A very strong sense of morality pervades both Hellman’s plays and her memoirs. Melodrama suits her as a literary form because it stresses the conflict of good and evil. Clashing personalities, rather than development of individual character, spark her sense of drama. In The Children’s Hour, two blameless schoolteachers are accused of lesbianism by a malevolent, spoiled child whom they have tried to discipline. In The Little Foxes, the greed of the members of a single family, competing among themselves in the post-Civil War South, is what motivates their actions. In Watch on the Rhine, the selfless heroism of Kurt Muller is set against the irremediable evil of the Fascism he fights. It is no accident, therefore, that Hellman should also be attracted to historical figures, such as Joan of Arc in The Lark (1955), who oppose the status quo and search for a sense of moral authority. That play reveals the extent to which Hellman trusted individuals rather than the state.
If Hellman were merely a melodramatist, however, her work would not remain in such high standing. When her characters do not develop to any great extent, they are the products of acute psychological perceptions. Kurt Muller, for example, with his broken hands, is a vulnerable, frightened hero, forced to kill for his cause with a melancholy determination and an absolute lack of self-righteousness that make him interesting in himself and not merely a symbol of the good. Although some of his dialogue verges on the sentimental, Hellman’s command of diction and her use of understatement keep the message of the play from becoming heavy-handed.
Hellman’s first phase as a playwright (from 1934 to 1951) is also her most melodramatic period, in which she concentrates on externals—brilliant evocations of the American South in The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest, of the growth of Fascism and its appeasement in the period between the two world wars in The Searching Wind, of the struggle between labor and capital in a small Ohio town in Days to Come. Her motion-picture scripts—such as Dead End (1937)—evoke the heroism of ordinary people and the corruption of the establishment.
Hellman’s later plays and her memoirs probe her characters’ motivations and her own, as if her argument shifts somewhat from a confrontation with society to an engagement with herself. In The Autumn Garden, a group of middle-aged characters gradually confront their sense of failure, the unfulfilled dreams of their youth, upon the return of Nick Dennery, an old friend who tries to relive the past. Nick wants to pretend that he is still the same man who set off to conquer the world, leaving his sweetheart behind. Each character’s romantic notions about his or her life are deftly, even gently, demolished in a play that reflects Hellman’s increasing concern with a form of novelistic, inner-directed drama inspired by Russian writer Anton Chekhov and a move away from the social realism of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen that informed her earlier plays.
Hellman edited a collection of Chekhov’s letters in her remaining period as a playwright, and the plot of her final original play, Toys in the Attic, is clearly modeled on Chekhov’s Tri sestry (1901; Three Sisters, 1920). In Hellman’s play, two sisters are devoted to their hapless brother Julian. Sacrificing everything for him, they are not prepared when he returns home with a windfall and proposes to change their lives, lavishing gifts upon them and buying them tickets for the trip they have always said they wanted to take. Like Chekhov’s sisters, Hellman’s actually have no intention of leaving home or of changing the illusions on which their lives have been built.
Both The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic are memory plays. They are about their characters’ romanticizing of the past and their inability to accept the present on its own terms or to see what they have really made of their own lives. Gradually, some of Hellman’s characters in these plays do admit that they have been living lies, creating pleasing fictions of their lives. Such moments of self-revelation are rare in Hellman’s earlier plays, although Martha Dobie’s shocked recognition in The Children’s Hour—that there might be some basis to the accusation that she has harbored lesbian tendencies—suggests that, from the start of her career, Hellman was working toward a way of combining her gift for melodrama with a complex sense of human psychology.
When Hellman turned to the memoir form, she drew upon certain elements of her plays. She admits in Pentimento that the family in The Little Foxes is based on her mother’s relatives, and clearly the two sisters in Toys in the Attic are versions of the two aunts who helped to raise Hellman in New Orleans. Even in the memoirs, Hellman’s forte is not narrative; An Unfinished Woman, for example, is disjointed. Hellman makes little attempt to write a chronological, well-developed autobiography. Rather, she tends to fasten on key incidents in her life—parts of her childhood, a trip to Spain—to evoke her temperament and her times. In fact, the last three chapters of An Unfinished Woman are character portraits of important people in her life. Hellman turned her next memoir, Pentimento, into a collection of portraits. Where Scoundrel Tune is weakest is precisely in her attempt to write a narrative of the Cold War years; she makes grave errors of fact, and her usual gift for incisive character portrayal distorts the historical record.
Quite aside from faults of style or fact, however, Hellman’s memoirs are a permanent contribution to American literature, for she provides the record and the testament of a writer and activist who always remained her own person. Her depictions of Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett, members of her family, and of Hollywood, the Soviet Union, and other places she visited and the home she built are masterpieces in the genre of the memoir, balancing a sense of past and present and providing a feeling for how she created her career that is likely to ensure the continuing relevance of her work.
The Children’s Hour
First produced: 1934 (first published, 1934)
Type of work: Play
Accused of being lesbians, two teachers lose their school; one of them commits suicide in the awful suspicion that she may have harbored illicit feelings.
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 of the play during the McCarthy period, when she believed that many Americans were being victimized by the lie that they were communists disloyal to the United States.
Many critics have puzzled over the play’s third act, in which Martha Dobie, suspecting that she has had lesbian feelings for Karen, commits suicide. She does so partly out of guilt, for Karen’s engagement to Joseph Cardin has been broken, and Martha believes that she has destroyed her dear friend’s life. Hellman’s point seems to be that Martha’s outrage at the charge against her has blinded her to what may be the true nature of her feelings. Her belated...
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