The Children’s Hour was a shocking play for its time. It was based on an actual incident in nineteenth century Scotland, in which a pupil accused her schoolteachers of lesbianism. The word itself is never spoken in The Children’s Hour, but the mere hint of it—the innuendo that there is something “unnatural” going on between Martha Dobie and Karen Wright—is enough to damn them in the eyes of their community. Mary, the child who levels the charge against her teachers, has been spoiled by her grandmother and has learned early how to manipulate adults. Her doting grandmother is shocked by Mary’s allegations and takes it upon herself to withdraw Mary from the school and to advise other parents to do the same.
It is the power of the lie, of a child’s tenacious unwillingness to speak the truth even when it means the ruin of several lives, that accounts for the enormous power of the play. Mary is mean, plain evil, a point Hellman makes shrewdly in scenes that show how Mary intimidates a schoolmate into lying to support her charge against the teachers. Hellman works her audience’s emotions into a fine sense of outrage at how a big lie is capable of gripping a society’s imagination. Not a political play in itself, The Children’s Hour nevertheless has political implications, as it exposes the way mass psychology can be manipulated to serve falsehood. Realizing the importance of this theme, Hellman directed a revival of the play during the McCarthy period, when she believed that many Americans were being victimized by the lie that they were communists disloyal to the United States.
Many critics have puzzled over the play’s third act, in which Martha Dobie, suspecting that she has had lesbian feelings for Karen, commits suicide. She does so partly out of guilt, for Karen’s engagement to Joseph Cardin has been broken, and Martha believes that she has destroyed her dear friend’s life. Hellman’s point seems to be that Martha’s outrage at the charge against her has blinded her to what may be the true nature of her feelings. Her belated self-realization—when she no longer has the energy or the will to fight the charge—is then all the more devastating to her. In her memoirs, Hellman admits that she is not sure whether she ever got the third act of the play “right.” On the other hand, the play does seem enriched by the fact that from the perspective of the third act, Mary becomes a character not only of great evil but also of great intuitiveness in picking out that element of Karen’s and Martha’s friendship which the two women themselves had never carefully examined.
The Children’s Hour should not be taken as a play about lesbianism itself—a point that Hellman made by changing the plot of the play in a film adaptation titled These Three (1936). In the film, Martha is accused of an illicit affair with Karen’s fiancé, Joseph Cardin. Nearly as powerful as the play, These Three proves that even without the controversial element of lesbianism, Hellman’s major theme about the power of a big lie remains intact.
The Children’s Hour was an enormous success on Broadway—it ran longer than any other Hellman play—and no doubt its sensational aspects helped make it a hit. It retains an important place in the canon of classic American plays, and it has been revived repeatedly in recent years.