The Children's Hour Analysis

Historical Context

At the time that Hellman wrote The Children's Hour, in 1934, the United States was still mired in the economic doldrums of the Great...

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The Children's Hour The Play (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Children’s Hour opens in the living room of the Wright-Dobie School for girls, on a late afternoon in April. Mrs. Lily Mortar reclines with closed eyes as seven girls sit sewing and an eighth girl, Peggy, reads Portia’s speech on mercy from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c.1596-1597). Mrs. Mortar establishes herself as affected and insincere amid the chatter of the girls and is easily manipulated by Mary, who enters late with a wilted bouquet. When one of the owners, Karen Wright, comes into the room, the atmosphere changes to one of respect from all the girls except Mary, who, having been caught in a lie, complains that Karen treats her unjustly and faints, grabbing at her heart.

Karen carries Mary offstage and then converses with her partner, Martha Dobie, about Mary’s troublemaking and about Mrs. Mortar’s unwelcome presence at the school. When Karen mentions that she plans to marry Dr. Joe Cardin later in the spring, Martha becomes nervous and accuses Karen of deserting her. Just then, Joe enters and goes to examine Mary, while Martha offers to send her aunt, Mrs. Mortar, to London. The aunt’s anger at her niece’s proposal climaxes when she accuses Martha of always having been “unnatural” in her feelings for women friends, an accusation which two of the schoolgirls overhear; the eavesdroppers reveal their presence by dropping a book.

When Joe reenters and discusses his marriage plans with Martha, she curses him and then cries on his shoulder. Karen returns and has Martha send for Mary and her two roommates, whom she assigns to separate quarters. Left alone, Mary forces her two friends to disclose the details of the conversation they have just overheard. She then determines to return to her grandmother and twists the arm of one of the girls, making her relinquish her allowance for Mary’s taxi fare.

In act 2, scene 1, Mary encounters her grandmother’s maid, Agatha, to whom she lies regarding her return home. Agatha has little sympathy for the girl and reluctantly summons Mrs. Tilford from her bath. Playing on her grandmother’s love for her, Mary complains about the conditions at school, embellishing...

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The Children's Hour Dramatic Devices (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The methods which Lillian Hellman uses to characterize her most actively evil character, Mary, contrast with her subtler methods in the characterization of Karen. Mary is associated with a number of specific details: wilted flowers, a stolen bracelet, a broken vase, a twisted arm, and a faked heart attack. Such concreteness in imaging evil follows Dante’s technique in the Inferno. Karen, whose last name, Wright, is perhaps intentionally symbolic, comes to life in contrast to the more volatile Martha, who curses both her aunt and Mrs. Tilford. In characterizing Karen, Hellman relies not on specifics but on abstractions such as gentleness, dignity, pleasantness, attractiveness, and warmth, a device used by Dante in his Paradiso. Karen seems in touch with the internal world when she compares her ostracism to the “black mess” of dreams, the nightmare state which contrasts to the “solid world” of wakefulness. It is, however, the solid world, shown at its most destructive in Mary, which threatens to destroy Karen’s dreams.

Hellman also relies heavily on suspense, foreshadowing, audience involvement, and confrontation. She early reveals Martha’s jealousy of Joe, expressed not only to Karen but also to Joe and through Mrs. Mortar. The stolen bracelet is mentioned from the play’s beginning, when Karen expresses concern to its owner, Helen. The bracelet resurfaces regularly, so that the reiteration prepares the audience for its...

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The Children's Hour Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Wright-Dobie School

Wright-Dobie School. Girls’ school, near the fictional town of Lancet in rural New England, that is the play’s principal setting. A modest but comfortable private residential school, it uses a large converted farmhouse that contains both residential units and classrooms for a small group of middle-school girls. Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, the teachers and owners, also live in the building.

Although the action of the first and third acts occurs in the living room, the layout and location of the school are significant. Especially important is a lack of privacy. The schoolgirls easily overhear adult conversations that can be misinterpreted—to the detriment of Karen and Martha. The malicious schoolgirl Mary Tilford persuasively claims that she and other students have witnessed or overheard a sexual encounter between the two teachers.

The school’s rural isolation is important in the third act. The two accused teachers live alone, cut off from the village culture that rejects them and leers at them, making them feel they are prisoners on display. This isolation contrasts with the hope of escaping to Vienna, Austria, that Karen’s fiancé, Joe Cardin, offers near the end of the original script. In her 1952 revision of the script for a revival during Congress’s infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings, Lillian Hellman changed Joe’s proposed escape to a place even bleaker than the empty school—an unspecified American farming country in the middle of nowhere.

Amelia Tilford’s living room

Amelia Tilford’s living room. Home of Mrs. Tilford, the grandmother of the malicious Mary. The fact that Mrs. Tilford is wealthy but old-fashioned is reflected in her home, which appears to be in the village of Lancet; however, this is not made clear in the script. The size and comparative emptiness of her house are important in the play’s second act, when Mary has the opportunity to be alone with her schoolmate Rosalie, whom she intimidates into confirming her own story about Karen and Martha’s alleged sexual encounter. The house’s location near the center of village life and the visual evidence of Mrs. Tilford’s social and moral authority help to establish her power to close the school and to win the libel suit brought by Karen and Martha.

The Children's Hour Literary Style

Setting
The Children's Hour employs two settings. The first, used in the opening and final acts, is the living and study...

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The Children's Hour Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Lillian Hellman structures The Children’s Hour into three acts. The first act presents events on an April day at the Wright-Dobie boarding school for girls. Fourteen-year-old Mary arrives late for her period with Lily, a teaching assistant, and lies about the reason for her absence. In reality, she was finishing Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), by Théophile Gautier, a novel that includes scenes of homosexuality. Karen, one of the owners of the school, later catches Mary in this lie, and a struggle develops over whether Mary will admit it. Mary fakes a heart attack to prove her absence legitimate, and Karen’s fiancé, Dr. Joe Cardin, is called to look at her. Joe’s arrival brings out the discomfort of Martha,...

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The Children's Hour Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Children’s Hour was the first and most successful of Hellman’s produced plays, with a long first run of 691 performances. The play received mixed reviews, was banned in several cities, and was passed over for a Pulitzer Prize, though later critics tend to agree that it was the best American play of 1934. Nevertheless, the play earned Hellman a small fortune and led to a well-paid screenwriting position with Samuel Goldwyn, where she quickly achieved further success with her screenplay for Dark Angel (1935). In 1936, she wrote her own well-received screenplay of The Children’s Hour, called These Three, taking out the lesbianism and substituting a love triangle, and ending the story with...

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The Children's Hour Bibliography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Armato, Philip M. “Good and Evil’ in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour.” In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Bigsby, C. W. E. 1900-1940. Vol. 1 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A chapter on Hellman evaluates The Children’s Hour’s themes and explores its relationship to Hellman’s life.

Falk, Doris. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. A biographical study that includes summaries of Hellman’s works and information about the composition, production, and reception of her plays.

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The Children's Hour Compare and Contrast

1930s: The Great Depression brings great suffering to America, with attempts to blunt the hardship with the ''New Deal" policies of...

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The Children's Hour Topics for Further Study

Research the fate of The Children's Hour in major cities, including Boston, Chicago, and London, where, in the 1930s, community...

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The Children's Hour Media Adaptations

The Children's Hour was first adapted to film in 1936, released under the title These Three. It was produced by United Artists...

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The Children's Hour What Do I Read Next?

The Bad Seed, Maxwell Anderson's 1955 stage adaptation of a novel by William Marsh, is a psychological study of a child murderess...

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

Armato, Philip M. “Good and Evil’ in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour.” In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Bigsby, C. W. E. 1900-1940. Vol. 1 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A chapter on Hellman evaluates The Children’s Hour’s themes and explores its relationship to Hellman’s life.

Falk, Doris. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. A biographical study that includes summaries of Hellman’s works and...

(The entire section is 284 words.)

The Children's Hour Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Atkinson, Brooks. Review of The Children's Hour in the New York Times, December 19,1952, p. 35.

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