Lillian Hellman

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Lillian Hellman American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3569

A very strong sense of morality pervades both Hellman’s plays and her memoirs. Melodrama suits her as a literary form because it stresses the conflict of good and evil. Clashing personalities, rather than development of individual character, spark her sense of drama. In The Children’s Hour, two blameless schoolteachers are accused of lesbianism by a malevolent, spoiled child whom they have tried to discipline. In The Little Foxes, the greed of the members of a single family, competing among themselves in the post-Civil War South, is what motivates their actions. In Watch on the Rhine, the selfless heroism of Kurt Muller is set against the irremediable evil of the Fascism he fights. It is no accident, therefore, that Hellman should also be attracted to historical figures, such as Joan of Arc in The Lark (1955), who oppose the status quo and search for a sense of moral authority. That play reveals the extent to which Hellman trusted individuals rather than the state.

If Hellman were merely a melodramatist, however, her work would not remain in such high standing. When her characters do not develop to any great extent, they are the products of acute psychological perceptions. Kurt Muller, for example, with his broken hands, is a vulnerable, frightened hero, forced to kill for his cause with a melancholy determination and an absolute lack of self-righteousness that make him interesting in himself and not merely a symbol of the good. Although some of his dialogue verges on the sentimental, Hellman’s command of diction and her use of understatement keep the message of the play from becoming heavy-handed.

Hellman’s first phase as a playwright (from 1934 to 1951) is also her most melodramatic period, in which she concentrates on externals—brilliant evocations of the American South in The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest, of the growth of Fascism and its appeasement in the period between the two world wars in The Searching Wind, of the struggle between labor and capital in a small Ohio town in Days to Come. Her motion-picture scripts—such as Dead End (1937)—evoke the heroism of ordinary people and the corruption of the establishment.

Hellman’s later plays and her memoirs probe her characters’ motivations and her own, as if her argument shifts somewhat from a confrontation with society to an engagement with herself. In The Autumn Garden, a group of middle-aged characters gradually confront their sense of failure, the unfulfilled dreams of their youth, upon the return of Nick Dennery, an old friend who tries to relive the past. Nick wants to pretend that he is still the same man who set off to conquer the world, leaving his sweetheart behind. Each character’s romantic notions about his or her life are deftly, even gently, demolished in a play that reflects Hellman’s increasing concern with a form of novelistic, inner-directed drama inspired by Russian writer Anton Chekhov and a move away from the social realism of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen that informed her earlier plays.

Hellman edited a collection of Chekhov’s letters in her remaining period as a playwright, and the plot of her final original play, Toys in the Attic, is clearly modeled on Chekhov’s Tri sestry (1901; Three Sisters, 1920). In Hellman’s play, two sisters are devoted to their hapless brother Julian. Sacrificing everything for him, they are not prepared when he returns home with a windfall and proposes to change their lives, lavishing gifts upon them and buying them tickets for the trip they have always said they wanted to take. Like Chekhov’s sisters, Hellman’s actually have no intention of leaving home or of changing the illusions on which their lives have been built.

Both The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic are memory plays. They are about their characters’ romanticizing of the past and their inability to accept the present on its own terms or to see what they have really made of their own lives. Gradually, some of Hellman’s characters in these plays do admit that they have been living lies, creating pleasing fictions of their lives. Such moments of self-revelation are rare in Hellman’s earlier plays, although Martha Dobie’s shocked recognition in The Children’s Hour—that there might be some basis to the accusation that she has harbored lesbian tendencies—suggests that, from the start of her career, Hellman was working toward a way of combining her gift for melodrama with a complex sense of human psychology.

When Hellman turned to the memoir form, she drew upon certain elements of her plays. She admits in Pentimento that the family in The Little Foxes is based on her mother’s relatives, and clearly the two sisters in Toys in the Attic are versions of the two aunts who helped to raise Hellman in New Orleans. Even in the memoirs, Hellman’s forte is not narrative; An Unfinished Woman, for example, is disjointed. Hellman makes little attempt to write a chronological, well-developed autobiography. Rather, she tends to fasten on key incidents in her life—parts of her childhood, a trip to Spain—to evoke her temperament and her times. In fact, the last three chapters of An Unfinished Woman are character portraits of important people in her life. Hellman turned her next memoir, Pentimento, into a collection of portraits. Where Scoundrel Tune is weakest is precisely in her attempt to write a narrative of the Cold War years; she makes grave errors of fact, and her usual gift for incisive character portrayal distorts the historical record.

Quite aside from faults of style or fact, however, Hellman’s memoirs are a permanent contribution to American literature, for she provides the record and the testament of a writer and activist who always remained her own person. Her depictions of Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett, members of her family, and of Hollywood, the Soviet Union, and other places she visited and the home she built are masterpieces in the genre of the memoir, balancing a sense of past and present and providing a feeling for how she created her career that is likely to ensure the continuing relevance of her work.

The Children’s Hour

First produced: 1934 (first published, 1934)

Type of work: Play

Accused of being lesbians, two teachers lose their school; one of them commits suicide in the awful suspicion that she may have harbored illicit feelings.

The Children’s Hour was a shocking play for its time. It was based on an actual incident in nineteenth century Scotland, in which a pupil accused her schoolteachers of lesbianism. The word itself is never spoken in The Children’s Hour, but the mere hint of it—the innuendo that there is something “unnatural” going on between Martha Dobie and Karen Wright—is enough to damn them in the eyes of their community. Mary, the child who levels the charge against her teachers, has been spoiled by her grandmother and has learned early how to manipulate adults. Her doting grandmother is shocked by Mary’s allegations and takes it upon herself to withdraw Mary from the school and to advise other parents to do the same.

It is the power of the lie, of a child’s tenacious unwillingness to speak the truth even when it means the ruin of several lives, that accounts for the enormous power of the play. Mary is mean, plain evil, a point Hellman makes shrewdly in scenes that show how Mary intimidates a schoolmate into lying to support her charge against the teachers. Hellman works her audience’s emotions into a fine sense of outrage at how a big lie is capable of gripping a society’s imagination. Not a political play in itself, The Children’s Hour nevertheless has political implications, as it exposes the way mass psychology can be manipulated to serve falsehood. Realizing the importance of this theme, Hellman directed a revival of the play during the McCarthy period, when she believed that many Americans were being victimized by the lie that they were communists disloyal to the United States.

Many critics have puzzled over the play’s third act, in which Martha Dobie, suspecting that she has had lesbian feelings for Karen, commits suicide. She does so partly out of guilt, for Karen’s engagement to Joseph Cardin has been broken, and Martha believes that she has destroyed her dear friend’s life. Hellman’s point seems to be that Martha’s outrage at the charge against her has blinded her to what may be the true nature of her feelings. Her belated self-realization—when she no longer has the energy or the will to fight the charge—is then all the more devastating to her. In her memoirs, Hellman admits that she is not sure whether she ever got the third act of the play “right.” On the other hand, the play does seem enriched by the fact that from the perspective of the third act, Mary becomes a character not only of great evil but also of great intuitiveness in picking out that element of Karen’s and Martha’s friendship which the two women themselves had never carefully examined.

The Children’s Hour should not be taken as a play about lesbianism itself—a point that Hellman made by changing the plot of the play in a film adaptation titled These Three (1936). In the film, Martha is accused of an illicit affair with Karen’s fiancé, Joseph Cardin. Nearly as powerful as the play, These Three proves that even without the controversial element of lesbianism, Hellman’s major theme about the power of a big lie remains intact.

The Children’s Hour was an enormous success on Broadway—it ran longer than any other Hellman play—and no doubt its sensational aspects helped make it a hit. It retains an important place in the canon of classic American plays, and it has been revived repeatedly in recent years.

Watch on the Rhine

First produced: 1941 (first published, 1941)

Type of work: Play

Kurt Muller, an antifascist refugee in the home of his American wife’s mother, is forced to kill an informer and return to Europe.

Watch on the Rhine was written and produced before the United States’ entry into World War II. Concerned about the spread of fascism across Europe and certain that sooner or later the United States would have to confront the menace of Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Hellman had gone to Spain to express her solidarity with the constituted government that tried to resist its overthrow by Fascist leader Francisco Franco. Bitterly disappointed at her country’s failure to help Spain or to oppose fascism, Hellman wrote Watch on the Rhine as a warning to a naïve and complacent America.

The play is set in the Washington, D.C., home of Fanny Farrelly, a socially prominent widow. She has frowned on the marriage of her daughter Sara to Kurt Muller and on Sara’s years in Europe. When Sara decides to return home with her family, however, Fanny is delighted at the opportunity to repair the breach with her daughter. At first, there is some awkwardness, for Fanny does not understand what Sara and Kurt have been doing in Europe, and she acts rather in the manner of the grande dame who has always had her way and rarely had her opinions challenged. Gradually, however, Kurt’s sincere, modest manner wins her over. Kurt does not quarrel, but he is perceptive and pointed in defense of his years as an underground anti-Fascist. Wisely, Hellman employs Sara to conduct the argument with her mother, to point out that Fanny has been nonchalant and innocent about the evil that surrounds her.

Fanny has in her home another foreign guest, Teck, a penurious Romanian nobleman who plots to inform on Kurt to the German embassy. By winning the favor of the Germans, Teck hopes to prosper. When Kurt realizes his danger, he kills Teck. Finally realizing what is at stake, and accepting her complicity in harboring Teck and her part in his murder, Fanny allows Kurt time to escape to Europe, where he will continue the antifascist struggle.

One of Hellman’s most successful plays, Watch on the Rhine both castigated Americans for their blindness to the evil that was about to envelop them and praised them for ultimately having the sense to oppose fascism. Fanny, for all of her faults, is a deeply moral character, willing to admit her grave mistake in misjudging Kurt and estranging herself from Sara and willing to assume her role in the reprehensible yet necessary actions required to eradicate evil.

The complex characterization of Kurt is what makes the moral earnestness of the play palatable. He is courteous (never forgetting that he is a guest in the Farrelly home), shrewd (eschewing any fervor that might put off the ill-informed Americans), and self-deprecating (he does not make large claims for what he can do but simply states what he believes he has to do). Kurt is brave because of his convictions; he is also vulnerable and appealing because of his concern for his wife and children and for the morality of his own acts. He cannot be sure that by killing he will not become like the Fascists, but not to act, he reasons—to allow Teck to inform on him—is to put in jeopardy not only his family but also the lives of his colleagues.

By setting Watch on the Rhine in an American home, Hellman provided Americans with a very concrete, domestic sense of how the war in Europe would affect their lives. The United States could not isolate itself from world events—indeed, by its know-nothing attitudes, the country helped to perpetuate evil. At the same time, the play implies that it is not too late to rectify things.

An Unfinished Woman

First published: 1969

Type of work: Memoir

A provocative account of Hellman’s childhood, her years in Hollywood, and her friendships with Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, and others.

An Unfinished Woman had a ravishing impact on its first readers. Hellman wrote engagingly about her childhood in New Orleans and New York, of her handsome, philandering father, of her dizzy but warmhearted mother, and of her shrewd and compassionate aunts. It was all very dramatic—Hellman’s jump from her favorite tree (breaking her nose) when she discovered that her father was seeing another woman, her running away from home and being surprised by her first period, her confused first years in Hollywood as a reader of scripts (and her later ambivalent relationship with film mogul Samuel Goldwyn), the stormy affair with Dashiell Hammett. These incidents and many others revealed a fiery, independent, comic, and defiant personality.

As Hellman notes in An Unfinished Woman, she did not intend to be the bookkeeper of her life—that is, relating in strict chronological fashion every period and incident in her career. She would, rather, trust to her memory to evoke the crucial events and characters. She devotes, for example, whole chapters to Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett, because her friendships with them spanned much of her adult life. The structures of these chapters are built around the personalities she describes and not on any consistent time sequence.

Indeed, Hellman is not willing to vouch for her dates; she stresses that she is remembering and reshaping the events that have remained important to her. In her chapter on Spain, for example, she does not try to reconstruct a narrative of her brief visit during the Civil War. Rather, she presents extracts from her diary, vivid reports of what it felt like to move around the country, gauging the people’s moods and responding to their curiosity about America.

Several reviewers noted how little space Hellman gives to the theater in her first memoir. She shows virtually no interest in detailing what happened backstage, how she came to write her plays, or the social lives of actors, playwrights, and producers. Although she includes a chapter about the theater in Pentimento, An Unfinished Woman accurately reflects her lack of concern or enjoyment of the business of the theater. Her plays were written in isolation; she rarely revised them in production and did not like the process of collaboration. This was also true, she points out in An Unfinished Woman, in Hollywood, where, except for her first assignment as a screenwriter, she worked alone—a remarkable privilege in an industry known for employing teams of writers to work on one screenplay.

The title of Hellman’s first memoir implies that the significance of her life, the meaning of its key events, had not settled in her mind. At several points, she confesses her inability to come to a conclusion, and the memoir ends with the word “however.” The idea that she was “unfinished” and still in the process of discovering herself held great appeal for her readers, and she was urged by several reviewers to write another memoir. She obliged them by producing Pentimento, a collection of character portraits that, in style and structure, pick up directly from the last three chapters of An Unfinished Woman.


First published: 1973

Type of work: Memoir

Hellman’s second work of autobiography is organized around a collection of portraits of important people in her life.

With chapters on the theater and on key events in her relationship with Dashiell Hammett, Julia, and others, Hellman perfects the form of the short memoir. An Unfinished Woman had made sporadic references to the unreliability of memory and to how, over time, the imagination works over the past, transforming it into emblems of the self. By choosing the painter’s term “pentimento” as a title, Hellman stresses how important it is for her readers to see that she is writing from the point of view of the present and is “repenting”—that is, changing in words the scenes she remembers, finding a deeper meaning in them, and setting them in a new context—much as a painter may paint over a scene or a figure on a canvas, having changed his or her mind about how it should be depicted.

Two of Hellman’s character portraits, “Bethe” and “Willy,” are about relatives whose stories help Hellman focus on her own development. Bethe has come to the United States from Germany, destined to be the bride in an arranged marriage, but she leaves her feckless husband for a passionate affair with another man, an Italian with underworld connections. Although Bethe’s behavior is condemned by Hellman’s family, Hellman’s two aunts never quite abandon Bethe, and Hellman depicts herself as an adolescent who is fascinated by Bethe’s sexuality and her willingness to sacrifice everything for the man she loves. Not so much a celebration of romantic love as it is confirmation of a woman’s right to live as she likes, “Bethe” is clearly emblematic of Hellman’s own life—of her leaving her husband for Hammett and her willingness to cope with her family’s disapproval.

Similarly, Willy, Hellman’s extravagant and sexually attractive uncle, represents the type of man she would often be drawn toward in later life. Willy is a venture capitalist, an independent operator who never quite fits in with his wife’s wealthy family. He is a man who makes and loses his fortune several times, a man with mistresses and hearty appetites, who almost persuades a grown-up Hellman to accompany him on one of his expeditions abroad. His generosity and flair make him an enviable alternative to the gross competitiveness of her mother’s family, who have made Hellman feel small—especially after her father’s failure in business.

Undoubtedly, the most riveting story in Pentimento is “Julia.” She is Hellman’s darling childhood friend, the political activist from a wealthy family who spurns an easy life, earns a medical degree at the University of Oxford, and (studying with Sigmund Freud in Vienna) becomes involved in the anti-Fascist movement. Julia is beautiful, courageous, and uncompromising—in short, everything that Hellman deems heroic and attractive in an individual. Not seeing herself as a heroine, Hellman nevertheless allows herself to be coaxed by Julia into a scheme of transporting money across Germany for the anti-Fascist forces.

It is a moving story. Hellman admits at its beginning that her memory is perfectly capable of playing her false, but she says that in the case of Julia she is absolutely confident of what she remembers. As the most compelling part of Pentimento, it is not surprising that “Julia” became a motion picture (in 1977), with Vanessa Redgrave as the stalwart Julia and Jane Fonda as Hellman. The remarkable friendship between two women, the hazards of their meeting in Germany, and Hellman’s later, desperate attempt to find Julia’s child after the war make for a highly charged narrative of intrigue and romance that lends itself well to the screen.

As do other parts of Hellman’s memoirs, “Julia” has internal inconsistencies and improbabilities. Critics have pointed out discrepancies in dates and have been unable to verify the basic facts of Hellman’s purportedly true story. In the very title of Pentimento, Hellman seems to imply that there is as much art as there is fact in her narrative. Because of the way she romanticized her own part in history, it was perhaps inevitable that her critics should seek to diminish her influence.

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Lillian Hellman Drama Analysis