Lillian Hellman Essay - Hellman, Lillian (Vol. 8)

Hellman, Lillian (Vol. 8)

Hellman, Lillian 1906–

American playwright, screenwriter, and director, Hellman has also published three highly successful memoirs. Hellman's plays and memoirs are characterized by a scrupulous diction, an economy of language, and an objectivity that consistently rejects sentimentality. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Pentimento deals mainly with people other than its author, but there is still a good deal of Lillian Hellman in it—possibly more than she intended—and it's hard not to think of the book as finishing off An Unfinished Woman, a memoir which was inundated with laurels but left at least one reader doubting its widely proclaimed first-rateness. Meaty details about Dorothy Parker, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Dashiell Hammett were not quite compensation enough for a garrulous pseudo-taciturnity—distinction of style, it seemed to me, was precisely the quality An Unfinished Woman had not a particle of. The very first time Hammett's drinking was referred to as 'the drinking' you knew you were in for a solid course of bastardized Hemingwayese. The drinking got at least a score more mentions. There were also pronounced tendencies towards that brand of aggressive humility, or claimed innocence, which finds itself helpless to explain the world at the very moment when the reader is well justified in requiring that a writer should give an apprehensible outline of what he deems to be going on…. What we needed to hear about was what she thought, and it appeared that what she thought was, as usual, a sophisticated version, decked out with Hem-Dash dialogue, of 'I don't understand these things'….

The 'I don't understand these things' syndrome came in depressingly handy whenever she wandered on to the scene of an event about which she might have been obliged to say something analytical if she had….

Lillian Hellman was an early and impressive example of the independent woman, but she never completely forsakes feather-headed femininity as a ploy, and her continuing ability not to comprehend what was going on in Russia is a glaring demonstration. In a section of An Unfinished Woman dealing with a later trip to Russia, she finds herself tongue-tied in the presence of a Russian friend. We are asked to believe that her own feelings about the McCarthy period were welling up to block her speech, just as the Russian friend's experience of the recent past had blocked hers. The two communed in silence. That this equation was presented as a profundity seemed to me at the time to prove that Lillian Hellman, whatever her stature in the theatre, possessed, as an essayist, an attitudinizing mind of which her mannered prose was the logically consequent expression. One doesn't underrate the virulence of McCarthyism for a minute, and it may well be that such goonery is as fundamental to America's history as terror is to Russia's. But the two things are so different in nature, and so disparate in scale, that a mind which equates them loses the ability to describe either. For all its Proustian persnicketiness of recollected detail, An Unfinished Woman was a very vague book….

I certainly agree [with other reviewers] that the perceptiveness [in Pentimento], such as it is, is closely linked to the style. What I can't see for a moment is how trained literati can imagine that the style is anything less than frantically mannered and anything more than painfully derivative. (p. 88)

[There are passages in Pentimento that] read like E. B. White's classic parody Across the Street and into the Grill, in which White established once and for all that Hemingway's diction could not be copied, not even by Hemingway. Nor are these echoes mere lapses: her whole approach to moral-drawing is Hemingway's—the excitations, the pacing and the intensifications. (p. 89)

To have been there, to have seen it, and yet still be able to write it down so that it rings false—it takes a special kind of talent….

On Broadway Lillian Hellman took her chances among the men, a pioneer women's liberationist. Her plays were bold efforts, indicative social documents which are unlikely to be neglected by students, although as pieces for the theatre they will probably date: they are problem plays whose problems are no longer secrets, for which in some measure we have her to thank. She is a tough woman who has almost certainly not been relishing the patronizing critical practice—more common in America than here, and let's keep it that way—of belatedly indicating gratitude for strong early work by shouting unbridled hosannahs for pale, late stuff that has a certain documentary value but not much more. She says at one point in Pentimento that in her time on Broadway she was always denied the benefits of the kind of criticism which would take her properly to task. (p. 90)

Clive James, "Stars and Stripes," in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London W1V 5LE), May, 1974, pp. 88-90.

It is easy enough to find a place in the short and simple annals of the poor American stage, but is that any reason for an author who is so clearly a melodramatist rather than a dramatist to usurp a position of prominence? Certainly Miss Hellman knows how to construct a play, just as a tailor knows how to make a suit, but unless that tailor is also a designer, unless he creates a style, are we to call him a couturier? The fact is that Watch on the Rhine is a good piece of melodrama, and The Children's Hour a sometimes brashly effective broadside, but as plays they are inferior to The Little Foxes by almost as much as it is inferior to Chekhov, whom, in its best moments, it tries to resemble. But unfortunately its best moments—I mean its attempts at psychology, language, drama—are really its weakest. Only when villainy snarls or smiles as it stabs does the work come to life—and then only to the second-rate life of melodrama. (p. 117)

John Simon, in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975.

[Even] though Miss Hellman is scrupulously specific in what she says in Scoundrel Time, carefully limiting her text to what she herself experienced, thought, said, and did, this memoir nevertheless applies directly to the essential experience of her time—in other words, to history. There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, and probably most important, is that this is a work of literary quality. As with her two previous memoirs, An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento, Scoundrel Time is a triumph of tone. No writer I know can match the eloquence of her ah-what-the-hell as she looks back over the whole sorry spectacle and tells with restraint and precision just what she sees. Lillian Hellman is a woman given to truth-telling as a kind of benign neurosis. She spares neither her friends nor herself….

Surely another reason that Scoundrel Time, within its set limits, is of real historical importance is that its author had such an important role in the continuing drama (about equal parts farce and tragedy) played out before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Not only was she the most eminent unfriendly witness to be called before the committee when she appeared in 1952—the author of The Children's House, The Little Foxes, and The Autumn Garden among other plays—but she was the only one up to that time to score even a limited victory against it. (p. 28)

There are those, however, she cannot forgive—not, perhaps surprisingly, those who cooperated with the committee and actually gave names of those known, or sometimes only thought, to be Communists. There are sad, vivid, touching portraits of a couple of these on the eve of testifying. She shows us Clifford Odets at dinner with her, truculently proclaiming his defiance, pounding the table so hard he knocks over a glass, promising he would "show them the face of a real radical man." He appeared before the committee the day before she did, and he gave names. Not long after her meeting with Odets she had another dinner, this time with Elia Kazan. He talked in such circles that he only managed to confuse her. Thinking that if she gave him a few minutes to collect himself he might make more sense, she left their table to make a phone call to someone who happened to be a mutual friend. In passing, she mentioned her difficulty understanding what Kazan was getting at. She was told: "He is telling you that he is going to become a friendly witness. I know because he told me this morning." Kazan and Odets named one another as former members of the Communist Party; neither implicated Lillian Hellman. (p. 29)

Bruce Cook, "Notes on a Shameful Era," in Saturday Review (© 1976 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 17, 1976, pp. 28-9.

At the opening of "Scoundrel Time," Lillian Hellman's memoir of the McCarthy era, she says that there is no mystery why this, the most painful episode in her life, was never told in two previous autobiographical works, "An Unfinished Woman" and "Pentimento."… This story, of artistic necessity, had to be singled out from the polished memoirs that preceded it: it is a beautiful work of self-definition.

Twenty-five years after the fact Lillian Hellman is still angry, but the villains are not, as one might expect, the leading players in the perfidious spectacle of that time—McCarthy, Nixon, the whole sick crew—but the many writers, movie people and academics who found patriotism an easy refuge. "Simply, then and now," she writes, "I feel betrayed by the nonsense I had believed. I had no right to think that American intellectuals were people who would fight for anything if doing so would injure them…." Hellman stands witness to all of her time: "then and now" are the operative words here. She would like to demythicize the hysterical red-baiting days of Joe McCarthy, the Hollywood Ten, the blacklists, the friendly witnesses, the opportunism of Nixon; and her method is to match each public personality and event with a corresponding inner reality that she is still willing and able to verify.

"Scoundrel Time" is compelling, quite wonderful to read: we see her then, a young woman sitting on the bed with Dashiell Hammett in the beginning of their days together, listening to his confession of a difficult time in his past: we hear her react with the pious absolutism of the inexperienced…. Her life, as we know from the autobiographies, always did contain the material of drama. From the start of her career as a playwright she knew how to arrange her scenes.

"Then" is skillfully told, but the "now," the alert, tough mind of Lillian Hellman watching herself, is what gives life to her story. (p. 1)

"Scoundrel Time" is not a confessional book. Hellman has seldom told more than her work required. Hiss, Chambers, the pumpkin, the boozy demise of Joe McCarthy are sketched in, and she gives us the details of her own bewildering sadness during those hard times…. Her stories are guarded and spare by design. It is clear from much of Hellman's work in the theater that she is good at staging her arguments and can even be—in "Watch on the Rhine" and "The Searching Wind"—comfortable as a partisan. In her later prose she is equally disciplined and fervent, but memory has become a liberation: as she speaks directly to us her voice, unshared with her characters, has a new freedom. For a mind like Hellman's the imagination is enlarged not limited by the facts of her life. She has forged a remarkable autobiographical style which relates the emotionally charged moment to a wide cultural reference. The precedent for "Scoundrel Time" is "Julia," the resonant story in "Pentimento" of a girlhood friendship, which seems to extend itself almost effortlessly as we read.

It is the personal quality of this book which preempts argument: one cranky, strong-willed lady had expected, wrongly that smart people would behave decently. She is clearheaded; by her own admission it took her "too long to see what was going on in the Soviet Union." Yes, she "mistakenly denied" the "sins of Stalin Communism," but the last thing she asks is our support or sympathy for her political positions. The question which she puts to all of us now and to all of those who more or less collaborated then is: "Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?" (pp. 1-2)

The great risk that Lillian Hellman takes is in playing her own heroine. There are two scenes on the grand scale in "Scoundrel Time" where, if we don't read carefully, she is almost too fine. The narrative builds to her day in court. Her letter to the Committee (given in full earlier in the book) is read into the record. Her words. "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," rings with conviction in our minds as it must have in the hearing room. But just as the morality play becomes too simple, the underlying drama unfolds, a legalistic comedy of errors which she does not understand, and she is excused. She will not, in fact, go to prison but is free to have lunch and a few too many drinks with her lawyers. For years after, she recomposes the letter and restages her performance in her mind, where most of us play our bravest roles. Shortly after her Washington appearance Lillian Hellman went on stage, literally, to read the narrative for Marc Blitzstein's opera version of "The Little Foxes." Before a word was spoken she received a standing ovation from the New York audience….

[Hellman] doesn't care whether her readers like her or not. She is not waiting up for the notices to come in. The final pages of "Scoundrel Time" are a sweeping and fierce indictment of our past and present passivity….

In the wake of Watergate, Lillian Hellman has made the necessary connection between 1952 and our recent disgrace. Her self-reliance is extraordinary; in her insistence on writing her story "then and now" she has, in Camus's terms, dedicated herself to the duration of her life. She has not been content with the success of the past but has gone on to a new career, and in writing her memoirs she remains responsible for everything that happens to her. (p. 2)

Maureen Howard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 25, 1976.

What is … distinctive about Scoundrel Time is the voice behind the words—that voice we first heard with such startled pleasure in An Unfinished Woman … then with deepening gratification in Pentimento … and now with moving intensity in this third volume of Hellman memoirs. It is the voice of a writer who seeks to describe in measured sentences as precisely as possible the imprecise flow of life as it has moved through her and all around her. It is the voice of a writer who reveals great courage of spirit because that voice, quite plainly, says: Make no mistake, there is much about myself I do not know, much that remains a dark and painful mystery I cannot face unflinchingly because if I do I will lose control and fall apart all over these pages, and that I'm damned if I'll do. But much that seems painful is often merely difficult. I know the difference between pressure and pain, and pressure I can take. I will force my pen, my actions, my life down on those pressure points to the utmost of my ability—even unto the point of pain.

It is quality that makes Lillian Hellman the remarkable writer she is. The measured gravity of her sentences coupled always with the sudden, earthy directness reveals a steadiness and independence of mind, heart, and spirit that induce nothing but uncritical admiration; a welling-up of warmth and gratitude in the face of such a civilized intelligence. (pp. 46-7)

Scoundrel Time is a valuable piece of work. The kind of work that stands alone, untouched, in the midst of foolish criticism and foolish praise alike. (p. 47)

Vivian Gornick, "Neither Forgotten nor Forgiven," in Ms. (© 1976 Ms. Magazine Corp.), August, 1976, pp. 46-7.