Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

One of America’s first and most successful female playwrights, Lillian Hellman began her dramatic career at the age of twenty-nine with The Children’s Hour. With 691 performances, it was her longest-running play. A book reviewer and a reader for films and playscripts, Hellman read an account of an early nineteenth...

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One of America’s first and most successful female playwrights, Lillian Hellman began her dramatic career at the age of twenty-nine with The Children’s Hour. With 691 performances, it was her longest-running play. A book reviewer and a reader for films and playscripts, Hellman read an account of an early nineteenth century Scottish trial, “The Great Drumsheugh Case,” about a child’s false accusations ruining reputations. This, Hellman’s first play, contains nearly all the themes and dramatic devices used in her other eleven dramas. Hellman created many ambitious female characters who, by greedy overreaching, leave death and destruction in their wake. Mary Tilford’s ruthless manipulation of her classmates and wealthy grandmother to wield power over them is echoed in many other Hellman characters who seek undeserved power or wealth. Amelia Tilford’s family loyalty in believing her granddaughter’s contrived distress (over her better judgment) leads to several deaths: of the girls’ school, of Karen and Joe’s relationship, and of Martha through her suicide. Other Hellman plays such as The Little Foxes (1939) trace how distorted family allegiances result in ethical compromise and devastation. Mrs. Tilford’s belief at the end that money will relieve her conscience and Karen’s pain demonstrates Hellman’s harsh criticism of the wealthy classes and capitalism.

Traits found in all other Hellman plays make their debut here: a fast-moving plot using secrecy and increasing suspense, sparse detail about the past, and deftly drawn characters who speak everyday language. In her first play, Hellman introduces blackmail, a device that resurfaces in all her drama. Mary blackmails Rosalie, a petty thief, into supporting her story about Karen and Martha inappropriately kissing. This is an example of the terror inflicted on victims in other Hellman plays.

The play has been called dated because of its typical Hellman melodramatic style—obviously evil characters wreak havoc on clearly good or well-intentioned innocents before being discovered. Unlike in characteristic melodrama, however, the “evil” character in The Children’s Hour, Mary, is not banished but is left in her grandmother’s care. “Good” characters are not given clearly happy endings as in melodrama. Martha is dead; Karen is left without friendship, career, or marriage; and even Mrs. Tilford’s remorseful recognition of her error comes too late. She also faces a bleak future in caring for her morally warped granddaughter. Mrs. Tilford’s “good” sense of responsibility to the parents and children of the school results in the irresponsible destruction of the two school founders and an unwanted responsibility for Mary’s future.

Some critics contend that the characters are flawed. For example, Mrs. Tilford is too intelligent to believe such a contrived story by a young girl. The girl’s youth is one reason why the grandmother believes her: Mrs. Tilford cannot fathom that a young girl would make up so shocking an incident. Given Mrs. Tilford’s privileged class, to change her mind after so strong a decision would be uncharacteristically humble.

In melodrama, a heroic man usually rescues victimized women. Here, Joe tries to rescue the two women with his plan to move to Vienna, but Karen takes control of their relationship by sensing Joe’s unconscious doubt about the women’s sexual past and pressuring him to articulate it. Unlike in melodrama, the lovers are not reconciled in the end: Joe’s ultimate decision is left in doubt.

Although Mary is closer to a melodramatic villain with her intentional malice, her excuse of self-protection introduces a much more complex character. Mary believes that the two women discipline her because they dislike her. The young girl’s parents are absent, and misbehavior by children to gain attention, even negative attention, is not uncommon. The cycle of transgression-punishment-transgression does not necessarily have a clear beginning in the transgressor’s perception.

The drama’s last act has been criticized as anticlimactic: The lethargy of the two friends depletes the play’s intensity for too long. Hellman realized after a few rehearsals that the last ten minutes should be cut, but because she could not find an appropriate alternative, she left the act alone.

The Children’s Hour differs from other Hellman plays in its lesbian theme, which caused a sensation on Broadway. Today, the homosexuality might seem mild, tastefully handled, and ambiguous. The acts for which the women are ruined have been disproved for the audience, and Martha’s sudden admission of harboring “unnatural” affections for Karen is not entirely convincing. The women have been isolated and disoriented by the months-long ordeal before Martha’s guilt about her new self-evaluation drives her to suicide. With Karen’s strong disagreement, Hellman leaves the truth unclear. By the time Martha shoots herself, however, the prejudice that caused her death seems more immoral than her socially unacceptable affections. Hellman declared in a 1952 interview that she considered the play’s major theme to be not lesbianism but the power of lying.

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