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...
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