The Children's Hour

by Lillian Hellman

Start Free Trial

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

At the time that Hellman wrote The Children's Hour, in 1934, the United States was still mired in the economic doldrums of the Great Depression. Europe, too, was struggling with economic collapse, fomenting a political struggle between fascism and other economic/political systems that would finally erupt into World War II in 1939.

The chief figures in the political upheaval in Europe were Adolph Hitler in Germany, Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, and Benito Mussolini in Italy, all of whom held expansionist dreams of world conquest. But there were other players, too. It was in 1934 that Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss sought to stem political opposition on the left by suppressing all political parties except his Fatherland Front, while in Bulgaria, supported by the king, fascists staged a coup and grabbed political control. Even France, a staunch democratic republic, stood on the brink of civil war because of political corruption condemned by factions representing both the extreme left and right. In Germany, meanwhile, the National Socialist Party (Nazis) conducted a blood purge, destroying dozens of party members accused of plotting to kill Hitler and eliminating Ernst Rohm and Gregor Stresser and their more radical wing of the Nazi Party.

Hellman, a cosmopolitan writer who had spent some time in Paris in the 1920s, was very concerned with what was happening in Europe in the 1930s. Her German-Jewish heritage and liberalism made her a dedicated anti-fascist, and she would, in succeeding years, give time, money, and artistic dedication to that cause, returning to Europe in 1937 to witness the loyalist struggle against Franco and the royalists in the Spanish Civil War. However, most of bread-line America was basically disinterested in the increasingly unstable political situation in Europe. Many still adhered to the isolationist policy that gained favor in the aftermath of World War I, believing that America should concern itself with solving its own problems before worrying about what was happening abroad. There was a strong "America First" movement determined to keep the United States free of new foreign entanglements.

The nation was also too busy trying to cope with poverty and unemployment. In order to solve the Depression's negative impact on writers, in 1934, as part of the Works Project Administration (WPA), the federal government, under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, established the Federal Writers' Project, run by Henry G. Alsberg. It provided work for hundreds of writers, many of whom, from a conservative perspective, were much too radical. By that date, too, the Group Theatre had been in operation for three years, producing plays of "social significance," some of which, like Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty (1935) and Awake and Sing (1935), advanced socialistic views. The new thirst for social consciousness in serious art helped diminish the reputation of playwrights like Eugene O'Neill, whose works largely ignored political issues while probing the human psyche and becoming increasingly autobiographical in content

Although The Children's Hour lacks a political theme, it does indicate that Karen Wright and Martha Dobie have had to struggle to make a go of their school, hinting that the economic situation in America would put such a venture at grave risk. They have in fact had to depend on the support and good will of Mrs. Tilford, a very influential dowager. In general, however, the moral focus of the play transcends specific economic and political concerns. In some of her later works, notably Watch on the Rhine (1941) and Another Part of the Forest (1946), Hellman would evidence her political views.

The frank lesbian theme brought the play its notoriety, not the political views...

(This entire section contains 673 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

of its author. At the time, various groups, including federal, state, and local agencies, engaged in some form of censorship. An important example was the Hays Office, created in 1934 as a self-policing production code oversight agency by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of American, Inc. (MPPDA) and headed by former Postmaster General Will H. Hays. Hellman, in deference to the dictates of the Hays Office, had to eradicate all traces of the lesbian theme in her film adaptation of the play.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SettingThe Children's Hour employs two settings. The first, used in the opening and final acts, is the living and study room of the Wright-Dobie School for girls, located in a converted farmhouse about ten miles from Lancet, a rural town in Massachusetts. The second, used in both scenes of the second act, is the living room of Mrs. Tilford's house, presumably in the town of Lancet.

The setting plays a significant role in the play, for it posits a small-town attitude and closeness—a place where news travels fast—which is evident in the snickering of the grocery boy in the third act. The community ostracizes Karen and Martha, which helps create the oppressive atmosphere that makes Martha's suicide believable. Because the women are sensitive to their community's censure, they come to believe that their alleged behavior will follow them wherever they go, that they will be unable to escape from their notoriety.

StructureThe Children's Hour has a conventional, linear plot, consisting of three acts, the usual format employed by playwrights at the time. The formal divisions into acts and scenes is used to demarcate a change of time, but each formal segment also ends at a decisive moment, following the tradition of strong scene closures at the curtain. These elements all contribute to what is referred to as a well-made play. It is a time-honored technique, fundamental to melodrama, whether good or bad.

Within the structural design of the play, time is handled in a strict chronological order. The action covers a period of about eight months, opening in April and ending in the following November. A key event that occurs in the interval is the civil suit brought by Karen and Martha against Mrs. Tilford. It is not presented on stage, but its dreadful impact resonates throughout the last act of the play.

Realism
Hellman works entirely within the limits of the realistic problem play. The Children's Hour is very suited to the box set, with the invisible fourth wall through which an audience witnesses the work in progress. It uses no devices or techniques to dispel the total illusion of that reality.

From beginning to end, the characters behave and talk like real people in a situation that seems entirely credible. Their dialogue, although very focused and congruous, captures the idiom and cadences of real speech, and the action, though hardly typical, is wholly within the realm of the possible. Even Mary's psychopathic behavior, though not accounted for, is uncomfortably realistic and its results entirely plausible.

Foreshadowing
To maintain the complete illusion of reality, Hellman eschews the use of various theatrical devices and conventions. However, she prepares her audience to accept events as plausible from clues or hints preceding them. Hellman foreshadows actions largely through character revelation, particularly in the cases of Lily Mortar, Mary Tilford, and Martha Dobie.

Lily reveals her self-centeredness from the very beginning of the play. Her vanity is fed by the flattery of her students, and she proves to be easy prey for Mary. She lives on her imagined triumphs of the past, retreating from present obligations. Her failure to respond to Karen and Martha's request that she return from Europe to testify at the trial therefore becomes almost inevitable.

Mary's lies, cajoling flattery, feigned heart attack, and abusive treatment of her classmates all prepare the audience to accept her vicious slander against Karen and Martha as completely consistent with her character. Although Karen and Martha recognize that there is something seriously wrong with the girl, Mary easily dupes Lily Mortar and intimidates most of her classmates. Agatha, Mrs. Tilford's maid, and Dr. Gardin are also wise to Mary, but their counsel is ignored by the girl's grandmother once she is convinced that Mary could not have fabricated her damning story.

Martha's eventual disclosure of sexual attraction for Karen and her suicide are also partly foreshadowed by her behavior earlier in the play. Her nervous agitation and angry recrimination towards her aunt suggest a troubled soul. It is obvious that she fears estrangement from Karen, as is evidenced in her jealousy of Joe Cardin and her ambivalent feelings towards Karen and Joe's impending marriage. Mrs. Mortar's biting remark about the "unnatural" feelings that Martha has exhibited towards Karen and earlier friends also echoes through the play, bearing a grain of truth that erupts m Martha's confused confession of her feelings in the last act.

Irony
Hellman also uses irony in The Children's Hour, a device often employed by realists because it need not destroy the illusion of lifelike fidelity while contributing greatly to dramatic impact. Dramatic irony exists in scenes in which there is a discrepancy in the levels of knowledge of the characters or the characters and the audience (what the audience expects of the characters). Such scenes are often suspenseful, for the audience awaits an inevitable "recognition," that moment at which a character is made aware of his or her ignorance. The effect can be devastating. The best example in The Children's Hour occurs in the third act, when Mrs. Tilford confronts Karen, completely unaware that Martha has killed herself. The disclosure breaks down all of Mrs. Tilford's reserve, for in that instant she realizes the irreversible damage she has caused and the guilt she must carry to the grave.

Irony in a lower key also exists at the end of the second act, when Rosalie Wells confirms Mary's claims that it was actually Rosalie who witnessed the lovemaking between Martha and Karen. The situation is doubly ironic, for Rosalie's credibility gains strength from the fact that she has been no friend to Mary and was deliberately chosen by Karen to become Mary's roommate because Mary seemed to have no influence over her. That Rosalie is being blackmailed by Mary is a fact known only to the two girls and the audience.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Armato, Philip M. “Good and Evil’ in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour.” In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Bigsby, C. W. E. 1900-1940. Vol. 1 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A chapter on Hellman evaluates The Children’s Hour’s themes and explores its relationship to Hellman’s life.

Falk, Doris. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. A biographical study that includes summaries of Hellman’s works and information about the composition, production, and reception of her plays.

Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. This critical examination of Hellman’s works includes a good discussion of her sources for The Children’s Hour, as well as a biographical chronology and sketch and an annotated bibliography.

Moody, Richard. Lillian Hellman: Playwright. New York: Pegasus, 1972. This early biography includes information about the composition and two main New York productions of The Children’s Hour and stills from several productions.

Reynolds, R. C. Stage Left: The Development of the American Social Drama in the Thirties. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1986. Examines Hellman’s literary world and the contribution made to it by The Children’s Hour.

Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. This literary biography offers a full account of the complex and elusive playwright. The Children’s Hour receives extensive treatment. Contains many photographs of Hellman and her associates.

Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. This readable popular biography is less concerned with analysis of her work than with a detailed narrative of Hellman’s life. Contains an interesting selection of photographs.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1930s: The Great Depression brings great suffering to America, with attempts to blunt the hardship with the ''New Deal" policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Reforms include social welfare programs designed to alleviate the plight of the poor and dispossessed. Conservatives condemned such measures as socialistic, and some of the reforms were blocked by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

Today: A fairly robust economy and nearly full employment contrast sharply with the conditions current in the Great Depression. Civil rights reforms and social welfare programs, some with a lineage that goes back to the liberalism of the 1930s, are now under attack from moderates and conservatives alike. Although it re-elected Democrat Bill Clinton president in 1996, the nation revealed its anti-liberal mood by installing a Republican majority in both houses of Congress.

1930s: Private and public agencies exert powerful control over the arts. Common in theaters are "bannings," particularly in cities like Boston, where the mayor, supported by religious groups, threatens to close down productions that violate the community's sense of moral decorum. In film, the Hays Office imposes strict regulations on movies, prohibiting nudity, suggestions of sex acts or seduction, any unconventional (passionate) kissing, and the use of profane or obscene language.

Today: Although codes for rating films do exist, they serve largely as parental guides and not restrictions on what filmmakers can include in their art. Violent behavior, obscenity, nudity, and graphic sex are now common in R- and X-rated films. Commercial television avoids graphic nudity, sex, and language due to pressure from the religious right and fear of a drop in advertising revenue. The stage, however, freed itself from prevailing community standards even earlier, allowing nudity and vulgarity as early as. the 1960s.

1930s: In America, an open same-sex relationship is impossible. Most homosexuals remain "closeted," knowing that public exposure would costs them their livelihoods and community acceptance. Branded as degenerates and perverts, many homosexuals bear a powerful sense of moral shame and self-loathing.

Today: Many homosexuals have been "outed" in the gay liberation movement, and political correctness now argues that "alternative orientations" should be treated with respect equal to heterosexual ones, not just tolerated. Although some still view homosexuality as a perversion, there is little public condemnation of gays, and many celebrities, including political figures, have acknowledged their homosexuality. The AIDS crisis has contributed to the public awareness of the gay movement.

1930s: Although public education is on the rise, many children attend sexually segregated private schools, some of which are very small and exclusive. Such institutions proliferate due to poor public school funding

Today: There are still some private, sexually segregated schools left, but the number has dwindled considerably, despite the fact that support for private education was for a time rekindled by the racial desegregation of public schools. The cost of private schooling has become prohibitive for most American families, some of which resort to home schooling as an alternative to public education.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Children's Hour was first adapted to film in 1936, released under the title These Three. It was produced by United Artists and Goldwyn Pictures, directed by William Wyler, and written by Hellman, who was obliged to remove the lesbian theme entirely The film features Miriam Hopkins as Martha Dobie, Merle Oberon as Karen Wright, Joel McCrea as Dr. Joe Cardin, and Alma Kruger as Mrs. Tilford. The film is available on video from Sultan Entertainment and through the Internet Movie Database (http:// uk.imdb.com).

The play was again adapted to film in 1961, released under alternative titles: The Children's Hour and The Loudest Whisper. It was produced by United Artists and the Minsch Company, and again directed by William Wyler. The film stars Audrey Hepburn as Karen Wright, Shirley MacLaine as Martha Dobie, James Garner as Dr. Joe Cardin, and Faye Bainter as Mrs. Tilford. The film is available on video from MGM/UA Home Entertainment, Facets Multimedia, and through the Internet Movie Database.

A 1995 documentary, The Celluloid Closet, based on a 1981 book by Vito Russo, examines gay themes (often subliminal) in motion pictures and covers the 1961 film version of The Children's Hour. Narrated by Lily Tomlin, the documentary was directed and produced by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and features a host of celebrities offering commentary on the masked and open cinematic treatment of homosexuality. The documentary is available from Sony Classics and through the Internet Movie Database.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Armato, Philip M. “Good and Evil’ in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour.” In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Bigsby, C. W. E. 1900-1940. Vol. 1 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A chapter on Hellman evaluates The Children’s Hour’s themes and explores its relationship to Hellman’s life.

Falk, Doris. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. A biographical study that includes summaries of Hellman’s works and information about the composition, production, and reception of her plays.

Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. This critical examination of Hellman’s works includes a good discussion of her sources for The Children’s Hour, as well as a biographical chronology and sketch and an annotated bibliography.

Moody, Richard. Lillian Hellman: Playwright. New York: Pegasus, 1972. This early biography includes information about the composition and two main New York productions of The Children’s Hour and stills from several productions.

Reynolds, R. C. Stage Left: The Development of the American Social Drama in the Thirties. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1986. Examines Hellman’s literary world and the contribution made to it by The Children’s Hour.

Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. This literary biography offers a full account of the complex and elusive playwright. The Children’s Hour receives extensive treatment. Contains many photographs of Hellman and her associates.

Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. This readable popular biography is less concerned with analysis of her work than with a detailed narrative of Hellman’s life. Contains an interesting selection of photographs.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sources
Atkinson, Brooks. Review of The Children's Hour in the New York Times, December 19,1952, p. 35.

Atkinson, Brooks. "The Play—The Children's Hour, Being a Tragedy of Life in a Girls' Boarding House" in the New York Times, November21,1934,p 23.

Beaufort, John "Tragic 'Children's Hour'" in the Christian Science Monitor, December 27,1952, p. 4.

Bentley, Enc. "Hellman's Indignation" in the New Republic, Vol CXXVH, January 5,1953, pp. 30-31.

Bentley, Enc. "The American Drama 1944-1954" in American Drama and Its Critics, edited by Alan S Downer, University of Chicago Press, 1965, p 199.

Gniber, Ide. Review of The Children's Hour in Golden Book, Vol. XXI, February, 1935, p. 28A

Hammond, Percy. "The Theatres—'The Children's Hour,' a Good Play about a Verboten Subject" in the New York Herald Tribune, November 21,1934, p. 16

Hellman, Lillian. Pentimento, New American Library, 1973, p. 127

Hellman, Lillian "Introduction" in Six Plays, Modern Library, 1960, pp viii- IX

Hobe. "Plays on Broadway; The Children's Hour" in Variety, December 24,1952, p 50

Krutch, Joseph Wood ''Drama, The Heart of a Child'' in the Nation, Vol. 139, December 5,1934, p 657.

Krutch, Joseph Wood "The Tragic Fallacy" in Tragedy Vision and Form, edited by Robert W. Corngan, second edition, Harper & Row, 1981, pp 227-37.

Miller, Arthur "Tragedy and the Common Man'' in Tragedy Vision and Form, edited by Robert W Corngan, second edition, Harper & Row, 1981, pp. 168-70.

Further Reading
Adler, Jacob H. Lillian Hellman, Southern Writers Series, No. 4, Steck-Vaughn, 1969. A 44-page pamphlet, this brief study gives much of its limited space to a discussion of The Children's Hour, The work "also analyzes Hellman's artistic indebtedness to both Ibsen and Chekhov and the critical judgment that her plays often "lapse into melodrama."

Estnn, Mark W. Lillian Hellman, Plays, Films, Memoirs A Reference Guide, G K. Hall, 1980. A primary source book for research, this is a recent annotated bibliography on Hellman, part of the "Reference Guide to Literature" scenes.

Falk, Dons V Lillian Hellman, Fredenck Ungar, 1978. A critical biography gleaned from Hellman's work, this study presents a synopsis of each of Hellman's plays and also features discussions of realism, and the impact of the Depression and World War II on Hellman's craft.

Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman, Twayne, 1979. A useful bio-critical study of Hellman, this work provides an excellent base for further study of the playwright's work. It starts with a biography, then covers all of Hellman's plays and nonfiction It also includes a chronology and selected bibliography.

Moody, Richard Lillian Hellman, Playwright, Pegasus, 1972. Both a biographical and critical study, the work covers all of the playwright’s dramatic works. It includes a helpful summary of "Closed Doors, or, The Great Drumsheugh Case" (pp 38-40) on which Hellman based her play.

Rollyson, Carl Lillian Hellman Her Legend and Her Legacy, St. Martins, 1988. The most up-to-date, comprehensive and detailed biography of Hellman, this study stresses the playwright's complex character, especially her many contradictions as seen in her various affairs and feuds. Several photographs are included.

Roughead, William Bad Companions, Duffield and Green, 1931. This book includes the essay "Closed Doors, or, The Great Drumsheugh Case," which provided Hellman with the idea and basic situation of The Children's Hour.

Turk, Ruth, Lillian Hellman- Rebel Playwright, Lerner, 1995. A study designed for young adults, but useful for the general reader and recommended as a quick overview of Hellman's career It includes several photographs and a brief bibliography of works suitable for younger researchers.

Wright, William Lillian Hellman, Simon & Schuster, 1986 Published two years after Hellman's death in 1984, this critical biography, attempting to tie the "image" of Hellman to the "woman," draws an intimate and respectful picture of the playwright, despite the fact that she fought to obstruct Wright's research.

Previous

Critical Essays (Drama for Students)

Next

Teaching Guide