The Children's Hour

by Lillian Hellman

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Last Updated May 17, 2024.


Lillian Hellman's multidisciplinary work frequently dealt with themes of injustice and exploitation. Though a prolific writer throughout her life, Hellman is most often associated with her first play, the 1934 The Children's Hour.

Progressive for its time, The Children's Hour plied truth against lies in a narrative dissecting what it meant to be homosexual in an unwelcoming era. The play takes place in a boarding school, as a troubled student falsely claims her two headmistresses are lovers. In the ensuing scandal, Hellman questions the nature of love and lesbianism.

Plot Summary

The Children's Hour opens in a boarding school run by two headmistresses, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie. 

In the opening scenes, viewers meet Mary—a troubled, mischievous child who shows herself to be a vindictive liar when it suits her. Late to class, Mary tries to lie her way out of trouble. However, her teacher sees through her and sends her to see the headmistresses, who punish her for her tardiness and her fabricated story.

After Mary leaves, Karen and Martha discuss the young girl, bemoaning the fact that her grandmother refuses to believe that her granddaughter is a troublemaker. As they brainstorm solutions, Martha suggests that Karen ask her fiancé, Joe, to speak to Mary and her grandmother, as he is related to them, but the topic causes tension. 

As the conversation turns to Joe, Martha confides in Karen her worries that after marrying Joe, Karen will distance herself from their friendship. Though Karen reassures her and Martha drops the subject, the conversation appears far from over. 

Later, as Martha speaks with Mary's teacher, Lily, about the incident, Lily comments that Martha is always grumpy when Joe is around, wondering aloud why she seems unnaturally jealous of Karen's happiness. Two students overhear the conversation and tell Mary about Lily's comments.

After arriving home, Mary tells her grandmother about Lily's argument and then begins to make up details about Karen and Martha's relationship. She claims to have heard strange sounds when Martha and Karen are alone together at night, carrying on with her storytelling until her grandmother is convinced. 

The lie spreads, reaching other students and, eventually, Joe. Once it reaches Martha and Karen, they confront Mary and her grandmother, demanding to know why they have made such claims. The group questions Mary; inconsistencies soon appear in her story, but the backing of another student—bullied by Mary into lying—validates her words.

The last act begins with Martha and Karen alone in the school. Neither woman wishes to face the public, as they have lost the libel suit they raised against Mary and her grandmother. 

Joe enters, having sold his place and arranged for a job elsewhere. Karen and Martha are both to come with him, but Karen tells Joe that their relationship has been poisoned and sends him away.

The two women discuss their next step, but both seem at a loss as to how to move forward. As they do, Martha confesses that she may once have loved Karen romantically; now, however, she feels incapable of discerning the truth of her feelings from the weight of the lies told about them. She expresses guilt over her feelings and the entire situation, thinking that the lie that has ruined their lives may have had some truth to it. 

With her confession made, Martha leaves the room and then shoots herself. 

Shortly after, Mary's grandmother arrives, saying she has realized that her granddaughter lied. She promises to publicly apologize and make damage payments for the libel suit, but Amelia stops her before she can finish, telling her that Martha is dead....

(This entire section contains 753 words.)

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As the play ends, Mary's grandmother promises to help Karen in any way she can, an empty promise offered far too late. 

The Children's Hour tidily considers the impact of a single lie and the weight that one's words, idly spoken may have on the lives of others. By centering that lie in a subject matter so contemporarily charged, Hellman raises the stakes, wondering—and revealing—how one might cope with the overwhelming pressure of undeserved ostracization. 

Though the screenplay found significant critical success, it faced difficulties in production. None of the leading actresses of the time felt comfortable playing the role of either headmistress; a Pulitzer judge even refused to watch it. For its unconventional (for the time) subject matter and controversial reception, The Children's Hour lives on the theatrical canon.