Last Updated on May 26, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909
Hellman found the story upon which she based this play in a nineteenth century criminal case recounted in Bad Companions (1931), by William Roughead. In that story, two women who headed a boarding school in Scotland were falsely accused of lesbianism by a student in 1810. Though Hellman’s source also emphasizes the theme of lesbianism and the problems of defining and controlling female sexuality, Hellman herself, in talking about the play, tended to deemphasize the lesbian theme. She spoke of it as a play about good and evil, about class power, and about scandal-mongering. The theme of scandal-mongering, or the “big lie,” came to seem more important when the play was revived in New York in 1952, shortly after Hellman’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where she refused to name acquaintances who might have been connected with suspected communist organizations. She managed, however, to avoid the fate of her lover, Dashiell Hammett, who was imprisoned in 1951 for contempt of Congress when he refused to give names.
To later scholars, the play’s sexual themes seem central because the outcome turns on an accusation of lesbianism. The power of this accusation depends upon silence not merely about lesbianism, but about female sexuality as a whole. No one in the play can say the word “lesbian,” not only because New York playgoers were queasy about the subject in the 1930’s but also because to the characters the very idea is an unspeakable horror. When Joe questions Mary about her story, Amelia is most horrified at the prospect that he will make Mary name what she claims to have seen. All the characters believe lesbianism to be so defiling and corrupting that the very charge proves guilt and, that if the young girls hear of it, they themselves are liable to be infected. Even Joe’s love for Karen cannot prevent his suspecting her. Once Mary has accused the teachers of lesbianism, a specter looms behind the action. This specter may be understood in part as the assumed instability of female sexuality, an instability that requires the most rigid social control.
In this school for adolescent girls, sexuality is not spoken of. The girls know that they must satisfy their curiosity about sex by secret and forbidden means. Mary is the most sophisticated in the group because she has actually finished the Gautier novel, and even she knows so little about sex that she merely stumbles upon the correct formula to transfix her grandmother by replaying and amplifying the themes that get the strongest reaction. Adults are not supposed to talk to girls about sex, and girls are not supposed to know about it. Inevitably, girls learn about it in forbidden and unreliable ways; they come intuitively to understand that their knowledge must remain secret and that it can be powerful.
In act 2, scene 2, Hellman shows the power of silence about female sexuality and lesbianism when Joe, Martha, and Karen confront Amelia and Mary. Though the audience knows that Amelia is being deceived and can easily see the clumsiness of Mary’s moves, still Amelia must decide whom to believe in the absence of completely reliable evidence. Should she believe the three professionals, with their established reputations, or the unreliable young girl who has claimed to see what Amelia believes no young girl could even imagine had she not actually seen it? Amelia may believe that lesbianism is “catching,” or she may simply believe that girls should not know there is such a thing, but in either case the very possibility that Karen and Martha are lesbians poses a danger too great to risk trusting them to teach girls. Whatever the specific danger that she has in mind, Amelia is concerned about maintaining the silence about female sexuality.
The reasons that this silence is so important are many and complicated. Women’s sexuality in the culture of this play is unknown, a blank filled with possibilities, like Mary’s whispering to Amelia. As a result, a woman’s sexuality seems to need tight control; otherwise, there is no telling what she will do. In the decades preceding this play’s appearance, for example, there was considerable public debate over whether women should have legal access to birth control information. Would women marry and have children if they could choose when to become pregnant? Would they remain in their marriages if they chose not to have children? The possible answers to such questions seemed to threaten the foundations of social order. Hence the necessity for rigid social control, and the vicious circle is completed when the primary means of social control becomes the very silence that ensures ignorance about female sexuality.
This sketch of part of the ideological background of the play helps to make clear why the themes of lesbianism and female sexuality are central. All the action and the tragedy of the play come out of the characters’ virtually unquestioned assumptions about these themes. Amelia cannot keep from believing the accusation, and even Joe’s love for Karen cannot weather it. Martha struggles with her own feelings in silence and denial, and when she admits them, she is only able to see herself as a kind of disease. Karen can only deny Martha’s feelings. No one has a constructive way to deal with lesbianism, in part because all are ignorant about women’s sexuality and in part because no one speaks of such feelings and issues in public discourse.