Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Children’s Hour was a shocking play for its time. It was based on an actual incident in nineteenth century Scotland, in which a pupil accused her schoolteachers of lesbianism. The word itself is never spoken in The Children’s Hour, but the mere hint of it—the innuendo that there is something “unnatural” going on between Martha Dobie and Karen Wright—is enough to damn them in the eyes of their community. Mary, the child who levels the charge against her teachers, has been spoiled by her grandmother and has learned early how to manipulate adults. Her doting grandmother is shocked by Mary’s allegations and takes it upon herself to withdraw Mary from the school and to advise other parents to do the same.
It is the power of the lie, of a child’s tenacious unwillingness to speak the truth even when it means the ruin of several lives, that accounts for the enormous power of the play. Mary is mean, plain evil, a point Hellman makes shrewdly in scenes that show how Mary intimidates a schoolmate into lying to support her charge against the teachers. Hellman works her audience’s emotions into a fine sense of outrage at how a big lie is capable of gripping a society’s imagination. Not a political play in itself, The Children’s Hour nevertheless has political implications, as it exposes the way mass psychology can be manipulated to serve falsehood. Realizing the importance of this theme, Hellman directed a revival...
(The entire section is 592 words.)
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The Children's Hour opens in the living room of a New England farmhouse that Martha Dobie and Karen Wright have converted into the Wright-Dobie School for girls. A sewing class and recitation arc in progress, under the disconnected control of Mrs. Lily Mortar, Martha's aunt. Student Peggy Rogers reads aloud from Shakespeare, while most of the other girls, somewhat chaotically, carry on with other activities, including sewing, cutting hair, and parsing Latin verbs. Mary Tilford enters very tardily, carrying some discarded, wilted flowers with which to placate the easily flattered Mrs. Mortar. Mary is clearly willful and manipulative, but she seems no match for Karen Wright, who sees through her ploys easily.
Karen enters and quickly disabuses Mary of the belief that she can get away with her lying claim that she picked the flowers. After the other children are dismissed, Mary takes another tack, complaining about being blamed for everything, but Karen is not very sympathetic and announces that Mary is to be punished and is prohibited from leaving the school grounds for two weeks. Mary then falls to the floor, feigning a heart attack and sobbing that she is unable to breathe. Karen responds by sending Lily Mortar off to have Martha Dobie call Dr. Joe Cardin, Karen's fiancé and Mary's uncle.
After Karen carries Mary out of the room, she and Martha discuss the troublesome girl, their problems with Martha's Aunt Lily, and...
(The entire section is 1276 words.)