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Hellman, Lillian 1906–
An American playwright, screenwriter, and director, Hellman has also published four successful memoirs. Both her plays and memoirs are characterized by scrupulous diction, economy of language, and unsentimental objectivity. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 8, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 367
The revival of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour has again reminded us that when adroitly treated, whether seriously or humorously, gossip and its handmaiden scandal combine to remain one of the most completely fascinating themes in the dramatic catalogue. (p. 49)
[The Children's Hour] still deserves a repetition of its prosperity on the score of its considerable merit as a piece of playmaking and as a tight and intelligent melodrama, let alone its uncommonly deft triumph over materials that in less gifted hands might easily have been productive only of a cheap showshop sensationalism. It is what Miss Hellman deliberately has not done that lends some size to what, were it tastelessly done to a turn, would have been largely sub-Brieux or the kind of thing with which Al Woods used to scare the very three-sheets off the billboards. Restraint, in a word, has been Miss Hellman's best critical weapon, and her play, which as almost everyone by now knows deals with malicious gossip that accuses two women of an unnatural relationship and brings in its wake the wreck of their personal and professional lives, not only retains all the suspensive drive it initially had but is, to boot, better by far than most of the plays of native origin that the stage has lately offered. (p. 50)
There has always been one element in the otherwise cunningly written play that has bothered me. It is the business of having the child whisper her accusations of perversion against the two school mistresses into her grandmother's ear because, she insists, she can not bring herself to speak them aloud. Why can't she? Everything in her character would not only allow her to speak them openly but would indeed gratify her in the proclaiming of them. It is not the child that is hesitant about articulating them; it is the playwright who evidently has qualms about putting them into words and who shrinks from possible censorship (vide The Captive). Miss Hellman has cheated. (pp. 51-2)
George Jean Nathan, "American Playwrights, Old and New: Lillian Hellman," in his The Theatre in the Fifties (copyright © 1953 by George Jean Nathan; reprinted by permission of Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1953, pp. 49-52.
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[Few] passages in [Lillian Hellman's] plays have been lifted directly from life. Not because of a sparsity of dramatic incidents in her life, but simply because her writer's nature did not tolerate such self-indulgence. When she turned to life, she drew from the family circle of her mother and father. Her uncles and aunts on her mother's side had staged exciting and vigorous family battles that had awed and frightened her. Her father's sisters were warm and affectionate, devoted to him and to her. These childhood memories were stamped so indelibly that when playwriting settled on her as a profession, she found a new usefulness for her family. Certainly The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, The Autumn Garden, and Toys in the Attic could not have been written without the backlog of experience her family supplied.
If autobiographical actions photographed from her mature life do not figure prominently in her plays, ideas and actions from the life and times around her do. If her personal adventures have not been admitted, she has not locked the door of her work against the outside world. In all her plays—in some more than in others—one senses the temper of the time and the temper of Miss Hellman. Because she feels strongly about the way the world turns, she has favored characters who share her concern, vigorous characters fired with human passion. (p. 6)
[At] the beginning of her first play [The Children's Hour] … she seems wise to the drama's demand for clarity and economy, for the proper mixture of words and deeds, neither carrying the full burden, for incidents that command a life of their own as they also reveal character and unfold the story…. She abhorred excess, obscurity, and extravagance. (p. 41)
Miss Hellman knows the power of physical action. Pussyfooting on the fringes of confrontation, sparring, pretending are not her way. She wants to make the adrenalin flow, the nerve ends tingle, the muscles tighten. This is the stuff of which her drama is made. (p. 46)
Days to Come [Hellman's second Broadway production] was a failure, but not because its essential dramaturgy was different from The Children's Hour or different from the later plays. It was simply managed less expertly. The hints and signs were revealed in Ibsen-like fashion, a bit at a time, no more than needed, no more than easily grasped. Yet the manipulative hand of the playwright came into view too frequently. The characters, though vigorously committed to their beliefs, seemed bound by the playwright's harness rather than their own. The crucial confrontations, though never sidestepped, often became strident, embarrassingly simplified, and too dependent on knives and guns. The audience was asked to invest with the good guys and decry the bad, yet too often they were confused and uncertain about where to stake their allegiance. This frustration might have been more tolerable with a dramatist less occupied with good and evil. (pp. 64-5)
However confused and diffuse the total effect, Days to Come has many qualities of her first and of her later plays. Shifting tensions permeate the atmosphere. We sense the unresolved discords, the sultry hates and murderous impulses that lie below the surface. The utterances may often be quiet and decorous, yet there's a burning intensity behind them. (p. 69)
Miss Hellman's human and political sympathies may be aligned with the oppressed, with the pathetic poor, but she does not write their lives into her plays [as exemplified by The Little Foxes]. She chooses instead the lives of the favored few who accept their status as their due and who are oblivious of social guilt. (p. 86)
With Ibsen-like precision, Miss Hellman has dispensed the details [of the Hubbard's lives] naturally, gradually, sparingly, moment by moment, always whetting our appetite for the next morsel and filling in the portraits as the action unfolds. We are comfortable with Miss Hellman in the theatre. She keeps our curiosity alive without straining credibility. (p. 88)
The sheer raw emotional power of [the second act of The Little Foxes] is unsurpassed in the modern theatre. As our hate against the Hubbards is inflamed, we are secretly aware that Miss Hellman has struck at the aggressive impulses that lie below the surface in all of us. We have been hurled into a den of Southern foxes, true to themselves, true to their time, true to their society. They reveal the worst in themselves, clearly, naturally, and shamelessly, and their stark portraits appear more frightening outlined against those of Birdie, Alexandra, and Horace. (p. 98)
The Little Foxes is a powerful and fascinating play, a highly charged theatrical experience. Loathsome as the Hubbards are, loath as we are to grant their existence, we know Miss Hellman speaks the truth. Their kind did exist, do exist, and as we stand by and watch, they did and do conquer. Regina is a magnificent embodiment of evil: cold, hard, determined, and beautiful, larger than life, yet grounded to the life that made her. Genetic guidance and the perversities with which they've lived have also formed the others. We believe their evil machinations; and there are few moments when we are not burning with hate, distaste, pity, or love. We sense that we are seeing the old South as it truly was at the turn of the century. (pp. 103-04)
In reading the play we may be disturbed by the trappings of melodrama: strongboxes, stolen bonds, spilled medicine, death on the stairs. (p. 104)
The strength of the play derived from its melodramatic qualities, yet in total it was not a melodrama. She provided no reward for virtue, no punishment for vice, the stock-in-trade of melodrama. Nor should she be labeled a sensationalist because she dared to depict unpleasant and mean characters who suppressed their humanity, even in the face of death…. Too many nice-Nelly playwrights have become frightened of the word melodrama and thus have forgotten the power and excitement to be stirred by the genuine drama of character and will. They have shied away from evil and malice and turned their backs on grim and unpleasant situations. Miss Hellman knew that "America was melodrama in 1900,"… and she capitalized on what other playwrights had neglected. (pp. 104-05)
Watch on the Rhine is a warm and compassionate play, as it is also a play of pith and moment. The Farrellys and Müllers are as blessed with love and nobility as the Hubbards were cursed with hate and avarice…. The political challenge [in Watch on the Rhine] does not ring with strident battle alarums, drums, uniforms, and party salutes, yet the terrifying face of Fascism hangs like a gargoyle over the Farrelly household. No longer can the Atlantic and Potomac shield us from the Nazi menace. The message penetrates because these people are "human beings not their ideological ghosts," as Louis Kronenberger put it. (p. 130)
[Except] for those who suffered through the Hitler years, the fierce impact of the play in 1941 cannot be fully sensed. If it appears melodramatic now, it appeared melodramatic then, but with a difference: the world was boiling with melodrama. Cruelty and villainy were not figments of the playwright's imagination, and it was almost impossible for a writer to tell us anything we didn't already know or to dramatize atrocities more effectively than events had already dramatized them. Miss Hellman knew that her fiction must do more than demonstrate the strange and awful truth that screamed from the front pages of every daily paper. She tried, if she did not entirely succeed, to shift from the massive melodrama of life to the heroic human story of one family behaving "like thoroughbreds in an agonizing situation," as one critic remarked, by making us aware of the blinders we still wore, blinders the European had long since discarded, by alerting us to our own vulnerability.
[Watch on the Rhine] was a play of burning intensity for every American who cherished his life and his country, who believed that human decency could prevail. (p. 131)
The Searching Wind, even more than Watch on the Rhine, derives its strength from its immediacy. With Eisenhower's invasion of France two months away, with the Nazis still threatening, we struggled to know where we went wrong in bringing the civilized world to the edge of disaster. (pp. 155-56)
The ultimate power of the play rests with the bitter-sad indictment of the appeasers and with the documentary reminder of Munich. The personal reflections from the world mirror are too hazy: Alex bending to the will of Emily and Cassie as he bends to the diplomatic winds; Emily using power tactics to win Alex; Cassie, one of the have-nots, relentlessly seeking revenge for the wrong done her in Rome (her Versailles!) Instead the rendezvous of the unhappy triangle seems simply to coincide with the momentous events; and with the world falling apart, they appear banal and inconsequential. Nor do the characters assume any stature. With the possible exception of Moses Taney, the portraits are little more than line drawings. Full renderings were impossible with the multiple-scene scheme. The segmented structure—one critic called it "loose as a haystack"—also reduced the firepower of the political message. (p. 156)
Even if, as Miss Hellman suspected, American audiences were unwilling to face the truth, they kept the play running for 318 performances. It might have held on even longer if she had not tried so hard to write two plays at once, one political, the other personal. (p. 157)
[Another Part of the Forest] chronicles the life of the Hubbards in 1880, twenty years prior to their Little Foxes incarnation. Twenty years does not transport them to the age of innocence; their evil natures are already well cultivated…. Although the play has its own independent life, it is remarkably enhanced by our foreknowledge of the despicable and fascinating Hubbards. (p. 162)
Another Part of the Forest does not match the earlier play in concentrated power. Miss Hellman has followed too many paths. If fewer crises had been packed into the two days, if the voices had been less strident, if the massacre had not repeatedly haunted them and us, if the action had centered less on the detectivelike pursuit, the Hubbard and Bagtry portraits could have been more fully realized, and our hearts might have become more committed. Miss Hellman's taut web does not snare us as it snares the Hubbards. We follow their greedy machinations with a cold eye as if watching a Brecht-like epic.
Miss Hellman has mined a rich lode from the Hubbards' history, perhaps too rich in dark deeds for a single evening. Yet even if overloaded with villainy, Another Part of the Forest is a strong and exciting play. (p. 177)
[Hellman's adaptation of Roblès' play entitled] Montserrat signaled a change in her career. She had not before drawn on remote history; she had not done an adaptation. Of her five plays that followed, three, The Lark, Candide, and My Mother, My Father and Me, were adaptations, and the first two drew on history or fictionalized history. (p. 191)
In total, her alterations and deviations from Roblès' text were minor and minimal. She divided the play into two acts rather than three, changed Elena's name to Felisa, La Mère to Matilde, and introduced the opening chess-playing scene. Her greatest change was in reducing the discursive passages, the extended philosophical speculations on the nature of freedom. She knew that Americans had a lower tolerance than the French for such disputations. At the same time, her Montserrat became less an activist and more a tortured and skeptical intellectual whose revolutionary ideas have been nurtured by books. Her Izquierdo, villainous as he is, has been stripped of his most vicious racist sentiments. In the original he proposed to exterminate all Indian young men to make the future safe for Spain. Roblès' ghost of Hitler is more visible.
Miss Hellman sought a stronger base in believable reality by tempering the melodramatic commitments of the principals. She focused more strongly on what is done, Roblès on what is said about what is done. She heightened the theatrical effect of the executions with a longer death march, with the accompaniment of His Excellency's piano in the background. Still her play is talky; our heads are engaged more strongly than our hearts. We appreciate the plight of the pathetic hostages; we never know them well enough to be moved by their destruction. We admire Montserrat's heroic resistance, yet we are not magnetized by him and his cause, partly because—and this is the major weakness of the play—we never know Bolivar. Unless well tutored in advance on Bolivar and the Spanish invasion, our hearts are not warmed to the spiritual importance of the revolution, and thus the effects appear mechanical and the carnage gratuitous.
The play does not meet Miss Hellman's usual standard. The writing seems barren and uninspired. In the single line of action, the underdeveloped characters, the laborious repetition of the impasse between Izquierdo and Montserrat, we miss the lifelike richness of the earlier plays. The deficiencies can, of course, be charged only partly to her. (pp. 197-98)
As if to compensate for her own political activism, ulterior and political overtones were excluded [from The Autumn Garden]. No background canvas of world events is required; the context is supplied by Miss Hellman's own text. If Ibsen had guided her hand in weaving the strands and tightening the knots in the past, here she has turned to Chekhov…. The portraits are drawn with subtle, impressionistic strokes. The characters wander aimlessly, following their inclinations rather than hers, seeking in their October years to fathom the mysteries of their past lives, to discover solace in the present. As in the two plays about the Hubbards, she has drawn from her family memory book but from later pages. She has abandoned the old South and jumped to the present—the Tuckerman summer resort on the Gulf of Mexico, 100 miles from New Orleans, in September, 1949. And instead of crowding the play with tense, touch-and-go crises, with tormenting questions about how, when, and who will win, she has gently enfolded us and the characters in a Chekhovian spell. Some critics thought that Chekhov served her even better than Ibsen, regretted that she had not called on him earlier, that she did not call on him again. (pp. 203-04)
The lost souls wandering in Miss Hellman's autumn garden are trapped in the lives they have made, and though they have not yet abandoned their dreams, final resignation seems pitifully near. Miss Hellman is reciting the universal human experience. Sometime in the middle years every man is awakened to what might have been and struggles to give his dreams a last chance. (p. 213)
The Autumn Garden is certainly Miss Hellman's most original, most probing, most mature, and many would say, her best play. She has captured the universal human experience of the middle years: the last desperate grasp at the dreams of what might have been, the sad and inexorable discovery that time and habit have fixed a mold that cannot be broken. (pp. 225-26)
The play was rich in Chekhovian qualities, yet she had missed a Chekhov essential. In his plays, no matter how stupid, silly, and petty the characters might be, they were invariably lovable people because Chekhov loved them. In her play the glow of love was missing…. (p. 227)
Perhaps her moralistic compulsion prevented her from adopting the Chekhov line. Thoroughgoing realist that he was, Chekhov rarely endowed his characters with the strength to face the truth about themselves. Hellman felt compelled to make her people confront their weaknesses and suffer from what they saw. (pp. 227-28)
Miss Hellman retained the basic pattern of [Anouilh's play L'Alouette in her version, The Lark]; her alterations and deviations were not radical but they were incisive. She reduced the discursive arguments, dramatized rather than reasoned her way through the sacred mystery, changed the ending, added a biting briskness, and energized the proceedings with an emotional charge that was absent in Anouilh…. (p. 247)
Miss Hellman gives a vibrating theatrical crescendo to the final moment. Just as we have suffered Joan's agony, we glory in reliving her happiest day. Compared to the original, it may seem unduly loaded with cheerful sentimentality, but it rings true for a Joan who is to be declared a saint for all the world. (pp. 266-67)
As closely as Miss Hellman followed the characters and pattern of Anouilh, her idiom makes the play her own. Her characters speak in action and in words of action; they never talk like books. She deprives them of their voluminous excursions into theology. Fascinating as these may be for classes in the seminary or monastery, they impede the story of Joan in the theatre. Her country girl with all her gamin vitality and her earthy shrewdness must stand in the forefront battling against the priests who futilely attempt to vanquish her soul. That action must command the center of the arena. Anouilh devotees may protest that she's altered his text too radically. The point need not be argued. She labeled her version an adaptation…. (p. 267)
Miss Hellman maintains a bold, sincere, and often solemn sense of reality throughout, the fictive reality of the theatre that welcomes involvement, that establishes its own terms of credibility. Anouilh alternates between the long discursive passages, more his than his characters', and the scenes from Joan's life which he maintained were "truer than the real thing" because he laced them with skepticism and irony. Miss Hellman makes the shifts from the trial to the flashback episodes sharper and more precise, employing the powers of the theatre's lighting artists. And each flashback has its own illusionistic reality. Anouilh wanders in and out of the trial much more casually.
Anouilh's Joan was less endowed with magic and mystery, depending more on her powers as a woman to rally the soldiers, and certainly was more arrogant and vain as she faced her final torment. "For me," Miss Hellman once commented, "Joan was too big to be concerned with vanity. Death is the most dramatic choice a person can make. Very few have made it. I just couldn't see Joan going to the stake out of arrogance." She could not retract her confession because she feared the humiliation of growing old in prison, dowdy, and forgotten. Nor is her Joan exclusively a French nationalist. She belongs to the world and her sacred mystery belongs to the world. (pp. 267-68)
With the solemn sense of truth that pervaded the play, the absence of theatrical guile, Miss Hellman had enlisted the theatre's special genius for exploring sacred mysteries, for dramatizing the relationship between man and God. The steamroller power drawn up against Joan could not vanquish her soul. (pp. 268-69)
All the whirlpools and eddies in Voltaire's roaring river could not find a place in Miss Hellman's [Candide], though some were in and then out, supplanted by lyrics and music. A few characters were slightly altered, some contemporary satirical thrusts were added, but essentially, people, places, and episodes were drawn from Voltaire. Hellman's naive Candide may be more a disillusioned hero and less a blithering idiot; but as in the original, he gradually emerges from his pious illusions as he encounters the viciousness of the ordinary world. Her Cunegonde, though not thoroughly virtuous, is certainly more ladylike than Voltaire's ready opportunist. And though the evils of the world are more fully documented in Voltaire, his assault on optimism is faithfully preserved, if with less irony and less bite. (p. 272)
Miss Hellman was not trained for the brisk telegraphic style demanded by the musical theatre. With her text radically reduced, her satiric thrusts seemed too dull, cumbersome, and serious for the mocking lyricism of Bernstein's score and the verbal playfulness of Wilbur's lyrics. As one critic remarked, she had blunted Voltaire's cutting edge. Where he had been ironic and bland, she became explicit and vigorous. Instead of lightning thrusts, she employed body blows. Where he had been diabolical, she became humanitarian. She had been trapped into making Candide a romantic hero rather than the absurd and gullible victim of his philosophical miseducation…. [Her] acceptance of war, greed, treachery, venery, snobbishness, and mendacity as staples of civilization—true as they were to the twentieth century—seemed too cynical. And her timely attacks on such traditional enemies as aristocracy, puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitorial investigations, and brave-new-world optimism appeared heavy-handed. (p. 283)
Toys in the Attic is one of Miss Hellman's best plays; some declared it her most mature play…. [She] marshaled the dramatic powers that had served her in the past, tempered the melodramatic excesses, enriched her characters with a luminous, if neurotic, humanity, and bound them tightly and irrevocably to their destructive course. She enfolded them in the decaying atmosphere of the South that she knew by instinct, though the locale served only to give the ring of truth. Home for Julian and his child bride could have been anywhere.
The Berniers, like the Hubbards, hanker for worldly comforts, but they're driven by love, not by avarice and greed…. Like the sad dreamers in Autumn Garden, they are bound in a web of self-deception. Success for Julian is not the rainbow's end it seemed to be. Love can harbor devastating winds. Dreams fulfilled lose their magic when they cease to be dreams.
The play achieves the magnitude and human revelation that have always been the mark of serious drama…. It is the work of a dedicated professional who knows her powers and uses them. The language is honed to a sharp edge. Incidents evolve with a cold and clear serpentine grace and become so tightly intertwined that they cannot be sprung apart…. Every dramatic hair is in place; nothing is superfluous, every dramatic gesture contributes to the central action. Her characters are original creations. They may not be lovable; they are believable and brutally alive. We may not find comfort in their company; we are fascinated by their pathetic, neurotic lives. We may never stake a full emotional investment in them; yet we can never turn our eyes away. Sorry as we are to see Julian's toys shattered, our moral sensibilities are not really shocked: we never believed that this boy-man, this blowhard weakling, had the capacity for becoming a whole man. (pp. 305-06)
If the play misses being her best, it barely misses. The flaws are not distracting to the naked eye in the theatre. Some critics thought she loitered too long with Anna and Carrie at the beginning before setting her dramatic trap. Others were disturbed when she seemed to shift from her inquiry into the moral consequences of Julian's adventure to a treatise on abnormal psychology. She should not attempt to write on two levels. If she wished to draw on Freud, she should have gone further. Julian could have discovered the true nature of Carrie's love for him, reviled himself for his own weakness, and then attempted to purge himself of this hidden evil and failed. This was not, of course, Miss Hellman's way. She was less concerned with stirring our human sympathies than in exposing the quality of life as she saw it, in showing us the destructive powers of love, showing us that well-meaning souls can often inflict more harm than those possessed with evil. (pp. 306-07)
If Miss Hellman's comedy [My Mother, My Father and Me] seemed dark and grotesque, it was not so brutally sardonic as the novel [by Burt Blechman from which she created the play]. Although she adopted the main line of action and the principal characters from How Much?, her satiric thrusts ranged more widely…. (p. 326)
The dialogue, neat and sharp as usual, belongs almost exclusively to Hellman, as do the savage verbal assaults on the corruptions in family life, at the insane tribal rites of the restless beatniks, at psychiatrists, at the hyperbolic consumer instinct, and at the slick shysters who operate homes for the aged. Unfortunately the massive mixture of angry and sardonic truths becomes too oppressive. She has pursued the pretensions and frauds of our world so fiercely, jumping from target to target, that we feel no compassion for the objects of her scorn, there is no mirth in our laughter…. Her cartoon monsters are caught in a middle world somewhere between the plausible nonsense of You Can't Take It With You and the exotic insanities of the absurdists. When Miss Hellman abandoned her customary discipline and craftsmanship, she loosened the reins with a vengeance. If she had a larger purpose, to say that these frauds and pretensions were the inevitable corruptions of affluence, that message was lost. (p. 327)
An Unfinished Woman is not a conventional autobiography…. (p. 346)
Only in the first third of the book does she allow chronology to govern her narrative. After that she swings freely among her remembrances of places, times, and people—all intimately observed, all colored with some special personal involvement. As one critic commented, it was "a technique that would be pure quicksand in the hands of a writer less sure of her mind." With her sure mind and her firm literary hand, the technique gave a simultaneity to her daydreaming. It was as if the reader had been invited to share a few hours with her, hours of private remembering.
Frank and honest as she is in juxtaposing the odd pieces of her life, never self-caressing, never attempting to charm or ingratiate herself, and strongly as one senses her aversion to sham and pretense, she often stops short of a full revelation. We may learn that she has a low tolerance for phonies and phoniness, that she disdains the so-called sophisticated life, that she admires "people who refuse to speak until they are ready to speak," but large stretches of her remembered landscape are shielded from view. When she approaches them, she frequently turns aside with an enigmatic, "We were never to speak of that again." If at times we wish she would say more, she somehow makes us understand that she's sketching a reluctant subject who cannot yet tolerate a definitive portrait. As she said once, she has no enthusiasm for being a bookkeeper of her life. (pp. 346-47)
She has never written better prose. Throughout it has a spare and muscular, often tough, rationality, warmed by a loving hand. Many anecdotes and episodes are dramatized as if for a play, with the same pithy dialogue she had mastered for the theatre. (pp. 347-48)
Richard Moody, in his Lillian Hellman: Playwright (© 1976 by Richard Moody; reprinted by permission of the author), Bobbs-Merrill-Pegasus, 1974, 372 p.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112
It is a strange turn of life that the plays Lillian Hellman wrote in the 1930's and '40's center around the same moral issues as her recent factual memoir of the McCarthy period. The plays were for the most part written many years before McCarthy and the Red Scare were part of Hellman's life or of American life; yet the plays prefigure and parallel the memoir.
In her plays, and in Scoundrel Time, the memoir, Hellman formulates and explores the idea that regardless of political and social pressures, we must not eagerly, unthinkingly violate the unspoken rules of human decency….
In 1934, the twenty-nine year old Hellman dramatized precisely this moral issue in her first play, The Children's Hour. A young girl accuses her teachers of being lesbians in order to avoid punishment for having stolen a bracelet. Even more indecent than the girl's frightened act, however, is the whole community's eagerness to accept the children's stories, though they are shown to be improbable. This eagerness for scandal is one of the immoral pressures out of which the lies have grown. The same kind of pressures caused people to make exaggerated and false accusations before the [House Committee on Un-American Activities]…. (p. 1)
Scoundrel Time portrays Hellman thinking hard about her own fears—of jail, and rats, and no money—and deciding exactly which principles are or are not important enough for her to defend in spite of these fears. Hellman believes that this kind of hard thinking is what moral battles are made of…. Scoundrel Time explores the very personal foundations of political commitment and of political acts. Hellman strives to understand clearly which issues are worth enough to her for her to pay the price of commitment … and which issues no one at all who believes in fundamental human rights can ignore without shaming and disgracing themselves. (p. 2)
[In Scoundrel Time Hellman] is angry at people who are dishonest with themselves, and who refuse to face either their fears or their principles, but simply allow themselves to slide unthinkingly into the easiest course of action. (pp. 2-3)
Stronger than any political message in Scoundrel Time and most of the plays is this conviction that it is shocking and disgraceful when people refuse to face up to their personal responsibility of defending their own moral and political beliefs and not allowing them to be trampled in a time of scoundrels….
[In] The Little Foxes (1939), whose plot turns around the villainy of a family scheming against each other, the most evil act is merely Regina's passive participation in her husband's death, when she refuses to help him. And the great moment in this early play is like Hellman's great moment of non-participation in the HUAC's persecutions: Alexandra decides to break away from her acquiescence to her family's corruption….
Even a more sinister villain than Regina—the dangerous Teck in Watch on the Rhine (1941)—is not quite an active evil figure. His corruption grows directly out of the passivity and cowardice of his half-commitment to fascist activities…. [Teck] exploits others to gain acceptance by the Nazis. His position bears comparison with that of the intellectuals half in, half hoping to come onto the McCarthy bandwagon…. (p. 3)
The choice between sliding through life joining and leaving the most convenient bandwagons, or actively and constructively shaping one's life, is dramatized by Hellman in her later plays as a choice relating to personal philosophy and individual fulfillment as much as it is a moral and political issue. Ned Crossman and Ben Griggs, in The Autumn Garden (1951), dissipate their creative human potential by following the path of least resistence—a course which for them is in the long run self-destructive, and unfulfilling. Crossman wastes himself in the easy haze of alcohol…. Ben Griggs allows himself to fall into domestic fetters in his destructive, stagnating relationship with his wife. And both Crossman and Griggs come to recognize with anguish and disappointment that they can never break away to shape their lives in a constructive, fulfilling way. Frustration and self-imprisonment have become an easy habit, and they have lost the will and desire to break it….
[For Hellman] the moral issue is seen finally as a personal issue of pride and dignity. But the pride and dignity Hellman values in other people is usually pride which is based on loyalty to a long-thought-about private code of integrity and morality—whatever that code may be. (p. 4)
Scoundrel Time is about a struggle to retain dignity and honor by a woman who [admits she fears her fears]…. Julia [in Pentimento] reminds Hellman of her fears in warning her not to attempt to help the anti-Nazi resistance unless she can recognize and accept her fears and is willing to struggle with them for the sake of this particular cause. (pp. 4-5)
Scoundrel Time is a book about Hellman's deliberate decision [not to risk jail by denouncing HUAC when she appeared before it] and the moments of fear and choice and punishment that came before and afterward; but it is also a book about anger with most of us for being so undeliberate in our moral decisions. Hellman is as rebellious as Solzhenitsyn, in his different way, against the thoughtless, careless complacency of people's participation in their culture. She is furious with intellectuals like [Clifford] Odets who claimed to be radically committed to American political freedoms, but who carelessly, in a moment of pressure, turned roundabout on all these beliefs, and yet went on as though nothing substantial had been yielded….
Scoundrel Time is about that hour when a person must actively resist, or be deprived of the liberties that should be a part of a fundamental code of human decency and personal honor. The book is about the decision to stand fast and refuse to participate in the attack on those liberties. There is a quiet heroism in that hour; but it is always brought into earthly perspective by Hellman's frustrated realization that her hour came within a society which acquiesced and continues to acquiesce to the erosion of these liberties at the same time as it professes to believe in them.
The book implies that our quiet cooperation with McCarthy led to more recent political abuses…. Scoundrel Time, then, is about some of the substantial issues of this time in America; they are the issues Hellman dramatized from 1936 to 1960 in her plays, the issues she faced along with her fears and principles during the 1950's time of scoundrels, and the problems we now face in reacting to Watergate. (p. 5)
Devra Braun, "Lillian Hellman's Continuing Moral Battle," in Massachusetts Studies in English (copyright © 1978 by Massachusetts Studies in English), Vol. V, No. 4, 1978, pp. 1-6.
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Ms. Hellman has certainly written better plays than [the recently revived] Days to Come, yet I found it interesting for a variety of reasons, even for its faults. For a start, it is about something real, something that matters. At the time of its original showing, it must have been regarded chiefly as a play about capital and labor, a "strike play." It offers the usual setup of a wealthy, more or less genteel Ohio family, owners of a brush factory; its loyal workers; an upright union leader; the benevolent but weak boss; his unfeeling partner, and the gangsters hired to bring in strike-breakers. There is an adventitious crime, a calculated outbreak of violence, the death of a child due to police brutality. These are the melodramatic trappings typical of too many plays of the 1930s. They are not false: all this is representative enough of what was or had been happening in the earlier days of the period.
Ms. Hellman's treatment of these materials is conventional because they are basically foreign to her experience. She gathered information from newspapers, special reports, political discussions, meetings that were prevalent at the time. Hindsight—our knowledge of what Ms. Hellman would subsequently write—reveals that Days to Come is not mainly concerned with the industrial warfare which is the "stuff" of her story for the first two acts.
The play's theme, Ms. Hellman's essential preoccupation, comes to light (too late) in the third act. She is a dramatist-critic of the well-to-do, semi-educated middle-class American family. Dependent on an ample and secure income, undisturbed by and largely ignorant of the world around them, members of this class exist in unquestioned comfort till the foundations of their economic support are threatened. Then the nullity of their inner lives, the lack of genuine values of mind or spirit, grow frighteningly clear, bewildering and oppressive to them, though possibly liberating to a few. They are adrift in an empty universe, provoking a psychological chaos in which, whether they are of good or destructive nature, they must perforce behave like fools or knaves. They are automatons of a society which they have never really examined or understood. They barely recognize their own identity. They become a citizenry of the maimed.
The play's flaw is that its plot does not wholly convey its intended meaning or creative impulse. Yet because we do finally realize what these are, the play takes on a measure of dignity, a promise that greater technical assurance through further practice will give Ms. Hellman her individual tone. (p. 588)
Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'Days to Come'," in The Nation (copyright 1978 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 227, No. 18, November 25, 1978, pp. 586, 588.
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Three brings together in a single volume An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976)…. Hellman does not … desire to escape the self through flights of language; indeed, she mistrusts the easy transformations of perspective that prose makes possible. As the titles An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento indicate, her acts of retrospection imply that subjective vision has limits, and that these limits must be acknowledged.
The author of Three is to be triply admired: for the character of her prose, which is conversational, terse, and direct; for her willingness to admit uncertainty; and, finally, for her determination to see not only as she once saw, and not only more than she once saw, but to see continuously as age alters or extends her vantage point…. Evidently, in her New Orleans childhood Hellman acquired a Southerner's strong sense of place, for we see clearly the places that have been important to her, from the fig tree by her aunt's boardinghouse, where she "learned to read," to a square in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, to the Pleasantville farm that she shared with Dashiell Hammett. In many ways, Lillian Hellman clarifies the past by continuing to scrutinize it even as it continues to recede; in other and essential ways, however, she allows its outlines to blur.
Hellman knows there are odd blanknesses in the images she presents in Three…. [These] occur whenever emotions rendered forcefully are then denied or dismissively summarized by conclusions that cannot account for them. Of course, it is a virtue in Lillian Hellman that, despite the evasive nature of "truth," she intends to divide right from wrong, then from now, herself from others. Unfortunately, since simple virtues do not reside in complex personalities, Hellman's success and her failure as an observer have the same origin; for her otherwise admirable determination to maintain strong lines of judgment causes her at times to draw those lines in the wrong places. She is then forced into a hasty conclusiveness that belies the richness of her observations. (pp. 937-38)
[Repeated] discrepancy between rich feeling and impoverished explanation splits Hellman's self-portrait and mars her portraits of others. Details, events, characteristics, and emotions emerge vividly—then terminate suddenly in undersized conclusions. So, in Pentimento, several major characters exceed the frames set about them. (p. 939)
Hellman's insistent rush to judgment is often perplexing and, for her readers, disappointing. Important experiences of pain, disorder, and chaos are no sooner displayed than they are locked away again, like gifts simultaneously given and withdrawn. Perhaps Hellman believes that she intentionally withholds interpretations in gestures of privacy or discretion. But her style of withdrawal, an abrupt imposition of judgment, suggests that … she does not comfortably distinguish between teller and tale. (p. 940)
Brina Caplan, "The Teller as the Tale," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1979, by the University of Georgia), Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter, 1979, pp. 933-40.∗
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Hellman strikes me as one of the most overrated writers in American history, and this 1941 opus [the recently revived Watch on the Rhine] has aged not as works of the imagination, but as cars, threshing machines, and other like contraptions, do. (p. 71)
Watch on the Rhine would creak in every bone if it had any bones and were not entirely made of the skin of simplistic ideology, the gristle of melodrama, and the grease of facile gags. Yet through it has the black-and-whiteness of melodrama, it does not even have its steady suspense, rising menace, and rousing climax; though it purports to be of the genre "well-made play," it falls into such clumsinesses as having a fastidious aristocrat and his wife fight out the terminal battle of their marriage in front of gawking strangers; though it is meant to be profoundly moving, it hauls out every conceivable, unconscionable cliché and so stoppers even its tear-jerking. (p. 72)
John Simon, "From Ghostly," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1980 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 2, January 14, 1980, pp. 71-2.∗
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["Watch on the Rhine"] is still charged with meaning; the moral and political questions with which it deals continue to torment us…. [Surely we] go on asking two of the oldest and most anguished of questions: "Am I my brother's keeper? And if I am, and if this is a good thing, then how evil dare I to become in the name of keeping him?"
Miss Hellman has always been a champion of the well-made play, and it's true that one detects in the neat plotting of "Watch on the Rhine" a taint of melodrama that grows less and less tolerable with age.
Brendan Gill, "Popular Theatre: 'Watch on the Rhine'," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 48, January 14, 1980, pp. 55-6.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356
The kindest interpretation one can put on "Maybe," Lillian Hellman's new book, is that it is a parody of contemporary fiction. Non sequiturs, gratuitous acts, frustrating ellipses, ambiguities, a dearth of emotion: Miss Hellman avails herself of all these current techniques in telling a story that she keeps telling us may not be a story at all.
On every page, sentences begin with I've forgotten, I don't remember, I don't know, I am no longer sure. This encourages us to suppose that "Maybe" may be about the antics of memory, the elusiveness of truth or character…. No one, she suggests, can possess the whole truth with any confidence.
"Maybe" is described on the dust jacket as "a story," yet Miss Hellman presents herself, her husband and Dashiell Hammett, with whom she lived for years, as characters in the book, and the events seem to be offered as autobiography.
The heroine of this story or memoir is a beautiful woman named Sarah Cameron, whom Miss Hellman saw only intermittently over 40 years. A pathological liar, a poseuse, a virtuosa of discontinuities, Sarah resembles Lady Brett in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." She is a familiar femme fatale from a period in women's evolution that may now strike us as quaint, a time when boredom was indistinguishable from sophistication.
After saying that she likes Sarah, Miss Hellman adds that "she is of no importance to my life and never was." The provisional nature of her portrait shows, Miss Hellman remarks, "how inattentive I was." Our fiction seems to have become so independent of reality that authors now boast of their inattentiveness. (pp. 317-18)
It is anybody's guess why Miss Hellman wrote "Maybe." It isn't fiction, and as a memoir it reads like a disjointed hangover that lasted 40 years. There will undoubtedly be readers who will see its disclaimers about memory as an apologia pro vita sua, but then that could be said of anything that anybody writes. (p. 318)
Anatole Broyard, "'Maybe'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. 3, No. 7, 1980, pp. 317-18).
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523
Maybe [the fourth Hellman memoir] is a hundred-page remembrance loosely constructed around a woman called Sarah Cameron whom Hellman never knew intimately, a beautiful, indolent Fitzgerald-like playgirl who moved vaguely in all the circles that touched Hellman's life and who showed up periodically over the long decades—at a drunken Hollywood party in the '30s, a restaurant in Paris in the '40s, a hotel in Rome in the '60s. Hellman had some mean encounters with a friend of Sarah's, an affair with her ex-husband, a disturbing exchange with her antisocial son.
The association between Hellman and Sarah herself has no substance whatever; it's all fragments and fancy speculations and peripheral incidents and mysterious allusions that seem only to provide the writer with an excuse to call up once again Hammett and the drinking years, the aunts in New Orleans, making movies for Sam Goldwyn. The effort to surround Sarah with metaphoric meaning is strained and painfully obvious.
It is difficult to understand why Hellman thinks she is writing about this barely created stick figure. (p. 45)
This is not the work of a master writer who has taken a few bits and pieces of metaphorically remembered life and woven from them a moving and brilliant speculation on the what might have been. On the contrary. Maybe is an impoverished piece of writing that verges severely on self-parody. A bare framework has been fashioned so that old writing habits may be indulged. The gift of associativeness is there, and the narrative ability, graceful and pleasing as ever, but they are bereft of effectiveness, rambling on as they do in the void, without real purpose. The repeated memories of Hammett and New Orleans and the movies are now merely that: desultory repetitions. Not only do they not enrich the prose, or the tale, they read like embarrassing filler. As for the famous clipped style: One knows these bare, spare sentences contain nothing more than their own skimpy selves. There is no unspoken thought or feeling tied to weighted allusion somewhere beyond the page. What you see is what you get.
Worst of all, perhaps, Maybe leaves us in possession of knowledge the reader only half wants and the writer only unconsciously delivers….
Hellman has lived 50 years with the making of literature; there are skills in her work arrived at only through long, hard years of wrestling with the demon. And she has known how to cultivate a distinctive voice that makes fine use of her writing skill to describe an arresting life, rich with focus and event, made vivid by talented people and historical drama. But two important things went wrong: inner time stopped for her, and then she made a literary enterprise out of honesty. Somewhere between these two debilitating developments the necessity to be continually saying: "What am I really thinking now? What am I actually feeling now?" was lost. That loss spells death for the memoir that hopes to become literature. (p. 46)
Vivian Gornick, "Rhetoric of Things Past," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 20, May 19, 1980, pp. 45-6.
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The central figure of ["Maybe," a] strange short memoir (if it can be called such), is not its ostensible subject, Sarah Cameron, nor the memoirist, Lillian Hellman, but the elusive, mutilated, often reeling character of memory itself. Again and again Miss Hellman tries to corner memory, forcing it to reveal the truth about the people and events she is trying to make sense of. Important epistemological questions are suggested: How valid is what we know—or think we know—about the people who dropped in and out of our lives in the past? How can we tell where memory blends into fantasy, producing a composite that takes on different shapes at different times, according to our needs? At the end of Miss Hellman's struggle with these questions, we have to settle for some very dusty answers; meanwhile we have been entertained, dismayed and, above all, tantalized….
Lillian Hellman has created [a very interesting persona] for herself in these pages. She portrays herself as truculent, sardonic and (better than most around her) able to hold her liquor. Sexually independent herself, she is nonetheless caustic with her longtime lover Dashiell Hammett for letting strange ladies drift casually in and out of his whiskey-soaked Hollywood existence. The conversations of this sharp-tongued, easily angered woman tend to be sparring matches that modulate into gentle banter when she is with someone like "Dash," for whom she feels strong affection. The recorded or reconstructed talk is permeated with a fine period flavor, full of goddamns and wisecracks, with situations referred to as "nutty" and people as "nuts."…
But absorbing as this autobiographical material is, it does not compensate, in my opinion, for the emptiness at the heart of the book. Miss Hellman fails to bring Sarah Cameron into existence as even a remotely comprehensible woman. The evidence is so scattered, so inconsistent, so blurred by time and alcohol, that we are left with a wraith too insubstantial to evoke even a sense of mystery, much less to support a valid point about the ultimate unknowability of figures in our past. Miss Hellman is aware of her problem…. Halfway through "Maybe" she admits that she doesn't know much of what really happened and "never tried to find out." (p. 3)
Why, if so little could be known, did Lillian Hellman choose to make Sarah the object of her search into lost time?… Still stranger is the reluctance to establish facts and dates that should have been easily available with a little digging. (pp. 3, 36)
What are we to make of this? Mere carelessness? Or a deliberate attempt to scramble the time-sequence in order to thicken the unreality?…
Even if it were intended as fiction or as fictionalized memoir, the Sarah-story still would not add up to anything significant. Facts and dates do not constitute the "truth," but they are useful in anchoring an otherwise free-floating subjectivity. By surrendering prematurely to the impossibility of getting things straight—or at least straighter—Lillian Hellman has, I think, lost a chance to make "Maybe" the fascinating encounter with memory and time that it might have been. Despite the subtleties of its voice, its strong period quality and its brave forays into the self, the book remains, disappointingly, less a memoir than a shaggy-dog story. (p. 36)
Robert Towers, "A Foray into the Self," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 1, 1980, pp. 3, 36.
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[Monumental] despair is the true subject of Maybe. For Lillian Hellman has gone swimming in the waters of time and memory and found herself adrift in a vast sea of unreliability—the shore of solid information, of what is known about the circumstances of the past, seems to recede each time she believes she has the true details in sight. No jetty of certain facts upon which to perch ever makes its appearance; and there is no place from which her own experiences, her own sense of what her life has been, can now be comfortably and fairly assessed. What really did happen to her, and to some of the figures who have crossed and recrossed the stage of her life? The truths she struggles to reach are always, ultimately, impalpable and insubstantial; what's more, the "real truth" may not matter at all—it may have no importance whatsoever. It is this possibility, the possibility of meaninglessness, that lends Maybe its primary tonal quality, which is one of utter lostness, of panic. (p. 36)
Love, as we envision it—loving that involves knowing and being known by another—doesn't exist in these pages. Each individual is isolated in his or her own skin, and either drinking hard or taking drugs to kill the pain.
The characters in this work are glittery, sophisticated, scary; they lash out, wound, lie, distort, defend themselves ceaselessly; and fail, always, to recognize or meet one another's needs, to touch one another as human beings. (p. 37)
In her three previous autobiographies, Miss Hellman spoke in the voice of gutsy, competent, scrappy, smart Regina [of The Little Foxes]. The Hellman of An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time is in charge of most of the situations she describes. What is so unsettling, and so surprising, about Maybe is that here the concerns are with feminine hurts and feminine humiliations…. This is a new kind of writing for Hellman; she is opening the door to a different world—the world of suffering and of acknowledged feeling that was, for the most part, left out of the other three books. (p. 38)
Maggie Scarf, "Books and the Arts: 'Maybe: A Story'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, Nos. 5 & 6, August 2 & 9, 1980, pp. 36-8.
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Maybe is a more resonant, coherent, and ambitious work than its scattered narrative at first suggests….
If we look at Maybe as a speculative inquiry into the nature of truth and of memory, a way of asking what can we know about another person or our own lives, then Hellman's choice of relatively marginal central figures serves to reinforce her interest in how memory works as well as what it recalls. But Maybe is more than an exercise in epistemology…. Despite, or perhaps because of, their marginality Hellman needs to know who the Camerons were to know herself…. (p. 5)
[The] structural disorder of the narrative may be read as a thematic statement about the tension between the need for order and intelligibility as it conflicts with the desire to find the truth….
Maybe … is nearly as much a self-reflexive study of autobiography as it is the story of Hellman's encounters with the Camerons and related acquaintances. As such it may frustrate the Hellman reader's well-based expectations of stylish and affectionate portraits of her family, lovers, and close friends. However, what Maybe loses in grace and assurance is more than compensated for by the invitation issued by its formal and thematic self-consciousness to a more strenuous level of critical inquiry into Hellman's entire autobiographical corpus….
Maybe expresses conditionality and possibility, past or future. Used as the title of the fourth book of memoirs of a writer now in her eighth decade, it evokes the idea of alternate versions of self and experience, the attempt to avoid autobiographical closure by engaging in revisionist, perhaps even fictive, readings of the past. One way to resist the claustrophobic shrinking in of failing eyesight and the loss of friends that Hellman describes in Maybe is to speculate on what might have been. (p. 6)
Maybe looks back at the darkness of Hellman's personal past, at shadowy corners peopled by cruel, dishonest, dissipated drifters and, most significantly, at Hellman's own failures of attention, nerve, and moral choice. In Scoundrel Time friends and acquaintances fail her, but she herself is not implicated: in Maybe she finds herself guilty, not of political, but of emotional and moral cowardice. Having confronted evil in her colleagues in Scoundrel Time, now she finds it closer to home. Maybe is confessional, but not cheaply or self-indulgently so. For a woman who has in all her previous art made so much of honor, to convict herself, even of the dishonor of association, of inattention, of having been gulled by evil, is a genuine act of courage and honesty.
The revelation of a less flattering part of her past goes hand in hand with increased openness about death and the fear of dying. While in her previous memoirs Hellman resisted narrative closure as a strategy to avoid the question of her own end, here she confronts directly her lack of control over time. Her failure to unravel the mystery of the Camerons is emblematic of the ultimate loss of time passed, and now, with old age encroaching, the past becomes proportionately even larger and more significant. She presents herself, not as the unfinished woman, the revisionist artist, or the noble veteran of ideological battle, but much less heroically, as an old woman with failing eyesight, weakened body, and, most frightening, what she fears is an undependable memory….
The writing of Maybe may then be seen as a quest after more precise knowledge of that blackness and of Hellman's own fear that she will lose herself if she loses her past…. She realizes that the incoherence of her story comes not from the failure of her memory, but from her earlier failure to see and repudiate the incoherence and "blackness" of the Camerons….
However, despite her efforts at truth and honesty, Hellman still engages in a misleading bit of pretense and denial. As if to defend herself against the central baring of her self, she writes with an almost parodic toughness and disregard for the niceties of diction. This style functions self-protectively, as a way of distancing the explosive material in Maybe, and also dramatically, the writer's quest to solve the mystery…. Maybe leaves us with Hellman's instinct that the "missing pieces" are "black," at least for Carter Cameron. She cannot know the Camerons because they are evil and hence unreceptive to the order and salvation of understanding. But to resolve her crisis of despair she must accept and affirm the darkness of her past as well as the triumphs of love and honor which she celebrated in her earlier memoirs. (p. 7)
Pam Bromberg, "Lillian Hellman's Uncertainties," in New Boston Review, Vol. V, Nos. V-VI, August-September, 1980, pp. 5-7.
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