By: Cassandra Baggaley
The years 1947-1954 were plagued with American fear; as neighbor turned against neighbor in suspicion, and friends were betrayed. No one knew who to trust anymore. This was a time of what is now called McCarthyism. Lillian Hellman saw what was happening to society. She saw how it started, and she predicted how it was going to end. Her play, Children’s Hour reflects that pattern that McCarthyism took and the lives it destroyed.
“Our job as Americans and as Republicans is to dislodge the traitors from every place where they’ve been sent to do their traitorous work.” (Joseph McCarthy, speech before the Republican National Convention) In 1947 President Truman ordered background checks for every high-ranking civilian. When a state department official (Alger Hiss) was convicted of espionage, the already growing fear of communists escalated. Joseph McCarthy used this propaganda to conduct his own personal “witch hunt”. He claimed that he had the names of 57 known Communists. He inferred in his famous talk that the government had been infiltrated as well. This lie, spread through all the country. If spies were in the government who knows where else they were? Panic and suspicious reigned. Lives were ruined. Then the truth came out, and the country settled in an uneasy calm. The kind of calm that comes when the storm passes and you see the leftover damage, and you see what damage you caused yourself.
Children’s Hour itself is about a lie. A lie that Mary tells so that her grandmother won’t send her to school again. This horrible lie is so hideous that the grandmother immediately takes action calling the parents of all the students. Thus unwittingly becoming an accomplice. When Mary sees what power she has over people with this lie, she sticks to it. She even blackmails a classmate into saying that it was true. The lie expands and grows until the school, that Karen and Martha had saved up for years to start, is shut down. The teachers are ostracized in society. By the time that it comes out that Mary was lying, Karen is no longer engaged and Martha has committed suicide. Lives are ruined. Just because of a lie. There is a pattern here. A lie is told capitalizing on fear. It escalates, and everyone gets involved. People’s lives are ruined in the commotion. Then when the dust clears everyone looks around and sees the damage for the first time. By then, all they can do is what Mary’s grandmother does in the end of Children’s Hour, admit they were wrong and give a weak little “sorry”.
Children’s Hour was initially a success. Then places like Boston, Chicago, and London banned it. The Pulitzer Prize committee refused to go see it. In 1952, the House Un-American Activities Committee conducted an investigation of the play. By then Lillian Hellman had already been blacklisted for her political beliefs. Many blacklisted authors never wrote again. But Hellman rose above this and kept writing. She moved on to her memoirs. She taught at colleges. She kept writing her mix of political and humane plays, that focused on what was going on in the world. Trying to get people to see what she saw.
Children’s Hour caused quite the stir. Especially with what was to come. Lillian saw the pattern that lies take. She saw what was happening to America as we plunged into a dark age of our history. When neighbors were suspicious of each other, and when anyone could be a communist spy. She saw this, she predicted its outcome; and she wrote about it in her play Children’s Hour.
- “53a. McCarthyism.” McCarthyism [ushistory.org]. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.
- “The Children’s Hour.” Enotes.com. Enotes.com, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.
- Hellman, Lillian. The Children’s Hour. [New York]: Dramatists Play Service, 1981. Print.
- “Lillian Hellman.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.
- “McCarthyism.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.