A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Lillian Hellman

America’s foremost woman playwright is as well known for her private life as for her plays, thirteen in all, including prize-winners “Watch on the Rhine” and “Toys in the Attic,” and her five memoirs, the first of which, An Unfinished Woman, won the National Book Award.  The  motion picture “Julia,” based on the section of the same name in Hellman’s memoir Pentimento won an Academy Award.  Most recently, “The Little Foxes” was seen at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and Penelope Wilton was warmly praised for her portrayal of Regina as warm and human as well as steely.

Hellman’s thirty-year relationship with writer Dashiell Hammett, the hero of the collective memoirs, was the subject of a television film on A&E, “Dash and Lilly,” with Sam Shepard and Judy Davis in the title roles.  Jane Fonda and Jason Robards, Jr., play the pair in the film “Julia.” And both writers have been celebrated by PBS in their “American Masters” series.  In days when such partnerships were frowned upon –keeping Ingrid Bergman off the stage and Charlie Chaplin out of the country – Hellman and Hammett lived together openly.   But Hellman recounts that she encouraged her mother, a strict moralist, to believe they were married.

Strong-minded and outspoken, Hellman was not a woman to conceal her feelings on political matters.  Her advocacy of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, on which she sent back news stories to The New Republic  in 1938, her trip to a theater festival in Moscow, and her attempts to awaken complacent Americans to the Nazi danger in her plays “Watch on the Rhine” and “The Searching Wind,” convinced the House Un-American Activities Committee that  she served  the Communist “threat” to the U.S. in the fifties. 

In her memoir Scoundrel Time she recounts the experience of being called to appear before the Committee in May 1952.  The letter she wrote to the Committee became famous.  In it, she stated that she would tell them anything about herself, but refused to “name names” of others who might have been associated with the liberal causes she espoused, and whom the Committee could then summon in its ever-widening circle of suspects:  “To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable,” she wrote.  The letter continues, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

Although the Committee rejected her offer, once the letter was read into the record, it could be distributed to the press, and the Committee backed down and dismissed her.  Hammett, who had served in both World Wars, was not so fortunate.  He was sent to jail for six months because he was unable to “name names” who had contributed to a bond fund for victims of the HUAAC investigations.  Hellman reports that he did not know who the contributors were.

Hellman’s letter had a life of its own on stage.  It turns up in a one-woman show about the playwright, “Lillian,” by William Luce, an effective work, especially as first performed by Zoe Caldwell.  Ironically, it was used to perk up a play by a life-long foe of Hellman, Eric Bentley, who introduced the letter into “Are You Now…” where it was read by a series of well-known guest actresses.

When she was twenty-nine, Hellman’s first play, “The Children’s Hour,” was an immediate hit on Broadway.  Its subject, says Hellman, is “the big lie” – how a lie that is believed destroys lives.  Two women teachers run a girls’ school that achieves success because of their ability and the backing of a prominent townswoman whose granddaughter, Mary, attends the school.  When Mary feels she is unduly reprimanded (although she more than deserves it), she complains to her grandmother that the teachers have a lesbian relationship.  The outraged grandmother never questions the women but withdraws Mary, and advises her society friends to withdraw their relatives, ruining the women and their school.  Sharp dialogue and a tense dramatic situation helped the play’s long-run success, and the then-scandalous topic of lesbianism helped as well, with the play banned in Boston and London.

When the play was made into a film, with a screenplay by Hellman, as “These Three,” the scandalous relationship was changed to a triangle of the two women and the fiancée of one, with no loss of impact by the “big lie.”  This was the first of many screenplays Hellman wrote, of her own plays and those of others.  A stunning production of “The Children’s Hour” by the Royal National Theatre in London a few years ago revealed how stageworthy the work still is.  The play and its author both appear on the “100 Best Plays of the Century” poll conducted by the Royal National last year.

“The Little Foxes”(1939) is perhaps Hellman’s best-known play, and its recent  productions in London and New York proves that it still holds the audience. On Broadway, Stockard Channing was impressive as Regina, the scheming sister in the turn-of-the century Hubbard family’s quest for money and power in the South. In London, Penelope Wilton’s performance brought out many facets of the character, and won her nominations as “best actress” of the season.

While Regina’s brothers Ben and Oscar will stop at nothing, including robbery, to rule the land and its people, she, through luck and brains, manages to out-fox her brothers.  She is less successful with her daughter, the one hope for change in a trio of women that includes Regina’s sister-in-law Birdie, a nervous former aristocrat made destitute by the Civil War.  Tennessee Williams, inspired by “Foxes” demonstration that Southern dialect could be poetic on the stage, also was impressed by the character of Birdie, whose descendants appear in “Baby Doll” and “The Unsatisfactory Supper.”   “The Little Foxes” is sometimes performed in tandem (and is so published) with “Another Part of the Forest,” which treats the young Hubbards before they became rich and powerful.

“The Autumn Garden” (1951) Hellman believes to be her best play.  Reminiscent of Chekhov, it treats a group of seven adults in the autumn of their lives, aware of the passage of time and of their need to reassess the choices they have made and are about to make.  In a guest house on the Gulf, about a hundred miles from New Orleans, six friends gather each summer, among them the Ellis family of mother, son, and grandmother; Ned Crossman, a loner once in love with the proprietress, Constance; and Ben Griggs, a retired army officer, and his wife Rose.  The arrival of another old friend,   flashy artist Nick Denery with his wife, sets the plot in action.  The work is a deep and moving revelation of character, as the principals interrelate, and as the adults are contrasted with the young pair, realist Sophia and weakling Frederick. 

If “The Autumn Garden” is a quiet and reflective work, “Toys in the Attic” is a searing play about the relationship between two sisters and a brother, the brother’s wife, and her mother.  Contemporary at the time, it is set in New Orleans in 1960, and deals with the dangers of self-deception and of martyrdom.  Sisters Anna and Carrie (based on Hellman’s maiden aunts) work as a saleswoman and secretary, living only for their brother Julian, denying themselves small comforts to send him money for enterprises in which he continually fails.  When he marries a dependent, child-like woman, his relationship with his siblings changes, especially when he comes into a large sum of money through a questionable land deal.  Wealth does not improve Julian’s character -- “You got to talk to me different now, like I’m a tycoon” – or his belief that only money entitles one to respect, although his rich mother-in-law Albertine tries to teach him differently.  By the end, he is physically and morally harmed by Carrie’s plotting to keep him dependent, for her sense of self-worth is predicated on his diminished self-esteem.   And hidden truths, like forgotten toys in the attic, have been revealed that will change the family’s relationships forever.  When the curtain fell on the opening night, William Saroyan, who accompanied John and me, said, “I wish I’d written that.”

It was Hellman’s last original play, as Hammett, an inveterate smoker, died of lung cancer the following year.  Five years later, when asked to edit and write an introduction to a collection of Hammett’s short stories called “The Big Knockover,” she introduced the work with a profile of him that stands as one of the best of its genre. Then, responding to suggestions that she write her memoirs and casting about for a way to begin, she decided to use her news stories of the Spanish Civil War, plus the Hammett profile, to which she would add two others, one of writer and friend Dorothy Parker and one of her housekeeper and companion, Helen.

Born in New Orleans on June 20, 1905, Hellman begins An Unfinished Woman with an account of her childhood and adolescence there.  In New York, she attended high school and New York University, leaving college to work for the distinguished publishing firm of Horace Liveright.  She married theatrical press agent and writer Arthur Kober, who was summoned to Hollywood, where she found work as a script reader, but was disillusioned with her drab existence.   One night in a restaurant she met Hammett when she was twenty-four and he was thirty-six.  He was the “cool teacher” she had been searching for, and a relationship began that was to last thirty years.   An Unfinished Woman won the National Book Award for 1969.

More memoirs followed, Pentimento in 1973, Scoundrel Time in 1976, Three, a collection of the earlier books with added commentary, in 1979, and Maybe in 1980.  The style of the memoirs is unique in that it explores persons and places by using elliptical time, that is, “seeing again.”  As Hellman explains it in Pentimento,  a term used in painting when an artist paints over his first effort, which years later becomes discernable: “the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. . . .I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.”   In “Julia,” for instance, she is riding on a train to a meeting with Julia and reminiscing about her childhood with her “beloved friend” when suddenly we are experiencing her shock at the sight of the corpse of her friend, killed by the Nazis.   The portraits in Pentimento are not, as had been expected, of the well-known, among whom Hellman moved easily, but rather of persons who had been important to her, like Julia and her Uncle Willy.   Hellman’s style changes in Maybe, which is poetic and fragmented, peopled by acquaintances who are not what they seem.

From being under appreciated by the male theater critics of earlier days -- George Jean Nathan claimed women were too emotional to produce good plays, although he praised Hellman’s writing ability -- she became an icon of the feminist movement in the sixties.  Her advice was characteristically common sense: argue for women’s economic equality and independence rather than about who takes out the garbage. Until her death in 1984 from heart trouble and emphysema (she started smoking at thirteen), she remained active, writing, teaching, and speaking.   She taught playwriting at Hunter, Columbia, Yale, and Harvard, reported on civil rights marches, and feuded with Mary McCarthy over the identity of Julia.  A fine cook, she co-authored a cookbook, and she was an avid fisherwoman, planning to go fishing the day she died.

For more information , see Understanding Lillian Hellman by Alice Griffin and Geraldine Thorsten, published by the University of South Carolina Press.