Lillian Hellman Hellman, Lillian (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

George Jean Nathan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Richard Moody

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Devra Braun

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Brina Caplan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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.

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).

Vivian Gornick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Maggie Scarf

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,...

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Pam Bromberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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