Lillian Hellman decided to try and write her first play on a real-life event. In the 1800s, two middle-aged, single women in Scotland ran a boarding school for girls. One of their students accused them of being lesbians and the student’s grandmother brought up charges against them. The teachers lost the case and their reputations were ruined (5). Hellman heard about this event in the 1930s and wrote a play based off of it. The two school mistresses, Karen and Martha, are portrayed as very focused, intelligent and loving. Karen was also in a relationship with Joe, a doctor who is also the cousin of the little girl who was acting so dreadfully, and this relationship should have been obvious evidence against the accusation. This little girl, Mary, was abusive to other girls, and was incapable of feeling remorse or love. She did what she had to do to feel pleasure. She began the rumor, got another girl to corroborate, and Mary’s grandmother took the lie that Mary created all the way to the utter ruin of Karen and Martha (3). In the 1930s however, homosexuality was an extreme taboo and homosexuality was seen as the main theme of the play. “The Children’s Hour” was banned in Chicago, Boston, and London for its ‘objectionable’ content, even though the accusations of lesbianism were not the main theme of the play (5).
The 1920s and 1930s brought a great amount of change in labor. With the growth of population in cities, more of the identity of a homosexual was recognized. With more of them in an area that had organized labor, naturally more of them would be noticed. Some of these men openly desired to be around men and in order to make their sexual intentions known, some of them dressed in a feminine way. In order to deal with this problem in the workplace, employers had to acknowledge them. Recognizing men like these meant also recognizing and distinguishing men who were heterosexual. Realizing the difference between the two groups widened the gap between the two groups. “Medical doctors, psychologists, and anti-vice squads stigmatized homosexuals as diseased, mentally ill, and unnatural” (1). Along with the new freedom brought with the female flapper, jazz, and prohibition, there was a very new upswing in open homosexual community. Chicago saw something called the “Panzy Craze” which described all of the gay clubs and other meeting places for gays. Not only were these places with homosexual practices to express affection, but some of them also participated in cross-dressing (6). These places were a very new source of strength for gays. State governments however had another problem to deal with as well as the alcoholic bars, organized crime, and other forms of rebellion.
Needless to say, this would not be the best era in history to write a play having a lot to do with homosexuality. “The Children’s Hour” was written in such a way that the stigmatism of homosexuality in America was greatly shown. It was written in a way that reminds many people of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and its witch hunt, even though Miller was making reference to McCarthyism. “The Children’s Hour was originally produced in New York in November of 1934 and was received successfully with 691 performances (5). However, when the producer tried to help the play expand to other cities, the ‘objectionable’ content met resistance from many state governments. It was first banned in Boston because it was “unacceptable.” The producer tried suing the state for $250,000 and lost (5). This is very relatable for the play, in which there was a court case and the protagonists lost. “The Children’s Hour” was also banned in London and Chicago for ‘objectionable’ material and “outraging public morals” (5). In the 1930s this would be seen as objectionable material because women who are only accused of being lovers are around young girls. Today, this material would not be banned for simply accusations of homosexuality. The material was very controversial for the time. However, the material does still make viewers think. The play says so much about the damage of slander and how cruel people can be.
The places that banned this play considered lesbianism the main theme of the play. However, Hellman went on record as saying that homosexuality was not the main focus of this play. The main themes of this play were cruelty in slander and lack of compassion, and Hellman asserted that those who thought otherwise did not understand the play (5). It is more than likely that many of the people opposed to the play never actually read the play. The play also spoke a great deal on fear, such as in the last scene when Karen and Joe break up because Joe was afraid that Karen and Martha really were lovers and Karen was afraid that Joe believed it. Martha, who actually was a lesbian, was afraid of her own feelings and how it would affect her relationship with Karen (3). These are far more important ideas to acknowledge and think about than homosexuality, alleged or not.
Lillian Hellman caused a great deal of noise with her very first published play. It was denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1934 (2). Not surprisingly, Hellman was attacked by McCarthy during the 1950s Communist hunt for her work. She was blacklisted and labeled as a pro-Stalinist in 1948 and so it can be seen the effect her work had on the population (4). Hellman was not ashamed of her activities and spoke openly about them. She was not ashamed of her work, and she stood behind what she wrote. She understood what the true ideas the writing was, and a great deal of the theatre community understood what her work was really about. Lillian Hellman may have had poor timing when writing “The Children’s Hour,” but looking back on it, today’s society understands better what was going on in the part of history. Today’s society can see what Lillian Hellman had to say about that part of history. If the rest of her plays are as powerful as her very first one was, it is no wonder that the New York Times named her “one of the most important playwrights of the American theater” (4).
- Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic, 1994. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=NNHGuV dPELYC&q=labor#v=snippet&q=labor&f=false>.
- “Children’s Hour.” Hellman Wyler Festival. Birmingham Festival Theatre; Marengo County Historical Society, 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://www.southernliterarytrail.org/hellmanwyler/ childrens_hour.htm>.
- Hellman, Lillian. “The Children’s Hour.” The Collected Plays. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972. 5-71. Print.
- “Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” Is Banned in Boston.” This Week in History – Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” Is Banned in Boston | Jewish Women’s Archive. Jewish Women’s Archive, n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/14/1935/lillian-hellman>.
- Sova, Dawn B. “The Children’s Hour.” Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas. New York: Facts on File, 2003. 47-51. Print.
- Velenzuela, Morgan. “Chicago’s Prohibition-era “Pansy Craze”.” Web log post. Exhibits. Chicago History Museum, 30 Sept. 2011. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/ 2011/09/chicagos-prohibition-era-pansy-craze/>.