Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673

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.

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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 of its author. At the time, various groups, including...

(The entire section contains 6235 words.)

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