The Children’s Hour is a combative play that challenged the moral values of contemporary American society. Its story is about two women who run a private school for girls. When they are unjustly accused by a pupil of being lesbians, outraged community members withdraw their children, forcing the school to close. When one of the women realizes that she is sexually attracted to her colleague, she commits suicide.
Before Lillian Hellman wrote The Children’s Hour, several Broadway plays had addressed lesbianism; however, her own play struck harder at the pieties and conventions of contemporary life. It suggested that intolerance could result in witch-hunts ruining careers and lives. As much as its implied sexual content, the play’s implicit political content led to its censorship. In 1952, during the midst of McCarthyist attacks on leftists and communists, for example, Hellman’s leftist political beliefs made revival of The Children’s Hour again a cause célèbre. The Broadway production of the play was not censored; however, copies of the play were removed from overseas U.S. libraries, and Hellman was blacklisted in Hollywood.
Hellman adapted her play to the screen in 1936, changing its title to These Three and altering its plot, so that it involved a heterosexual love triangle instead of lesbianism. A more faithful adaptation was filmed in 1962, when censorship standards had been relaxed.
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...
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