Hellman, Lillian 1906–
An American playwright, screenwriter, and director, Hellman has also published three highly successful memoirs. Both her plays and memoirs are characterized by scrupulous diction and economy of language. Hellman's most recent memoir, Scoundrel Time, has proved to be the most controversial of all her writings. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Probably no play of the American theater (and I am including that feeble adaptation The Wisteria Trees) is more completely Chekhovian than Lillian Hellman's … most charming original drama, The Autumn Garden. Although the piece was only mildly successful when presented during the 1950–1951 season on Broadway, to the discerning (and here I quote Alan Downer) it is "Miss Hellman's most original play."
The Autumn Garden is remarkable for its skill. Miss Hellman herself (in her Introduction to Four Plays) lists the two faults most enumerated by her critics: that her plays are "too well-made" and that they are "melodramas." These two limitations are strikingly absent from The Autumn Garden. As a matter of fact, the play successfully contradicts Miss Hellman's own statements about the nature of drama. In her Introduction, she states: "The theatre has limitations: it is a tight, unbending, unfluid, meager form in which to write." But The Autumn Garden is just the opposite kind of drama; it is loose in structure, bends easily but without breaking, is fluid and, far from being meager, overflows with characters and situations; indeed, so diffuse is the play that a first reading presents the same difficulties as does The Cherry Orchard: one must keep a finger poised to search out identities in the cast of characters.
In all of Miss Hellman's first six plays, the initial situation is presented in terms of some kind of problem, and in three of these pieces (Days to Come, The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine) the first actors the audience sees and hears are servants behaving in the traditional opening scene fashion. The Negro servants, Addie and Cal, who are on stage in the first scene of The Little Foxes, are there to give us a feeling of elegance and richness and a sense of power, all of which help establish the character of Regina Giddens before her delayed entrance allows her really to dominate the stage. In The Autumn Garden, the opening is quite different. "On stage at rise of curtain" are six of the main persons of the play. They do not direct their conversation or their actions toward any one situation, but indeed are behaving in a manner which we have come to call Chekhovian. Each is concerned with himself, his own problems. We, the audience, seem to have interrupted a series of activities which have been going on for some time…. The house serves a symbolic function, just as do the houses of Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard, of Sorin in The Seagull and of the Prosorovs in The Three Sisters. It is the old home to which cling many memories but which has grown somewhat shabby with the passage of time; it is the autumn garden where flashes of brightness only emphasize the proximity of wintery sterility.
In both The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes, widely regarded as Miss Hellman's best plays, once the initial situation has been established, the whole movement of the plays is direct and without embellishment toward the climax. Both are "well-made" plays in the narrow sense that in neither are there any characters or any actions which do not contribute directly to the unfolding of the central incident. Here we might consult Miss Hellman's definition; "by the well-made play," she writes, "I think is meant the play whose effects are contrived, whose threads are knit tighter than the threads in life and so do not convince." But all art is contrived and better organized than life. The trouble in The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes is that the contrivances are too obvious; they are theatrically convincing, but they do not have the high artistry which makes them consistent with themselves, true not to life but to dramatic art; the contrivances in these pieces render them merely realistic, good enough for exciting (even meaningful) theater, but not great art. Again, Miss...
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It is nearly always said that Lillian Hellman's plays are triumphs of craftsmanship. Actually the question of motivation, the construction of a plot, are quite awkwardly managed in most of them…. The plays are full of thefts and letters discovered. The basic plot device is so often unfortunate that the efforts to work it out, skillful enough in a technical sense, become more and more visible and disturbing. This craftsmanship of climaxes and curtain lines and discoveries is a sort of know-how, useful enough in the commercial theater, but paralyzing to the natural development of characters in action. We are too often asked more on behalf of the plot than we can sensibly give assent to.
Behind Lillian Hellman's plays there is a torn spirit: the bright stuffs of expensive productions and the hair-shirt of didacticism. Between these two, her genuine talent for characterization is diminished…. [That Hellman's characters] should be squeezed to death by the iron of an American version of Socialist Realism and the gold of a reigning commercialism is a problem of cultural history. (p. 5)
Elizabeth Hardwick, "'The Little Foxes' Revived," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1967 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. IX, No. 11, December 21, 1967, pp. 4-5.
[Scoundrel Time] is the story of the 67 minutes that [Lillian Hellman] spent before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington in May 1952, of what preceded the hearing, and what its consequences were. (p. 656)
It is a moving story that she tells, but it must be said that, with all her skill in writing, it is not very easy reading. She assumes too much knowledge in the reader, and there is too much vagueness about dates and places. She is equally vague on her connection with communism: 'Whether I signed a party card or didn't was of little importance to me.'…
[The] abiding impression that remains is of the warmth and endurance of Lillian Hellman in her ordeal, and the splendour of her declaration of faith: 'I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions.' (p. 657)
David Hunt, "Clean Conscience," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of David Hunt), Vol. 96, No. 2484, November 18, 1976, pp. 656-57.
[When Scoundrel Time] was first published, in the spring of 1976, only the cooing of reviewers was heard…. Then … then, in The New York Review of Books, Murray Kempton interrupted his own paean to Miss Hellman to make a comment or two which, however gentle, quite ruptured the trance. It was as if, in Paris during the occupation, an anonymous arranger had, by fugitive notation, insinuated the motif of the "Marseillaise" into a great Speer-like orchestration of "Uber Alles." Others, after that, came rushing in. It would never be quite the same again for Miss Lillian.
Even so, one has to hand it to her. Though the book is slender, the design is grandly staged, in self-esteem as in presumption. To begin with, here is someone described in the introduction to her own book as the greatest woman playwright in American history. (p. 101)
And here is a writer [Garry Wills] introducing an autobiographical book by a woman who is publicizing now her complaint against an America that, as she might put it, victimized her because of her alleged championship of the regime of Josef Stalin. And what, then, does Wills go and do in his introduction? Quote from the author's pre-McCarthy works, to demonstrate the impartiality of her opposition to tyranny? Not at all. He goes on (and on and on—Mr. Wills consumes 34 pages with his introduction, one-fifth of the book), blithely—offhandedly—describing the era of Miss Hellman's travail as the era in U.S.-Soviet relations during which horrible old us, led by Harry Truman, promulgated a cold war against reasonable old them, the startled, innocent Communists, led by Josef Stalin…. That introduction, which might have been written in the Lenin Institute, introducing that book, under the circumstances of Miss Hellman's apologia, was a venture either in dumb innocence (inconsistent with Hellman's persona), or in matchless cheek…. (pp. 101-02)
But the difficulties had only just begun for her. Is Ms. Hellman a nice guy? In a way, it shouldn't matter. A sentence from her book, much quoted, asks, "Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?" By the same token, we shouldn't require that someone be endearing as a prerequisite to indignation at unfair treatment of her. But Ms. Hellman, author of The Little Foxes, is quickly spotted as being no less guileful than one of her characters. It's another case of Germaine Greer, filibustering against male chauvinism, while stripteasing her sexual biography across the magazine rack. Ms. Hellman, affecting only a disinterested concern for justice, twanging the heartstrings—with, however, more sleight of hand than craft…. If, unlike the earlier...
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[Lillian Hellman's eight] original plays fall into two principal groups, based on Hellman's view of human action and motivation—a highly moral view, interpreting both action and the failure to act in terms of good and evil.
The first two plays became signposts, marking the directions to be taken by the later plays. The Children's Hour concerned active evil…. The drama pointed the way toward the three plays whose chief characters are despoilers—those who exploit or destroy others for their own purposes. Hellman's second play, Days to Come, was not so much about the despoilers—the evildoers themselves—as about those characters who, well-meaning or not, stand by and allow the...
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