The Children's Hour

by Lillian Hellman

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Hellman's Play in the Realistic Tradition

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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.

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...

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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 are not equivalent characters, of course, but they do share a narcissistic delight in their malicious manipulation of their victims. Both are also pragmatic and inventive, quickly and cleverly changing strategies to fit changing circumstances, as, for example, when, at the end of the second act, Mary, on the verge of exposure, extorts confirmation of her lies from Rosalie Wells. Also, just as Iago has his stooge, Roderigo, his "fool" who is also his "purse," so Mary has her unwitting dupes, like Peggy Rogers, from whom, at the end of the first act, she extorts money through physical intimidation.

Granted, such parallels are mostly superficial, but the common plot motif of a vicious lie that is accepted as truth—and its disastrous consequences— cannot be dismissed. Shakespeare works on a grander scale, of course. Othello, his protagonist, is a man of high station and repute. Hellman's protagonists, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, though wholly decent people, are a pair of characters scratching at life, albeit valiantly. Furthermore, in Othello it is the titular character who believes the lie (that his wife, Desdemona, is cheating on him), acts on it (he murders his wife), and, when the truth is revealed, takes his own life. In The Children's Hour, it is Mrs. Tilford who believes and acts upon the lie. The chief victims of the slander are Karen and Martha. At the end, Karen may concede that Mary has harmed Mrs. Tilford more than anyone, but it is Martha who is dead and Karen who is left an emotionally-drained zombie, with neither friend nor fiancé left to spark her into caring again. All she is able to do is hold out a glimmer of hope to Mrs. Tilford, in what many interpret as a consolation for those unable to confront what the subtext most likely conveys: complete desolation.

It is precisely because Karen and Martha are very ordinary people that arguments against their tragic stature might be raised. Many purists, approaching Aristotle's Poetics as an august, prescriptive document, scoff at the idea that real tragedy is possible in a modern, egalitarian society. Some, like Joseph Wood Krutch, insist that even if an elevated stature is not necessary, belief in man's basic nobility—his potential for greatness—is. In his famous essay, "The Tragic Fallacy" (reprinted in Tragedy: Vision and Form), Krutch argued that ''a tragic writer does not have to believe in God, but he must believe in man," for tragedy is "the triumph over despair and confidence in the value of human life." For Krutch, modern psychology has done more than democracy has to diminish man's stature, for it has diligently, worked to rob humankind of a tragic sense of life, of a residual faith in a compensatory justice that makes amends for human misery.

Playwright Arthur Miller, in his essay "Tragedy and the Common Man'' (also printed in Tragedy), while admitting that modern tragedies are rare, claims they are not impossible. His defense of the unsung as suitable tragic figures seems as appropriate for Hellman's characters as it does for his own Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. For Miller, an insistence that a tragic protagonist must hold an exalted rank is merely ''a clinging to the outward forms of tragedy," not its spirit Tragedy, as Miller sees it, arises as a "consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly." Moreover, a tragic flaw may be only "his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status." Like Willy, Karen and Martha are not passive; they fight, firm in the belief that it is within their power to control their own destinies and that there is recourse to justice. That they are defeated in their attempt "posits a wrong or an evil in... [their] environment." For Willy Loman, that wrong is the badly tarnished American Dream; for Martha and Karen, as for Othello, that wrong is a dreadful malice hidden in other characters, their tragic antagonists.

Compared to Othello, The Children's Hour offers a much dimmer tragic vision. It lacks the great intensity of Shakespeare's play, the passion and the majestic language, but it does have a similar pattern and moral base. In Hellman's play, passion is muted and held in check, not expressed in the raging frustration of a single character, as it is in Othello. At the end of Hellman's play, Karen Wright is icy and remote, but she is not blasted by grief. Strong feelings have simply been dispersed, dissipated in the off-stage suicide of Martha Dobie and the pathetic self-pitying behavior of Lily Mortar. Mrs. Tilford, the guilt bearer, is almost as pathetic in her hand-wringing search for atonement. These are but faint echoes of the grand death of the guilt-laden Othello, but they are echoes nonetheless.

Both The Children's Hour and Othello are morality plays, terrible in their implication that evil, through deceit, can defeat the unwary. Against evil, even the virtuous have no adequate defense, for evil wears a disarming mask and allies itself with the righteous. It appears as friendship in the "honest" Iago and childlike innocence in Mary Tilford and enlists the unwitting aid of characters who believe they are just, even if, as in Othello's case, that belief is within the tragic protagonist himself.

Curiously, in both plays, this moral center has often been obscured by other matters of less import. In Othello, it is interracial marriage while in The Children's Hour it is lesbianism, a taboo subject in 1934. Othello, the Moor, is an African, but his racial heritage has little outward importance, Iago's racial slurs and epithets notwithstanding. What matters is that it makes him vulnerable to self-doubt in his relationship with Desdemona. Latent fears about her sexual orientation affect Martha Dobie in an analogous way Confronted and compounded with guilty feelings about Karen and Joe Cardin, these doubts overwhelm her with despair and lead to her suicide. Othello's blackness and Martha's sexual doubts simply mark them as susceptible to the evil genius of the villains in the respective plays, but they are matters that no longer carry much shock value Paradoxically, as these elements become less and less sensational, the moral center in both works comes into a much sharper focus. In the case of Hellman's play, the only question is whether it can long survive the loss of that shock power, lacking as it does the grandeur of Shakespearean tragedy.

Source: John W. Fiero, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Fiero is a Ph.D. who teaches drama and play-writing at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Good and Evil in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour

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Critics have often called The Children's Hour a melodrama. Those who have done so, see Karen Wright and Martha Dobie as "good" characters who are victimized by "evil" Mary Tilford. To Barrett H. Clark and Brooks Atkinson, Mary Tilford is a "monster." Even Hellman's most perceptive critic calls her "the embodiment of pure evil." If The Children's Hour is the story of a "sweet little teacher done to death by ... [a] tyrannical child," then we must concur with Barrett Clark's reading of the play's ultimate meaning: "... here is evil .. . make the best of it."

With great patience, Lillian Hellman has defended her play against the attacks of those who have labeled it a melodrama. In a 1965 interview, for example, she said that it is wrong to view her characters as being entirely good or evil: "You [the author] have no right to see your characters as good or bad. Such words have nothing to do with people you write about. Other people see them that way". The interviewer reminded Hellman that in the preface to the 1942 edition of her plays she had said that The Children's Hour was about goodness and badness. To this she replied, "Goodness and badness is different from good and bad people isn't it?" Her assertions suggest that Hellman did not intend to portray a melodramatic conflict between two "good" teachers and an "evil" child when she wrote her play. To clarify the play's substance, we should ask what, within the world of the play, is good and what evil.

Playwrights seldom underestimate the dramatic value of the visual-aural impact at curtain rise. The opening of The Children's Hour, in a study-room of the Wright-Dobie school, seems undramatic. Mrs. Lily Mortar, Martha Dobie's aunt, is sleeping, the students are sewing. The action which would catch the eyes of the audience is that of Evelyn Munn, "using her scissors to trim the hair of Rosalie, who sits, nervously, in front of her. She has Rosalie's head bent back at an awkward angle and is enjoying herself." However, the audience sees this stark visual image of the infantile pleasure of exercising cruelty while hearing about mercy, for the first words are those of a student reciting Portia's famous speech in The Merchant of Venice. Portia's plea for mercy should make an exceedingly strong impression on the audience, for portions of it are interpolated six times between the dialogue of Mrs. Mortar and her pupils. The visual image of cruelty is juxtaposed with the words "pity" and "mercy," which are repeated seven times during the opening moments of the play.

In The Children's Hour Hellman posits mercy as an ultimate good and merciless cruelty as an ultimate evil. But to understand the merciless world of Lancet and its cruelty, one must move beyond the notion that Mary Tilford is the embodiment of it.

The rancorous structure of interpersonal relationships in The Children's Hour is patterned after the structure of human association in the Venice of Shakespeare's Merchant. This can best be described as a victim-victimizer syndrome, the most concrete representation of which is the relationship between Antonio and Shylock. Antonio is convinced that his harsh treatment of Shylock is "just," because the Jew's interest rates are harsh. As victim, Shylock suffers from spiritual agony, feelings of persecution, and desires revenge. If he is able to consummate his wish, Shylock will become the victimizer of the man who originally victimized him. That the victim-victimizer syndrome is finally self-destructive is seen in the courtroom scene, when each victimizer in turn is reduced to the position of victim Shylock's demand for Antonio's life is turned against him when Portia reminds the court that an alien Jew must suffer the death penalty if he plots against the life of a Venetian citizen. The Duke and Antonio destroy the vicious circle by showing mercy to Shylock.

In the first two acts of her play, Hellman develops three relationships which are characterized by the circular form and destructive content of the victim-victimizer syndrome; these pairs are: Karen Wright-Mary Tilford, Martha Dobie-Lily Mortar, and Amelia Tilford-Wright/Dobie. In The Merchant, a Jew who is socially inferior to a Christian is mistreated by the Christian and attempts to use the Duke—the land's highest authority—as a vehicle for his revenge. In The Children's Hour, an adolescent pupil who is socially inferior to an adult teacher is mistreated by the teacher and proceeds to use Lancet's most influential citizen—the powerful matron Amelia Tilford—as a vehicle for her revenge. Finally, in the much criticized third act, Hellman, like Shakespeare, posits mercy as the only solution to the moral dilemma which is created when we deal justly with each other.

Karen Wright's treatment of Mary Tilford has never been sensitively evaluated. No one has noticed that immediately preceding their initial confrontation, Hellman suggests that Karen is perhaps not as compassionate as a teacher of young children should be. For when Mrs. Mortar complains that one of her students does not "appreciate" Portia's plea for mercy, Karen replies, "Well I didn't either. I don't think I do yet" The harshness of her discipline will demonstrate the truth—on a far more literal level than she suspects—of her remark.

Mary Tilford's offense is a minor one. She attempts to excuse her tardiness by saying that she was picking flowers for Mrs. Mortar. The flowers, Karen knows, were "picked" from the top of a garbage can, and Mary's stubborn refusal to admit the truth convinces Karen that she must be punished. First, Mary is told to take her recreation periods alone for two weeks; then, that her Friend Evelyn will no longer be her roommate, and that she must now live with her enemy Rosalie. Mary is also ordered not to leave the grounds for any reason. Hellman emphasizes Karen's harshness by adding details—Mary is specifically forbidden participation in hockey and horse-back riding—and by one further prohibition. Mary hopes that Karen's rules apply only to weekdays; if so, she may still be able to attend an event she has been looking forward to, the boat-races on Saturday. Unfortunately, she is told that she cannot attend them. While these restrictions might not be extreme deprivation for an adult, they are so for a child.

Mary feels—and rightly—that she is being persecuted. From wanting to tell her grandmother "how everybody treats me here and the way I get punished for every little thing I do," she moves to a sense of her inner agony, objectified in her hysterical "heart problems," and finally to a rebellious attitude: "They can't get away with treating me like this, and they don't have to think they can." She sets out to take her revenge, accuses Karen and Martha of lesbianism, and persists in her lie. Her behavior is ugly, but has been provoked by Karen's earlier ugliness: she seeks an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Karen's inability to deal compassionately with Mary Tilford is paralleled in Act I by Martha Dobie's attitude toward her aunt Lily. Karen and Martha decide that she must be relieved of her teaching duties, and literally thrown out of school. Their decision is just, for Mortar is a nuisance and an incompetent, yet they do not consider for a moment the effect such a dismissal may have on an old woman whose life has been the school. Again, justice is untempered by mercy, and again Hellman emphasizes the rigidity of the decision's administration. Martha not only tells Lily that she must leave, but makes fun of her-—''We don't want you around when we dig up the buried treasure"—and threatens that "You ought to be glad I don't do worse." Mortar pathetically attempts to save face: "I absolutely refuse to be shipped off three thousand miles away. I'm not going to England. I shall go back to the stage. I'll write my agents tomorrow, and as soon as they have something good for me—." This is essentially a plea for mercy cast in a manner that will allow her to retain some semblance of dignity. The old crone is finished on the stage, her "agents" are imaginary, and if she does not leave until they find her a part, she will never leave at all, which is her wish. Her suggestion is brusquely rejected. As Karen isolates Mary, Martha exiles Mortar. Lily's reaction is the same as Mary's: "You always take your spite out on me.'' As she exits, she casts toward Martha a "malicious half-smile" and the malice of revenge is realized when she refuses to testify on Martha's behalf at the libel trial.

In Act II, Karen and Martha suffer an ironic reversal of fortune; the victimizers become victims themselves. Amelia Tilford, an influential figure in the community of Lancet, misuses her authority over Karen and Martha just as surely as they had taken advantage of the weaker positions of Mary and Lily. When Mary tells Amelia that her two teachers are lesbian, the dowager immediately phones the parents of the children who are enrolled at Wright-Dobie and repeats the charges, thus destroying the school. When Karen and Martha come for an explanation, Amelia makes it clear that she does not want these two lepers in her house: "I don't think you should have come here.... I shall not call you names, and I will not allow you to call me names. It comes to this: I can't trust myself to talk about it with you now or ever.'' Her condescension and her revulsion m the face of her visitors' suspected abnormality pervades the scene: "This— this thing is your own. Go away with it. I don't understand it and I don't want any part of it." Ironically, Karen and Martha now suffer from the same humiliation and ostracism that they so rigorously inflicted on others.

To make the ironic parallel—and thus the lesson—even more explicit, Hellman shows Karen and Martha reacting just as Lily and Mary had. Both think that they are being unjustly persecuted: "What is she [Amelia] trying to do to us? What is everyone doing to us?" Both feel spiritual agony: "You're not playing with paper dolls. We're human beings, see? It's our lives you're fooling with. Our lives." Finally, they feel the need for revenge: "What can we do to you [Amelia]? There must be something— something that makes you feel the way we do tonight. You don't want any part of this, you said. But you'll get a part. More than you bargained for."

In Act II, then, Hellman presents a change in relationships, but not a change in the structure of relationships. The rancorous victim-victimizer syndrome is as pervasive in this act as it was in the previous one, the difference being that relationships have now come full circle, those who mistreated others are now mistreated themselves. Clearly, Hellman implies that when one mistreats another, he plants the seeds of his own destruction. This insight is made even more explicit in the third act.

Martha admits to herself that she has always been physically attracted to Karen. Her attitude toward herself is just as harsh as it had been towards others—or as Amelia Tilford's attitude had been towards lesbianism. Indeed, Martha's rancorous attitude toward the imperfections of others is but a reflection of her own self-condemnation. Hellman is making the same crucial point that Sartre makes in Dirty Hands, when he has Hoederer say to Hugo, "You, I know you now, you are a destroyer You detest man because you detest yourself."

As in the other two acts, there is a parallel action, but this time it is the difference that is instructive, not the similarity. Martha's self-condemnation is matched by a new-found self-disgust in Amelia Tilford. She discovers that Mary has lied about her two teachers, and realizes that her hasty phone calls have destroyed two people who are innocent of the charges. Her discovery propels her into the same kind of guilt and self-laceration that we have just seen driving Martha to suicide. Amelia begs Karen to allow her to ''do something'' for her so that she can in part expiate her sin. Karen extends mercy.

Hellman counterpoints Karen's new-found benevolence with the by now familiar infantile hostility of Lily Mortar, who protests against Amelia Tilford even setting foot in the school: "With Martha lying there? How can you be so feelingless? ... I won't stay and see it. I won't have anything to do with it. I'll never let that woman—." Martha's suicide, however, has for Karen been both harrowing and educative. Because of it she is, she tells Amelia, "Not [young] any more." The brief statement implies that she feels sadness at the loss of her own innocence, but also suggests that Martha's death has introduced her to a new maturity. Her horror at the guilt that caused Martha's suicide leads her to sympathize with the plight of ''guilt-ridden'' Amelia. In the last moments of the play, she accepts Amelia's atonement and thereby extends compassion—the ultimate good in the world of the play.

MRS. TILFORD You'll be all right?

KAREN I'll be all right, I suppose Goodbye, now (They both rise.)

MRS TILFORD (speaks, pleadingly ) You'll let me help you? You'll let me try?

KAREN Yes, if it will make you feel better.

MRS. TILFORD (With great feeling) Oh, yes, oh, yes, Karen. (Unconsciously KAREN begins to walk towards the window.)

KAREN (Suddenly.) Is it nice out?

MRS TILFORD It's been cold. (KAREN opens the window slightly, sits on the ledge.)

MRS TILFORD (with surprise.) It seems a little warmer now.

KAREN It feels very good (They smile at each other.)

Karen has destroyed the vicious circle that has characterized human relations; her compassion is the ultimate good in the world of the play.

The two traditional criticisms of The Children's Hour's last act are that Mary Tilford is the central interest of the play and so should not be missing at its conclusion; and that the final "summing up" (Hellman's words) is tedious. However, Mary Tilford is not the central interest of the play; a certain perverse structure of human relationships is. Moreover, if critics paid more attention to what Hellman is "summing up,'' they would find that the conclusion of the play is a structurally necessary resolution, not a tedious reiteration of previous materials. Jacob H. Adler has noted that The Children's Hour, like The Wild Duck, "ends not with... [a] suicide but with a brief discussion pinning down the issues as a result of the suicide."

Works as diverse as Aeschylus' Oresteia, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and Melville's Billy Budd have dealt with the dichotomy between primitive justice and mercy. Although The Children's Hour is certainly a less monumental work of art than any of these, it is within its limits a wholly successful moral play Hellman suggests that adults are too often ''children." While infantile revenge is matter of course in men's dealings with each other, Hellman shows a last-act discovery—Karen Wright's discovery of a more mature concept of compassion.

Source: Philip M Armato, "'Good and Evil' in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour" in Educational Theatre Journal, Volume 25, no 4, December, 1973, pp 443-7.

Saturday Review of Literature

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Twenty or thirty years ago Miss Hellman's play, enthusiastically received in New York, would doubtless have been stopped by the police. As it is both engrossing drama and a serious and sincere study of abnormal psychology, this change may imply a certain progress in the public's discernment.

The piece shows the tragic effects on two young women school-teachers of poisonous gossip spread by a pestiferous little pupil—one of those "problem" children who can so disrupt the life of a boarding-school that prudent head-mistresses decline to admit them if they know the facts. The two young women, who have built up their school by years of patient work and self-sacrifice, are forced to close it, and although they are objectively innocent, one of the friends loses her fiancé, while the other, confessing that she has "felt that way" all along, finally kills herself.

There is an inherent difficulty in the double-headed nature of Miss Hellman's theme which is not successfully surmounted on the stage, although somewhat less apparent in the script. For two of the three acts, the spectator's interest is so centered on the schoolgirls themselves, and in particular the part of the pestiferous little girl—extraordinarily well played in the New York production—that the last act, which consists of retrospective moaning and moralizing, six months later, by the unfortunate teachers, comes as a decided anti-climax. Miss Hellman feels the need, evidently, of showing the tragic results of the child's unfounded accusations, but has not been able to do this without slowing up and clogging action which, up until the end of the second act, marches straight ahead. The play is not for children but is decidedly a contribution to the adult theatre.

Source: Saturday Review of Literature, March 2, 1935, pp. 523.


Critical Overview


Critical Context