Lillian Hellman: Biography, Plays & Books

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Lillian Hellman was one of the most prominent female playwrights of the mid-twentieth century, known for her social realist dramas, but her involvement in sometimes-unpopular politics has overshadowed her reputation.

A Divisive Figure

Lillian Hellman was a successful playwright and screenwriter in the mid-twentieth century, writing such important plays as The Children's Hour and The Autumn Garden. Her plays often focused on marginalized characters and highlighted important social issues. Marginalized characters are characters from groups that were not typically portrayed in plays and movies at the time, such as women, racial minorities, the poor, and homosexuals.

As a screenwriter, Hellman wrote classic films that were adaptations of her plays. However, her refusal to answer questions posed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities damaged her reputation and career, leading her to be one of the most divisive figures in 20th-century American literature. Her work and political activities are closely linked, as she stood up for beliefs in both her writing and her personal life and refused to compromise, even when it hurt her career.

Biography

Hellman was born in New Orleans in 1905. After attending New York University, she worked at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film studio as a script reader. It was while at MGM that she met the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, author of such classics as The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. Though the two never married, they maintained their relationship off and on for 30 years until Hammett's death in 1961.

Hellman's first success as a playwright came in 1934 with the controversial play The Children's Hour. From the 1930s through the early 1950s, she wrote many critically and commercially successful plays including The Little Foxes, The Searching Wind, and The Autumn Garden.

While achieving success as a playwright, Hellman also earned a living as a screenwriter, writing, among other films, adaptations of her plays The Little Foxes and The Children's Hour.

Most of Hellman's plays are written in the style of social realism. This style is most closely associated in drama with the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It uses art to explore important social and political issues and often advocates for reforms or specific political positions. Social realist plays often depict marginalized characters.

Hellman's interest in social realism was undoubtedly related to her personal political leanings and she incorporated political messages into her work even though they were often not popular.

Politics

Throughout her career, Hellman was active in politics. She was a member of the Communist Party from 1938 to 1940. Throughout the late '30s and early '40s, she was active in anti-Nazi organizations and her 1941 play Watch on the Rhine was about the rising threat Nazi Germany posed.

In 1952, Hellman was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. She refused to answer most of the committee's questions, citing her Fifth Amendment rights. Her refusal to testify against fellow leftists resulted in her being blacklisted, or refused work, by Hollywood studios. This made it hard for her to find work as a screenwriter and though she had critical success as a playwright in the 1950s and 1960s, she struggled financially. In her later years, anti-Communists such as the writer Mary McCarthy would attack Hellman for her supposed Soviet sympathies and for a long time this seriously damaged her reputation.

Major Plays

Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film version of The Childrens Hour
Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film version of The Childrens Hour

The Children's Hour

The Children's Hour was first produced in 1934 and was Hellman's first success. It tells the story of two female boarding schoolteachers, Martha and Karen, who have their lives destroyed when a vengeful student spreads a false rumor that the two are having a lesbian affair. It is an examination of the power of rumor and gossip to upend lives. It is also one of the first American plays to depict homosexuality, as Martha realizes through the ordeal that she does have romantic feelings for Karen. The play has been adapted into two films. The first, renamed These Three, for which Hellman wrote the screenplay, removed all references to homosexuality. The second film version in 1961 kept the story in tact and was one of the first American movies to deal with homosexuality.

Bette Davis in the 1941 film version of The Little Foxes
Bette Davis in the 1941 film version of The Little Foxes

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