Lillian Hellman Drama Analysis
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4464
Beginning with her first play, The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman’s plays possessed certain dramatic characteristics: crisp, forceful, realistic dialogue; clear character construction and analysis; and a clear-cut plot line in the tradition of the well-made play, with fast movement and adroitly handled suspense that kept (and can still keep) audiences enthralled. Most of her plays can be called melodramatic, because of the suspense, because of the use of violence and of blackmail, and because of obvious authorial manipulation to achieve a neat conclusion. The plays are never, however, pure melodrama because pure melodrama would not include valid, well-drawn characters or significant themes.
The Children’s Hour
The Children’s Hour, like many of Hellman’s plays, concerns the destructive power of evil, its ability to erode human relationships and destroy lives. In this play, evil is manifested by a child’s malicious lie and its repercussions in the lives of two women. The play, which was based on an actual lawsuit, the Great Drumsheugh Case, opens on a class in progress at a girls’ boarding school in Massachusetts. The teacher, Lily Mortar, is the aunt of Martha Dobie, one of the two young women who own and operate the school. Presently, student Mary Tilford enters—very late for class—carrying a bunch of flowers with which she appeases the teacher. Then the other owner, Karen Wright, enters. Karen has lost her bracelet and asks one of the girls, Helen, if she has found it, an important issue in the play. Karen asks Mary where she got the flowers. Mary repeats her claim that she picked them. Karen, apparently recognizing them, says Mary got them out of the garbage pail and has been lying. Mary’s response is, and continues to be, that the teachers are against her, that they never believe her, and that she is telling the truth. Karen grounds her for two weeks. Mary says her heart hurts and pretends to fall into a faint. She is carried to her room.
Martha enters, and she and Karen discuss Mary as a troublemaker, send for Karen’s fiancé (Joe Cardin, who is a doctor and also Mary’s cousin), discuss getting rid of Mrs. Mortar, and discuss Karen’s plans to marry Joe as soon as school is out. Martha is clearly upset at the imminent marriage, although she likes Joe. She hates interference with a friendship that has gone on since college and hates the possibility that Karen might leave the school. Joe arrives and goes off to examine Mary.
At this point in the play, the audience cannot be sure of the meaning of Martha’s jealousy, of whether Mary’s feelings are in any sense justified, of whether the events thus far are more taut with emotion than what might be expected on a day-by-day basis in a girls’ boarding school. Mrs. Mortar, deeply insulted at Martha’s desire to get her away from the school and at her offer to send her to London and support her there, indirectly accuses her niece of homosexual feelings toward Karen. Mary’s two roommates are caught eavesdropping. Joe has a friendly confrontation with Martha, who apologizes and falls into his arms, weeping. It is reasonably clear that she does not recognize her feelings for Karen as homosexual, if they are. Mary comes in, and it is clear that Joe considers her a troublemaker, as do the women. Then, as the adults leave and the audience sees Mary for the first time alone with other girls, her character becomes only too clear.
Indeed, one becomes more and more convinced that Mary’s lies, her manipulation, her dictatorial attitude toward her schoolmates, and presently her outright blackmail of one of them and her cruelty to another represent more than mere naughtiness or adolescent confusion. Mary is psychotic, and dangerously so. Feeling no affection for anyone, she lives for manipulation and power. As soon as the teachers leave the room, she throws a cushion at the door and kicks a table. Apparently, her one genuine feeling other than hatred is the belief that the teachers hate her as much as she hates them. She tells her roommates that if she cannot go to the boat races (since she has been grounded), she will see to it that they do not go either. She forces a girl named Rosalie to do some work for her by hinting of knowledge that Rosalie stole the bracelet that Karen asked about earlier. She forces her roommates to report the conversation that they overheard, and while Mary certainly does not completely understand its import, she nevertheless recognizes it as a weapon she can use. She immediately announces that she is going to walk out and go home, and by physical force, she makes one of the girls give her the money to get there. On this moment of tension, typical of a well-made play, act 1 closes.
The Children’s Hour is unusual among Hellman’s plays in that it does not all take place in one setting. Act 2 takes place in the living room of the home of Mary’s grandmother in Boston. As scene 1 of the act opens, Mary arrives and is admitted by the maid, Agatha, who clearly does not trust her for an instant. Left alone while Agatha goes to fetch Mrs. Tilford, Mary tries with the aid of a mirror to make herself look sick. Mrs. Tilford enters, and Mary dashes into her arms, in tears. It soon becomes clear that Mrs. Tilford is an intelligent woman but that, unlike Agatha, she can be taken in by her granddaughter. It is an irony of the play, however, that she cannot be taken in easily. Had Mary been able to deceive her by simple lies, there would have been no play. Her usual tricks—tears, stories of being mistreated—do not work. Mrs. Tilford has supported Martha and Karen in their establishment of the school, has encouraged her friends to send their daughters there, and certainly trusts the schoolmistresses. Mary, therefore, begins to use the story she has heard secondhand, mentioning it at first vaguely and uncertainly, but then, as she sees that it is having an effect, more positively and specifically. Mrs. Tilford is deeply disturbed and obviously finds it difficult to believe that such a story could be invented. She starts to phone Karen but decides against it. She calls Joe and urgently asks him to come over. She calls a friend, perhaps one with a daughter or granddaughter at the school, asking her to come over as well. Scene 2 opens with Agatha telling Mary that Rosalie is coming to spend the night; a few moments later, Rosalie arrives. The audience learns, partly now and fully later, that Mrs. Tilford has communicated with the parents of all the girls and told them Mary’s story, with the result that all the girls have been called home. Rosalie is spending the night with Mary because her mother is in New York.
These circumstances represent significant flaws in the structure of The Children’s Hour, though they are not as noticeable in performance: First, it is difficult to believe that a woman of Mrs. Tilford’s maturity and intelligence would take such drastic action on the basis of her granddaughter’s word alone; second, it has to be Rosalie, among all the students, whose mother is out of town, or the play would simply grind to a halt. About the first, one might say in Hellman’s defense that it would be emotionally and even intellectually difficult for Mrs. Tilford to believe that her granddaughter would have either the desire or the knowledge to invent such a lie; that to seek external verification of the story would be, even if it were true, almost surely fruitless; and that, given the time and place, it would have been irresponsible of her not to inform the other parents. Problems remain, even so. Surely Mrs. Tilford could have spoken with Joe first. True, Hellman arranges that Joe arrives late, on the plausible ground that he had to stop at a hospital, but would one more night have mattered so much? Doubtless, Mrs. Tilford’s urgency is partly emotional, on the ground that most, if not all, of the girls have been at the school on her recommendation. This does not explain, however, her calm assurance later in the play that the story is true. She takes the logical attitude that Martha’s, Karen’s, and Joe’s denials are meaningless, since they are to be expected regardless of whether the story is accurate. She is also a woman who, given her class, her money, and her intelligence, is not prone to being wrong. Perhaps one should regard her attitude as a typical Hellman irony: It is her very sense of responsibility that has made her act irresponsibly. Less defense can be offered for the presence of Rosalie. All one can say is that her presence is essential to the play, and that in a well-made play this represents perhaps the minimum of manipulation.
The scene develops very dramatically. Mary blackmails Rosalie into being prepared to support her lies if necessary. Joe arrives, and very soon he and his aunt are battling. Karen and Martha arrive, and the battle enlarges, with strong emotions on one side and calm assurance on the other. Mrs. Tilford is not even moved by the threat of a libel suit. Finally, Joe insists that Mary be questioned and, against Mrs. Tilford’s wishes, brings Mary in. Mary, genuinely nervous, tells her story, making it more and more circumstantial, until finally the circumstances catch her in a lie. She has said that she has seen things through Karen’s keyhole, and Karen announces that her door has no keyhole. Mary is therefore forced to say that it was Martha’s room, not Karen’s; Martha announces that she lives on a different floor, at the other end of the house, and, moreover, shares her room with Mrs. Mortar. Mrs. Tilford is severely shaken. Backed into a corner, Mary says that it was not she but Rosalie who saw them, and that she saw them because Karen’s door was halfway open. Rosalie is summoned and at first denies the story, but when Mary makes it plain that she will, if necessary, expose Rosalie as a thief, Rosalie agrees that the story is true and collapses in tears. The curtain falls.
After so tense a moment, act 3 is almost anticlimactic. It opens on the same scene as act 1. Karen and Martha are alone in the house. They have lost their case; the townspeople are against them; they feel so persecuted that they refuse even to answer the phone; and they have not even dared to leave the house. In a rather surprising anticipation of Samuel Beckett and the Absurdists, Martha says that they are “waiting,” with the implication that that is all they—or at any rate, she—will ever do. Martha hopes that Karen will escape through marrying Joe, but Karen seems doubtful. Mrs. Mortar, who had left when told to by Martha, unexpectedly enters, and the audience learns that she would have been the key witness at the trial, that she refused to return, and thus the case was lost. Her failure to return was owing to her reluctance to become involved in such a scandal. She returns now because she has run out of money, but Martha has no more to give her. She leaves the room, and Joe enters. He is planning for the marriage and for all three of them to leave together permanently, even though he would thus be giving up a promising career. Martha leaves, and in his words and attitude toward Karen it becomes clear that Joe is uncertain of the truth. Karen quietly denies any homosexual relationship, and he apparently accepts the denial, but it is uncertain whether his doubts have been laid to rest. Karen asks him to think things over for a day or two and make a decision. He reluctantly agrees and leaves, insisting that he will come back, though Karen is sure that he will not. Martha returns and, in a scene of high emotion, tells Karen that, though she had not previously been aware of it, the story that has been told about them was, at least so far as her feelings went, true. She loves Karen “that way.” She leaves the room, and presently, a muffled shot is heard. Karen opens the door and sees that Martha has killed herself. Mrs. Mortar rushes in, sees what has happened, and expresses her remorse. The doorbell rings, and she answers it. It is Agatha. Mrs. Tilford is waiting in her car. Mrs. Mortar tries to keep her from coming in, but Karen allows her to enter, and Mrs. Mortar rushes out sobbing.
The final dialogue is between Karen and Mrs. Tilford. Mrs. Tilford has learned the truth. The bracelet was found among Rosalie’s things, and Rosalie confessed. Apparently, Mary has confessed, too. The judge at the trial will arrange a public apology and explanation, and Mrs. Tilford will pay the amount of the damages and as much more as they will take. Karen announces Martha’s death and expresses her bitter feelings toward Mrs. Tilford and her attempts to relieve her conscience through money. Gradually, however, Karen recognizes Mrs. Tilford’s sincerity and sees that the old woman will be the greater sufferer because she has refused to commit Mary to an institution and will hence have to live permanently in her company and because Martha’s suicide will inevitably burden her memory. Karen agrees to accept Mrs. Tilford’s money. She disagrees with Mrs. Tilford’s hope that she and Joe will marry. The two separate amicably, and Karen is left alone at the play’s end.
Hellman expressed the feeling later that the final scene was unnecessary, that it was simply evidence of her personal compulsion to spell things out. Certainly none of her important later plays spells things out so thoroughly, but in The Children’s Hour, the final scene provides desirable satisfaction for the audience. The only valid objection to the scene is that it raises a new possibility: Mrs. Tilford appears soon after Martha’s suicide, rather than earlier, perhaps in time to prevent it. Once Martha’s feelings are clear, however, it seems doubtful, given the time and circumstances, that anything could have kept her alive, and Hellman properly leaves Karen with an uncertain future. Karen’s belief in Joe’s permanent defection may be wrong; it may not. The possibility of a happy outcome for her is a valid comfort to an audience after so much bitter emotion, but the certainty of a happy ending would be difficult to accept.
The play was in part a succès de scandale on Broadway, since open treatment of homosexuality was very unusual at the time. Hellman wrote the scenario for the first film version, These Three (1936), in which the homosexuality was changed to a traditional triangle. A later version restored both title and content.
The Little Foxes
The Little Foxes is, and almost surely will remain, Hellman’s standard play. It represents significant advances in technique over The Children’s Hour and is in various ways more typical of Hellman’s overall production. First, it is set in the Deep South (small-town Alabama), as are three of Hellman’s four most significant later plays. Second, the characters are more sharply distinguished and more deeply realized, and the dialogue is more individualized. Third, Hellman displays three significant qualities that are not fully realized in The Children’s Hour: compassion, humor, and irony. Fourth, The Little Foxes displays more clearly a sociopolitical theme than does the earlier play: These are “the little foxes who spoil the vines” (a quotation from the Song of Solomon), whom Hellman sees as twentieth century capitalists in embryo.
The Little Foxes concentrates on a rapacious small-town Alabama family, the Hubbards, and on some of their victims. The year is 1900. As the play opens, Regina Giddens is giving a dinner party for a businessman from Chicago, William Marshall, with whom her brothers are negotiating to join them in opening one of the first cotton mills in the South. All the characters in the play are present except Regina’s husband, Horace, the town banker, long confined at The Johns Hopkins Hospital with a bad heart. The remaining characters are Regina’s brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard; Oscar’s wife, Birdie, the last member of an aristocratic family impoverished by the Civil War; Oscar and Birdie’s son, Leo; Horace and Regina’s daughter, Alexandra; and the servants, Addie and Cal. Unlike the Hubbards, Birdie has cultural interests; she is a frightened woman, bullied by her husband. Ben is a jovial hypocrite whose hypocrisy has become so practiced that he is sometimes almost unaware of it. He and Regina are the dominant Hubbards. Oscar is relatively weak, obtuse, and blustery, while Leo is a lesser version of Oscar. Alexandra shares Birdie’s cultural interests and seems not at all Hubbard-like. Regina herself is a handsome woman, a smooth and clever conniver, who takes in Marshall to a degree that Ben, for all his hypocrisy, cannot.
When the deal for the cotton mill has been struck, the young couple drive Marshall to the station to return to Chicago. The Hubbards are triumphant, looking forward to being rich. One problem remains: The three siblings are supposed to contribute equal sums to the mill project, enough to make them together the majority shareholders, but while Ben and Oscar are ready to put up their share, Regina must get hers from Horace, who has ignored all letters on the subject. In a piece of typical Hubbard trickery, Regina declares that Horace is holding out because he wants a larger share, and Ben finally agrees that he should have a larger share and that the difference will come out of Oscar’s. Oscar is furious, but he is mollified by Regina’s quite specious assurance that she will consider something that Oscar very much wants: a marriage between Leo and Alexandra. A plan is then made to send Alexandra, who is devoted to Horace, to bring him home.
Many modern plays, including several of Henrik Ibsen’s, involve the return of someone long gone, but the return is almost always early in the play. In The Little Foxes, the audience must wait, with anticipation, for what Horace’s return in the second act will bring. Before Horace’s arrival, Oscar and Leo conceive a plan to steal eighty thousand dollars’ worth of bonds from Horace’s safety deposit box, to finance their venture. (If they can do this, they will not need Regina as a partner.) Horace then arrives, stiff and ill, accompanied by Alexandra, who has his heart medicine. During the course of the act, it becomes clear that Horace and Regina are, and have been, at odds during most of their marriage, that Horace will not agree to finance the proposed project, and that he will not consent to a marriage between Alexandra and Leo. It is also clear that Regina will not be thwarted and that Horace is too physically frail to withstand her will.
In act 3, Horace, who has discovered the theft of the bonds, informs Regina about the crime and tells her that he will pretend that the theft was a loan. Moreover, he will change his will, leaving Regina the bonds and all his other property to Alexandra. Regina will thus lose the opportunity to invest in the business venture (because the partners will no longer need her money), and she will lose her inheritance from Horace. Furiously, she tells him that she married him only for money. He becomes distraught, reaches for his medicine, spills it, and asks her to get his new bottle. She simply stands there as he collapses and dies. Regina is now in a position to blackmail her brothers into assigning her a 75 percent interest in the mill, lest she prosecute them. Regina is triumphant; nevertheless, she now faces a life of loneliness because Alexandra has discovered her mother’s treachery and will leave her.
The play ends with a question and is the better for it. If the ending represented a total and final triumph, it would emphasize the play’s kinship to pure melodrama, and given the characters, an ending that had finality would be unlikely. Ben is too clear-sighted, too ironically aware, too psychologically healthy to give up. Alexandra’s potential for fighting is probably small, but one cannot be sure. Moreover, the Hubbard siblings are more complex than a recital of the plot might make them seem. Ben retains an incompetent servant because she has always been in the family. Ben and Oscar both seem genuinely moved by Horace’s death. Ben and Regina are both capable of viewing their own, and others’, behavior ironically, and there is humor in some of their dialogue. Regina is frightened at what she has done, or rather not done. Wicked as the two may be, and much as they might remind one of nineteenth century melodramatic villains, they are human beings, complex enough to be believable.
The play, moreover, has other ironies that remove it from total melodrama. It is ironic that Leo should be Birdie’s son and Alexandra Regina’s daughter, because Leo is an extreme version of Oscar, and Alexandra has the outlook of Horace. For most of his life, however, Horace has been weak, yielding to his wife, as Birdie has to her husband. Birdie, for whom one is made to feel compassion, gains enough strength to tell Alexandra the truth, and Horace gains enough strength to stand up to Regina. These are highly individualized human beings, and the play is skillfully constructed, absorbing, and genuinely insightful.
Watch on the Rhine
Like The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine contains murder and blackmail, but it is a very different kind of play, peopled with a very different set of characters. It takes place entirely in the living room of Fanny Farrelly, in her country mansion near Washington, D.C. Fanny is a wealthy, eccentric matriarch in her sixties, a character typical of comedy of manners: basically good-hearted, sparklingly alert, and accustomed to having her own way. The time of the play is the spring of 1940. Germany is Nazi-ruled, and there is war in Europe in which the United States has not yet become involved.
The pattern of the first two acts of the play consists of alternating conversation of three kinds: humorous and witty, at times gossipy, as is appropriate to comedy of manners; affectionate; and tense, either because of personally threatening political maneuvers or because of the triangle that is a subplot in the play. The shifts from one type to another can be sudden, but they are always appropriate. Tension can lapse into humor, or an unexpected remark can turn humor into tension.
The characters include, besides Fanny, the other permanent residents of the mansion: Fanny’s son, David, a lawyer in his deceased father’s firm in Washington, in his late thirties; Fanny’s longtime companion Anise, a Frenchwoman; and one of the servants, Joseph. There are also two houseguests who have long overstayed their welcome, Marthe de Brancovis, the daughter of an old friend of Fanny, and her husband, Teck, a Romanian count. Fanny’s daughter Sara, her husband Kurt Müller, a member of the anti-Nazi underground and a German in exile, and their children arrive. The audience learns that Kurt has collected twenty-three thousand dollars to aid the resistance in Germany. In brief, Teck discovers the money and threatens to expose Kurt to the German embassy officials unless he is paid ten thousand dollars. Kurt is forced to kill Teck and flee the country, aided by Fanny, who during the course of the play has come to realize the Nazi threat and to be lifted above her own private concerns. The killing is presented, strangely, as an absence of the need to fight evil on all fronts, whether on a conventional battlefield or in one’s own environment.
Watch on the Rhine is probably the best American play concerning World War II. It demonstrates that war is not limited to battlefronts and that the world is too small for anyone, anywhere, to be unaffected by large-scale violence. It demonstrates that such violence affects the cultured and the humane, whether they are poor, like Kurt, or wealthy, like Sara’s family. The play is highly unusual in being a comedy of manners in which the central subject is war. In spite of the attempted blackmail and actual murder that figure prominently in its plot, it is among the least melodramatic of any of Hellman’s plays, and to call the murder melodramatic has its own irony because this particular murder constitutes an act of war.
The characters in Watch on the Rhine are developed with clarity and depth. Fanny is a far more individualized portrait of a wealthy, dominant older woman than is Mrs. Tilford in The Children’s Hour. Unlike Mary Tilford or Ben and Regina, Teck is a flaccid, unwilling villain. Unlike Birdie, Horace, and Alexandra, the good people are strong, and for the only time in all her plays, Hellman presents, in Kurt, an admirable hero and a marriage based on strong and permanent love. A believable presentation of either of these is indeed a rarity in modern drama. The children in Watch on the Rhine are more fully portrayed than those in The Children’s Hour. The theme has universal validity; oppression is indeed a major issue throughout Hellman’s plays. In The Children’s Hour, it is oppression by the established rich, by a psychotic child, by established standards of behavior. In The Little Foxes, it is anticipated oppression on a broad scale by a rising class of capitalists, and actual oppression on a narrower scale by moneyed Southerners against blacks, poor whites, fallen aristocrats, and one another. Watch on the Rhine widens the range in dealing with oppression by Fascists and would-be Fascists. Blackmail itself, in all three plays, is a form of oppression. Later in Hellman’s work, in The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic, she showed that even generosity and love can be forms of blackmail; those plays, like Watch on the Rhine, give the theme a universality that Hellman’s first two successes lack. The Little Foxes will probably remain the most popular Hellman play in dramatic repertory, but Watch on the Rhine is certainly among her most effective.