The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman’s first successful drama, was an immediate sensation because it concerns lesbianism, a subject that the American theater had previously ignored. For Hellman, however, the intended focus was the maliciousness of society in its rush to judgment and its willingness to condemn and ostracize those who are wrongfully accused.
In the play, two young women friends, Martha Dobie and Karen Wright, run a New England girls’ school. Mary Tilford, a student, determines to avenge herself on the women for what she sees as unnecessary discipline. Mary leads her grandmother, the influential Mrs. Amelia Tilford, to believe that Martha and Karen have an “unnatural affection” for each other.
Parents believe the unproved accusations and pull their children out of school. In a confrontation scene with Mrs. Tilford, Martha attacks Mary’s credibility and maintains that Karen and she are innocent of the accusations. They are defended to no avail by Karen’s fiancé, Dr. Joseph Cardin, who is Mrs. Tilford’s nephew. By act 3, the women have lost their court case against Mrs. Tilford and have no hope of reopening their school. Although Dr. Cardin offers escape by starting a new life in Europe, his doubts about the relationship between the two women surface, and he and Karen part. Martha, who has vehemently denied any reality to the lesbian accusations, finally admits to Karen that she has been in love with her and has been...
(The entire section is 438 words.)
In the living room of the Wright-Dobie private girls’ school, seven girls aged twelve to fourteen conjugate Latin verbs and read aloud from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600). Fussily trying to teach the girls elocution, decorum, and sewing—all at once, to the girls’ amusement—is school cofounder Martha Dobie’s aging aunt, former actress Lily Mortar. Student Mary Tilford, tardy for the study session, explains that she was detained gathering April flowers for Lily. When grateful Lily sends “sweet” Mary for a vase for the flowers, Mary disdainfully sticks her tongue out at a classmate.
When twenty-eight-year-old Karen Wright enters, the girls’ tone changes...
(The entire section is 1090 words.)