Lillian Hellman Hellman, Lillian (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Children's Hour (play) 1934

Days to Come (play) 1936

The Little Foxes (play) 1939

Watch on the Rhine (play) 1941

The Searching Wind (play) 1944

Another Part of the Forest (play) 1946

Montserrat [adapted from the play by Emmanuel Roblès] (play) 1949

The Autumn Garden (play) 1951

The Lark [adapted from the play by Jean Anouilh] (play) 1955

Candide [adapted from the novel by Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire] (play) 1956

Toys in the Attic (play) 1960

My Mother, My Father, and Me [adapted from the novel How Much? by Burt Blechman] (play) 1963

The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas (notebooks) 1968

An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (memoir) 1969

The Collected Plays (collected works) 1972

Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (memoir) 1974

Scoundrel Time (memoir) 1976

Three (collected works) 1979

Maybe: A Story (memoir) 1980

Eating Together: Recipes and Recollections (conversations) 1984

Conversations with Lillian Hellman (conversations) 1986

Irving Howe (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Howe, Irving. “Lillian Hellman and the McCarthy Years.” In Irving Howe: Selected Writings, 1950-1990, pp. 340-46. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

[In the following essay, originally published in Dissent in 1976, Howe argues that Hellman's depiction of 1950s America in her memoirs is more mythology than fact.]

There are writers with so enticing a style that, in their own behalf, they must stop themselves and ask: “Is what I am saying true? Charming yes, persuasive also; but true?” This has, or should, become a problem for Lillian Hellman. Her three recent memoirs recalling her life with Dashiell Hammett and, in Scoundrel...

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Sidney Hook (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hook, Sidney. “The Scoundrel in the Looking Glass.” In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin, pp. 148-65. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1989.

[In the following essay, originally published in Philosophy and Public Policy in 1980, Hook excoriates what he considers Hellman's total misrepresentation of history in her memoir Scoundrel Time, in particular her paradoxical vindication of Stalinism and vocal stand against McCarthyism.]

Lillian Hellman enjoys a wide reputation: students pay her homage, reviewers praise her books. A recent play on the McCarthy era presents her as a martyred heroine, radiant in the glow of the...

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Maurice F. Brown (essay date winter 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Maurice F. “Autobiography and Memory: The Case of Lillian Hellman.” Biography 8, no. 1 (winter 1985): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Brown argues that Hellman's dependence on memory rather than factual evidence in her autobiographies helped to transform the genre into a specific literary form.]

Lillian Hellman's autobiographical writing is of interest because it extends the range of the form and explores significant theoretical issues. Hellman presents herself as both human being and writer in process, exposing her methods of recall, probing the multiple meanings of the past, and commenting on her problems as investigator and writer. Her focus has...

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Anita Susan Grossman (essay date spring 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grossman, Anita Susan. “Art versus Truth in Autobiography: The Case of Lillian Hellman.” CLIO 14, no. 3 (spring 1985): 289-308.

[In the following essay, Grossman examines the common technique of autobiographers and memoirists deliberately dramatizing and occasionally falsifying information for the sake of artistic integrity and the ways Hellman used this method in her own memoirs.]

The forthcoming appearance of Lillian Hellman's biography by her longtime editor, William Abrahams, promises to shed some new light on a literary figure who has frequently been a subject of controversy. The outline of her long career which ended in June 1984 is now well known:...

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W. Kenneth Holditch (essay date spring 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Holditch, W. Kenneth. “Another Part of the Country: Lillian Hellman as Southern Playwright.” Southern Quarterly 25, no. 3 (spring 1987): 11-35.

[In the following essay, Holditch discusses elements of Hellman's life in the South that are reflected in her dramas.]

It seems strange, to say the least, that the last volume Lillian Hellman published before her death was a cookbook. The woman in the kitchen practicing the skills of the gourmet is an image decidedly at odds with that of the strong, independent writer, smoking and drinking with “tough guy” Dashiell Hammett, confronting the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in what may have been her finest...

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Milly S. Barranger (essay date spring 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barranger, Milly S. “Lillian Hellman: Standing in the Minefields.” New Orleans Review 15, no. 1 (spring 1988): 62-68.

[In the following essay, Barranger discusses Hellman's influence on later women playwrights.]

Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) was a complex individual of great personal and professional courage. Born a Southerner in New Orleans in 1905 on the fringe of the Garden District at 1718 Prytania Street, she migrated between New Orleans and New York for the first sixteen years of her life between the Hellman and Newhouse families.

The environments were diametrical opposites: life in a Prytania Street boardinghouse (at 1718, then 4631...

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Vivian M. Patraka (essay date March 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Patraka, Vivian M. “Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine: Realism, Gender, and Historical Crisis.” Modern Drama 32, no. 1 (March 1989): 128-45.

[In the following essay, Patraka discusses “how gender is thematized” in Watch on the Rhine.]

To historicize a drama means understanding it in its changing socio-historical context and accounting for one's own critical stance toward that context. To historicize a drama also means understanding the role of its contemporary spectator as well as the spectator in our own time. According to Brecht, who first theorized this problem for the theatre, historicized works construct the spectator as an historian who...

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Timothy J. Wiles (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wiles, Timothy J. “Lillian Hellman's American Political Theater: The Thirties and Beyond.” In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin, pp. 90-112. Boston: G. K. Hall and Company, 1989.

[In the following essay, Wiles explores Hellman's political plays written from the Depression through the 1940s.]

Along with many American writers from the generation of the 1930s, our “red decade,”1 Lillian Hellman addressed the Great Depression in her plays of the period, and reflected on its aftermath and her own political awakening throughout her career. Her analysis of American society is essentially Marxist, since it is based on the...

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Ekaterini Georgoudaki (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Georgoudaki, Ekaterini. “Women in Lillian Hellman's Plays, 1930-1950.” In Women and War: The Changing Status of American Women from the 1930s to the 1950s, edited by Maria Diedrich, pp. 69-86. New York: Berg, 1990.

[In the following essay, Georgoudaki discusses Hellman's portrayal of women in her major plays during the 1930s through 1950s.]

During the period from 1930 to 1950 Lillian Hellman wrote six original plays in the realistic mode. Three of these 1930s plays and one drama of the 1940s are set in and reflect the values of small American towns: The Children's Hour (1934) in Lancet, Massachusetts; Days to Come (1936) in Callom, Ohio;...

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Lagretta Tallent Lenker (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lenker, Lagretta Tallent. “The Foxes in Hellman's Family Forest.” The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, pp. 241-53. New York: Insight Books, 1991.

[In the following essay, Lenker argues that the major theme of The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest is the crippling effects of family violence.]

American literature's reliance on themes and situations of family life to weave stories that graphically reflect the human condition has become legendary. Lillian Hellman's entry into the ranks of “cultural familiars” such as William Faulkner's Snopeses and John...

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Mary Titus (essay date fall 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Titus, Mary. “Murdering the Lesbian: Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 10, no. 2 (fall 1991): 215-32.

[In the following essay, Titus discusses the ways The Children's Hour reflected changing thoughts about women's sexuality in the early to mid-twentieth century.]

American theaters in the late 1920s and early 1930s presented several more or less controversial plays exploring the dangerous attraction of lesbianism, particularly to young women in all-female environments. Between 1926 and 1933, for example, New York saw productions of The Captive (1926), Winter Bound (1928), and Girls in...

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Will Brantley (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brantley, Will. “Lillian Hellman and Katherine Anne Porter: Memoirs from Outside the Shelter.” In Feminine Sense in Southern Memoir: Smith, Glasgow, Welty, Hellman, Porter, and Hurston, pp. 133-84. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.

[In the following essay, Brantley examines similarities between Hellman's and Porter's attempts in their respective memoirs to portray themselves in the highly politicized atmosphere in which they lived.]

Lillian Hellman and Katherine Anne Porter did not produce autobiographies on the order of The Woman Within or One Writer's Beginnings, though, like Lillian Smith, they did attempt to represent...

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Anne Fleche (essay date spring 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fleche, Anne. “The Lesbian Rule: Lillian Hellman and the Measures of Realism.” Modern Drama 39, no. 1 (spring 1996): 16-30.

[In the following essay, Fleche explores the representation of lesbianism in language in The Children's Hour.]

Lesbian rule: a mason's rule made of lead, which could be bent to fit the curves of a moulding; hence fig., A principle of judgement that is pliant and accommodating. (Very common in 17thc., but app. not always correctly understood.)


Politics is deployed as the final measuring stick for assessing the present utility, and thus...

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Ritchie D. Watson Jr. (essay date spring 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Watson, Ritchie D. Jr. “Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes and the New South Creed: An Ironic View of Southern History.” Southern Literary Journal 28, no. 2 (spring 1996): 59-68.

[In the following essay, Watson argues against the prevailing contemporary judgement of The Little Foxes as oversentimentalizing the postbellum American South, noting instead that the play is an astute critique of the New South's ultimate sterility of spirit.]

If one looks for a copy of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes in a chain or suburban mall bookstore he is not likely to find it. More often than not, however, the clerk will produce one of the author's...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Horn, Barbara Lee. Lillian Hellman: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998, 170 p.

Provides summaries of Hellman's plays and adaptations, along with production histories, and critical overviews, as well as comprehensive primary and secondary bibliographies devoted to all of Hellman's writings.


Newman, Robert P. The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989, 375 p.

Account of Hellman's longtime love affair that began in 1944 with John Fremont Melby, who worked for the...

(The entire section is 401 words.)