Despite its innocent title that alludes to a sentimental poem by Henry Wadworth Longfellow's poem of the same name, Lillian Hellman's play illustrates what evil a young girl can effect with a malicious lie that grows. The play is based upon a historical British court case about two women who founded a school in 1810 in Edinbrugh, Scotland, on their own and were later accused of having "an inordinate affection" for each other. One of the girls' grandmother withdrew her from the school and within days, the others were removed by their parents. The women subsequently filed a libel suit, but lost; they spent the rest of their lives trying to clear their names and recover financially. Hellman's play differs from the real situation in that the two women in real life did share a bedroom and were intimate with others in front of the girls. But, Hellman puts the emphasis of her play upon the young girl who lies about the school mistresses in retaliation for scolding her:
KAREN: ....I've wanted to talk with you many times before, but I was hoping that you'd come to me. What is the matter?...There must be something wrong or you wouldn't make up these stories so often. Why do you find it necessary to lie to us so much?
MARY I'm not lying, I went out walking and I saw the flowers....
KAREN Stop it, Mary...I know you got the flowers out of the garbage can. What I want to know is why you feel you have to lie out of it...
MARY You never believe me....Everything I do is wrong.
KAREN You know that isn't true...This kind of lying makes everything wrong.
But, when Karen punishes her, Mary declares that she will tell her grandmother, Mrs. Tilford, who is a financial supporter of the school, and who dotes on her granddaughter. When Mary learns that other girls have overheard Mrs. Morton say that Miss Dobie "better get herself a beau because it was unnatural," Miss Dobie became angry; so Mary, after having read some things in a French novel, embellishes what has occurred and suggests that the women have an unnatural relationship to her grandmother, who withdraws Mary from the school. Further, she phones other parents and soon most of the girls have withdrawn.
When Mrs. Tillford and Karen and Martha confront each other, Karen tells the grandmother,
KAREN It all fits so well now. That girl has hated us for a long time. We never knew why. We didn't find out. There didn't seem to be any reason....The wicked very young. The wicked very old.
Karen's fiance, the nephew of Mrs. Tilford makes every effort to get Mary to confess that she has been lying, but the malicious girl embellishes her lies with details of what she has seen through a keyhole. Even when it is revealed that there is no keyhole, Mary will not tell the truth, instead inducing Rosalie to fabricate and complete the destruction of the young women's reputations.
The two young women try unsuccessfully to sue for libel, but lose the lawsuit. When they return, they are in despair.
KAREN. What are we going to do? It's all so cold and unreal and awful. It"s like that dark hour of the night, when half awake, you struggle through the black mess you've been dream...But it's all a nightmare; there is no solid world.
After Mrs. Tilford discovers the truth that Mary has blackmailed Rosalie into acting as though she has seen Karen and Martha kissing after her lies have not worked, she rushes to apologize to the two young women and to make restitution; however, Martha has committed suicide. Having been told this unfortunate news, Mrs. Tilford is disconsolate, begging Karen to forgive her and let her help.