Lillian Hellman Essay - Hellman, Lillian (Vol. 4)

Hellman, Lillian (Vol. 4)

Hellman, Lillian 1905–

Ms Hellman is a prize-winning American dramatist. Most of her plays are set in or near New Orleans. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

In Toys in the Attic, Miss Hellman has picked up the sword of judgment many playwrights of the period have laid aside and wields it with renewed vigor. But this time, compassion guides her hand so that she performs surgery on her characters instead of summarily decapitating them, and she gives some heed, too, to the pathos of misunderstanding and the power of circumstance. The reach of compassion in the play extends even to an unseen character, a woman whose hatred for an unscrupulous husband and desire to get away from him at all costs lead her into a shoddy scheme for mulcting him of a small fortune in exchange for a piece of swamp land he needs for one of his speculations. This woman, who never appears on the stage although she is in league with the young hero of the play, Julian, is made as real as any character on the stage….

Miss Hellman displays controlled artistry in this work. It contains excellent dialogue, incisive characterization, and a mature understanding of human attitudes, relationships, and drives. Even the faults of the play seemed contributive to its powerful effect. The first act is undoubtedly somewhat slow and meandering, but Miss Hellman has prepared us suspensively with this act for the mounting passions and tightly coiled spring of doom to be found in the rest of the play….

It is the special merit of Lillian Hellman's work that dreadful things are done by the onstage characters out of affectionate possessiveness, rather than out of ingrained villainy. Although the author's corresponding view of life is ironic and is trenchantly expressed, there is no gloating over human misery, no horror-mongering, no traffic with sensationalism in Toys in the Attic. And, unlike some well-known contemporary playwrights here and abroad, Miss Hellman has proved once more that she can deal with human failure without falling in love with it herself. She remains admirably sane in the midst of the ugliness and confusion she so unerringly exposes. Although she looks at life steadily and unsentimentally, she does not advertise herself as a flinty cynic or hopeless nihilist.

John Gassner, "Lillian Hellman's 'Toys in the Attic'" (1960), in his Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled From 30 Years of Dramatic Criticism, edited, with an introduction, by Glen Loney (© 1968 by Mollie Gassner; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968, pp. 481-84.

Restraints against theatrical pathos or satire are continuous but never predictable [in Pentimento], and disclaimers that begin "I don't remember" or "I don't know when I understood" precede any authoritative assurance of knowledge about anything. This is a kind of Faulknerian technique, though it is too instinctive to be called that, and to an extraordinary degree it makes the reader eager to accept whatever is finally confirmed, eager to be released into some extremities beyond that, into emotions and speculations on the other side of the words.

Behind Hellman's style is a strength so assured as to allow all of her subjects the fullest and freest working out of quite individual destinies….

Efforts to determine, in relation to any given person, those limits of closeness which are sometimes the precondition of love can be felt in the wonderfully exploratory, tentative quality of Hellman's prose….

[The] kinds of submerged continuity, the marvelous inner sense of connectedness, the ability to bring disparate things together … is the special genius of this book, with its subtle yet intensely clarified grasp of possible analogies between quite different places, different people and different times….

Pentimento provides one of those rare instances when the moral value of a book is wholly inextricable from its immense literary worth, where the excitations, the pacing, and the intensifications offered by the style manage to create in us perceptions about human character that have all but disappeared from contemporary writing.

Richard Poirier, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 16, 1973, pp. 1, 4-5.

It is now apparent that An Unfinished Woman was the beginning—a try-out, if you will, and more hesitant than arrogant—of a new career for Lillian Hellman. Her … memoir, Pentimento: A Book of Portraits …, is its realization. Approaching 70, she has developed a way to do autobiography perfectly suited to her special strengths, and has written a totally absorbing and marvelous book that is, in its coherence and control and electric passion, a masterpiece on the order of her very best plays. What seemed unfinished or ungenerous in the first book is explored and resolved here. To hitch an examination of friends and memories, an analysis of intense feelings, an intention of scrupulous but focused honesty and accountability, to an engine of calculated dramatic rise and fall and suspenseful force is a risky venture; but this train fairly roars….

[One] of several main themes that run through the book [is] how one saw, sees, recovers, integrates the past….

Pentimento is … a work of extraordinary richness and candor and self-perception, and triumph enough considering the courage such a book requires, a courage that lies, Lillian Hellman shows by example, far deeper than one is usually inclined to credit.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Lillian Hellman: Portrait of a Lady," in New York Magazine (© 1973 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), September 17, 1973, p. 82.

The dramatic quality is everywhere evident [in Pentimento], not only in the background of social intrigue before which many of these lives are enacted, but rather more importantly in the author's exquisite sense of timing, a kind of poised power over the units of scene that few writers of fiction possess. But there is also the extraordinary gift for the precise detail, which is a fictional quality, and then again, for the often comically explicit detail…. She seems always to find precisely the right word, the right combination….

[She] writes what seems to me a prose as brilliantly finished as any that we have in these years.

Mark Schorer, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 23, 1973, pp. 1-2.

It would be pleasant to report that Hellman writes her memoirs in the same forthright, energetic fashion as she apparently lived her life. Alas, not so. Four years ago, she published a quirky, episodic volume called An Unfinished Woman. Her new book [Pentimento] covers different material in the form of portraits of people whom she loved at one time or other, plus a chapter about life in the theater and an anomalous, charming piece about a snapping turtle….

It is a rather sad irony that the book should be called Pentimento, an artist's term for an old image that reappears through later repainting done on a canvas. Singular and moving memories flicker everywhere, but few emerge clearly….

The writing often recalls Gertrude Stein's stonier prose—obdurate, flat and mannered. Hellman is a virtuoso of ellipsis, a quality that doubtless served her well as a dramatist. In Pentimento she seems to take pride in leaving out connectives, or capping a half-told tale with a brief coda, unrelated except for the faintest resonance of tone.

Martha Duffy, "Half-Told Tales," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 1, 1973, pp. 114-16.

All well-made memoirs have holes in them, holes where large areas of experience have been cut away. Either the author is unwilling to write about parts of his life, or he perceives these parts as digressions and knows that to pursue them would be to distort the design of the whole. Lillian Hellman's memoir "An Unfinished Woman" was just such an artful book…. Her emphasis [in Pentimento] is on the memoir as narrative art….

Hellman, as a playwright, was a remarkably strong story-teller; she sustains that difficult art throughout this translation into a different, perhaps equally demanding genre.

Peter S. Prescott, "Leftover Life," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1973; reprinted by permission), October 1, 1973, pp. 95-6.

The portraits in [Pentimento: A Book of Portraits] seem to be tied in with a search for self-understanding. As Miss Hellman sorts out her memories and her conflicts, she reconsiders her relationships and we see her edging toward a Chekovian moment of truth. But she never quite makes it for she is a scrupulous editor….

It is all very complex, interesting, exciting, and just a little sad. Not too much so, for throughout she displays with the brilliance of hindsight, a delightful sense of buoyancy toward the seemingly unaccountable vicissitudes of her life.

Clara M. Siggins, in Best Sellers, October 1, 1973, p. 303.

Lillian Hellman has found her richest subject—the study of herself—and her true métier as a writer of very good prose….

Pentimento extends the recollections she commenced in her first book [An Unfinished Woman] and demonstrates even more persuasively that nothing in the polychrome brilliance of her life is quite so interesting as the fierce-spirited, impetuous, loving, ambivalent woman at its center….

Pentimento is a triumphant vindication of the stories the author threw away in her twenties because they were "no good." These complex, controlled narratives profit from the dramatist's instinct for climax and immediate, sharp characterization; but they have an emotional purity her plays have generally lacked. Self-scrutiny has replaced moral fervor, to the benefit of art. In An Unfinished Woman, Hellman admitted wasting too much time trying to find "truth" and "sense" in the world. However, her private and public history during a period of troubling contradictions—her recklessness, her ardor, even her confusions—personify much of the real truth about it.

Muriel Haynes, "More on the Unfinished Woman," in Ms., January, 1974, pp. 31-2.

Pentimento is not, as American reviewers have unwisely said, a marvel and a masterpiece and a book full of perceptions about human character. It is, rather, a collection of sketches of a fairly familiar kind, which blend real people known to history and Lillian Hellman, like Tallulah Bankhead and Sam Goldwyn and Dashiell Hammett, with people known only by their Christian names in the book, who may be real or partly fictionalized. It is not 'a masterpiece on the order of her two best plays' (nor are her best plays masterpieces, but well-ordered and well-executed middlebrow pieces about the Problem of Lesbianism, the Dangers of Nazism, etc.), but a work containing many slabs of prefabricated near-Hemingway, which ambles around any given subject in a way that owes much more to casualness than to art.

Yet when one has gone so far so disobligingly, it has to be added that the personal effect Lillian Hellman produces through this book and 'An Unfinished Woman' is one of charm and candour. A lot of the writing may be secondhand, but she is original. She may make the real figures of her youth seem highly fictional, but what never fails to come across is the excitement with which she responds to them.

Julian Symons, "Drunk, But Not Disorderly," in London Magazine, August/September, 1974, p. 137-38.