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 Depression. Europe, too, was struggling with economic collapse, fomenting a political struggle between fascism and other economic/political systems that would finally erupt into World War II in 1939.
The chief figures in the political upheaval in Europe were Adolph Hitler in Germany, Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, and Benito Mussolini in Italy, all of whom held expansionist dreams of world conquest. But there were other players, too. It was in 1934 that Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss sought to stem political opposition on the left by suppressing all political parties except his Fatherland Front, while in Bulgaria, supported by the king, fascists staged a coup and grabbed political control. Even France, a staunch democratic republic, stood on the brink of civil war because of political corruption condemned by factions representing both the extreme left and right. In Germany, meanwhile, the National Socialist Party (Nazis) conducted a blood purge, destroying dozens of party members accused of plotting to kill Hitler and eliminating Ernst Rohm and Gregor Stresser and their more radical wing of the Nazi Party.
Hellman, a cosmopolitan writer who had spent some time in Paris in the 1920s, was very concerned with what was happening in Europe in the 1930s. Her German-Jewish heritage and liberalism made...
(The entire section is 673 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
The Children's Hour employs two settings. The first, used in the opening and final acts, is the living and study room of the Wright-Dobie School for girls, located in a converted farmhouse about ten miles from Lancet, a rural town in Massachusetts. The second, used in both scenes of the second act, is the living room of Mrs. Tilford's house, presumably in the town of Lancet.
The setting plays a significant role in the play, for it posits a small-town attitude and closeness—a place where news travels fast—which is evident in the snickering of the grocery boy in the third act. The community ostracizes Karen and Martha, which helps create the oppressive atmosphere that makes Martha's suicide believable. Because the women are sensitive to their community's censure, they come to believe that their alleged behavior will follow them wherever they go, that they will be unable to escape from their notoriety.
The Children's Hour has a conventional, linear plot, consisting of three acts, the usual format employed by playwrights at the time. The formal divisions into acts and scenes is used to demarcate a change of time, but each formal segment also ends at a decisive moment, following the tradition of strong scene closures at the curtain. These elements all contribute to what is referred to as a well-made play. It is a time-honored technique, fundamental to melodrama, whether good or bad.
(The entire section is 972 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1930s: The Great Depression brings great suffering to America, with attempts to blunt the hardship with the ''New Deal" policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Reforms include social welfare programs designed to alleviate the plight of the poor and dispossessed. Conservatives condemned such measures as socialistic, and some of the reforms were blocked by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
Today: A fairly robust economy and nearly full employment contrast sharply with the conditions current in the Great Depression. Civil rights reforms and social welfare programs, some with a lineage that goes back to the liberalism of the 1930s, are now under attack from moderates and conservatives alike. Although it re-elected Democrat Bill Clinton president in 1996, the nation revealed its anti-liberal mood by installing a Republican majority in both houses of Congress.
1930s: Private and public agencies exert powerful control over the arts. Common in theaters are "bannings," particularly in cities like Boston, where the mayor, supported by religious groups, threatens to close down productions that violate the community's sense of moral decorum. In film, the Hays Office imposes strict regulations on movies, prohibiting nudity, suggestions of sex acts or seduction, any unconventional (passionate) kissing, and the use of profane or obscene language.
Today: Although codes for rating films do exist, they serve...
(The entire section is 488 words.)
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 standards led to a banning of the play's public performance.
Research the question of libel and slander in American civil law. Relate your findings to the situation in the play.
Read Maxell Anderson's adaptation of William Marsh's novel, The Bad Seed, comparing Mary Tilford with Rhoda Penmark, the child murderess of that work. How are the two girls similar? How are they different?
Conduct a comparative investigation of the public response to the "outing episode" of the television sitcom Ellen and the furor raised over the lesbian theme in The Children's Hour.
Research the relationship between the 1952 revival of The Children's Hour and the congressional (HUAC) investigations of domestic communism then in progress.
Investigate current theory regarding the biochemical origins of criminal behavior and the psychopathic personality, relating your findings to Mary Tilford's character and behavior in The Children's Hour. Does Mary qualify as a sociopathic criminal?
(The entire section is 167 words.)
The Children's Hour was first adapted to film in 1936, released under the title These Three. It was produced by United Artists and Goldwyn Pictures, directed by William Wyler, and written by Hellman, who was obliged to remove the lesbian theme entirely The film features Miriam Hopkins as Martha Dobie, Merle Oberon as Karen Wright, Joel McCrea as Dr. Joe Cardin, and Alma Kruger as Mrs. Tilford. The film is available on video from Sultan Entertainment and through the Internet Movie Database (http:// uk.imdb.com).
The play was again adapted to film in 1961, released under alternative titles: The Children's Hour and The Loudest Whisper. It was produced by United Artists and the Minsch Company, and again directed by William Wyler. The film stars Audrey Hepburn as Karen Wright, Shirley MacLaine as Martha Dobie, James Garner as Dr. Joe Cardin, and Faye Bainter as Mrs. Tilford. The film is available on video from MGM/UA Home Entertainment, Facets Multimedia, and through the Internet Movie Database.
A 1995 documentary, The Celluloid Closet, based on a 1981 book by Vito Russo, examines gay themes (often subliminal) in motion pictures and covers the 1961 film version of The Children's Hour. Narrated by Lily Tomlin, the documentary was directed and produced by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and features a host of celebrities offering commentary on the masked and open cinematic treatment of homosexuality. The...
(The entire section is 239 words.)
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 whose evil, disguised by a mask of innocence, is a genetic inheritance from her grandmother.
The Crucible, Arthur Miller's 1953 drama based on the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century, deals with the tragic havoc created by a vengeful girl and her compliant peers when they begin accusing many of Salem's citizens of witchcraft. By obvious implication, the work was an indictment of the investigations then being conducted by HUAC into alleged communist activities in America. Othello, William Shakespeare's great domestic tragedy, written around 1604, centers on the evil machinations of Iago, whose slanderous lies against the innocent Desdemona turn Othello, her husband, savagely against her and lead to her murder and Othello's suicide.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark's 1961 novel (also adapted for the stage in 1966 and as a film in 1969) explores life in a Scottish girls' school in the 1930s with a focus on the eccentric teacher, Miss Brodie, and her damaging efforts to control the lives of her favorite students.
(The entire section is 185 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Atkinson, Brooks. Review of The Children's Hour in the New York Times, December 19,1952, p. 35.
Atkinson, Brooks. "The Play—The Children's Hour, Being a Tragedy of Life in a Girls' Boarding House" in the New York Times, November21,1934,p 23.
Beaufort, John "Tragic 'Children's Hour'" in the Christian Science Monitor, December 27,1952, p. 4.
Bentley, Enc. "Hellman's Indignation" in the New Republic, Vol CXXVH, January 5,1953, pp. 30-31.
Bentley, Enc. "The American Drama 1944-1954" in American Drama and Its Critics, edited by Alan S Downer, University of Chicago Press, 1965, p 199.
Gniber, Ide. Review of The Children's Hour in Golden Book, Vol. XXI, February, 1935, p. 28A
Hammond, Percy. "The Theatres—'The Children's Hour,' a Good Play about a Verboten Subject" in the New York Herald Tribune, November 21,1934, p. 16
Hellman, Lillian. Pentimento, New American Library, 1973, p. 127
Hellman, Lillian "Introduction" in Six Plays, Modern Library, 1960, pp viii- IX
Hobe. "Plays on Broadway; The Children's Hour" in Variety, December 24,1952, p 50
Krutch, Joseph Wood ''Drama, The Heart of a Child'' in the Nation, Vol. 139, December 5,1934, p 657.
Krutch, Joseph Wood "The Tragic Fallacy" in Tragedy Vision and Form, edited...
(The entire section is 599 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.
Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. This critical examination of Hellman’s works includes a good discussion of her sources for The Children’s Hour, as well as a biographical chronology and sketch and an annotated bibliography.
Moody, Richard. Lillian Hellman: Playwright. New York: Pegasus, 1972. This early biography includes information about the composition and two main New York productions of The Children’s Hour and stills from several productions.
Reynolds, R. C. Stage Left: The Development of the American Social Drama in the...
(The entire section is 284 words.)