Lillian Hellman

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Hellman, Lillian 1906–

An American playwright, screenwriter, and director, Hellman has also published three highly successful memoirs. Both her plays and memoirs are characterized by scrupulous diction and economy of language. Hellman's most recent memoir, Scoundrel Time, has proved to be the most controversial of all her writings. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Marvin Felheim

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Probably no play of the American theater (and I am including that feeble adaptation The Wisteria Trees) is more completely Chekhovian than Lillian Hellman's … most charming original drama, The Autumn Garden. Although the piece was only mildly successful when presented during the 1950–1951 season on Broadway, to the discerning (and here I quote Alan Downer) it is "Miss Hellman's most original play."

The Autumn Garden is remarkable for its skill. Miss Hellman herself (in her Introduction to Four Plays) lists the two faults most enumerated by her critics: that her plays are "too well-made" and that they are "melodramas." These two limitations are strikingly absent from The Autumn Garden. As a matter of fact, the play successfully contradicts Miss Hellman's own statements about the nature of drama. In her Introduction, she states: "The theatre has limitations: it is a tight, unbending, unfluid, meager form in which to write." But The Autumn Garden is just the opposite kind of drama; it is loose in structure, bends easily but without breaking, is fluid and, far from being meager, overflows with characters and situations; indeed, so diffuse is the play that a first reading presents the same difficulties as does The Cherry Orchard: one must keep a finger poised to search out identities in the cast of characters.

In all of Miss Hellman's first six plays, the initial situation is presented in terms of some kind of problem, and in three of these pieces (Days to Come, The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine) the first actors the audience sees and hears are servants behaving in the traditional opening scene fashion. The Negro servants, Addie and Cal, who are on stage in the first scene of The Little Foxes, are there to give us a feeling of elegance and richness and a sense of power, all of which help establish the character of Regina Giddens before her delayed entrance allows her really to dominate the stage. In The Autumn Garden, the opening is quite different. "On stage at rise of curtain" are six of the main persons of the play. They do not direct their conversation or their actions toward any one situation, but indeed are behaving in a manner which we have come to call Chekhovian. Each is concerned with himself, his own problems. We, the audience, seem to have interrupted a series of activities which have been going on for some time…. The house serves a symbolic function, just as do the houses of Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard, of Sorin in The Seagull and of the Prosorovs in The Three Sisters. It is the old home to which cling many memories but which has grown somewhat shabby with the passage of time; it is the autumn garden where flashes of brightness only emphasize the proximity of wintery sterility.

In both The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes , widely regarded as Miss Hellman's best plays, once the initial situation has been established, the whole movement of the plays is direct and without embellishment toward the climax. Both are "well-made" plays in the narrow sense that in neither are there any characters or any actions which do not contribute directly...

(This entire section contains 1623 words.)

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to the unfolding of the central incident. Here we might consult Miss Hellman's definition; "by the well-made play," she writes, "I think is meant the play whose effects are contrived, whose threads are knit tighter than the threads in life and so do not convince." But all art is contrived and better organized than life. The trouble inThe Children's Hour and The Little Foxes is that the contrivances are too obvious; they are theatrically convincing, but they do not have the high artistry which makes them consistent with themselves, true not to life but to dramatic art; the contrivances in these pieces render them merely realistic, good enough for exciting (even meaningful) theater, but not great art. Again, Miss Hellman's words suffice. The dramatist, she asserts, "must represent." These plays do, merely.

The Autumn Garden does all this and more. Without seeming to, in this play Miss Hellman organizes her materials in terms of artistic principles, dramatic principles (what Coleridge called "organic" principles). The realism is to the essence of human existence, not to the representation of life. There are many threads of action and of thought playing through The Autumn Garden. By the end of Act One, we have established the moral and artistic principle upon which the play is based: people must do the best they can; to do less is immoral. And Miss Hellman, as she hastens to admit, is "a moral writer." But the difference in The Autumn Garden is that the moral is within the situation and within the characters, not superimposed upon them by a skillful playwright…. Lillian Hellman lets her characters alone to act out their destinies, regarding them only with love and understanding; in her earlier play, she took sides; one can list the characters she admires and those whose behavior and beliefs she dislikes; in Days to Come, for example, she admits she even tried to balance characteristics: good against bad, well against sick, complex against simple. In The Autumn Garden, she does not make this kind of breakdown. The result is true complexity, both in dialectics and mechanics.

Mechanically, The Autumn Garden has Chekhovian grace. The characters all belong on the set: each has a legitimate reason for being at the Tuckerman house at this particular moment in history; each is searching for the meaning of life, and for love. (pp. 191-93)

These people arrive and depart constantly. The superficial stage action consists of noise and bustle; the director is provided with inexhaustible opportunities for stage effects of the most varied sort. This movement supplies the external tension, a tension partly produced by confusion and stir, but a tension which accurately mirrors the inner states of mind and emotions of the characters.

This is a Chekhovian cast, appropriately set in the American South; they are upper middle-class people, with their roots in money and traditions, but caught in the essential tragedy, the tragedy of life. This is not Shakespearean; it is Chekhovian. It is social drama, not classical tragedy. As such, it has two necessary dialectical principles. First of all, as Miss Hellman reminds us, it is "sharp comedy…. The world these people [she is discussing The Cherry Orchard] made for themselves would have to end in a whimper." But, and here is the second significant point, even though the dramatist does foresee the end of this world, he has what Miss Hellman calls "the artist-scientist hope" for a better one. The pity and terror are present, but they are not for the single, noble (however representative) individual, the Hamlet or the Lear; the pity and the terror are spread out, they are for all. Pity and terror have been democratized and made the proper subject for prose.

The Autumn Garden is written in prose. By the very nature of the medium, the tragic intensity and, to a lesser degree, the tragic nobility of the characters and their situations are rendered less magnificent than if the play were phrased in poetry. In one sense, this is a purely mechanical problem. But prose can take on certain of the qualities of poetry, or, I should say, certain poetic devices are available to the prose writer, particularly to the dramatist. Perhaps the most significant of these is symbolism…. In The Autumn Garden, aside from a few incidental references to roots and trees, there is no mention of a garden, but the title adds a necessary symbolic note to the whole play. Miss Hellman has used a number of such titles, particularly those which emphasize the organic, natural aspects of human existence: in both The Searching Wind and Another Part of the Forest, she has used the significant relationship between man and nature to extend the meaning of her dramas. So in The Autumn Garden, the symbolism inherent in the title adds a poetic dimension to the scope of the play.

In fact, this is my central point: that the kind of drama we have in The Autumn Garden is the only kind which makes for modern tragedy. It is not merely psychological (as in Tennessee Williams) nor sociological (as in Arthur Miller) but it is artistic (poetic) and moral—and all in the Chekhovian sense. And so Miss Hellman's movement in this direction is a movement toward seriousness. (pp. 194-95)

[Miss Hellman's movement in the direction of Chekhov] was natural in light of the life-long study which Miss Hellman has made of Chekhov, a devotion which culminated in her edition of The Selected Letters of Chekhov, published in 1955. In her various editorial notes, Miss Hellman pays tribute to Chekhov's "common sense," to his workmanship, and to his "deep social ideals"; of all his plays she thinks The Three Sisters is the greatest. These opinions throw some light on The Autumn Garden, for they support our idea of its careful design and, in particular, they give a point of reference. For the central themes of the two plays are similar: nostalgia for a no-longer existent past and the individual's frustrating search for love and the meaning of life. The central "message" of both The Autumn Garden and The Three Sisters is also the same: the inevitability of disaster in the kind of world presented. Miss Hellman has quoted this pertinent remark from one of the letters: "A reasoned life without a definite outlook is not a life, but a burden and a horror." (p. 195)

Marvin Felheim, "'The Autumn Garden': Mechanics and Dialectics," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1960, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. 3, No. 2, September, 1960, pp. 191-95.∗

Elizabeth Hardwick

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It is nearly always said that Lillian Hellman's plays are triumphs of craftsmanship. Actually the question of motivation, the construction of a plot, are quite awkwardly managed in most of them…. The plays are full of thefts and letters discovered. The basic plot device is so often unfortunate that the efforts to work it out, skillful enough in a technical sense, become more and more visible and disturbing. This craftsmanship of climaxes and curtain lines and discoveries is a sort of know-how, useful enough in the commercial theater, but paralyzing to the natural development of characters in action. We are too often asked more on behalf of the plot than we can sensibly give assent to.

Behind Lillian Hellman's plays there is a torn spirit: the bright stuffs of expensive productions and the hair-shirt of didacticism. Between these two, her genuine talent for characterization is diminished…. [That Hellman's characters] should be squeezed to death by the iron of an American version of Socialist Realism and the gold of a reigning commercialism is a problem of cultural history. (p. 5)

Elizabeth Hardwick, "'The Little Foxes' Revived," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1967 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. IX, No. 11, December 21, 1967, pp. 4-5.

David Hunt

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[Scoundrel Time] is the story of the 67 minutes that [Lillian Hellman] spent before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington in May 1952, of what preceded the hearing, and what its consequences were. (p. 656)

It is a moving story that she tells, but it must be said that, with all her skill in writing, it is not very easy reading. She assumes too much knowledge in the reader, and there is too much vagueness about dates and places. She is equally vague on her connection with communism: 'Whether I signed a party card or didn't was of little importance to me.'…

[The] abiding impression that remains is of the warmth and endurance of Lillian Hellman in her ordeal, and the splendour of her declaration of faith: 'I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions.' (p. 657)

David Hunt, "Clean Conscience," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of David Hunt), Vol. 96, No. 2484, November 18, 1976, pp. 656-57.

William F. Buckley, Jr.

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[When Scoundrel Time] was first published, in the spring of 1976, only the cooing of reviewers was heard…. Then … then, in The New York Review of Books, Murray Kempton interrupted his own paean to Miss Hellman to make a comment or two which, however gentle, quite ruptured the trance. It was as if, in Paris during the occupation, an anonymous arranger had, by fugitive notation, insinuated the motif of the "Marseillaise" into a great Speer-like orchestration of "Uber Alles." Others, after that, came rushing in. It would never be quite the same again for Miss Lillian.

Even so, one has to hand it to her. Though the book is slender, the design is grandly staged, in self-esteem as in presumption. To begin with, here is someone described in the introduction to her own book as the greatest woman playwright in American history. (p. 101)

And here is a writer [Garry Wills] introducing an autobiographical book by a woman who is publicizing now her complaint against an America that, as she might put it, victimized her because of her alleged championship of the regime of Josef Stalin. And what, then, does Wills go and do in his introduction? Quote from the author's pre-McCarthy works, to demonstrate the impartiality of her opposition to tyranny? Not at all. He goes on (and on and on—Mr. Wills consumes 34 pages with his introduction, one-fifth of the book), blithely—offhandedly—describing the era of Miss Hellman's travail as the era in U.S.-Soviet relations during which horrible old us, led by Harry Truman, promulgated a cold war against reasonable old them, the startled, innocent Communists, led by Josef Stalin…. That introduction, which might have been written in the Lenin Institute, introducing that book, under the circumstances of Miss Hellman's apologia, was a venture either in dumb innocence (inconsistent with Hellman's persona), or in matchless cheek…. (pp. 101-02)

But the difficulties had only just begun for her. Is Ms. Hellman a nice guy? In a way, it shouldn't matter. A sentence from her book, much quoted, asks, "Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?" By the same token, we shouldn't require that someone be endearing as a prerequisite to indignation at unfair treatment of her. But Ms. Hellman, author of The Little Foxes, is quickly spotted as being no less guileful than one of her characters. It's another case of Germaine Greer, filibustering against male chauvinism, while stripteasing her sexual biography across the magazine rack. Ms. Hellman, affecting only a disinterested concern for justice, twanging the heartstrings—with, however, more sleight of hand than craft…. If, unlike the earlier reviewers, you finish the book believing that you have read anything less than an episode in the life of Thomas More, you are either callous—or else her art has failed her….

All in all, her performance is about as ingratiating as a post-Watergate speech by Richard Nixon, and so we quite understand it when Murray Kempton is driven to saying, in concluding his review, that, really, he would not want Lillian Hellman "overmuch as a comrade." Thus, the scaffolding of the book is pretty shaky. It is, after all, implicitly entitled, "The Heroism of Lillian Hellman during the Darkest Days of the Republic, by Lillian Hellman." It would have been a little seemlier if her book had gone out as: "Scoundrel Time, by Lillian Hellman, as told to Garry Wills." Or—why not just "Scoundrel Time: How Lillian Hellman Held Her Finger in the Dike and Saved American Freedom and Self-Respect, by Garry Wills"? He would not have needed to increase the size of his contribution by all that much. In any event—an artistic point, and with apologies to Burke—this martyr, to be loved, should be lovelier. (p. 102)

What does one go on to say about a book so disorderly, so tasteless, guileful, self-enraptured? The disposition to adore her, feel sorry for her, glow in the vicarious thrill of her courage and decency (her favorite word, "decency": she is apolitical now, she says, desiring only "decency") runs into hurdle after hurdle in the obstacle course of this little book. (p. 105)

The author, though she attempts to project a moral for our time out of her own travail, does this less avidly than most of her critics, who seized greedily on this mincing tale of self-pity as the matrix of a passion play. It doesn't work. The heart of her failure beats in a single sentence. "… whatever our mistakes, I do not believe we did our country any harm."

"Dear Lillian Hellman," the socialist Irving Howe writes, "you could not be more mistaken! Those who supported Stalinism and its political enterprises, either here or abroad, helped befoul the cultural atmosphere, helped bring totalitarian methods into trade unions, helped perpetuate one of the great lies of the century, helped destroy whatever possibilities there might have been for a resurgence of serious radicalism in America. Isn't that harm enough?"…

But it was Providence that provided the epilogue, the ironic masterstroke. Lillian Hellman, best-selling author of the diatribe against the Hollywood moguls who discriminated against her after she was identified as a Communist apologist. When Miss Hellman finally brought herself to criticize the Soviet Union, she singled out for special scorn Soviet censorship. "The semi-literate bureaucrats, who suppress and alter manuscripts, who dictate who can and cannot be published, perform a disgusting business." And lo! the publishers of Miss Hellman's book, Little, Brown, instruct Diana Trilling to alter an essay on Miss Hellman in her manuscript. Mrs. Trilling declines, and Little, Brown breaks the contract—does its best, in effect, to suppress her book. "Miss Hellman is one of our leading successful authors," said Arthur Thornhill, president of Little, Brown. "She's not one of the big so-called money makers, but she's up there where we enjoy the revenue." The principled Miss Hellman, who condemns Hollywood for its base concern for profit, has not severed her relations with Little, Brown, never mind that they sought to suppress and alter a manuscript—in deference to her! But, don't you see, the vertebral column of her thought finally emerges. She can do no wrong. "There is nothing in my life of which I am ashamed," she wrote to the chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, setting herself, by that sentence, in a class apart from her fellow mortals. Well, it took a long time for her to learn about Communism. She is elderly, but there is time yet, time to recognize that she should be ashamed of this awful book. (p. 106)

William F. Buckley, Jr., "'Scoundrel Time': & Who Is the Ugliest of Them All?" in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1977; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, January 21, 1977, pp. 101-06.

Doris V. Falk

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[Lillian Hellman's eight] original plays fall into two principal groups, based on Hellman's view of human action and motivation—a highly moral view, interpreting both action and the failure to act in terms of good and evil.

The first two plays became signposts, marking the directions to be taken by the later plays. The Children's Hour concerned active evil…. The drama pointed the way toward the three plays whose chief characters are despoilers—those who exploit or destroy others for their own purposes. Hellman's second play, Days to Come, was not so much about the despoilers—the evildoers themselves—as about those characters who, well-meaning or not, stand by and allow the despoilers to accomplish their destructive aims. Often these bystanders may be the victims of their own naiveté or lack of self-knowledge.

The despoiler plays are The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, and Watch on the Rhine. Each is a tightly constructed drama, leading to a violent climax that is the result of evildoing. Most of the characters are clearly defined as evil or good, harmful or harmless. But the so-called bystander plays—The Searching Wind, The Autumn Garden, and Toys in the Attic—are as different from the despoilers in structure as they are in theme. The action is slower, the plot more discursive and low-keyed, moving more within the characters and the events that befall them, than through their actions. For most of these people are unable to act positively or with conviction. They let things happen and they become the passive victims of the despoilers and themselves. Despoilers and bystanders appear in some form in all the plays, but Hellman clearly differentiates between evil as a positive, rapacious force in the first group, and evil as the negative failure of good in the second. (pp. 29-30)

Characterization in all Hellman's plays is trenchant, and her characters are looked at, objectively, from the outside; the playwright sees them but does not identify with them. Unlike many playwrights—O'Neill is the most obvious example—she does not use the stage to express her innermost, personal conflicts or sufferings; she is singularly intolerant of self-pity wherever she sees it. With a few exceptions, her compassion and empathy were to be saved for the memoirs, and there, too, it is highly selective. Even the persona of herself—the "I" who remembers and the "Lillian" who acts—is sometimes mocked in the memoirs and the plays. (p. 42)

The Children's Hour and, possibly, Watch on the Rhine are the only plays that approach the definition of tragedy, in the Aristotelian sense. Miss Hellman's customary detachment from her characters is related to the genre in which she writes—not tragedy, but "serious drama" or melodrama. For tragedy requires a protagonist whose fall—partly through his own fault, partly through circumstances beyond his control—can excite pity or terror in the spectator. Detachment, objectivity, or simple dislike or hatred rule out such emotional involvement. (pp. 43-4)

Melodrama, as Hellman used the term, was a logical outcome of realism in drama…. [Realism] assumes that life is seldom mysterious, seldom predetermined. When, in most of Hellman's plays, human beings fail or are destroyed, the powers of destruction are in human hands; they are not functions of a higher necessity or fate, or of naturalistic forces. (pp. 44-5)

The Children's Hour has many of the qualities of Hellman's later plays. Its mode and setting are realistic; its characters, strongly etched; its theme, serious; and its tone, indignant. The object of that indignation was both social and individual—a society made up of a group of individuals so bound by their own mores and conventions as to feel compelled, for the preservation of that society, to punish those who deviated from it. (p. 45)

In her later work, Hellman was to be drawn to causes only indirectly related to labor or the proletariat: the ruthless decadence of the southern capitalist in The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest, and the atrocities of fascism in Watch on the Rhine and The Searching Wind…. Days to Come, however, took Hellman's characteristic form—realistic melodrama. The play was a failure, partly because as Hellman said, she tried to say too much about the people in it. The labor cause was not enough to unify the action; Hellman had to explore the individual characters who were themselves often confused about their own motives. There were plot confusions, too—"accidental judgments, casual slaughters … purposes mistook" that did not necessarily, as in Hamlet, fall on "the inventors' heads," but on everybody's. (pp. 46-7)

As Hellman grew older, the more her misanthropy became like that of the preacher in Ecclesiastes, cynical and sad, rather than angry and rebellious. The anger that she had turned against the Tilfords of this world—Mary and her grandmother in The Children's Hour—rages through The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine, and flares up again, but almost as parody, in Another Part of the Forest. But in The Searching Wind, The Autumn Garden, and Toys in the Attic, Hellman is looking at … the ineffectual ones who let evil and decay attack and destroy the lives of others, as it consumes their own vitality. (p. 49)

In looking back at Hellman's work as a playwright, it is tempting to try to reduce all her plots and characters to repeated formulas and types. Such an exercise can be performed, of course, on any writer's body of work, but the demands of the stage and of her favorite genre, the realistic well-made melodrama, make Hellman's plays particularly vulnerable to this kind of analysis…. More interesting [than the similarities in structure and characterization in the plays] is the moral point of view that unifies both the plays and the memoirs. This is her concept of both active and passive evil, the sins produced by both commission and omission. (p. 92)

An Unfinished Woman is subtitled "a memoir" and Pentimento "a book of portraits." But the differences in mechanical structure are more apparent than real. The first book is built as a narrative, not strictly chronological, but still chiefly linear in movement from past to present and back again, relating events and persons to time and to each other. The second, Pentimento, is constructed as a series of portraits, each a unit, including group portraits and landscapes. But An Unfinished Woman also contains portraits…. And the portraits in Pentimento are strung together in a loose chronological sequence, over the same time span as An Unfinished Woman. (p. 98)

More interesting than the way Hellman organizes her materials is the way she sees them. The books are memoirs, rather than autobiographies, because their concentration seems, at least, to be upon the ambience of the writer rather than upon the writer herself. True, they reveal the author, but in carefully selected times, places, and company. Even in the anecdotes and diaries she is both narrator and protagonist, in a series of short, self-contained dramas.

As speaker and actress, Hellman is the principal unifier of the memoirs, but recurrent settings and characters also help to unify the books as they did her life. (pp. 98-9)

[Lillian Hellman] is a playwright: a maker of tightly constructed theater pieces, and the best of her memoirs are tales told by a playwright—with plot, character, and carefully paced suspense. Her biography provides a narrative line on which to hang the separate, loosely related episodes; and if some of these owe their mechanical structure to the well-made play and the film script, they owe their thematic, or symbolic structure (when it is there) to a combination of sources—including nineteenth-century American fiction, psychoanalysis, and Christianity. (p. 100)

[Hellman] seems to believe as Melville did, that ambiguity often presents a truer version of our perceptions than could clarity or sharp distinction…. [She] is influenced by her knowledge of the methods of literary symbolism and by her own predilection toward the religious mythic interpretations of experience, and not least, by her own experience of psychoanalysis, with strong religious associations.

The language of the memoirs is what Hellman would call "pretend cool." It is casual, slangy, objective, humorous, self-deprecatory. But these qualities are often deceptive. Sometimes they are masked, restrained expressions of intense and often irrational angers, fears, conflicts. (p. 101)

The most important difference between the two long books is in their thematic emphasis. An Unfinished Woman questions and explores the occasions and rites of initiation, the expiation of guilts, the meaning of suffering and survival—all of these in the context of a deepening insight into self. Pentimento seems to be thematically unified around the shapes of love; exploration takes the form of what Richard Poirier [in a review of Pentimento] has called "emotional range-finding." In the portrait chapters of Pentimento, Hellman ponders the nature of her deepest relationships to others. Of course, the two books combine or interchange themes at times: the last two chapters of Pentimento raise questions about suffering, guilt, and survival posed earlier in An Unfinished Woman. But this is an appropriate ending for the second book and brings the wheel full circle. (p. 104)

[In] An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento, Hellman faces the fact that moral indignation may at times be only a mask for personal pique, for irritability at an insult or an invasion of privacy….

The saving grace from either diatribe or sentimentality is the wry, often rueful humor with which Hellman looks at herself. (p. 111)

Compared to the other memoirs, Scoundrel Time (1976), is a minor literary performance that elicited a major political controversy. The book is a slight one…. The narrative itself is brief, with remembered sidelights and flashbacks. (p. 147)

The elliptical and often ambiguous style of the other memoirs was, in those books, a legitimate medium for describing the author's personal reactions to life. Most of the characters in those books were dead; names and identities could be changed and shifted to protect the living. Moreover, those memoirs were intended as artifact, not history; accuracy was not the point. But many of the people accused in Scoundrel Time of being bystanders to villainy are still alive, and Hellman attacked them by name. They fought—and are still fighting—back. Their charges are based on alleged inaccuracies and omissions in Hellman's facts, and on her stance as the lonely truth-speaker.

As a literary performance, the book has a certain understated charm. It is discursive and anecdotal, less tightly constructed than the memoir chapters I have called dramatic tales. The tone is less that of anger than of disappointment and weariness that Hellman's "old, respected friends" could have been parties to injustice. But she still constructs a series of dramatic confrontations—somewhat episodic now, and sliding forward and backward in time—to build toward the climax, her appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in May of 1952. And in spite of her sad or wry disillusionment, the old cantankerous, hot-tempered Lillian is still the protagonist—the Southern kid now grown up…. (p. 148)

Hellman has always been a bit dogmatic in her value judgements—especially if she has been personally offended—and sometimes is carried away by the opportunity to air an old grudge. So she let fly in Scoundrel Time—sometimes masking her anger under the tone, as I have said, of sorrowful disillusionment with old friends who belonged to the intellectual anticommunist left. (p. 152)

Hellman herself has not answered [the many critical attacks against her position in Scoundrel Time] … in any cogent, credible way. She claims that she was writing her personal story, not history. Some of her hostile critics have called the book "self-serving;" the character of "Lillian" too heroic, too put-upon and almost martyred, considering the comparative extent of her financial losses and persecution. But the readers who made the book a best-seller thought it was a modest understatement of heroism; that the portrait she presents is of a woman who, in evil times, stuck to her own values against odds and under pressure, and own. (p. 155)

Such a value system as Hellman's, whether in the plays or the memoirs, with its clearcut criteria of good and evil, has a reassuring emotional appeal; it makes us nostalgic for a child's world (where the worst crime is to tattle on your friends) and for the make-believe world of fiction and drama, of despoilers and bystanders, where such a system flourishes. But the adult realm of politics and history demands complexities of knowledge and fact, in which value judgments are painfully arrived at. (p. 156)

Lillian Hellman's insight is sharpest when it is most personal and specific. If some of her plays seem dated now it is probably because of their "well-made," realistic mode and their two-dimensional, good-or-evil characterizations. But three plays (and perhaps others) have had current repertory revivals—The Autumn Garden, Toys in the Attic, and The Children's Hour. These are the less structured ones, more concerned with psychology than plot, and with moral ambiguity rather than moral definition.

As a memoirist, Hellman was able to present her materials dramatically, without the limitations imposed by the stage. The memoir form allowed, too, for subtlety in the exploration of character; for unanswered questions, and for a certain mysterious quality that evoked a response from readers who knew that mystery for their own.

The personal, the ambiguous, were not appropriate, however, to the politics of Scoundrel Time, and Hellman has taken some punishment for that mistake. But she formulated her philosophy of survival when she was fourteen: "If you are willing to take the punishment, you are halfway through the battle."

Lillian Hellman is still producing, still battling, still surviving, still performing. Whatever we may think of her politics or temperament, we must rejoice in the energy, ingenuity, and skill of the performance. (pp. 156-57)

Doris V. Falk, in her Lillian Hellman (copyright © 1978 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.), Ungar, 1978, 180 p.


Hellman, Lillian (Feminism in Literature)


Hellman, Lillian (Vol. 18)