellman canon. Although all of her plays are realistic, her early ones resemble Ibsen in theme and tone, while her later ones are more like Chekhov’s work in that they capture the essence of human existence.
Based on an actual case in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910, the plot of Hellman’s play came largely from a book of crime stories by William Roughead, titled Bad Companions (1930) and recommended to Hellman by Dashiell Hammett. Hellman crafted her work carefully, dealing with issues of social significance and early displaying her ability to create convincing characters through dialogue. Her believable portrayal of an evil child and her refusal to allow her characters to avoid unpleasant confrontations helped her to create a memorable work of art. The Children’s Hour is, as Katherine Lederer states, “a remarkable play for a beginning playwright.”