Lillian Hellman

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What examples of “the big lie” as a theme can you detect in Lillian Hellman’s plays?

What were the implications for Hellman’s writing of her shift in interest away from Henrick Ibsen and toward Anton Chekhov?

Explain how Hellman’s concern about fascism and her play Watch on the Rhine inadvertently helped put Senator Joseph McCarthy on her track.

Hellman was one of a considerable number of authors who were blacklisted as a result of the McCarthy investigations. What effect did this blacklisting have on her subsequent career?

Compare Hellman’s two published memoirs. To what extent is Pentimento an attempt to “finish” An Unfinished Woman? Does she succeed?

Other Literary Forms

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In addition to her original stage plays, Lillian Hellman published original screenplays, a collection of the letters of Anton Chekhov, her adaptations of two French plays (Montserrat, L’Alouette) and of an American novel (How Much?), an operetta adapted from Voltaire’s Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759; also as Candide: Or, The Optimist, 1762; also as Candide: Or, Optimism, 1947), many uncollected articles, and several volumes of memoirs, the first two of which have received as much acclaim as her best plays.


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Lillian Hellman was the most important American follower of Henrik Ibsen after Arthur Miller. Like Ibsen in his middle period, she wrote strong, well-made plays involving significant social issues. Like Ibsen, she created memorable female characters, some strong, some weak. Her most important female character, Regina Giddens of The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest, seems at least partially modeled on Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Both Hellman and Ibsen were exceptional in depicting believable, memorable children. Like him, though more frequently, she used blackmail as a dramatic ploy. Her plays, like Ibsen’s, can be strongly and tightly dramatic, and, like his, some, notably The Little Foxes, have a question ending: That is, one in which the eventual outcome for the major characters is left ironically uncertain.

Her last two original plays, however, recall Chekhov more than Ibsen in their depiction of feckless characters and, in one of the two, an apparent, though only apparent, plotlessness. She has been blamed for her employment of melodramatic plot elements, but her use of them is often valid and essential and does not interfere with accurate character analysis, convincing dramatic dialogue, and adroit handling of social issues. Hellman was, after Tennessee Williams, the most important dramatist writing primarily about the American South. Two of her plays, Watch on the Rhine and Toys in the Attic, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Hellman received many other awards, including the Brandeis University Creative Arts Medal and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal.


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Adams, Timothy Dow. Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. The chapter on Hellman (pp. 121-166) is an excellently argued defense against charges that Hellman was virtually a pathological liar. Based on intelligent analyses of the memoirs.

Dick, Bernard F. Hellman in Hollywood. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982. An account of Hellman’s years as a screenwriter, with analyses of her adaptations and her original screenplay The North Star. Select bibliography, filmography, index.

Feibleman, Peter. Lily: Reminiscences of Lillian Hellman. New York: William Morrow, 1988. The author, the son of old New Orleans friends of Hellman, became her close friend and companion in her last years, a relationship he describes in this book. Contains a sadly riveting account of Hellman’s illness. Some of the anecdotal accounts of their time together are in Hellman’s section of Eating Together.

(This entire section contains 453 words.)

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Griffin, Alice, and Geraldine Thorsten. Understanding Lillian Hellman. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. A study of Hellman’s literary output, including The Children’s Hour, Another Part of the Forest, The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, The Autumn Garden, and Toys in the Attic. Bibliography and index.

Horn, Barbara Lee. Lillian Hellman: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Provides criticism and interpretation of Hellman’s dramatic works as well as plots and stage history. Bibliography and indexes.

Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Part of Twayne’s United States Authors series, this volume provides a good general introduction to Hellman’s work. Annotated bibliography, index.

Mahoney, Rosemary. A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman. New York: Doubleday, 1998. A look at Hellman from her friend, Rosemary Mahoney.

Martinson, Deborah. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels. New York: Counterpoint, 2005. A portrait of Hellman that takes an in-depth look at her romantic affairs and chronicles her life from childhood to old age.

Mellen, Joan. Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. The story of Hellman’s relationship with author Dashiell Hammett. Bibliography and index.

Newman, Robert P. The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. An important contribution to an understanding of Hellman’s politics and her personal life, concentrating on her relationship with Melby, an American foreign service officer dismissed from his position in the 1950’s because of his love affair with Hellman.

Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A readable and scholarly biography of Hellman. Photographs, bibliography, index.

Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. A biography of Hellman that covers her life and works. Bibliography and index.


Critical Essays