Lillian Hellman was a well-known American dramatist who was born in 1905 in New Orleans (“Hellman,” 1999). She later moved and attended New York public schools and went on to go to New York University and Columbia University as well. Within the confines of her youth, there had been confusion about her family background (Harmon, 1999). There has always been talk about her parents troubled marriage and other events have cropped up to make Hellman an intriguing figure.
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Yet, she went on to grow up and find a husband, something typical in her day. She married another playwright named Arthur Kober, but this relationship ended in divorce (“Hellman,” 1999; James, 1999). Her intimate friendship with the novelist Dashiell Hammett would continue until his death in 1961 (1999). Yet, Hellman would never remarry. Hellman did not begin to write plays until the 1930s, her dramas are well known for focusing on various forms of evil (“Hellman,” 1999). Her work has not escaped criticism however.
She has been criticized at various times for her doctrinaire views but she nevertheless kept her characters from becoming social points of view by including credible dialogue and a realistic intensity which put her a step above her peers (“Hellman,” 1999). Indeed, Hellman wrote with the skill of a professional but the emotions of a child. I feel she was able to capture the innermost fears and thoughts of people, drawing on their most hideous features. In the encyclopedia Hellman is described as an American Dramatist, whose plays are distinguished for the forcefulness of their matter, usually a condemnation of personal and social evil.
They are also notable for character development and expert construction (Encarta). These points come through clearly in both The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes. Interestingly, Hellman seemed to entitle these works in an innocuous but mischievous way. In a variety of works, it appears that Hellman’s themes have all centered around evil and lies. They have drawn on things that, for the most part, people do not like to look at. Her works are truly disturbing, as she forces the audience to dig deep into their own psyches. It is important to note that Hellman had grown up in interesting times.
She was a teenager in the Roaring Twenties, and had lived through the Great Depression. To many, the 1930’s were a time of despair, but for Hellman, it was time to begin a memorable career. The Children’s Hour was written in 1934 and The Little Foxes would come just five years after that. Much later, things would get rather sticky. The United States would go through a cold war and the McCarthy era was upon the nation where creative industries were targets. Hellman and Hammett stood by one another through the infamous Communist witch-hunts (“Dashiell,” 1996).
Hammett had actually been a Communist Party member and he had to serve six months in federal prison. Hellman did also support leftist causes but never officially enlisted (1996). Her infamous words and reactions to Senator Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC committee are as follows: "I can’t cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions. " (Elibrary)She refused to name names of alleged Communists and luckily she escaped jail time. Hellman’s life in general was that of the typical writer. It seems as if Hellman was persistent and loved her work.
Born in the south, she grew up spending half the year in the Northeast and the other half in the south. Hellman loved New Orleans but felt a driving need to succeed in the North. Her final home in this lifetime was even further North. Hellman passed away in 1984 near her home which was by then situated near Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. I feel moving around the nation gave her a variety of insights into different personalities, something priceless to any writer. When she wrote The Children’s Hour, she broached the subject of lesbianism, something much less prevalent then.
The Children’s Hour is really not about lesbians. It is rather about a malicious lie told by a child. It helps to remember that homosexuality during the 1920’s was not acceptable and even today, a lesbian teacher would still make tremendous waves. Still, during the early part of the twentieth century, homosexuality was even more scandalous. So when a student claimed her teacher was a lesbian there was chaos and that is the basis for the story. In the story, Karen and Martha are the victims of the lie and their lives end tragically as one takes her own life and another breaks off an engagement.
Every thing they have worked and dreamed for, including the school suffers and is utterly destroyed. The work reminds one of contemporary cases of child abuse in schools where children lie for various reasons. Inevitably, the lies are corroborated and believed. In this play, the lies seem to go deeper. Many people do have a difficult time dealing with false accusations. Still, many go on to fight another day. For the primary characters in The Children’s Hour, no one is victorious. Even Mary, the little girl who lies, seems to have significant problems.
One might ask whether or not she herself is troubled or just engaging in childish behavior. But her words ruin lives and that can be seen by the dramatic speech Karen makes: “Try to understand this: you’re not playing with paper dolls. We’re human beings, see? It’s our lives you’re fooling with. Our lives. That’s serious business for us. ” (Hellman, 1979, p. 47) Karen obviously fights the lie but she loses anyway, demonstrating the power of the word. The old saying “Sticks and stone can break my bones but words can never hurt me” becomes false.
This author demonstrates clearly in The Children’s Hour that words can not only hurt, they can kill. The work The Little Foxes is too based on a lie and there is death, but for different reasons. The Little Foxes takes a completely different approach to the subject of lying, although it is a major thematic element. The Little Foxes focuses on a family embarking on a business enterprise but much of their accomplishments are based on lies, thievery and loans which some might equate with theft. Hellman forces the audience to question their own business dealings. When is a lie really harmful and when is it justified?
The Little Foxes certainly brings up the problems of lying in business, but this business involves family as well. Therefore, there is demonstrated a greater bond than mere business partners would ever hope to attain. There is blood that holds these sinister characters together. But the lies depicted in this latter work are quite different than the lies told by Mary in The Children’s Hour. Mary is a child, but the characters in The Little Foxes should know better. While lying is central to both works, The Little Foxes also focuses on greed, something that The Children’s Hour does not include.
Thus, the element of greed creates a new dimension in viewing Hellman’s works. Here, it seems as if some of the characters are propelled by greed and in one sense, it is the lure of easy money that eventually turns people into monsters. Like The Children’s Hour, this force causes death. Indirectly, in both plays, death results due to emotional strain. One might conclude that Hellman focuses on emotion to show how much of an impact it has on life. In a very indirect way then, one could say that Hellman expresses the idea that emotion and lies can not only hurt people, but they can destroy lives as well.
In The Children’s Hour however, the character’s lives are destroyed not only due to the lies told, but also because of society’s feelings about lesbianism and not really the hurt feelings of the victims. But indirectly, the characters lose everything because of this judgment. Had homosexuality been more acceptable then, the women would have gone on with their careers and lives. Instead, one ends up dead and the other on a "possible" new life path. The events that play out in The Little Foxes on the other hand destroy a family.
But one character does end up dead due to the emotional shock that had come due to events related to money. Here, emotions directly lead to death whereas in The Children’s Hour, the emotions of the society that destroyed the lives of the main characters indirectly led to one taking her own life. Both cases exemplify tragic scenarios. Hellman is not really a modern day Shakespeare. While her plays are tragic, these tragedies are based on maliciousness and not fate. While Shakespeare too utilizes the evil nature of his characters, he also offers fate as an explanation for certain events.
Hellman does not do this. Perhaps she has felt victimized throughout her life. Unable to make marriage and ordinary life work, Hellman became a bit of a wanderer. She seemed to find some sense of herself in her writing. Both The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes do hint of Hellman’s despair and feelings of entrapment. Most of her characters in these plays are boxed into their situations and had been done so by other people. No one makes their own fate in her works. These victimized characters are done in by their co-workers or family members due to the evil nature that lurks in the hearts of men.
Some might say that Hellman was depressed or simply saw life in a dismal way. Perhaps that is true, but more importantly, Hellman was able to draw emotion and put it out for all to see. She was able to create conflict through characterization and not reliant on the plot entirely. Her skill at writing dialog was superior which rendered Lillian Hellman a playwright of significance. Lillian Hellman will be remembered for her intriguing life, but also for the interesting characters she was able to bring alive in her well-written contributions to the theatrical realm.