Hellman, Lillian (Vol. 18)
Hellman, Lillian 1906–
An American playwright, screenwriter, and director, Hellman has also published four successful memoirs. Both her plays and memoirs are characterized by scrupulous diction, economy of language, and unsentimental objectivity. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 8, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
George Jean Nathan
The revival of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour has again reminded us that when adroitly treated, whether seriously or humorously, gossip and its handmaiden scandal combine to remain one of the most completely fascinating themes in the dramatic catalogue. (p. 49)
[The Children's Hour] still deserves a repetition of its prosperity on the score of its considerable merit as a piece of playmaking and as a tight and intelligent melodrama, let alone its uncommonly deft triumph over materials that in less gifted hands might easily have been productive only of a cheap showshop sensationalism. It is what Miss Hellman deliberately has not done that lends some size to what, were it tastelessly done to a turn, would have been largely sub-Brieux or the kind of thing with which Al Woods used to scare the very three-sheets off the billboards. Restraint, in a word, has been Miss Hellman's best critical weapon, and her play, which as almost everyone by now knows deals with malicious gossip that accuses two women of an unnatural relationship and brings in its wake the wreck of their personal and professional lives, not only retains all the suspensive drive it initially had but is, to boot, better by far than most of the plays of native origin that the stage has lately offered. (p. 50)
There has always been one element in the otherwise cunningly written play that has bothered me. It is the business of having the child...
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[Few] passages in [Lillian Hellman's] plays have been lifted directly from life. Not because of a sparsity of dramatic incidents in her life, but simply because her writer's nature did not tolerate such self-indulgence. When she turned to life, she drew from the family circle of her mother and father. Her uncles and aunts on her mother's side had staged exciting and vigorous family battles that had awed and frightened her. Her father's sisters were warm and affectionate, devoted to him and to her. These childhood memories were stamped so indelibly that when playwriting settled on her as a profession, she found a new usefulness for her family. Certainly The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, The Autumn Garden, and Toys in the Attic could not have been written without the backlog of experience her family supplied.
If autobiographical actions photographed from her mature life do not figure prominently in her plays, ideas and actions from the life and times around her do. If her personal adventures have not been admitted, she has not locked the door of her work against the outside world. In all her plays—in some more than in others—one senses the temper of the time and the temper of Miss Hellman. Because she feels strongly about the way the world turns, she has favored characters who share her concern, vigorous characters fired with human passion. (p. 6)
[At] the beginning of her first play...
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It is a strange turn of life that the plays Lillian Hellman wrote in the 1930's and '40's center around the same moral issues as her recent factual memoir of the McCarthy period. The plays were for the most part written many years before McCarthy and the Red Scare were part of Hellman's life or of American life; yet the plays prefigure and parallel the memoir.
In her plays, and in Scoundrel Time, the memoir, Hellman formulates and explores the idea that regardless of political and social pressures, we must not eagerly, unthinkingly violate the unspoken rules of human decency….
In 1934, the twenty-nine year old Hellman dramatized precisely this moral issue in her first play, The Children's Hour. A young girl accuses her teachers of being lesbians in order to avoid punishment for having stolen a bracelet. Even more indecent than the girl's frightened act, however, is the whole community's eagerness to accept the children's stories, though they are shown to be improbable. This eagerness for scandal is one of the immoral pressures out of which the lies have grown. The same kind of pressures caused people to make exaggerated and false accusations before the [House Committee on Un-American Activities]…. (p. 1)
Scoundrel Time portrays Hellman thinking hard about her own fears—of jail, and rats, and no money—and deciding exactly which principles are or are not important enough...
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Ms. Hellman has certainly written better plays than [the recently revived] Days to Come, yet I found it interesting for a variety of reasons, even for its faults. For a start, it is about something real, something that matters. At the time of its original showing, it must have been regarded chiefly as a play about capital and labor, a "strike play." It offers the usual setup of a wealthy, more or less genteel Ohio family, owners of a brush factory; its loyal workers; an upright union leader; the benevolent but weak boss; his unfeeling partner, and the gangsters hired to bring in strike-breakers. There is an adventitious crime, a calculated outbreak of violence, the death of a child due to police brutality. These are the melodramatic trappings typical of too many plays of the 1930s. They are not false: all this is representative enough of what was or had been happening in the earlier days of the period.
Ms. Hellman's treatment of these materials is conventional because they are basically foreign to her experience. She gathered information from newspapers, special reports, political discussions, meetings that were prevalent at the time. Hindsight—our knowledge of what Ms. Hellman would subsequently write—reveals that Days to Come is not mainly concerned with the industrial warfare which is the "stuff" of her story for the first two acts.
The play's theme, Ms. Hellman's essential preoccupation, comes to...
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Three brings together in a single volume An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976)…. Hellman does not … desire to escape the self through flights of language; indeed, she mistrusts the easy transformations of perspective that prose makes possible. As the titles An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento indicate, her acts of retrospection imply that subjective vision has limits, and that these limits must be acknowledged.
The author of Three is to be triply admired: for the character of her prose, which is conversational, terse, and direct; for her willingness to admit uncertainty; and, finally, for her determination to see not only as she once saw, and not only more than she once saw, but to see continuously as age alters or extends her vantage point…. Evidently, in her New Orleans childhood Hellman acquired a Southerner's strong sense of place, for we see clearly the places that have been important to her, from the fig tree by her aunt's boardinghouse, where she "learned to read," to a square in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, to the Pleasantville farm that she shared with Dashiell Hammett. In many ways, Lillian Hellman clarifies the past by continuing to scrutinize it even as it continues to recede; in other and essential ways, however, she allows its outlines to blur.
Hellman knows there are odd blanknesses in the images she...
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Hellman strikes me as one of the most overrated writers in American history, and this 1941 opus [the recently revived Watch on the Rhine] has aged not as works of the imagination, but as cars, threshing machines, and other like contraptions, do. (p. 71)
Watch on the Rhine would creak in every bone if it had any bones and were not entirely made of the skin of simplistic ideology, the gristle of melodrama, and the grease of facile gags. Yet through it has the black-and-whiteness of melodrama, it does not even have its steady suspense, rising menace, and rousing climax; though it purports to be of the genre "well-made play," it falls into such clumsinesses as having a fastidious aristocrat and his wife fight out the terminal battle of their marriage in front of gawking strangers; though it is meant to be profoundly moving, it hauls out every conceivable, unconscionable cliché and so stoppers even its tear-jerking. (p. 72)
John Simon, "From Ghostly," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1980 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 2, January 14, 1980, pp. 71-2.∗
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["Watch on the Rhine"] is still charged with meaning; the moral and political questions with which it deals continue to torment us…. [Surely we] go on asking two of the oldest and most anguished of questions: "Am I my brother's keeper? And if I am, and if this is a good thing, then how evil dare I to become in the name of keeping him?"
Miss Hellman has always been a champion of the well-made play, and it's true that one detects in the neat plotting of "Watch on the Rhine" a taint of melodrama that grows less and less tolerable with age.
Brendan Gill, "Popular Theatre: 'Watch on the Rhine'," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 48, January 14, 1980, pp. 55-6.
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The kindest interpretation one can put on "Maybe," Lillian Hellman's new book, is that it is a parody of contemporary fiction. Non sequiturs, gratuitous acts, frustrating ellipses, ambiguities, a dearth of emotion: Miss Hellman avails herself of all these current techniques in telling a story that she keeps telling us may not be a story at all.
On every page, sentences begin with I've forgotten, I don't remember, I don't know, I am no longer sure. This encourages us to suppose that "Maybe" may be about the antics of memory, the elusiveness of truth or character…. No one, she suggests, can possess the whole truth with any confidence.
"Maybe" is described on the dust jacket as "a story," yet Miss Hellman presents herself, her husband and Dashiell Hammett, with whom she lived for years, as characters in the book, and the events seem to be offered as autobiography.
The heroine of this story or memoir is a beautiful woman named Sarah Cameron, whom Miss Hellman saw only intermittently over 40 years. A pathological liar, a poseuse, a virtuosa of discontinuities, Sarah resembles Lady Brett in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." She is a familiar femme fatale from a period in women's evolution that may now strike us as quaint, a time when boredom was indistinguishable from sophistication.
After saying that she likes Sarah, Miss Hellman adds that "she is of no importance to my life and never...
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Maybe [the fourth Hellman memoir] is a hundred-page remembrance loosely constructed around a woman called Sarah Cameron whom Hellman never knew intimately, a beautiful, indolent Fitzgerald-like playgirl who moved vaguely in all the circles that touched Hellman's life and who showed up periodically over the long decades—at a drunken Hollywood party in the '30s, a restaurant in Paris in the '40s, a hotel in Rome in the '60s. Hellman had some mean encounters with a friend of Sarah's, an affair with her ex-husband, a disturbing exchange with her antisocial son.
The association between Hellman and Sarah herself has no substance whatever; it's all fragments and fancy speculations and peripheral incidents and mysterious allusions that seem only to provide the writer with an excuse to call up once again Hammett and the drinking years, the aunts in New Orleans, making movies for Sam Goldwyn. The effort to surround Sarah with metaphoric meaning is strained and painfully obvious.
It is difficult to understand why Hellman thinks she is writing about this barely created stick figure. (p. 45)
This is not the work of a master writer who has taken a few bits and pieces of metaphorically remembered life and woven from them a moving and brilliant speculation on the what might have been. On the contrary. Maybe is an impoverished piece of writing that verges severely on self-parody. A bare framework has...
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The central figure of ["Maybe," a] strange short memoir (if it can be called such), is not its ostensible subject, Sarah Cameron, nor the memoirist, Lillian Hellman, but the elusive, mutilated, often reeling character of memory itself. Again and again Miss Hellman tries to corner memory, forcing it to reveal the truth about the people and events she is trying to make sense of. Important epistemological questions are suggested: How valid is what we know—or think we know—about the people who dropped in and out of our lives in the past? How can we tell where memory blends into fantasy, producing a composite that takes on different shapes at different times, according to our needs? At the end of Miss Hellman's struggle with these questions, we have to settle for some very dusty answers; meanwhile we have been entertained, dismayed and, above all, tantalized….
Lillian Hellman has created [a very interesting persona] for herself in these pages. She portrays herself as truculent, sardonic and (better than most around her) able to hold her liquor. Sexually independent herself, she is nonetheless caustic with her longtime lover Dashiell Hammett for letting strange ladies drift casually in and out of his whiskey-soaked Hollywood existence. The conversations of this sharp-tongued, easily angered woman tend to be sparring matches that modulate into gentle banter when she is with someone like "Dash," for whom she feels strong affection. The...
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[Monumental] despair is the true subject of Maybe. For Lillian Hellman has gone swimming in the waters of time and memory and found herself adrift in a vast sea of unreliability—the shore of solid information, of what is known about the circumstances of the past, seems to recede each time she believes she has the true details in sight. No jetty of certain facts upon which to perch ever makes its appearance; and there is no place from which her own experiences, her own sense of what her life has been, can now be comfortably and fairly assessed. What really did happen to her, and to some of the figures who have crossed and recrossed the stage of her life? The truths she struggles to reach are always, ultimately, impalpable and insubstantial; what's more, the "real truth" may not matter at all—it may have no importance whatsoever. It is this possibility, the possibility of meaninglessness, that lends Maybe its primary tonal quality, which is one of utter lostness, of panic. (p. 36)
Love, as we envision it—loving that involves knowing and being known by another—doesn't exist in these pages. Each individual is isolated in his or her own skin, and either drinking hard or taking drugs to kill the pain.
The characters in this work are glittery, sophisticated, scary; they lash out, wound, lie, distort, defend themselves ceaselessly; and fail, always, to recognize or meet one another's needs, to touch one...
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Maybe is a more resonant, coherent, and ambitious work than its scattered narrative at first suggests….
If we look at Maybe as a speculative inquiry into the nature of truth and of memory, a way of asking what can we know about another person or our own lives, then Hellman's choice of relatively marginal central figures serves to reinforce her interest in how memory works as well as what it recalls. But Maybe is more than an exercise in epistemology…. Despite, or perhaps because of, their marginality Hellman needs to know who the Camerons were to know herself…. (p. 5)
[The] structural disorder of the narrative may be read as a thematic statement about the tension between the need for order and intelligibility as it conflicts with the desire to find the truth….
Maybe … is nearly as much a self-reflexive study of autobiography as it is the story of Hellman's encounters with the Camerons and related acquaintances. As such it may frustrate the Hellman reader's well-based expectations of stylish and affectionate portraits of her family, lovers, and close friends. However, what Maybe loses in grace and assurance is more than compensated for by the invitation issued by its formal and thematic self-consciousness to a more strenuous level of critical inquiry into Hellman's entire autobiographical corpus….
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