Hellman's Play in the Realistic Tradition

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1734

Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour is a realistic thesis play, in a direct line of descent from the work of the great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen (A Doll's House). It is a fair example of the kind of serious play that has dominated the American theater through most of the twentieth century. Such plays deal with social issues or problems, usually using one or two families as the center of their thematic inquiry. While many very good plays were written in this tradition, a large number have suffered from their connection to past eras and now seem somewhat dated. William Inge's Come Back Little Sheba (1950) is an example, as is Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy (1953), both highly successful plays that are often considered too out of touch with contemporary times to merit commercial revival. In contrast, Hellman' s The Children's Hour remains persistently relevant.

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That is not to claim that the play is contemporary in its technique or its representation of prevailing social attitudes. It is not. Overt treatment of lesbianism, sensational in 1934, has lost virtually all its ability to shock an audience (homosexuality is discussed frankly and on a regular basis in contemporary pop culture). In that regard, Hellman's play is also long in the tooth, making it difficult to understand now why the play so offended officials outside New York. In fact, as Doris Falk remarked in her book Lillian Hellman, ''it is ironic that this most outspoken and revolutionary play in its time should now seem so old-fashioned."

Nor did the play cut new artistic trails. Even before Hellman wrote the play, important dramatists like Eugene O'Neill (Long Day's Journey into Night) and Elmer Rice (Street Scene) had taken the American theater in new directions, in part as a reaction to the narrow dictates of the sort of realism to which, in The Children's Hour, Hellman remained wholly committed. Although some critics have carped about its melodramatic effects, Hellman's work carefully follows the formula of the well-made play. It is linear in plot, causal in its logic, and completely life-like in its characters' speech and behavior. Its principal theme, the destructive power of a malicious lie, is drawn out in the ritual recriminations at the end, perhaps too much so, but even that is characteristic of some of Ibsen's plays, A Doll's House (1879), for example, or An Enemy of the People (1882).

However, as is also true of Ibsen's best work, The Children's Hour seems to transcend the limits of its form and technique. From the outset, as is reflected in some reviews of the premier production, commentators found a tragic dimension in the play. "Tragedy" is a term often used as a synonym for "disaster," but at least some of the critics used it to describe the play's genre, in the Aristotelian sense of the word. (Aristotle outlined many of modern drama's techniques in his Poetics.) While complaining that producer/director Shumlin and Hellman "daubed" the play "with grease paint in the last quarter of a hour'' (made it melodramatic), Brooks Atkinson's New York Times review named it "a pitiless tragedy."

The Children's Hour gains tragic weight because it encompasses a timeless moral dilemma. Specifically, it asks whether there is a sufficient defense against evil in the guise of truth or innocence. It is the same question addressed in William Shakespeare's Othello, and it gives the same perplexing and devastating answer: in some circumstances, no. In both plays, evil is accepted as a fact of life, vested in characters whose darkest motives are hidden, not just to other characters, but even to themselves. They are the plot drivers, working by guile to destroy those who have thwarted their will and deprived them of what they believe is their due.

Shakespeare's Iago and Hellman's Mary Tilford...

(The entire section contains 4571 words.)

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