Lillian Hellman Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111201221-Hellman.jpg Lillian Hellman. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

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,...

(The entire section is 453 words.)