Lillian Hellman Essay - Hellman, Lillian (Vol. 2)

Hellman, Lillian (Vol. 2)

Hellman, Lillian 1905–

American playwright, author of The Little Foxes and Toys in the Attic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

Contrived without compensating stylization; realistic in style but lacking reality; mechanically tooled but noisily clanking; engaging evil only to reduce it melodramatically; Lillian Hellman's plays belong in the league not of Williams or Miller—the one personally, the other socially obsessed—but of a contemporary like Neil Simon. Like him, Miss Hellman is a thorough professional. Like him, she concocts plays that maintain interest, quicken the pulse, provide—as one says—"an evening in the theater." If she is more earnest, more apparently engaged with important matters, he is more entertaining. Both exemplify a narrow conception of drama; they hold a mirror up not so much to man as to the needs of the Broadway audience.

Since a need for literate entertainment does exist, Broadway will always have a place for writers like Lillian Hellman; but a show-shop isn't a theater, and dramaturgical savvy isn't the whole of the art. When audiences and reviewers fail to make these distinctions, one is saddened but unsurprised; when critics join them, one is—or ought to be—shocked.

Charles Thomas Samuels, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 18, 1972, pp. 2-3, 16.

One may count on the fingers of one's hands the few writers for the stage who at any given period are figures to be conjured with, those who have written major plays produced around the world and who have made their mark on the sensibilities and definitions of their age. Lillian Hellman is one of these. In our time the consistently produced playwright is becoming more and more of a rarity. In the haphazard world of American theater it is a bit of a miracle that any playwright ever makes a career with any real depth or artistic growth. Lillian Hellman has given the American stage a dozen works, four of which are adaptations, half of which have made her famous. No other woman in the history of American theater has reached her stature, and few have attained her position as one of the gurus of the American literary scene. Supremely intelligent, respected by her peers, she is one of the forces in the last forty years of American theater….

"Danger" seems to be one of the key words in Lillian Hellman's spiritual dictionary: In each play someone lives dangerously, lives a lie, comes to a turning in the road, and risks truth-telling. The evil is exposed, the boil is broken, the hurt is purged, the truth is revealed—"the knife of truth," as Lilly characterizes it in Toys in the Attic. Finally, Miss Hellman's purpose in the theater seems to have been to ferret out truth in lives frittered away by aberrant lying obsessions: Her characters play dangerous games in dangerous situations until something occurs that makes it all come clear. As Izquierdo in Montserrat put it most eloquently: "Faced with danger we are ourselves, to our surprise."…

It is, of course, anybody's guess, but I have no doubt that when the curtain comes down and a final list is made of the most important American plays of our time, several Hellman creations will be among them.

Alex Szogyi, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, August 12, 1972; used with permission), August 12, 1972, pp. 51-2.

All [of Lillian Hellman's] plays are built around two consuming obsessions: family and capital. Capital is power, lust, hate, duty, and destiny; like family, it is forever. The world of the Hellman family is as violent and dramatic as a summer thunderstorm, but just as dry and airless, and it is absolutely sealed off from strangers. (What other playwright would use the boarding-house setting as she does in The Autumn Garden: as arena for annual renewal of battle among old acquaintances, not, heaven forbid, a place of casual encounter?)

But it is an oddly real world, sometimes flat to the point of being funny in spite of the cruelty spread rawly before us, in spite of the horrors….

For family theater it is, all of it. The plays do not give back exactly the Lillian Hellman of reputation: the public figure on the far Left, who went to Spain and Russia, who spoke out early and bravely against fascism, who was a near-casualty of the McCarthy era. Large public themes do of course march across the surface of her plays in step with the times: society's persecution of lesbians (1934: The Children's Hour); class war and strike-breaking (1936: Days to Come); exploitation and corruption in the New South (1939: The Little Foxes); the fight against Nazism (1941: Watch on the Rhine); complicity of the rich liberal classes in the rise of world fascism (1944: The Searching Wind); more and worse on the New South (1947: Another Part of the Forest). Only in the two plays of the 1950's, in some ways the most interesting of all (The Autumn Garden, 1951, and Toys in the Attic, 1960), is the raw stuff of family melodrama allowed to stand alone, without public trappings; and Hellman's melodrama is, I think, the best thing in her plays because it is genuine and personal. The public matter, though given with sincerity, intelligence, and often eloquence, sometimes seems put on for the people out front….

Most of Lillian Hellman's plays are set in the Deep South, in or near New Orleans, where she was born and, half of each childhood year, also raised. But her attempts to pull the outside world of Southern history into the domestic orbit of her plays, often through careful research into period and economic fact, do not for me add up to much. Far more convincing is the reality of her standard interior—the huge, overfurnished, living room, the looming stairs, the eavesdropping verandah—which may be authentically Southern. Its disorder and dirt, its unscheduled meals, its slovenly and shrieking women, its rude servants, its blatant but pointless housekeeping were the kind of thing that astonished and offended New England women who visited the South in the days of slavery. No playwright, surely, ever trailed so many mops and pails across the center of her stage, or gave so many pointless housekeeping chores to mistresses and servants, white and black, equally incompetent.

Hellman's blacks have on the whole worn well, because she treats them as members of the family—no sentimental compliment. A servant's occasional eccentric capacity for simple loyalty and affection seems evidence not so much of his being unrelated as of his being cut off, temporarily, from the scramble for capital….

Her women characters are justly celebrated, and one can see, reading the plays, why her tough dowagers and crackbrained wives inspired sensational performances from Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Florence Eldridge, Patricia Neal, Mady Christians, Irene Worth. But her male characters are also worth a good actor's time (Paul Lukas, Leo Genn, Jason Robards, Jr., Montgomery Clift, and Frederic March played some of the parts). The men of the family are oversexed when it comes to whoring, but given to impotence and separate bedrooms at home, after the requisite heir has been produced. Next to the women, the men seem weak and somewhat foolish, but they can turn nasty, and even the gentlest of them shows a remarkable capacity to hold on to capital….

Hellman people are not pleasant, and don't want to be, but most of the harm they do is to one another, and none of it seems meant to kill. The last-act curtain leaves us with the satisfying conviction that it will someday rise again on new little foxes grown up to be bigger and sharper-toothed than the old. And just as there is no tomfoolery about romantic love in these plays, which get along very nicely on hatred, so there is no nonsense about fate, God's will, the human condition, the state of society, etc., etc. The Hellman theater should remind us of O'Neill's family dramas, and her interiors of Mauriac's provincial hells, with which there is much on the surface in common, but it never does; for religion in the Hellman world is something just for crackpots, and her people are not sinners, just relatives.

From the point of view of the theater, the least attractive qualities of the Hellman people are their claustrophobic clannishness and their arrogant assumption that the great battles of the outside world are secondary to, but distantly dependent on, their family squabbles. But there is a kind of dash to all of them, a style to their meanness, a crackle to their lines which actors have always appreciated and audiences will go on relishing, I imagine, for some time to come. And one comes away from the plays convinced that, for all their excesses and limitations, the Hellman people are members of a real family, whose existence the skeptical reader can find substantiated in the reminiscent writings of Gertrude Stein, Sybille Bedford, Barbara Probst Solomon, and, of course, Lillian Hellman.

Ellen Moers, "Family Theater," in Commentary (© 1972 by the American Jewish Committee; reprinted by permission of Commentary, the author, and Curtis Brown, Ltd.), September, 1972, pp. 96-9.