Lillian Hellman 1906–-1984
(Full name Lillian Florence Hellman) American playwright and autobiographer.
Hellman is considered one of the most acclaimed American dramatists of the first half of the twentieth century. In an era that largely favored lighthearted romantic plays and drawing-room comedies, her works explored the human capacity for malice, the allure of power and money, and the dichotomy between individual interests and social conscience. Hellman's preference for confronting more complex issues of the human condition has earned her a reputation as a leading American female playwright. Hellman also wrote several acclaimed and controversial memoirs that illuminate such historical events as the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow Purge Trials, and the McCarthy hearings.
Born in New Orleans, Hellman was the only child of a southern Jewish shoe manufacturer and a Manhattan socialite. She attended New York University and Columbia University, leaving Columbia after her junior year in 1925 to work as a manuscript reader at the publishing firm of Boni and Liveright. After Hellman resigned her position the following year, she married publicist Arthur Kober and began contributing book reviews to the New York Herald Tribune. In late 1925, Hellman and Kober left New York for Paris, where Kober assumed editorship of a new literary journal, the Paris Comet. During this period, Hellman published short stories and traveled extensively throughout Europe. The couple returned to New York in 1929, and Hellman worked as a reader for several Broadway producers before moving with her husband to Hollywood in 1930. While working in a similar position at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, Hellman met detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, and their friendship developed into a thirty-one-year personal and professional partnership during which Hammett guided Hellman in her initial attempts as a playwright and supplied her with material that she incorporated into several of her best-known dramas. Hellman subsequently divorced her husband and returned to New York City with Hammett.
In the 1930s two of Hellman's most acclaimed dramas, The Children's Hour (1934) and The Little Foxes (1939), were produced. Both were critically and commercially successful—The Children's Hour was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize—and Hellman continued to pursue a career in the theater for over two more decades. Throughout her writing life, Hellman was also politically active, raising money for the Spanish loyalists fighting the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and lending her name to various leftist causes. In addition, she visited Russia and other communist countries and continued to support Soviet premier Joseph Stalin after most American intellectuals and political writers had repudiated his violent regime. In 1947 Hellman wrote a scathing editorial published in the Screen Writers' Guild magazine in response to the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings held in Hollywood, in the course of which several writers and film directors were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to identify their peers as members of the Communist Party. Although Hellman was never formally accused of being a communist, she discovered in 1948 that she had been included on the Committee's blacklist. In 1952 she was served with a subpoena to appear before HUAC and responded by writing a letter to the Committee indicating that she would only answer questions related to her political activities. During this time, Hellman wrote and directed Montserrat (1949), the first of several adaptations on which she worked. Taken from a play by Emmanuel Roblès, Montserrat was followed by The Lark (1955), a reworking of Jean Anouilh's drama L'alouette, and Candide (1956), adapted from Voltaire's classic novel. Hellman's last two original dramas were The Autumn Garden (1951) and Toys in the Attic (1960), the latter of which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play. Following the 1963 production of My Mother, My Father, and Me, adapted from a novel by Burt Blechman, Hellman retired from the theater and renewed her political activities by becoming a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War.
In 1969 Hellman published An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir, the first of several autobiographical works that introduced her to a larger, mainstream audience. This book contains sketches of such literary figures as Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, as well as a poignant tribute to Hammett, who died in 1961. In Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1974), Hellman similarly provided anecdotes of people and events from various periods of her life. Perhaps Hellman's best-known sketch is “Julia,” which recounts her enduring relationship with a childhood friend whose involvement with the European Resistance during World War II led to her murder by Nazi collaborators. Hellman's next memoir, Scoundrel Time (1976), chronicled her political activities and provided a detailed account of the events that led to her appearance before HUAC. This volume provoked much controversy for Hellman's unflattering portraits of such liberal writers and intellectuals as Lionel and Diana Trilling, Clifford Odets, and Elia Kazan, all of whom, she believed, had compromised their political convictions for fear of retribution from Congress. Scoundrel Time also initiated reassessment of her previous autobiographical works, and many critics subsequently accused Hellman of deliberately distorting facts for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. The most serious threat to Hellman's integrity occurred in 1980, when novelist and critic Mary McCarthy called her “a bad writer and a dishonest writer” on national television. This incident fueled further debate concerning the accuracy of Hellman's nonfiction works, particularly “Julia,” and several writers published detailed essays discrediting the portrait of her friend and her brief participation in the Resistance movement. Hellman responded to these charges by filing a defamation suit against McCarthy that was dismissed following Hellman's death in 1984.
Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour, is based on an actual British court case cited in William Roughead's Bad Companions, in which two headmistresses of a Scottish girls' academy were falsely accused by a student of homosexual behavior. While nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the play was not awarded the honor, and it was later revealed that one of the Pulitzer judges had not seen the play because he found its subject matter morally offensive. To counteract what they considered artistic censorship, the leading New York City reviewers formed the New York Drama Critics Circle Award committee for the purpose of establishing its own annual prize for theatrical works. The Children's Hour also gained notoriety in other cities in which it was produced. The play was banned in Boston and Chicago and was clandestinely staged at a private theater club in London to avoid government censorship during an international tour. Hellman's next notable play, The Little Foxes, is the first of four dramas in which the author explored the conflict between self-interest and moral responsibility. Set in a small southern town in 1900, The Little Foxes depicts greed and sibling rivalry among members of the affluent Hubbard family, who are offered the opportunity to become even wealthier by investing in a local cotton mill, a venture that ultimately destroys the family. The play received widespread acclaim for its strong characterization, tightly woven plot, and spirited dialogue. Hellman's next play, Watch on the Rhine (1941), for which she won her first New York Drama Critics Circle Award, centers on a family involved in the anti-Nazi movement during World War II. Among Hellman's other major dramatic works is Toys in the Attic, which many critics regard as her best play. The plot of Toys in the Attic was conceived by Dashiell Hammett, who suggested that Hellman write a play about a man who deliberately squanders his fortune when he discovers his family's resentment of his new found wealth. Hellman incorporated Hammett's ideas into a Southern Gothic piece revolving around the destructive relationship between spinster sisters Carrie and Anna Berniers and their younger brother Julian, whose sudden wealth and marriage threaten their domination of him.
Hellman's plays have been analyzed from various critical perspectives, most prominently from the viewpoint of her politics, her concern with the corrosive effect of power and money on the lives of individuals, and her disaffection with the American capitalist system. While early evaluations of Hellman's plays placed her in the tradition of nineteenth-century dramatists Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, later assessments more often group her among such modern playwrights as Bertold Brecht, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. Commentators have also examined Hellman's dramatic works as forerunners of feminist theater. Regardless of the critical slant imposed on her works, Hellman retains her importance as a significant contributor to twentieth-century American theater.