November 14, 2013
Fact Or Fiction: The Children’s Hour
Premiering in New York City, at the Maxine Elliot Theatre, The Children’s Hour has been captivating and confusing audiences since 1934. The events of the play unravel with vigor as young Mary Tilford creates a vicious lie, and two headmistresses try coping with the various effects of it. Many themes are unleashed including lesbianism and lying. The play gave great acclaim to Hellman. It was her first hit, in fact. Whether it was appreciated or rejected, this wild story Ms. Hellman created ruminated with many. However, the fabrication of events and characters might be less imagined than many realize. The Children’s Hour was inspired and directly mirrored real events of an 1810 scandal in Edinburgh, Scotland, which when told over a century later would still create uproar and hatred.
Lillian Hellman thought her writing career was over at age twenty five, until her lover at the time, Dashiell Hammett, brought her William Roughead’s Bad Companions. In this book infamous British court cases are covered. “Closed Doors, or The Great Drumsheugh Case,” a chapter of the book, tells the story of an 1810 scandal in Edinburgh, Scotland. The scandal encompasses a young girl accusing two of her headmistresses of her boarding school of having “an inordinate affection” for one another. The case even parallels the play so much, that the young girl tells her grandmother of the inappropriate acts of the women, who removes her from the school. Within two days, every student was withdrawn from the school, and the headmistresses were never able to reopen the school again. Clearly, Hellman felt inspired after reading this passage her lover handed her.
During the time of the 1810 scandal, the people of Edinburgh were outraged and uncomfortable. A look through the Endinburgh Evening News is revealing, “The notion that anything untoward might be happening behind the quaint exterior of their school, that a scandal which would rock Edinburgh society to its very core might be brewing, was simply and utterly unthinkable.” Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, the women accused, hired a lawyer to begin a libel suit and hoped to have a public rescinding of the charges made against them. The judges were worried over the delicate subject matter of the trail that could potentially corrupt the women and young girls of Scotland. They closed the proceeding and only permitted twenty copies of the transcript to be made for those involved directly in the case. Furthermore, the implausibility of the seven judges selected to be impartial is laughable. Nick Bowling comments on the school of thought held by the judges, “Either the women were innocent because the judges could not conceive how they might have pleasured one another or they were guilty because no young girl could have thought up such a scandalous story on her own.” On June 25th, 1811 a verdict was reached. Three judges though the women innocent, but the others couldn’t conceive it, and Pirie and Woods lost their case.
In 1934, when Hellman retold this tragic tale, the stage was set much differently, yet the verdict of the general public proved it still held the same shock value. In New York any mention of homosexuality through the lenses of stage was illegal at the time, yet the play found critical support there. Unfortunately, as the play spread to other venues it was banned in Boston, Chicago and London. While the show never shared any erotic behavior of dialogue, it was deemed wrong. Proving that over a hundred years later, the events were still cutting and harsh. Altogether, and perfect story for Hellman to steal!
Bowling, Nick. “The Children’s Hour Study Guide.” Time Line Theatre Company. Web. http://www.timelinetheatre.com/childrens_hour/CH_StudyGuide.pdf. 14 November 2013.
Drumsheugh: Lesbian Sex Row Rocked Society.” Edinburgh Evening News. 25 Feb 2009. Web. http://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/what-s-on/drumsheugh-lesbian-sex-row-rocked-society-1-1193371 14 November 2013.
Roughead, William. “Closed Doors: or, The Great Drumsheugh Case.” Bad
Companions. Duffield & Green: New York, 1931.