Lillian Hellman

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The Little Foxes

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6695


SOURCE: Barlow, Judith E. “Into the Foxhole: Feminism, Realism, and Lillian Hellman.” In Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition, edited by William W. Demastes, pp. 156-71. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

In the following essay, Barlow discusses The Little Foxes, refuting feminist criticism that dismisses Hellman’s work because of its realism.

Realism has been under attack almost since it became the dominant mode of playwriting around the turn of the century—whether from Eugene O’Neill, who claimed that “most of the so-called realistic plays deal only with the appearance of things,”1 or Thornton Wilder, who complained that realism robs drama of its magic by binding it to a particular “time and place.”2 But realism has come under perhaps its greatest assault in recent years from materialist feminist critics who, following a variety of postmodern theories, question the nature and value of both representation and narrative. Sue-Ellen Case has presented the point perhaps most strongly: “Cast the realism aside—its consequences for women are deadly.”3

This attack would seem to sound the death knell for Lillian Hellman’s work; in fact, at one point Jill Dolan refers to the “realist, Hellmanesque model of” Jane Chambers’s early plays, thus making “Hellmanism” virtually a synonym for realism.4 Elin Diamond sums up the anti-realist argument when she writes that “realism, more than any other form of theater representation, mystifies the process of theatrical signification. Because it naturalizes the relation between character and actor, setting and world, realism operates in concert with ideology. And because it depends on, insists on a stability of reference, an objective world that is the source and guarantor of knowledge, realism surreptitiously reinforces (even if it argues with) the arrangements of that world.”5 From this perspective, realism can never be used as a tool for social criticism because its very methods undermine the goals of such criticism.

If the assault on realism sounds an ominously prescriptive and elitist note for present and future women dramatists (and their audiences) by defining how women should or should not write,6 it is even more problematic for writers of the past. Realism was the preeminent theatrical mode in this country for the first half of the twentieth century, and a wholesale rejection of realism means the dismissal of three generations of women dramatists—from Rachel Crothers to Lorraine Hansberry—as well as of the audiences to which they appealed. Hellman’s work, realism with a strain of melodrama, stands squarely in this now despised tradition.

Without denying that realistic drama has sometimes—inadvertently as well as intentionally—served to reify the very society it would indict, I would like to suggest that many of the criticisms of the realistic mode underestimate author, text, and audience. Realism invokes a far more complex worldview than its detractors acknowledge, and its usefulness as an instrument for societal change is much greater than they recognize. Hellman’s most famous play, The Little Foxes , and especially its protagonist Regina Giddens, offer a provocative test case for examining the contemporary critique of realism.

It may be well to begin with Demastes’s warning that “the term ‘realism’ is one that many claim to understand but few have been able to define, a fact that has played into the critical hands of its opponents and often hurt its advocates” (p. 1). In her study of realism on the American stage, Brenda Murphy explores the conflicting definitions of realism that abounded even in its earliest days, when William Dean Howells and Henry James offered substantially different interpretations of this new theatrical trend.7 The final definition of stage realism at which Murphy arrives is useful:

a representation of the playwright’s conception of some aspect of human experience in a given milieu, within the fourth-wall illusion and in the low mimetic style. It should have characters who were individuals as well as social types, a setting that aimed at producing the illusion of the milieu as fully as possible rather than simply importing “real” objects onto the stage, thought that expressed the social issues of the milieu and the psychological conflicts of the characters in dialogue they would naturally speak, a form that was derived from the human experience being depicted, and a structure designed to produce the fullest illusion for the audience that the action onstage was taking place in reality.

(p. 49)

Even so extensive a definition, however, leaves vast room for interpretation. (How much detail makes a character an “individual,” for example?) We must also acknowledge that all critical labels force artificial groupings among diverse works that will inevitably fail to fit comfortably into the categories in which we attempt to entrap them. Perhaps most important, we must be aware when a term—realism, expressionism, melodrama, whatever—is being used as a device to illuminate the characteristics of literary works and when it is being used primarily as a stick to beat them.

As a first step in exploring the current critique of realism, it is useful to acknowledge that realism in theory and what actually happens in the theatre often do not coincide. Realism may aim to “naturalize the relation between character and actor”—that is, ask the audience to believe that character and actor are one—but few if any spectators fail to distinguish between player and role, between Bette Davis’s interpretation of Regina Giddens and Tallulah Bankhead’s. The 1981 revival of The Little Foxes enjoyed among the biggest advance sales in history because prospective viewers knew exactly who would be playing the part of Regina: Elizabeth Taylor.8 In a paper given at the ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) conference in 1991, Lynda Hart aptly referred to realism as “the most naive of illusions.” Why then are we so willing to believe that audiences are naive enough to succumb to that illusion, to believe that what they are watching onstage is an unclouded mirror of some coherent world outside the theatre—or actually is that world? Jacob H. Adler may claim that Hellman’s plays include “real people speaking real language and carrying out real actions in a real world,”9 but audiences know that the Hubbards are fictional characters whose razor-sharp repartee is carefully constructed stage dialogue distinctly unlike what they hear over their breakfast coffee.

While realism does not suppose spectators as innocent as Royall Tyler’s Jonathan, who thought he was looking “right into the next neighbour’s house”10 as he sat in the playhouse gallery, Elin Diamond is correct in observing that “mimesis, from its earliest and varied enunciations, posits a truthful relation between world and word, model and copy, nature and image or, in semiotic terms, referent and sign” (p. 58). Hellman herself saw plays like The Little Foxes as deriving their force from that very mimesis, from the viewer’s ability to identify—and identify with—the characters on the stage. Writing in Pentimento , she insists, “I had meant the audience to recognize some part of themselves in the money-dominated Hubbards; I had not meant people to think of them as villains to whom they had no connection.”11 What critics of realism often fail to acknowledge, however, is not only how complex the relationship between referent and sign is in the theatre but that neither the referent nor the sign is itself simple or stable. Martin Esslin makes this point when he argues that “reality itself, even the most mundane, everyday reality, has its own symbolic component. The postman who brings me the telegram which announces the death of a friend is also, in a sense, a messenger of death, an Angel of Death…. What the stage gives us is an enhanced reality that itself becomes a sign, a metaphor, a dramatic symbol.” 12 Teresa L. Ebert adds still more elements to the equation when she observes that the “features, effects, and uses” of mimesis vary among historical periods “and are determined by class, gender, and race…. Thus what is realistic—commonly assumed to be faithful to everyday experiences and consciousness—to one group may seem quite unrealistic to another.”13 Simply put, no two groups’ (or individuals’) “realities” are ever identical.

The relationship between model and copy is further problematized when the copy—the play—offers us a fragmented mirror-world characterized by lying, chicanery, and masquerade. In The Little Foxes , “truth” is the province of the best liar and every character—from the most pitiable to the most loathsome—is practiced at fabricating stories. Birdie lies about her twisted ankle and headaches, Leo about opening the safe deposit box; Ben and Oscar lie about stealing Horace’s bonds, while Horace willingly agrees to play along with their ruse. Indeed, deception is so clearly the lingua franca here that audience members—like the characters—are stunned by Birdie’s impropriety in honestly telling Horace how ill he looks.

Moreover, chicanery in The Little Foxes is clearly set in the context of theatricality: the medium is the subject. The long first scene is a play-within-a-play carefully directed to impress Mr. Marshall, the visiting capitalist; Birdie and Leo even have to be “cued” when they misplay the roles assigned to them. Katherine Lederer points out that both Regina and her brother Ben are consummate actors,14 and the battle for supremacy between the two offers a powerful subtext about gender roles that necessarily draws audience attention to all the levels of role playing inside the theatre and out. Once again this self-reflexivity foregrounds the complexity of the relationship among actor, character, and some referent outside the text. Ben repeatedly prompts his sister in her social role as a woman, invoking tradition and their mother as arbiter and ideal. “For how many years have I told you a good-looking woman gets more by being soft and appealing?” he asks; “Mama used to tell you that.”15 Regina, however, needs no coaching. Taking the part of both actor and playwright, Regina wins the competition by threatening a bravura performance of poor helpless female (“You couldn’t find a jury that wouldn’t weep for a woman whose brothers steal from her”) and adding “what’s necessary” to fabricate a convincing narrative for her auditors (p. 196). As in Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan, a Shen Te metamorphoses into a Shui Ta and back again with amazing grace and speed, and nothing is certain except pretense. And if this slippery world of games and changing scripts is a “copy” of some “model” outside the play, it would appear that neither model nor copy has quite the coherence or stability that critics claim they have.

With its attention to gendered role playing, The Little Foxes seems to answer Janelle Reinelt’s demand that feminist drama include “active and engaged struggle with gender inscription [which] must accompany the recognition that gender opposition is a false construct.”16 Yet the presentation of sex roles is at the heart of still another materialist feminist accusation against realism, one that categorically denies the possibility that realism can critique these very roles. In her indispensable book Feminism and Theatre, Sue-Ellen Case charges: “Realism, in its focus on the domestic sphere and the family unit, reifies the male as sexual subject and the female as the sexual ‘Other.’ The portrayal of female characters within the family unit—with their confinement to the domestic setting, their dependence on the husband, their often defeatist, determinist view of the opportunities for change—make realism a ‘prison-house of art’ for women.”17 While it is absolutely true that realism and domesticity have historically been linked—the realistic domestic drama is the quintessential American play—the two are not necessarily joined; the bond between form and content in this case is descriptive, not prescriptive. Even more important, to demand that women playwrights eschew the domestic setting is to place a severe constraint on any female dramatist who would expose societal ills, many of which are rooted in that site. Ironically, the materialist feminist attack on realism and its bond with domesticity echoes a complaint lodged in 1937 by Joseph Mersand in his condescending essay “When Ladies Write Plays.” Deploring “women dramatists for their emphasis on realism,” 18 he complains that “they know how to reconstruct for us on the stage our own little houses, and our own little, petty lives, with our worries and cares, and few moments of laughter” (p. 28). Mersand too confuses the subject (domestic life) with the form (realism) to the detriment of women dramatists; since women’s concerns are by definition “little” and “petty,” any reenactment of them onstage merits wholesale dismissal. Mersand sweeps aside three decades of plays by Rachel Crothers—concerning issues like the double standard, marital infidelity, and unequal career opportunities for men and women—as “Much ado about nothing” (p. 8). Blanket attacks on realistic presentations of the domestic sphere, when they fail to discriminate among the widely divergent forms such presentations take, come uncomfortably close to replicating Mersand’s condescension, however different the reasoning behind those attacks may be.

When we turn to The Little Foxes , we see how Lillian Hellman’s “portrayal of female characters” actually interrogates conventional notions of women’s domestic roles—onstage and off. While the alcoholic Birdie has clearly given up hope of escaping from the tyranny of her husband and son, has there ever been a literary character less defeatist or determinist than Regina, who declares: “There are people who can never go back, who must finish what they start. I am one of those people”?19 Sharon Friedman rightly notes that the Giddens home “is the setting for business negotiations” in Foxes .20 By locating Foxes in the home, Hellman demystifies the relationship between the domestic on the one hand and the economic and political on the other. The hypocrisy of excluding the women from direct participation in business negotiations is foregrounded as Birdie, Alexandra, and Regina are bought, sold, or traded in this domicile of capitalism.21 Even the befuddled Birdie is aware that marrying her was the “price” Oscar paid to obtain Lionnet, and she vows to prevent her niece from being a pawn in a similar transaction. Hellman’s commentary on the gender relationships spawned by capitalism, in sum, virtually necessitates the play’s location in the domestic sphere, a sphere inseparable from economic and political realms.

Still another objection to realism is lodged by Catherine Belsey in her influential essay “Constructing the Subject: Deconstructing the Text.” Belsey argues that “the classic realist text moves inevitably and irreversibly to an end, to the conclusion of an ordered series of events.” Classic realism, she contends, involves “the dissolution of enigma through the re-establishment of order, recognizable as a reinstatement or a development of the order which is understood to have preceded the events of the story itself.”22 On one level, of course, all drama reaches closure: the curtain (if there is one) comes down, the lights come up, the audience leaves. Closure in the sense of the reinstatement of an ordered world, however—a “correction” of the problem presented in the play—is precisely what most modern drama, realistic or otherwise, lacks. As Katherine Lederer observes, “Hellman ends her plays on an indeterminate note” (p. 44).23 Renaissance authors and audiences could believe in such a return to “normality,” whether political stability in tragedy or marriage in comedy, but most serious twentieth-century dramatists cannot even conceive of what terms such a reestablishment would take. Alexandra Giddens is no Fortinbras, and she has no army to reestablish stability in the disordered state of the turn-of-the-century South.

The last moments of Foxes owe more to the agitprop theater of the 1920s and 1930s in the United States than to the well-made play, and may even be—as Timothy J. Wiles suggests—closer still “to Brecht’s dramaturgy.”24 Without breaking the frame of realism, Hellman turns the play outward to the audience for a resolution of the problems exposed during the previous three hours. Alexandra stands up to her mother and the greed and deceit she represents, vowing, “I’m not going to stand around and watch you do it. I’ll be fighting as hard as he [Ben]’ll be fighting … someplace else” (p. 199).25 She will not, however, be fighting to reestablish the Old South, a world that lives on only in Birdie’s alcoholic imagination. This conclusion points not toward the reinscription of some previous social structure but to the hope of creating a new order—still undefined—based on sharply different values.

The scene is further complicated by the fact that the challenge to capitalist hegemony is uttered by a very young character whose strength has barely been tested, and by the chronological gap between play and audience: the action is set in 1900, thirty-nine years before opening night. Reeling from a decade of economic depression, audience members knew perfectly well that Zan had lost the fight to the Hubbards, and they knew what the consequences of that loss spelled in terms of human misery. Jeanie Forte complains that realistic plays yield “the illusion of change without really changing anything.”26 On the contrary, it is clear that little was altered when power passed from Ben to Regina—a reversal that may be temporary, as Ben’s threat suggests, if he can gain the evidence to blackmail his sister as she is blackmailing him. More importantly, Hellman makes explicit that the responsibility for genuine change is lodged squarely with the audience. It is they who must conceive a way to fight the cupidity symbolized by the Hubbard clan. As we have already seen, the role of that audience looms large in critiques of realism. Catherine Belsey takes the issue still one step further: “Classic realism … performs … the work of ideology, not only in its representation of a world of consistent subjects who are the origin of meaning, knowledge and action, but also in offering the reader, as the position from which the text is most readily intelligible, the position of subject as the origin both of understanding and of action in accordance with that understanding” (pp. 51-52).27 Belsey’s contention is that the realist text—fiction or drama—creates one vantage point from which the text makes coherent sense, that the author coerces the spectator into believing that she has reached this position on her own when in fact she has been “written” into her role as spectator by the author, whose singular point of view the spectator is forced to share. I would counter, however, that all plays have designs upon the viewer, are acts of coercion attempting to gain our agreement with the author’s “truth” even if that “truth” is that there is no truth at all. In Terry Eagleton’s words, “every literary text intimates by its very conventions the way it is to be consumed, encodes within itself its own ideology of how, by whom and for whom it was produced.”28

Moreover, any work of literature is open not to one but to a myriad of “truthful” readings. How do we account, to take one example, for the fact that critics have dubbed Regina Giddens everything from “a kind of single-handed Lady Macbeth”29 to a “hateful woman [who] has to be respected for the keenness of her mind and the force of her character”30 to the logical product of a sexist, capitalist system who “could compete in a male-controlled society only by pursuing her own self-interest, and by being more manipulative than the men around her”?31 The subject position of the audience member is not infinitely elastic, to be sure, but neither is it quite so narrow as some theorists would suggest. It also clearly varies over time—as recent, more sympathetic views of Regina suggest. Are all but one reading somehow subversive because they are not the interpretation encoded by the author in the work and inscribed in the subject position we imagine we occupy? Belsey’s notion of encoding seems to imply that the writer has complete control over the meanings of her text, an assertion most creative writers would challenge. In an interview, Hellman claimed to have been “extremely surprised that anybody thought” The Little Foxes was a critique of the industrialization of the South and of the spread of capitalism, but she conceded that “I don’t think that what writers intend makes very much difference. It’s what comes out.”32 Hellman is certainly being coy here, and her appropriate warning against the intentional fallacy must be balanced against a notion of authorial responsibility. Still, the attack on the way realism “performs … the work of ideology” tends unfairly to chastise the realistic text for what all texts do, at the same time as it underestimates the complexity of the composition process and the multiplicity of audience positions from which the characters and events onstage may be rendered comprehensible. Theatrical performance—the intricate interaction of director, actor, designer, and so forth—yet further complicates the question of just who is controlling audience response to a given play at a given moment.

We must also wonder whether readers and spectators are really unable to recognize and criticize the realist author’s designs on them. Do all realist playwrights try to hide their presence in the text, as Jill Dolan suggests when she writes that realism “masks the ideology of the author, whose position is mystified by the seemingly transparent text”?33 It may well be that the melodramatic elements Hellman builds into her text—the elaborate business about protecting Horace’s medicine bottle, Regina’s verbalized hopes that her husband will meet an early death—are Hellman’s way of reminding us that there is a designer at work here manipulating not only plot but audience as well. Yet even without these melodramatic trappings, Hellman’s ideology is scarcely masked in her presentation of such characters as the wily Ben, the physically and morally crippled Horace, or the speeches about “people who eat the earth … [and] other people who stand around and watch them eat it” that echo through the last act. Finally, Hellman’s decision to set her play in “a small town in the South” at the dawn of the new century is still one more attempt to show that Foxes is not, as Thornton Wilder would complain, about “one time and place.” The year 1900 symbolizes nearly forty years to come, and what we witness is the South turning into the North, trading its tradition for a promise of prosperity. The double lens of history through which Hellman views a turn-of-the-century story in the moral and social terms of the late 1930s is still one more distancing device (one Hellman shares with Bertolt Brecht, among others) that reminds us of the deliberate artifice at work in the not entirely “transparent” medium of realistic drama.34

Without question there are limitations—sometimes dangerous ones—in the traditional realistic forms favored by women dramatists early in this century (as well as by many writing now), and we have an obligation to identify and acknowledge these. Materialist feminist theorists have done an important job of locating and articulating these limitations. To return to Catherine Belsey: “In its attempt to create a coherent and internally consistent fictive world the [realistic] text, in spite of itself, exposes incoherences, omissions, absences and transgressions which in turn reveal the inability of the language of ideology to create coherence” (p. 56). In The Little Foxes the most crucial “absence,” to use Belsey’s terminology, is the character of Addie. The realistic framework of the drama does indeed mask the fact that while Addie may be the moral center of the work—the one who points out the dangers of both active villainy and passive complicity—she is the only major character denied a story. It may be a comforting thought for white liberals that the black women who work for them are devoted solely to their white “families,” have no ties to their own families or African-American communities, but it is a dishonest fiction grounded in a racist worldview—something Hellman herself implicitly acknowledged many years later in An Unfinished Woman .35 Although realism as a theatrical style certainly does not demand that Hellman ignore the anger a character like Addie, born into slavery, would likely have felt toward whites like Horace Giddens who still control her life, it may well facilitate such gaps. At the very least, it fails to call attention to them.

Moreover, as Vivian Patraka convincingly argues, Hellman can use and has used realism to reinforce the status quo, to reify the most “traditional model of gender relations, including female subservience wedded to conjugal bliss and family devotion.”36 In Watch on the Rhine , Patraka points out, Hellman uses the realistic mode to chastise American complacency and naivete in the face of fascism, at the same time defining fascism in the most patriarchal terms: “an evil based on its opposition to the nuclear family” (p. 139). This does not, however, negate the very forceful questioning of gender roles that appears in similarly realistic works like The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest ,37 as well as The Children’s Hour, The Autumn Garden , and even Toys in the Attic .

Jeanie Forte proposes that “the challenge for feminist dramatic criticism is one of empowerment, for women writers, performers and reader/ spectators” (p. 125). Forte is not naively asking that feminist critics and theorists become cheerleaders for any and all works by women, but rather that we find and acknowledge the strengths and successes, as well as the limitations and failures, in our dramatic legacy. We have an obligation to women playwrights of the past—Rachel Crothers, Zona Gale, Lillian Hellman, Georgia Douglas Johnson, May Miller, Rose Franken, Maxine Wood, Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, to name just a few who mined the ore of realism—to understand the value and power of their work as art and as protest against a society marked by racism, sexism, poverty, greed, and war. In her introduction to Strike While the Iron is Hot, Michelene Wandor argues that “historically, artistic movements which seek to represent the experiences of oppressed groups reach initially for a realistic and immediately recognisable clarity.”38 Building on Wandor’s comments, Patricia Schroeder adds that “perhaps this appropriation of the devices of realism will turn out to be only a small step in the history of feminist drama, but it is a step that should not be overlooked or undervalued. Depicting what is can help create what should be.”39

The works of Georgis Douglas Johnson, Shirley Graham, Mary P. Burrill, May Miller, Alice Childress, and Lorraine Hansberry—written from the doubly oppressed position of women of color—are obvious cases in point. Interestingly, some of the very same scholars who attack realism in theory still praise realistic plays by women of color. Sue-Ellen Case, for example, admires Childress’s Trouble in Mind (p. 101)—a drama that, like virtually all of Childress’s works, is clearly cast in the realist mold. Trouble in Mind, indeed, is about realism, about a black actress’s refusal to play a dramatic role that falsifies how “real” black women would feel and act. If female playwrights are writing against the societal notion that women have no story—no lives of their own separate from the lives of the men they serve—denying them the use of narrative threatens to undermine the very project of affirming women’s existence. This battle for a story and voice of one’s own is a central issue in The Little Foxes , where Birdie is literally silenced by her husband. “Miss Birdie has changed her mind,” Oscar announces in the opening scene, blithely canceling her order to a servant (p. 136). When simple contradiction does not suffice, he uses physical violence to keep her from talking. Regina, in contrast, spends much of the play shouting. However questionable her goals, Regina is determined to be heard, to write her own story, to shape a narrative for herself beyond the boundaries set by her husband, brothers, and the patriarchal society in which she lives. Regina, in many ways, is a realist playwright.

We may finally speculate that realism is the ideal mode for a writer who is more interested in what one does than in why one does it, and who believes that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. Hellman’s primary concern is neither with personal psychology nor with action for its own sake (as some who label her works “melodrama” imply) but with individuals’ behavior: no excuse, no fear for the safety of loved ones, can justify Alex Hazen’s attempts to appease the Nazis in The Searching Wind , Mrs. Tilford’s destruction of two women’s lives in The Children’s Hour , or Horace Giddens’s past dealings with the Hubbards in The Little Foxes . In perhaps her last words on the subject of moral inertia, the conclusion to the 1979 revision of Scoundrel Time , Hellman writes: “I never want to live again to watch people turn into liars and cowards and others into frightened, silent collaborators. And to hell with the fancy reasons they give for what they did.”40 While Hellman is recalling the McCarthy witch-hunts here, the lines sum up the philosophy that undergirds all her work: she uses realistic stagecraft to show not only what people do but the consequences of their actions. As Doris V. Falk observes, “realism assumes that there is a certain logical connection between events; that all actions have consequences.” 41 Hellman biographer Carl Rollyson puts it another way: “She required a realistic and unambiguous form in order to attack the appeasement of iniquity” (p. 12).

Like many of her female colleagues in the theatre in the first half of this century, Hellman used realism as a tool to explore and expose a capitalist society with narrowly inscribed gender roles, and to counter the demeaning portraits of women typically proffered by male playwrights. Materialist feminist theorists have done an important job of showing the pitfalls in this theatrical mode, the ways in which it may undermine the very criticism of society that it attempts to promulgate. But to dismiss utterly the usefulness of realism to women as an instrument of social commentary and change is to erase a large part of our theatrical heritage and to deny future women playwrights still one more valuable weapon in their dramatic arsenal.


1. Qtd. in Barbara and Arthur Gelb, O’Neill (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 520. O’Neill made this statement in the early 1920s. The great plays he wrote in his last years are, ironically, fundamentally realistic works.

2. Thornton Wilder, “Preface” to Three Plays by Thornton Wilder (New York: Bantam, 1958), p. x. See also William W. Demastes, Beyond Naturalism: A New Realism in American Theatre (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988). Demastes identifies “a critical thread that has historically reviled realism as a form whose dominance in the late 19th and 20th centuries has limited theatre (and other literary fields as well) to restrictive and reductive presentations of complex thought and feeling” (pp. 1-2). Subsequent references to Demastes are cited in the text.

3. Sue-Ellen Case, “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic,” in Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre, ed. Lynda Hart (Ann Arbor: U of ‘Michigan P, 1989), p. 297.

4. Jill Dolan, “‘Lesbian’ Subjectivity in Realism: Dragging at the Margins of Structure and Ideology,” in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990), p. 52.

5. Elin Diamond, “Mimesis, Mimicry, and the ‘True-Real,’” Modern Drama 32.1 (March 1989): 58-72, at 60-61. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

6. Sue-Ellen Case, in the Introduction to Performing Feminisms, p. 9, acknowledges that the charge of elitism might be leveled against those who repudiate representation.

7. Brenda Murphy, American Realism and American Drama, 1880-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987). See especially chap. 2, “Realistic Dramatic Theory.” Subsequent references are cited in the text.

8. Gerald Clarke, “The Long Way to Broadway,” Time (March 30, 1981): 76.

9. Jacob H. Adler, Lillian Hellman (Austin: Steck-Vaughn Co., 1969), p. 7.

10. Royall Tyler, The Contrast, in Dramas from the American Theatre, 1762-1909, ed. Richard Moody (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), p. 47.

11. Lillian Hellman, Pentimento, in Three: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little Brown, 1979), p. 482.

12. Martin Esslin, qtd. in Demastes, Beyond Naturalism. Demastes quotes the passage to make the point that certain “reductive assessments of realism by its opponents [are] unfortunate and misleading” (p. 2).

13. Teresa L. Ebert, “Gender and the Everyday: Toward a Postmodern Materialist Feminist Theory of Mimesis,” in “Turning the Century”: Feminist Theory in the 1990s, ed. Glynis Carr (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1992), p. 104.

14. Katherine Lederer, Lillian Hellman (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), p. 41. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

15. Hellman, The Little Foxes, in Lillian Hellman: The Collected Plays (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), p. 195. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

16. Janelle Reinelt, “Feminist Theory and the Problem of Performance,” Modern Drama, 32.1 (March 1989): 52.

17. Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988), p. 124. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

18. Joseph Mersand, “When Ladies Write Plays: An Evaluation of Woman’s Contribution to American Drama,” Players Magazine 13 (Sept.-Oct. 1937): 26. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

19. Hellman deleted these lines—originally near the end of Act III—when she edited The Little Foxes for The Collected Plays, but they are an apt summary of Regina. Presumably Hellman cut the lines because they are too obviously apt, hence unnecessary.

20. Sharon Friedman, “Feminism as Theme in Twentieth-Century American Women’s Drama,” American Studies 25.1 (1984): 82.

21. Gayle Austin discusses the similar use of women as commodities in Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest. See Austin’s Feminist Theories for Dramatic Criticism (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990), pp. 51-55.

22. Catherine Belsey, “Constructing the Subject: Deconstructing the Text,” in Feminist Criticism and Social Change, ed. Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt, pp. 45-64 (New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 55, 53. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

23. Lederer notes that, by contrast, the movies made from Hellman’s films tend toward closure. Hollywood is apparently less comfortable with open-endedness than Broadway is.

24. Timothy J. Wiles, “Lillian Hellman’s American Political Theater: The Thirties and Beyond,” in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. Mark W. Estrin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989), p. 102. Wiles concurs that the concluding moments of Foxes transfer “the solution to this play’s problem to the audience,” and finds a similar refusal of closure in Days to Come.

25. This line was revised for the 1972 Collected Plays. In the original (1939) version, Alexandra’s line is slightly longer but only marginally less vague. In the earlier rendering she vows “I’ll be fighting as hard as he’ll be fighting … some place where people don’t just stand around and watch.”

26. Jeanie Forte, “Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright—A Problem of Reception,” Modern Drama 32.1 (March 1989): 115-27, at 117. Subsequent references are cited in the text. The specific play to which Forte refers here is Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother, but she is making a general point about realistic drama. Perhaps we need to talk about “realists” and to distinguish precisely what the dramatic equivalent of Belsey’s “classic realism” might be. Most materialist feminist theorists working with drama, however, seem to use realism as a monolithic term. Sue-Ellen Case makes a similar complaint about the “closure of … realistic narratives” in “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic,” p. 297.

27. Belsey concedes that “this process is not inevitable, in the sense that texts do not determine like fate the ways in which they must be read. I am concerned at this stage primarily with ways in which they are conventionally read” (p. 53). My argument is that even the “conventional” reader’s or viewer’s position is more flexible than Belsey acknowledges.

28. Terry Eagleton, quoted in Michele Barrett, “Ideology and the Cultural Production of Gender,” in Newton and Rosenfelt, eds., Feminist Criticism and Social Change, p. 77.

29. Otis Ferguson, “A Play, A Picture,” New Republic (April 12, 1939): 279.

30. Brooks Atkinson, “Miss Bankhead Has a Play,” New York Times (Feb. 26, 1939) sec. 9, p. 1. Writing several decades after Atkinson, Hellman biographer William Wright gives a very similar interpretation of Regina. He is, however, disturbed by the ambiguity of the character, by the fact that audiences “can applaud” a woman who allows her husband to die. Not only have critical interpretations of the character and the play varied widely, but what one critic sees as a strength another may see as a flaw (Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986], p. 153).

31. Mel Gussow, “Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theater,” New York Times Magazine (May 1, 1983): 30.

32. Playwrights Talk About Writing: 12 Interviews with Lewis Funke (Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Co., 1975), p. 105. In the famous Paris Review interview, Hellman also admits her “great surprise” that audiences saw the play’s conclusion as “a statement of faith in Alexandra, in her denial of her family. I never meant it that way. She did have courage enough to leave, but she would never have the force or vigor of her mother’s family.” Here again, however, Hellman adds a crucial qualification: “That’s what I meant. Or maybe I made it up afterward” (John Phillips and Anne Hollander, “Lillian Hellman: An Interview”; rpt. in Estrin, ed., Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, p. 232).

33. Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988), p. 84.

34. In her later years—long after writing The Little Foxes—Hellman became an admirer of Brecht’s work. For a discussion of similarities between Hellman’s plays and Brecht’s, see Wiles, “Lillian Hellman’s American Political Theater,” pp. 90-112 passim.

35. Hellman, in her portrait of Helen, an African-American woman who worked for her, acknowledges “the hate and contempt” as well as the “old, real-pretend love” for white people that Helen had brought with her from the South. See An Unfinished Woman in Three, p. 251. Interestingly, in early drafts of The Little Foxes, Addie apparently played a larger role and had at least one family member, a daughter named Charlotte. In the final version, however, her concern and devotion are wholly directed toward Alexandra, and she seems to have no reservations about leaving her home in order to shepherd her young white charge. For discussions of these early drafts, see Richard Moody, Lillian Hellman, Playwright (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972), pp. 105-8, and Carl Rollyson, Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), pp. 128-29. Subsequent references to Rollyson are cited in the text.

36. Vivian M. Patraka, “Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine: Realism, Gender, and Historical Crisis,” Modern Drama 32.1 (March 1989): 130.

37. For a thoughtful, sympathetic reading of Another Part of the Forest, see Gayle Austin, Feminist Theories for Dramatic Criticism, pp. 51-55.

38. Michelene Wandor, “Introduction” to Strike While the Iron is Hot: Three Plays on Sexual Politics (London: Journeyman Press, 1980), p. 11.

39. Patricia R. Schroeder, “Locked Behind the Proscenium: Feminist Strategies in Getting Out and My Sister in This House,” Modern Drama 32.1 (March 1989): 112. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

40. Hellman, Scoundrel Time, in Three, p. 726.

41. Doris V. Falk, Lillian Hellman (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978), p.32


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Hellman was a critically and popularly acclaimed playwright. Her work was occasionally political and often controversial, and the events of her personal life garnered as much publicity as her writing. She is best known for her plays The Children's Hour (1934) and The Little Foxes (1939), and her memoir of the McCarthy era, Scoundrel Time (1976).


An only child, Hellman was born in New Orleans on June 20 in either 1905 or 1906, to Max Hellman and Julia Newhouse Hellman. Although both parents were descended from German Jewish families who came to the United States in the 1840s, Hellman's maternal relatives were far more successful in America than her father's family. Her father started a shoe company with the money he acquired through marriage, but the business failed and the family moved to New York City, where the Newhouses had relocated. Starting at the age of six, Hellman divided her time between her two vastly different extended families, spending summers in the well-appointed Newhouse quarters on the upper west side of Manhattan and winters in the New Orleans boardinghouse run by her father's sisters. Her education suffered as a result of the frequent moves and the necessity of adjusting to different home environments and school districts. Hellman attended New York University from 1921 to 1924 and Columbia University in 1924 but dropped out of college in 1925 before finishing her degree. She worked briefly as a manuscript reader, and in December 1925 she married Arthur Kober, a publicist. She began doing publicity for plays and writing book reviews, publishing her first piece in the New York Herald Tribune in 1925.

The following year, Kober became editor of the literary journal Paris Comet, and the couple moved to France. Hellman began traveling around Europe and writing short stories, some of which were published in her husband's magazine. In 1929 the Kobers briefly returned to New York, where Hellman worked as a reader for Broadway plays, but a year later they moved to Hollywood, where Hellman took a position at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There she met Dashiell Hammett, a well-known detective novelist, and the two began a relationship—both personal and professional—that lasted for thirty-one years, until Hammett's death in 1961. Hellman and Kober divorced amicably in 1932.

In 1934, having returned to New York with Hammett, Hellman produced her first play, the well-received but controversial The Children's Hour, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her next effort, Days to Come (1936), was far less successful and closed after just a few performances. However, three years later she produced her most famous play, The Little Foxes. Hellman continued writing plays and screenplays throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. She retired from the theatre in 1963 and began writing her memoirs.

Hellman's politics, meanwhile, had embroiled her in further controversy. Frequently associated with liberal and radical causes, Hellman produced an editorial in the Screen Writers' Guild magazine critical of the Congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities. She was never actually charged with being a Communist, but she was blacklisted nonetheless and called to testify before the Committee in 1952. Refusing to name fellow writers and other Hollywood figures who might be Communists, Hellman wrote the Committee a letter that has often been reprinted as evidence of her personal principles. "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," she informed the Committee, "even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group."

In 1969, however, she again became involved in politics, this time in opposition to the war in Vietnam. She remained active in the movement for many years. Throughout the 1970s she served as visiting lecturer at a variety of prestigious universities, among them Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley, until her declining health forced her to give up her strenuous schedule. A lifelong smoker, Hellman suffered from emphysema and died June 30, 1984, in Martha's Vineyard.


Hellman's first produced play, The Children's Hour, deals with a young girl who falsely accuses her school headmistresses of involvement in a lesbian relationship. The resulting scandal causes many parents to remove their daughters from the school, and although the lie is exposed in the end, one of the headmistresses has by this time committed suicide. A commercial and critical success, the play was nonetheless banned in Boston, London, and Chicago, and its failure to win the Pulitzer Prize was widely attributed to its controversial subject matter.

Hellman's next major work was The Little Foxes, a carefully-researched drama set in 1900 in an Alabama town. The ruthless members of the Hubbard family—characters inspired by Hellman's maternal relatives—vie for control of the family business in a plot involving larceny, blackmail, and murder. The moral center of the play is Addie, who is modeled on Hellman's childhood nurse, Sophronia Mason, the only figure from Hellman's early life to receive positive treatment in her plays.

Hellman turned to contemporary politics for her next play, Watch on the Rhine (1941), a tale of international intrigue set in Washington, D.C., but very much involved with the events in 1940 Nazi Germany. Aimed at inspiring Americans to abandon neutrality, the play was a success both critically and commercially; it won the Drama Critics Circle Award, and ran for 378 performances. In 1944 Hellman's most political work, The Searching Wind, opened in New York, and once again the playwright used a domestic setting to explore issues of fascism abroad.

After the war, Hellman returned to family matters with Another Part of the Forest (1946) and The Autumn Garden (1951). Another Part of the Forest is a prequel to The Little Foxes, while The Autumn Garden offers a considerable departure from Hellman's earlier style and is often regarded as her most mature dramatic work. Toys in the Attic (1960) was Hellman's last original play. Set in New Orleans, the plot involves interracial relationships, the hint of incestuous desire, and the dangers of living in the past.

Hellman's most famous non-dramatic works include her three memoirs: An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). A chapter from Pentimento, which describes Hellman's 1937 mission to aid a childhood friend by smuggling currency to an anti-fascist group in Germany, became the basis for the motion picture Julia (1977). The story, along with Hellman's account of her role in the McCarthy hearings in Scoundrel Time, were both controversial; critics charged that both works were self-serving and riddled with untruths.


Hellman's major works were well received by both critics and audiences. Two of her plays, Watch on the Rhine and Toys in the Attic, received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and many productions of her work enjoyed long, successful theatrical runs. Because of the political nature of her dramas and her treatment of American capitalism, Hellman's plays attracted the attention of Marxist critics long after her death. More recently her work has been examined by feminist scholars, many of whom contend that Hellman was a feminist despite her statements to the contrary. Sally Burke (see Further Reading) includes Hellman in her study of feminist playwrights, despite the common critical contention that Hellman aspired to be "one of the boys" and Hellman's own contention that she encountered no discrimination as a woman in the theatre. Burke insists that the playwright "gave voice to feminist themes while publicly eschewing the title of feminist." Citing The Little Foxes as an example, Burke maintains that the play deals with "woman's status as chattel to be disposed of at the discretion of the patriarchy, and the convergence of race and class as well as gender in determining one's destiny." Judith E. Barlow also concludes that The Little Foxes, "with its attention to gendered role playing," meets the criteria associated with feminist drama. For Barlow, the play challenges the stereotypical domestic role for women and confronts "the hypocrisy of excluding the women from direct participation in business negotiations." Mary Lynn Broe suggests that Hellman's use of passivity in her dramas was at odds with the usual stereotypical association of women with passivity. According to Broe, the words and actions of Hellman's female characters "suggest not only new possibilities for moral being, a new range of expression for female behavior, but also a new approach to reevaluating Lillian Hellman's playwriting skills."

The Children's Hour

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SOURCE: Griffin, Alice, and Geraldine Thorsten. "The Children's Hour. "In Understanding Lillian Hellman, pp. 27-38. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

In the following essay, Griffin and Thorsten discuss the moral implications of The Children's Hour.

"This is not really a play about lesbianism, but about a lie," said Lillian Hellman, describing The Children's Hour to a reporter. "The bigger the lie, the better, as always."1 Opening on Broadway on 20 November 1934, the play centers upon two young women who open a school for girls and are destroyed when a malicious student charges them with lesbianism. By emphasizing the characters of Karen Wright and Martha Dobie and developing action that is as believable as it is theatrical, Hellman drove home her serious theme and achieved, at the age of twenty-nine, an immediate hit that would run for 691 performances.

Because lesbianism was a taboo subject in 1934, the play was banned in Boston, Chicago, and London. Despite its critical and public success in New York and France, it failed to earn the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1935 because of its subject matter. New York theater critics protested by forming the Drama Critics' Circle, which has been presenting its own awards ever since.

Although The Children's Hour was a shocking, controversial play that took courage to write and to produce, it contained certain safeguards that made it morally acceptable. The charge that Karen Wright and Martha Dobie are in a lesbian relationship is untrue, for it is the fabrication of teenager Mary Tilford, a prototypical "bad seed." Karen is in love with and engaged to Dr. Joe Cardin. Martha, who begins to suspect toward the end of the play that she may be a lesbian, commits suicide immediately after sharing that revelation with Karen. In compliance with the 1930s view of homosexuality, she pays with her life for her "crime," an action to satisfy the most conservative audience.

While the sensationalism of the subject had to account in some part for the play's success, Hellman, who considered herself primarily "a moral writer," is concerned here with the harm done by so-called "good people," who do not challenge evil. It is the theme of Hellman's best-known play, The Little Foxes, and was to recur in her writing and her life from 1934 on. The character who accepts Mary's lie at face value is her wealthy grandmother, Amelia Tilford, a patron of the school.

Hellman found her plot, at the suggestion of Dashiell Hammett, in a chapter about an Edinburgh lawsuit called "Closed Doors; or, the Great Drumsheugh Case," in Bad Companions, a book written by law historian William Roughead. She retained such elements of the original account as the fourteen-year-old student's false charge; her resolute, patrician grandmother; the difficult, interfering aunt of one of the women; and the close relationship between the two teachers—one nervous and high-strung and the other stable and placid. Hellman added a fiancé for Karen (to clarify at the onset the fact that the charge is a lie), developed all of the characters, and carried the action forward with ever-increasing tension. The amazing final scene combines the characters' self-revelation and discovery with the kind of theatrical punch that would mark Hellman's plays in the future.

As women are central to Hellman's plays and memoirs, they reflect women's position in society at the time of writing. Karen and Martha are women who earn their own money and achieve the power and independence this brings. Unlike Regina in The Little Foxes, set in 1900, who without money is dependent on what she is given by or can manipulate from men, these women in their late twenties have the teaching and administrative skills that have made the school a success.

Joe, who is more egalitarian than most men were at that time, supports Karen's desire to continue her career after their marriage and respects the women's dedication to the school. In the second scene of act 2, after Mrs. Tilford has summarily withdrawn Mary from the school and warned others to do the same, he champions the women to his aunt: "They've worked eight long years to save enough money to buy that farm, to start that school. They did without everything that young people ought to have … That school meant things to them: self-respect, and bread and butter, and honest work."

Young Mary Tilford is so appalling yet mesmerizing a creation that audiences mistook her for the central character and could not understand why she was absent from act 3. Even critics were baffled and faulted Hellman's structuring of the play, but Hellman never intended her as the main character or planned for her to be "the utterly malignant creature which playgoers see in her." Hellman explains that "on the stage a person is twice as villainous as, say, in a novel."2 The fact that Mary's lie is of a sexual nature intensifies its impact. In the thirties, children, especially girls, were shielded from sexual information and were believed to be uninterested in sex until late puberty. Mary's lie succeeds because adults in her community find it inconceivable that she should know about a lesbian relationship unless she had seen actual evidence of it, and Mary is clever enough to disguise how much she has learned from reading illicit French novels. In telling her story to her grandmother, she gives a convincing portrayal of young innocence unaware of the import of what she is saying. Another reason Mary still has the power to horrify is that Hellman anchors her behavior in reality, drawing upon memories of her own childhood bullying and lying to get her way.3

Because Karen is a teacher who believes in being fair and treating the granddaughter of a patron the same as the other students, Mary cannot wheedle her way out when Karen catches her in a lie about picking flowers for Mrs. Mortar, a bouquet she actually found in an ashcan. That Mary will not retreat from so trivial a lie, despite Karen's sympathetic appeals, foreshadows Mary's obduracy in act 2 in defense of her far greater lie. Her blackmailing and bullying of schoolmates in order to run away from the school are also the same techniques she will use in the second act to maintain the lie that allows her the freedom of life with her permissive grandmother.

Mary's grandmother, Amelia Tilford, is a type who will appear regularly in Hellman's plays: the wealthy widow who has been content to be provided for handsomely first by her father and then by her husband. Whether Hellman's portrayal is positive, as it is of Fanny Farrelly in Watch on the Rhine, or less sympathetic, as here with Mrs. Tilford, the character is a woman who does not think for herself but has inherited her views, principles, and status from the men in her life. Because her principles are hers only superficially, Mrs. Tilford deserts them when she is confronted with a crisis. One would expect her to investigate Mary's story and to confront Karen and Martha first with what she has heard. However, the lie Mary tells so challenges Mrs. Tilford's concept of the right order of things that after only the most cursory questioning of its truth, she is stampeded into acting. Mrs. Tilford also is led astray by self-righteousness, another failing of which Hellman is critical in the plays. Not only does Amelia Tilford believe her opinions are infallible, but so does the community: when she accepts Mary's lie as truth and alerts the parents, they immediately withdraw their children from the school.

Karen Wright and Martha Dobie command attention and interest almost equally until the end of the play. Although both are competent, intelligent, and committed to their work, they differ in the degree to which they are independent. Martha is less so by virtue of her situation and her temperament. It is Karen's small capital they use to start their venture, a financial disparity that means Martha is not on an equal footing. It is Karen who is more determined to be self-sufficient: she objects when Martha suggests that Karen's fiancé discuss Mary's behavior with his aunt, Mrs. Tilford: "That would be admitting we can't do the job ourselves." On the subject of their retaining Martha's aunt, the incompetent Lily Mortar, Karen can act more firmly. In act 1 she asks Martha outright: "Couldn't we get rid of her soon, Martha? I hate to make it hard on you but she really ought not to be here."

At the close of this conversation, Martha, learning that Karen and Joe plan to marry at the end of the term, is stunned: "You haven't talked of marriage for a long time," as if she had lulled herself into believing that the marriage would never become a reality. Karen's response, "I've talked of it with Joe," again points up the difference between them. Karen has both her close friendship with Martha and an intimate relationship with Joe, another claim on her loyalty and love. Martha has only her friendship with Karen, and is understandably fearful of losing the one relationship that has emotional resonance for her. Their earlier discussion of vacation plans highlights Martha's greater need for Karen and Karen's somewhat unrealistic attitude about the impact her marriage will have on their lives. Martha has envisioned a vacation for just the two of them, like one they had during their college years; Karen's vision is similar, except it is just the three of them. Whether or not Karen is willing to admit it, her marriage will make a difference, and Martha's outcry is the anguish of the one who stands to lose the most from the changes it will bring.

To balance Martha's dependency, Hellman endows her with a sharp sense of humor. This is not a play rife with humor; the issues it deals with are too somber for that. But the occasional wit that enlivens the otherwise serious dialogue is usually Martha's. When Joe semijokingly boasts in act 1 that the Tilfords are "a proud old breed," Martha retorts, "The Jukes were an old family, too."

Conversations with Aunt Lily Mortar suggest why Martha is "nervous and highstrung," tense, with low self-esteem. While Amelia Tilford will gain, at enormous cost, understanding and integrity, Mrs. Mortar undergoes no such transformation. Vain and self-centered, a mediocre actress who no longer can find work, she has been hired as an elocution teacher because Martha feels indebted for her upbringing, despite a childhood with Aunt Lily that was neither happy nor comfortable. Seeing herself as a victim in order to put others in the wrong, Lily twists Martha's offer of a pension, if she will leave: "You're turning me out? At my age! Nice grateful girl you are." She does not leave soon enough, for it is her malicious remarks to Martha, overheard by Evelyn and Peggy, that provide the basis for Mary's lie.

Lily Mortar accuses Martha outright of being jealous of Joe and "unnatural" in her affection for Karen, and compounds this by claiming that Martha was "always like that even as a child." Aunt Lily concludes with, "Well, you'd better get a beau of your own now—a woman of your age," an admonition guaranteed to stir anxiety in virtually any woman's heart in those days. Inspired by mere pique, her malice is an assault on Martha's inmost self, and gains unfairly in strength from her role as Martha's surrogate mother, the person, presumably, who has known her best. Her remarks serve to cast Martha's sexuality in an ambiguous light in act 1 and to make Martha's self-revelation and subsequent action in act 3 believable, although nonetheless shocking.

The tragic events Mary's lie sets in motion affect Karen profoundly, but they are external to her. Her essential self remains intact. Philip M. Armato believes Karen lacks compassion for Mrs. Mortar and Mary Tilford and that these characters treat her as she has treated them. He claims Karen's punishment of Mary is unduly harsh and that Mary is justified in feeling persecuted.4 A careful reading of this scene fails to support this view. Karen is both reasonable and compassionate toward Mary; she also is committed to making a success of her business. Her compassion, therefore, is exercised within the larger context of the school, of ensuring that it is a wholesome environment, with standards of discipline maintained by all students.

Karen's discipline of Mary demonstrates her courage. Given their dependence on Mrs. Tilford's goodwill and financial backing, it would have been easy for Karen to let Mary off with only a token punishment, but she does not. Neither does she shrink from confronting Mrs. Tilford in act 2 to demand an explanation for her abrupt withdrawal of support. Nor in act 3 does she avoid the painful reality that her relationship with Joe is no longer tenable and, with compassion for his anguish, releases him from their engagement.

It is also Karen who has the courage to broach the subject of lesbianism, saying, "But this isn't a new sin they tell us we've done. Other people aren't destroyed by it." But Karen speaks as one for whom the charge is external, imposed on them by the outside world. Martha, on the other hand, internalizes that charge and sees herself through the lens society holds up to her. Underlying the tension characteristic of Martha's personality is a brittleness, at once fragile and rigid, born of her conviction that there is and always has been something radically "wrong" with her. Mary Tilford's lie seems to offer a plausible explanation of the truth about herself.

Despite Martha's wit, her efforts at independence, and her battle against her aunt's attacks, she has achieved neither full self-awareness nor true independence of mind. Hellman explains that "suspecting herself of lesbian desires, not lesbian acts, but lesbian desires, and thus feeling that the charge made against her had some moral truth, although no actual truth," Martha convicts herself of a thought crime and summarily executes herself.5 The evidence she cites—that she has never felt an intense attachment to anybody but Karen and has "never loved a man"—could be construed as indicating a lesbian cast to her sexuality. Neither the audiences nor critics had any difficulty accepting her judgment at face value. Martha feels she is to blame for the disaster that has befallen them, and yet her claims to that guilt are framed in "I don't know" and "maybe." In one short speech, for example, she repeats the word "maybe" four times, giving the scene a disturbing ambiguity. Judith Olauson observes that the "allegations are believed first by the town, then by friends, and finally by the two women themselves."6 Martha may be mistaken about herself, for one of the awful powers of such a lie is to convince its victims to believe the image of themselves devised by their oppressors.

Critics saw Hellman as influenced by Ibsen in her careful plotting, social realism, and use of violence. Jacob Adler cites Martha's suicide, Mary's extortion of money from Peggy, and her blackmail of Rosalie as reminiscent of Ibsen's technique.7 Hellman had a flair for dramatic ways to capture and hold audience attention, but the devices she uses are not for theatricality alone; they are logical extensions of character or situation. In The Children's Hour, Mary Lynn Broe observes, "all the truth-revealing scenes are interrupted so that the continuous action of dramatic unraveling and revelation are missing from the play. By such sleight of structure, Hellman shifts the focus from blackmail, extortion, and lesbianism (more melodramatic topics) to the quiet business of redefining a moral capacity."8 By limiting to the first two acts Mary's presence in the play as the agent of destruction, Hellman in act 3 shifts the audience's attention from the means Mary uses to the wreckage that has resulted from her lie.

With an excellent ear for American speech, Hellman employs language and rhythm to convey character. Her preliminary notes describe Karen as the "voice of reason, straight, clear, dull but educated, balanced, unemotionally awakened."9 This contrasts with Martha's more fiery, nervous qualities and tension. Their respective dialogue reveals that Karen's speeches are smooth, stable, verging on brisk, and containing no surprises, whereas Martha's are choppy, fragmented, and wry, with unexpected turns. Hellman's use of language to support and underscore action is evident in the final act, for which her notes indicate that "after the suicide, no one must talk with the same words or rhythms as they have before."10 Through such dislocations of speech, the emotional impact of the tragedy is conveyed, although there is little discussion of the suicide.

The wintry desolation of act 3 is in stark contrast to the hopeful, springtime bustle of act 1, alive with schoolgirls, teachers, and fiancé. A significant drop in energy in act 3 accords with the hopelessness of Karen and Martha, who are the picture of defeat as the act opens, with Karen in an armchair and Martha lying on the sofa. A long two to three minutes of silence indicates to the audience how barren their lives have become. The act proceeds with a further stripping away: first Lily Mortar, then Joe, and finally Martha, so that when Mrs. Tilford arrives to say she has discovered Mary was lying and now wants to make reparations, the irony is complete. Karen's pallid inquiry, "Is it nice out?" hints at the return of hope, and the action comes to a close with commonplaces about the weather signaling the return of normal life.

Not everyone was satisfied with this ending, including Hellman, but she would allow no one else to tinker with her plot. In the course of time, she became convinced that the play should have ended with Martha's suicide. However, for the 1952 revival, she says, "I worked for weeks and weeks trying to take out the last eight or ten minutes of the play, which sounds very easy, as if I could have done it, but I couldn't do it. It had been built into the play … so far back, that I finally decided that a mistake was as much a part of you as a non-mistake, and that I had better leave it alone before I ended up with nothing."11

The success of The Children's Hour opened the door to Hollywood for Hellman as a screen-writer. She adapted the play for the screen as These Three, in which she converted the slander to infidelity to satisfy the Hayes Office's strict moral code. In 1962 The Children's Hour, with a script by John Michael Hayes from an outline by Hellman, was one of the first movies to be made under the liberalized production codes that replaced the Hayes regulations. In addition to its stagings through the years in the professional and nonprofessional theater, two major revivals were to have an impact. The first was in 1952 during the Mc-Carthy era, with the production and its implications about "the big lie" causing a good deal of controversy, being praised or maligned according to one's political inclinations. In 1995 an acclaimed production by the Royal National Theatre in London testified to the endurance of "one of the most compelling works to emerge from the serious American theatre before Blanche DuBois and Willy Loman arrived on Broadway in the late 1940s."12


  1. Harry Gilroy, "The Bigger the Lie," in The Children's Hour: Acting Edition (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1953), 3.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Margaret Case Harriman, "Miss Lily of New Orleans: Lillian Hellman," in Take Them up Tenderly (New York: Knopf, 1944), 102.
  4. Philip M. Armato, "'Good and Evil' in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. Mark W. Estrin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989), 73-78.
  5. Fred Gardner, "An Interview with Lillian Hellman" (1968), in Conversations with Lillian Hellman, ed. Jackson R. Bryer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), 110.
  6. Judith Olauson, The American Woman Playwright: A View of Criticism and Characterization (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1981), 34.
  7. Jacob Adler, "The Dramaturgy of Blackmail in the Ibsenite Hellman," in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. Mark W. Estrin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989), 34.
  8. Mary Lynn Broe, "Bohemia Bumps into Calvin: The Deception of Passivity in Lillian Hellman's Drama," in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. Mark W. Estrin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989), 82.
  9. Carl Rollyson, Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (New York: St. Martin's, 1988), 66.
  10. Manfred Triesch, The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966), 104.
  11. Gardner, "Interview," 111.
  12. Mark W. Estrin, "Introduction," in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. Mark W. Estrin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989), 2.

Principal Works

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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 François 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

An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (memoir) 1969

The Collected Plays (plays) 1972

Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (memoir) 1973

Scoundrel Time (memoir) 1976

Maybe: A Story (memoir) 1980

Eating Together: Recipes and Recollections [with Peter Feibleman] (nonfiction) 1984

Conversations with Lillian Hellman (interviews) 1986

Primary Sources

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

SOURCE: Hellman, Lillian. "Letter to the House Committee on Un-American Activities." In Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, pp. 376-77. New York: Dial Press, 1999.

In the following letter, written in 1952, Hellman states her position on testifying against friends and acquaintances before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

May 19, 1952

Honorable John S. Wood, Chairman House Committee on Un-American Activities Room 226 Old House Office Building, Washington 25, D.C.

Dear Mr. Wood:

As you know, I am under subpoena to appear before your Committee on May 21, 1952.

I am most willing to answer all questions about myself. I have nothing to hide from your Committee and there is nothing in my life of which I am ashamed. I have been advised by counsel that under the Fifth Amendment I have a constitutional privilege to decline to answer any questions about my political opinions, activities and associations, on the grounds of self-incrimination. I do not wish to claim this privilege. I am ready and willing to testify before the representatives of our Government as to my own opinions and my own actions, regardless of any risks or consequences to myself.

But I am advised by counsel that if I answer the Committee's questions about myself, I must also answer questions about other people and that if I refuse to do so, I can be cited for contempt. My counsel tells me that if I answer questions about myself, I will have waived my rights under the Fifth Amendment and could be forced legally to answer questions about others. This is very difficult for a layman to understand. But there is one principle that I do understand: I am not willing, now or in the future, to bring bad trouble to people who, in my past association with them, were completely innocent of any talk, or any action that was disloyal or subversive. I do not like subversion or disloyalty in any form and if I had ever seen any I would have considered it my duty to have reported it to the proper authorities. But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.

I was raised in an old-fashioned American tradition and there were certain homely things that were taught to me: to try to tell the truth, not to bear false witness, not to harm my neighbor, to be loyal to my country, and so on. In general, I respected these ideals of Christian honor and did as well with them as I knew how. It is my belief that you will agree with these simple rules of human decency and will not expect me to violate the good American tradition from which they spring. I would, therefore, like to come before you and speak of myself.

I am prepared to waive the privilege against self-incrimination and to tell you anything you wish to know about my views or actions if your Committee will agree to refrain from asking me to name other people. If the Committee is unwilling to give me this assurance, I will be forced to plead the privilege of the Fifth Amendment at the hearing.

A reply to this letter would be appreciated.

Sincerely yours, Lillian Hellman

General Commentary

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SOURCE: Broe, Mary Lynn. "Bohemia Bumps into Calvin: The Deception of Passivity in Lillian Hellman's Drama." In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin, pp. 78-90. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

In the following essay, originally published in 1981, Broe examines Hellman's use of passivity in her plays, maintaining that its use often ran counter to the social stereotype associated with female characters.

Her face like a thousand year old siennese mask sheds time in runnels, etched with the vivacity of a life lived passionately and well. Undaunted, she has visited battle fronts during bombings, foraged bayou country for wild duck, scarfed jambalaya and raccoon stew, whisked contraband in a hatbox across the German border. She is as much at home decapitating snapping turtles as she is captivating the world of high fashion clad in a Balmain dress or a Blackgama coat. Her "spit-in-the-eye" rebelliousness can change mercurially from rampaging anger to demure deference.1

Although at every turn "Bohemia bumps into Calvin" in her character, Lillian Hellman is seldom linked with the concept of passivity. In both the political and literary establishments, she has become one of the foremost authorities on decisive action and pure forcefulness. According to one critic, "Miss Hellman dreams of living successfully by masculine standards: honor, courage, aggression."2 Yet in An Unfinished Woman she admits: "I feel at my best when somebody else drives the car, gives the orders, knows me well enough to see through the manner that … was thought up early to hide the indecision, the vagueness." In An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento, both autobiographical works, the apparent powerlessness that begins as a consistent social pose is a paradoxical one: in incident after incident, the social posture quickly becomes the means to her most penetrating insights. Passivity—both a triumph and a compensation wrested from years of female victimhood—functions as an artistic means to spiritual-moral development in Hellman's writing. "If you are willing to take the punishment, you are halfway through the battle," she announces, recalling herself as a child who, having run away from home, understands the advantageous manipulative power of absence. And later, "I was ashamed that I caused myself to lose so often," she remarks to Hammett, who, when rebuked by her, grinds a burning cigarette into his cheek. From characters such as her childhood maid Sophronia, Dash Hammett, Horace Liveright, Dorothy Parker and friend Julia, she learns the vital function of being morally free to be socially passive. Whether she leaves the judgment of others inconclusive, or "refuses to preside over violations against herself," Lillian Hellman employs passivity in the autobiographies as a vehicle for powerful action, compassion, and finally, moral authority.3

So, too, in her major plays.4 Any reevaluation of her drama requires our acknowledgment of her use of passivity in its variegated forms as a catalyst for truth-telling, deception, and most importantly, self-deception: all recurrent themes in her plays.

Lillian Hellman's plays redeem the impediment of a social role of passivity as a calculated artistic choice in a curious, perhaps unlikely, way. It is less Hellman's theme of passivity than her structural reworking of the quality within each drama that reclaims these plays from labels of infectious villainy or triumphant duplicity. For it is no longer illuminating to see her characters in the simple categories of initiators of evil, the "despoilers" who execute their destructive aims on the one hand, or the "by-standers" who, because of naiveté or lack of self-knowledge, suggest evil as the "negative failure of good."5 Rather, passivity redefined to include aspects of deception and moral disguise is both thematically and structurally crucial to any reevaluation of Hellman as a significant contemporary playwright. As Addie in The Little Foxes (1939) says: "Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. And other people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain't right to stand and watch them eat it" (p. 182). The socially negligible female characters, the ones who "stand around and watch them [the locusts] eat," actually control the more brutishly powerful, but often in indirect, unobtrusive ways. As General Griggs (The Autumn Garden [1951]) might say of their passive behavior, it is simply a way "to remain in training while you wait" for the big moments, the turning points in life. The minor female characters—Lavinia, Birdie Hubbard, Sophie, Lily Prine and Lily Mortar—candidly, if unwittingly, reveal dramatic "truth" in certain situations. By their revelations they catalyze the outcome of dramatic action. Thus the socially negligible become the dramatically invaluable.

Of course, passivity is not a foreign concept to female authors and characters of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Victorian literature is replete with its Mrs. Gamps (professional servants of deaths and entrances), Maggie Tullivers and Edna Pontelliers, whose place is more to suffer than to do. From Thea Elvstead's blond snivellings in Hedda Gabler to Blanche Dubois' begging the gallantry of a gentleman caller, to Sylvia Plath's bedding down in a "cupboard of rubbish," at home in "turnipy chambers" among roots, husks and owl pellets, the passive role has become a pejorative image of a lot of hand-wringers, retiring mealy-mouths, or women playing Galatea to some man's Pygmalion. These female lives seem to guarantee that the meek are not so blessed after all, but simply cursed with social insignificance. No wonder then that one critic has described the circumstance of so many passive women characters as a sentimentally disinvolved torpidity, never deliberate, but always lending a strong impression of sluggish flies hatching indoors in early winter.6

But fortunately a number of contemporary thinkers have redefined passivity, retrieving it from the convention of social role to the authority of moral virtue, from a limited stereotype to a limitless capacity for real feeling, intelligence and choice. Mary Ellmann has likened the workings of the stereotype to the dynamics of Negro apathy: once the social restriction is placed on the group, the characteristic inactivity is found and then called innate, not social.7 And in studying Victorian women, Patricia Meyer Spacks suggests that the lack of social opportunity is less an impediment than a chance for moral and emotional fulfillment. Assuming an unfashionable pose, Spacks defies the old saw that a limited social status necessarily creates a limited personality.8 Mahatma Gandhi, moreover, elevated passivity beyond either politics or stereotype to a creed of personal ethics that emphasized integrity as a form of struggle. According to Gandhi, one could gain a moral authority worthy of The Sermon on the Mount or the Bhagavad-Gita by "Satyagraha," an act of the mind and will. If we bear in mind this brief history as we look at five Hellman plays, we see that an apparent social disadvantage actually allows a distinct capacity for being as a moral individual, or catalyzes action that permits such moral truth to be recognized.

In The Children's Hour (1934), Hellman dismantles the social stereotype of passivity in Aunt Lily Mortar and her parodic distortion, Mary Tilford. Early in the play, the decaying ex-actress Lily Mortar is overheard calling the relationship of the headmistresses of a New England girl's school "just as unnatural as it can be." Her words, repeated to and distorted by Mary Tilford, bring about the suicide of one of the women, who actually does acknowledge so-called unnatural feeling for the other. By shrewdly calculating the cliché of social passivity (the demure silence of an abused child), Mary blackmails and manipulates both her grandmother and a fellow student into the character assassination of Karen and Martha, the head-mistresses. She engineers her "great, awful lie" into acceptable truth by exaggerating a social stereotype.

In the course of the play, Aunt Lily Mortar makes a career out of absence, omission, and inadvertence. Living in the days of steamer trunks and roadshows, Lily has made theatrics her domain, chatter her trademark. For Lily the natural thing is the socially customary, courtesy a mere matter of breeding, passivity an unconscious and uncritical way of life. In the play's opening scene, Lily and the schoolgirls are involved in a "great show of doing nothing," their theatrical passivity itself a lie for gainful learning. Here the beaux arts of womanhood become useless, truncated labors, images of incompletion. Hair is being cut as irregularly as Latin verbs are conjugated. Haphazard sewing and basting complement the fake social graces. Theatrics replaces the candor of labor. Unwittingly, Lily herself points out the deception, calling their labors simply women's "tricks."

Perhaps the most critical meta-theatrical moment in this opening scene is Lily's hammy reading of Portia's "mercy" speech from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.9 On Lily Mortar's lips, these celebrated lines dwindle to a mere elocutionary exercise just as the truth she utters central to the outcome of action is but an overheard perception. Portia's moral and verbal disguise contrasts with Lily's inadvertent catastasis of the play's end. (Hellman at once sneers and laughs at the element of "pretend" that infects the stage: as she says the playwright's "tricking up the scene" is the only fitting response.) But ironically, it is the three lines Lily omits that seem to anticipate the outcome of the dramatic action in The Children's Hour: "Therefore, Jew / Though justice be thy plea, consider this / That in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation."

No one does see salvation in the girl's school where universal deception is rampant. Although Mary Tilford is exposed for her malignant manipulations, and Mrs. Tilford, her rich granny, recants her character slander, both events occur too late to save either Martha's life or the headmistresses' careers. Moreover, Lily's verbal omissions in the first scene foreshadow her crucial absence when Karen and Martha need her witness for their trial. Muttered asides and throwaway lines, Lily's words emerge only indirectly as canny truths about the other characters: "I love you that way—maybe the way they said" (p. 62), Martha admits to Karen following Lily's charge of "unnaturalness"; or Lily's comment that "one master passion in the breast … swallows all the rest" (p. 9) accurately describes Mary's maliciousness, Mrs. Tilford's righteousness, as well as Martha's love for Karen before the play ends. In one of Hellman's best deceptions of the intractable theater audience, Lily Mortar has the force of a daft Cassandra.

Mary Tilford is the theatrical caricature and complement to Lily Mortar's genuine social weakness. Mary feigns homesickness, fainting, even a heart attack in a Grand Guignol representation of weakness. Even though this whiner has her facts wrong in the play's Inquisition scene (there is no keyhole in the headmistress's bedroom door, as Mary claims, nor is the other headmistress's room near enough for the girl to overhear anything), Mary turns her calculated passive behavior into a triumph over authority and maturity, as once again moral disguise and meta-theatrics are closely linked. She is coyly frail, consciously retiring in scenes with Mrs. Mortar, her grandmother, and Dr. Cardin. She blackmails Rosalie, her chum, and then defers to Rosalie's facts. As an innocent bystander who sees and hears only inadvertently, she never once utters an incriminating word of her own. But in the end of the play, her mummery of passivity does her in, does not triumph.

Just as meta-theatrics permits moral disguise in Lily's incomplete Portia and Mary's failed Inquisition, so too does it become a metaphor for other forms of playing in The Children's Hour. Even structurally, the play proves deceptive. All the truth-revealing scenes are interrupted so that the continuous action of dramatic unravelling and revelation are missing from the play. By such sleight of structure, Hellman shifts the focus from blackmail, extortion, and lesbianism (more melodramatic topics) to the quiet business of redefining a moral capacity. The headmistresses' tense, oblique exchange of feelings about Karen's impending marriage is interrupted by Joe, Karen's fiance, with his talk of the black bulls "breeding in the hills." Eavesdropping girls behind the door halt Lily Mortar's discussion of Martha's "un-natural" sentiments for Karen. And as Mrs. Tilford begins to elaborate that "something horrible" is wrong with Karen, the young woman herself arrives to ask, "Is it a joke, Joe?" mistaking villainy for comedy. Hellman suggests complex new moral possibilities for passivity by giving a dramatically central role to the indirect revelations of Lily Mortar. At the same time, she mocks the theatrics of social passivity by linking it with moral disguise in both Lily and Mary Tilford. She will elaborate these possibilities throughout her playwriting career.

Hellman's general theme of duplicity is more specifically focused on two women characters and their portraits of passivity in The Little Foxes. Regina Hubbard Giddens feigns the role of the inept and demure Southern belle in a character study that is, in words Hellman once used to describe Dorothy Parker, a combination of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth. "I don't know about these things," Regina postures. "I shouldn't like to be too definite," she demurs about the family's business bargaining terms (p. 149). But Regina knows both terms and money. She has been systematically juggling her family's lives and fortunes for a long time. She puts her own daughter up for forty percent collateral in a deal, using her also as bait to get an invalid husband home. When told that her husband is dying, Regina can't understand "why people have to talk about this kind of thing" (p. 168). She uses her husband's reticence about committing money and finally even his death as bargaining tools that she wields sharply against her brothers. Outwitting the thieving Hubbards, she gets seventy-five percent of the money for herself, in an actively malignant parody of passivity. Once again, moral dissembling, social passivity, and meta-theatrics are linked in the character of Regina.

The dramatic complement to Regina's feigned passivity is the battered Aunt Birdie. Though Birdie is repeatedly belittled by her family, who claims she'll get a headache if she babbles too much truth—"that's a lie they tell for me," she knows (p. 183)—Birdie reveals the play's central and ironic truth. Flighty and high on elderberry wine, felled by a case of the hiccups, she nevertheless sets the shadowy standard for moral judgment in The Little Foxes. Early on, she begins telling more truth than the Hubbards care to hear: she recognizes ethical values. Although her father gave his life as a soldier in the war, she sees through the senseless "killing just for killing." She supports Horace's wishes when he is being pawned by the family's expediency and laments, "If only we could go back to Lionnet." But Birdie's values and her words are not so much nostalgia for an aristocratic past than desire for sources of information and power whereby Horace and Alexandra are able to check Regina's financial and personal manipulations. Birdie, the magpie chatterer who seems financially dominated and personally insignificant, utters the central, empowering moral judgment in the play. What she tells is that Oscar has "made their money charging awful interest to ignorant niggers and cheating them on what they bought" (p. 182). Her emotions are candid and unconventional, even if she does deliver them as pathetic memories and throwaway lines. She hates her own son Leo, warns her niece Alexandra against family dependency ("Don't love me. Because in twenty years you'll just be like me"), and debunks the myth of romantic love between herself and her husband: "Ask why he married me … My family was good and the cotton on Lionnet's field was better. Ben Hubbard wanted the cotton and Oscar Hubbard married it for him" (p. 182).

In the opening scene, Birdie criticizes the unethical behavior practiced by the new Southern industrialists and hints at what will become of the Hubbards in their ruthless use of one another. The information and influence she provides Alexandra and her allegiance to Horace prompt the younger woman's final refusal. Birdie's words give her "the courage to fight" instead of being "one of the people who stand around and watch." While good may not be rewarded or evil sufficiently punished in The Little Foxes, Hellman does expand and explore the character of those "little foxes whose vines have tender grapes" through the figure of Aunt Birdie. In Birdie's intoxicated asides, truth is given ultimate, though unlikely, power over apparently active evil. If not redeemed, the passive are victims redefined.

In The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes both Mary's pose as a battered child and Regina's feigned Southern belle routine set the stage for a very different sort of passivity. These two self-conscious dramas contrast with Birdie's intoxicated asides that narrate the Hubbard history, and Lily's erratic Portia and words whispered on the staircase—both of which create the circumstances on which the dramatic outcome of each play depends. The real moral quality of passivity (which Birdie in particular represents) triumphs over feigned artifice as it exists in Mary and Regina's meta-theatrics.

In Another Part of the Forest (1947), Lavinia claims to have a good memory. And indeed she has. Keeping her all night vigils, wandering about "colored" churches clutching her Bible, Lavinia is easily dismissed as a babbling, mad hanky-wringer. She even lives in silence for a decade on Marcus's promises that "next year they will talk." Like Ghandi, Lavinia literally and morally clings to the truth with an act of mind and will that proves her personal integrity. Unlike the old aristocratic Bagtrys, whose backward nostalgia "got in the way of history," Lavinia's throwaway comments make a curious kind of sense. "It's not easy to send your own husband into a hanging rope," she admits. For despite her dismissal as a crazy pipedreamer, Lavinia knows the truth about the viper's tangle of Hubbard family history. "Imagine taking money for other people's misery," she mutters about Marcus's rise to fortune. Years before, privy to her husband's cheating and lying—now a family trademark—she has recorded events in her Bible. Her facts prove that Marcus has run a blockade to scalp salt to the poor and dying during the war. She also knows that by his action he had been responsible for the Union massacre of twenty-seven Confederate boys in training camp.

Stifled now by a corrupt family, Lavinia tries repeatedly to air her secret, but fails. Instead, she develops an escape fantasy of teaching poor black children "the word" she has never uttered, only clutched. Unlike Mary Tilford's or Regina's postures, Lavinia's pretending functions as an imaginative moral restitution for the deceptive silence she has kept for over sixteen years. "There's got to be one little thing you do that you want to do, all by yourself you want to do it" (p. 332), she insists.

Once again in the Hellman canon, meta-theatrics—now in the form of Lavinia's pipedream of escape—becomes the vehicle for moral disguise. The hand-wringing, babbling Lavinia is really lucidly oversane. She is immune to bribery and nostalgic myths, just as she knows the difference between sacred vows and a bad marriage. Throughout the play, her asides reveal information about the suspicion cast on the family by Marcus's actions, about the "hot tar and clubs and ropes that night" (p. 377). But the truth she finally utters in act 3 allows her son Ben to check Marcus's power as well as his words, which, as Lavinia reminds them, do not match his actions. Supremely guileless, Lavinia toys with that gap between language and reality that has supported Marcus's fictive life: "Why Marcus," she reminds her husband about the incriminating information the prostitute Laurette has just volunteered, "The girl only told the truth. Salt is just a word, it's in the Bible quite a lot. And that other matter, why, death is also just a word" (p. 372).

Lavinia borrows words from her Bible, if not to prompt justice in the play, at least to offer a more lucid understanding of the nature of "truth" on which the dramatic action turns. "I only have what I have," she announces. Truth is neither brute power nor written facts, but "whatever people want to believe," Lavinia knows, "I'm not going to have any Bibles in my school. That surprise you all? It's the only book in the world but it's just for grown people, after you know it don't mean what it says" (p. 391). The chicanery of nearly every member of the family backfires, as Lavinia finally "tells the truth to everybody," clutching her Bible. She deals various members of the family symbolic gifts at the end of the play, proving not only the restoration of her memory, but her degree of moral sense that is not shared by even the shrewd Regina or the greedy Ben. Lavinia, perhaps even more than Mrs. Mortar or Birdie, deceives by redefining a social role of passivity as a capacity for moral understanding, fulfillment, even nuance.

With The Autumn Garden (1951), Hellman moves from crass entrepreneurs and claptrap confrontations to the muted haze of middle-life. In a world subtly Chekhovian—and in a play Hellman reluctantly admits is her best—she makes nostalgia a form of consciousness. Pity and compassion are the only bonding possible among weak, aging characters. Under the cabbage roses of the once grand Tuckerman boardinghouse, each character seems stalled in a particular version of the past—unfinished paintings, mothy romances, worn family legacies. Each is sunken into an after-dinner doze of self-deception: "I think as one grows older it is more and more necessary to reach out your hand for the sturdy old vines you knew when you were young and let them lead you back to the roots of things that matter" (p. 483). But it is precisely this waste that Hellman warns against in Autumn Garden through the action of two negligible women characters.

The dramatic situation develops when Nick Denerey, artist manqué with cosmopolitan pretensions, returns to the "summer mansion" of his childhood in order to grab onto those "sturdy old vines" just as they were twenty years before. His memories have never matured, however, only inflated his enormous capacity for myth, philandering, flirting, and do-gooder meddling. One night, on a drunken "rampage of good-will," he compromises the maid Sophie, who is Frederick's affianced. Servants and friends in the provincial town quickly learn the scandal of the boardinghouse. Ironically, the publication of the news combined with Sophie's ingenuity serves to rescue this indentured Cinderella from a miserable future life with Frederick Ellis and his mother. The outcome of the dilemma depends upon a few pungent perceptions of an old dismissible grandmother, Mrs. Ellis, who warns Sophie about the consequences of the gossip and saves her from a disastrous marriage of convenience with the son.

By virtue of their outcast status or age, both Sophie and old Mrs. Ellis are late examples of Hellman's artistically tooled "passives" who reclaim a social label as a dramatic strength. Both Sophie and Mrs. Ellis join the gallery of Lavinias, Lily Mortars and Birdies, catalysts for action who capitalize on a formerly narrow social quality, dramatically retrieving it. Amidst all the ruin of wasted lives, both of these characters manage to act realistically, not to doze or deceive. They stand in contrast to Rose, the "Army manual wife," who with fluttering eyelids and heart staves off the divorce that her husband the General so desperately wants. Like the faded buttercup Rose, or Ned Crossman, the boarder who makes his valedictories to a bottle of brandy, most of the other characters beg reality never to correct the "indefinite pronouns" of their Southern gentility.

Bored with this passel of self-deceivers, Mrs. Ellis has a strong grasp of the real issues of life—power, sensuality, money: "I say to myself, one should have power, or give it over. But if one keeps it, it might as well be used, with as little mealy-mouthness as possible" (p. 503). Like Granny in Albee's American Dream, who debunks myths by turning them back on the family, Mrs. Ellis is a straight shooter with a razor-sharp tongue who has built a solid financial empire for herself. She uses her power and her overheard words to create the situation that saves Sophie. Walter Kerr has compared her to "the goddess Athena in a snapbrim fedora," delivering her haymakers with aplomb.10 She knows that it's easy to afford the luxury of morality when somebody else "clips the coupons." She readily admits that the happiest years of her life are those she has spent in solitude since her husband's death. She chides Nick for inflicting his bear hugs, friendly pats, and tiny bursts of passion: "One should have sensuality whole or not at all." Mocking him as one of the "touchers and leaners," she asks if he doesn't find "pecking at it ungratifying." When Frederick discovers that his writer-friend Payson's real attraction to him is money, Mrs. Ellis orders him to "Take next week to be sad. A week's long enough to be sad in" (p. 509). She knows well the system of patronage in which people like Fred, a professional proofreader and simp, must pay for the interest of people like Payson with their literary coteries. Like Lily Mortar's words, Mrs. Ellis's non sequiturs (such as her speech that "nobody in the South has tapeworm anymore") describe candidly the parasitic relationships that surround her—Frederick and Carrie, Nick and Nina, Constance and Nick, Payson and Fred, Rose and the General.

Sophie, another minor female character, has a central dramatic role. She is the impoverished European niece, "indentured" to the family for her cultural and social status. Like Mrs. Ellis, she is far too pragmatic to be arrested in self-deceptions. In the words of General Griggs at the end of the play, Sophie spends her life "in training" for the big moment of her escape. Perceptually, verbally, and morally, she piles up a lot of little moments to stand on. Seemingly tongue-tied and retiring when she first appears, in the course of the play Sophie manages wry words for, and rare understanding of, the others' pretenses. She knows that decisions are made "only in order to speak about changing them." Quite matter of factly she says: "You know it is most difficult in another language. Everything in English sounds important. I get a headache from the strain of listening" (pp. 473-74). And to Constance: "I think perhaps you worry sometimes in order that you should not think" (p. 520). Sophie sees the social facade of Constance's romantic malingering: "Such a long, long time to stay nervous. Great love in tender natures.… It always happens that way with ladies. For them it is once and not again: it is their good breeding that makes it so" (p. 480). Sophie admits the bargain she is striking with Frederick (the exchange of social position for sexual cover); knows the prevalent social code for women ("little is made into very much here"); and knows also that "somehow sex and money are simpler in French" (pp. 536-37) than in the indirect metaphors and oblique rhetoric employed by the Ellises and Denerys.

Sophie is shrewd about the female ploys she uses to threaten Nina Denery with exposure of her husband's seduction: her word is ominous, but, held in reserve, carries the power of Lavinia's clutched Bible. "We will call it a loan, come by through blackmail" (p. 537), she says of the five thousand dollars she extorts as escape money with which she will return to Europe. She realistically turns Nick's playful charm-seduction-disposal game back on him by demanding the exact commission he was to receive for doing a portrait of Rose Griggs's homely niece. Most significantly, the trade value of her bargain, that is, her role as marriage counselor, is not lost on Sophie: "How would you and Mr. Denery go on living without such incidents as me? I have been able to give you a second, or a twentieth, honeymoon" (p. 538).

Linked in a socially negligible partnership, but oracular in their throwaway lines, Sophie and old Mrs. Ellis support one another both in dramatic action and verbal power. Now we see the collaboration of the passive, dismissible characters, extremes (impoverished youth to wry old age) on the continuum of life. With realistic savvy about money as power, they use the meta-theatrics of their social roles not for moral disguise, as do Regina and Mary Tilford, but as means to physical escape or greater self-awareness. Through their final camaraderie, we realize that Autumn Garden issues a stern warning reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's early stories: life is a valuable and precious trust whose capital must be invested early and wisely, set in a committed direction and tended energetically before mid-life, or its returns will never be reaped. If it is squandered, the Sophies of the world will deceive themselves into becoming Rose Griggses.

In Toys in the Attic (1960) the demented child-bride Lily Prine wanders about in her slip or with a nightgown over her dress, desperately trying to babble the truth of her suspicions about her roué husband, Julian Berniers. But the world of the Berniers sisters does not promote either candor or truthfulness: they dote on their pasts, on their renegade gambler brother, and on the colognes and candied oranges they trade with each other every week. As Carrie Berniers remarks to her sister, "Funny how you can live so close and long and not know things, isn't it?" (p. 687).

Like flighty Birdie Hubbard or muted Lavinia, Lily has knowledge but not audience, awareness but not articulation. She knows her husband talks every evening at six with "the not such a young lady with the sad face" (p. 701), the same woman seen with him on an Audubon Park bench. Lily cannot quite connect Julian's loss of the Chicago shoe factory with his current wealth that takes him away for so much of the day and permits him to buy ball gowns, pianos, and flaming red mantillas. When she guilelessly asks her questions, whispers her vagaries about the "not happenings of the night before," and mutters hallucinatory non-sequiturs, Lily is stifled by her husband Julian. He sends her to her room, locks her in a hotel, or reprimands her that "That's not the way to be married" (p. 702). As Lavinia clutches "the word" in the Bible, Lily Prine totes with her the "sacred knife of truth" (for which she traded her wedding ring in a morphine den), waiting for the moment when she might wield it.

The moment comes when Lily can tolerate no more of her husband's suspected infidelity. She phones Cyrus Warkins, the husband of the elusive other woman. In a babble of typical non-sequiturs, baby talk, and illogical words, she begs him for "just one more year with Julian," thereby revealing the liaison with Warkins's wife. But Lily's action—that slice of the "sacred knife of truth"—cuts grossly, mangles the truth.

The real stakes are far more dangerous than Julian's fictitious adultery. Julian's actual venture is a shady but lucrative business deal based on a tip about a couple of acres of swampland precious to Warkins. Warkins's wife, a sentimental old flame of Julian, has put him onto the scheme to rob her brutal husband of his fortune. Because of Lily's call, Charlotte Warkins is slashed up, Julian robbed and mugged by hired thugs.

Although Lily slices deeply with her knife of truth, she mismanages truth, which seems to have its own aesthetic momentum. She is not the catalyst for the dramatic outcome so crucial to the lives of the Berniers sisters. Curiously, her action returns Julian to a state of passivity, impotence, and dependency on his maiden sisters, who with their cloying affections, paltry fictions, and meagre savings, require his need for their very survival. As Anna says to Carrie after a painful confession scene: "I loved you and so whatever I knew didn't matter. You wanted to see yourself a way you never were. Maybe that's a game you let people play when you love them. Well, we had made something together, and the words would have stayed where they belonged as we waited for our brother to need us again. But our brother doesn't need us anymore, and so the poor house came down" (pp. 745-46).

Like so many Hellman characters, the negligible Lily has the oblique lucidity of the mad, as well as the practical savvy that is, literally, too direct for the Berniers' attic world of mismanaged truth: "I spoke to Mr. Warkins and told him to ask her to wait for Julian for one more year. After that, if Julian doesn't want me—Where would I ever go, who would ever want me? I'm trouble, we all know that. I wouldn't have anywhere to go" (p. 748). Just as the crusty, bohemian Albertine Prine steps in and returns Lily's knife of truth to the gypsy den, fetching back her wedding ring, so, too, does she return her daughter to her husband, counseling her in life-saving deceptions. Like Carrie, whose incestuous feelings for Julian have surfaced through Lily's action, Albertine Prine realizes that "you take your chances on being hated by speaking out the truth." She says to Lily, "Go in and sit by him. Just sit by him and shut up.…Can you have enough pity for him not to kill him with truth?" (p. 750).

Lillian Hellman plays passivity in her minor female characters the way a jazz musician ranges over musical notes. She improvises variations on a chordal progression that vibrates from Lily Mortar to Lily Prine; from inadvertent truth-telling to conscious moral restitution and shrewd self-awareness; from moral disguise (Lily in The Children's Hour) to physical escape (Sophie in The Autumn Garden). Close examination of the negligible women in each of the five plays suggests that Hellman is a consummate trickster both in characterization and in theme—a role for this contemporary dramatist only broached by current criticism. She never appears to be the drum banging melodramatist that critics of her work have insisted. As if to defy what she calls the "pretence of representation" in the theatre, its claptrap as well as its "tight, unbending, unfluid, meagre" form, Hellman cleverly tailors a socially assigned role—passivity—into variegated moral and dramatic authority. And the artistic as well as the moral clout of passive characters has grown increasingly complex as Hellman's playwriting has matured over a quarter of a century. Sophie is surely a more wry, sophisticated blackmailer than Mary Tilford; Mrs. Ellis, more consciously skilled than Lavinia in reversing family events; Lily Prine, a more thorough "undoer" than Lily Mortar. And in the case of Regina's wiles or Mary Tilford's theatrics, Hellman tricks up a counterpoint to the authentic truth-tellers, those who clutch their own word with stubborn personal integrity.

By a painful arithmetic of craft, Lillian Hellman reexamines language, theatrical convention, and the calculated effects of acting and staging, as well as passivity. Shunning "labels and isms," she formally realizes the hazards of moral, verbal, and theatrical absolutes in the effect of these minor characters on the dramatic outcome. Her "spit-inthe-eye" rebelliousness proclaims that the just and the worthy are never adequately credited by social labels, no more than her dismissible women are justly summed up by the inelastic social appearance of passivity. The writer's skill prevails, Hellman insists, not society's foibles: "The manuscript, the words on the page, was what you started with and what you have left … the pages are the only wall against which to throw the future or measure the past."11 Hellman's words—but especially the words and actions of the passive women in five major plays—suggest not only new possibilities for moral being, a new range of expression for female behavior, but also a new approach to reevaluating Lillian Hellman's playwriting skills.


  1. Surely one of the best recent portraits of Hellman as a spunky, rebellious life force is John Hersey's essay, "Lillian Hellman," New Republic, 18 Sept. 1976, pp. 25-27. Hersey speaks of her outside the formal politics with which she is often associated: "She cuts through all ideologies to their taproot: To the decency their adherents universally profess but almost never deliver" (p. 27). The phrase "Bohemia bumps into Calvin" is Hersey's.
  2. Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination (1975; reprint, New York: Avon, 1976), p. 381.
  3. An Unfinished Woman (1969; rpt., New York: Bantam, 1970), pp. 164, 23, 167; Pentimento (1973; rpt., New York: New American Library-Signet, 1973).
  4. Citations are to The Collected Plays (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1972). Page numbers appear in the text.
  5. Doris Falk, Lillian Hellman (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1978), pp. 29-34.
  6. See Mary Ellmann, Thinking About Women (1968; reprint, New York: Harvest Books, 1968), pp. 78-82. Ellmann bases her discussion on Samuel Beckett's Malloy.
  7. Ellmann, pp. 81-82.
  8. Spacks, chapter 2, "Power and Passivity," in The Female Imagination.
  9. Meta-theatre departs from tragedy or psychological realism to produce, instead, the calculated effects of acting and stage design. In something "meta-theatrical," we are convinced not of reality, but of the reality of the dramatic imagination before the playwright has begun to exercise his/her own. In brief, meta-theatre or meta-theatrics suggests the inherent theatricality of life or an event. See Lionel Abel, Metatheatre (New York: Hill and Wang, 1963).
  10. Walter Kerr, "A Nearly Perfect 'Autumn Garden,'" New York Times, 28 November 1976, sec. D, p. 42, col. 4.
  11. Pentimento, p. 151.

Further Reading

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Estrin, Mark W. Lillian Hellman: Plays, Films, Memoirs. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980, 378 p.

Complete record of essays, reviews, and news articles about Hellman's work from 1934 to 1979.

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

Comprehensive sourcebook containing play synopses, critical overviews, and annotated bibliographies of both primary and secondary sources.

Triesch, Manfred. The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas, compiled by Manfred Triesch. Austin: University of Texas, 1966, 167 p.

Bibliography of the manuscripts, letters, and papers in the Hellman Collection.


Dick, Bernard F. Hellman in Hollywood. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982, 183 p.

Coverage of Hellman's life and career as a Hollywood screenwriter.

Moody, Richard. Lillian Hellman: Playwright. New York: Pegasus, 1972, 372 p.

Comprehensive study of Hellman's life as a playwright.


Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. "The Moral Act: Lillian Hellman Fights Fascists in the Parlor." In American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman, pp. 85-106. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Maintains that in Watch on the Rhine and The Searching Wind Hellman was attempting to draw America into the war against fascism.

Austin, Gayle. "The Exchange of Women and Male Homosocial Desire in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. "In Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, edited by June Schlueter, pp. 59-66. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

Employs Gayle Rubin's feminist essay "The Traffic in Women" to analyze plays by Miller and Hellman.

Burke, Sally. "Anticipating the Second Wave." In American Feminist Playwrights: A Critical History, pp. 100-38. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Examines Hellman as a feminist playwright.

Erhart, Julia. "'She Could Hardly Invent Them!' From Epistemological Uncertainty to Discursive Production: Lesbianism in The Children's Hour." Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 35 (May 1995): 87-105.

Discusses the issue of lesbianism in The Children's Hour.

Falk, Doris V. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978, 180 p.

Collection of critical essays on Hellman's plays and memoirs.

Friedman, Sharon. "Feminism as Theme in Twentieth-Century American Women's Drama." American Studies 25, no. 1 (spring 1984): 69-89.

Explores the theme of feminism in several American plays, including Hellman's The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest.

Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979, 159 p.

Critical essays on Hellman's life and major works.

Mooney, Theresa R. "These Four: Hellman's Roots Are Showing." In Southern Women Playwrights, edited by Robert L. McDonald and Linda Rohrer Paige, pp. 27-41. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Examines the representation of the South in four of Hellman's plays.

Reaves, Gerri. "Lillian Hellman's Scoundrel Time and the Ownership of Memory." In Mapping the Private Geography: Autobiography, Identity, and America, pp. 51-82, 135-58. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001.

Examination of Hellman's unorthodox manner of rendering personal memories in Scoundrel Time.

Sauer, David Kennedy. "Oleanna and The Children's Hour: Misreading Sexuality on the Post/Modern Realistic Stage." Modern Drama 43, no. 3 (fall 2000): 421-41.

Compares the treatment of sexuality in plays by Hellman and by David Mamet.

Tuhkanen, Mikko. "Breeding (and) Reading: Lesbian Knowledge, Eugenic Discipline, and The Children's Hour." Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 4 (2002): 1001-1040.

Explores the racial subtext of The Children's Hour.


Additional coverage of Hellman's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 47; Authors in the News, Vols. 1, 2; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R, 112; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 4, 8, 14, 18, 34, 44, 52; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 228; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1984; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 1; Drama for Students, Vols. 1, 3, 14; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Twayne's United States Authors; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 119.

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