Lillian Hellman

Franklin Library Lillian Hellman books

Six Plays by Lillian Hellman - 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature - 1978

Writer Lillian Hellman

Lillian Florence Hellman, born on June 20, 1905, in New Orleans, Louisiana, was an American playwright and screenwriter known for her powerful and politically charged plays. Her works often delved into themes of social injustice, moral ambiguity, and the complexities of human relationships. Hellman grew up in a Southern, Jewish family and attended New York University and Columbia University. In the 1930s, she began her career as a playwright, achieving early success with her first play, The Children's Hour (1934), which tackled issues of lesbianism and the destructive power of lies. The play faced censorship challenges but gained critical acclaim for its bold exploration of taboo subjects.

Her subsequent works further established her reputation as a prominent playwright. Days to Come (1936), The Little Foxes (1939), and Watch on the Rhine (1941) are among her notable plays, each addressing social and political issues of their time. The Little Foxes, in particular, is considered one of her masterpieces, exploring themes of greed, manipulation, and the oppressive nature of Southern society. During World War II, Hellman turned her attention to screenwriting and adapted several successful plays for film, including The Little Foxes (1941) and Watch on the Rhine (1943). She also collaborated with Dashiell Hammett, her longtime companion, on screenplays such as The North Star (1943) and The Children's Hour (1961).

Hellman's involvement in left-wing politics and her refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the McCarthy era had a significant impact on her career. In 1952, she was blacklisted and barred from working in Hollywood for several years. Her memoir, An Unfinished Woman (1969), provides a candid account of her experiences during this tumultuous period.

In the 1960s, Hellman returned to playwriting with works like Toys in the Attic (1960) and The Autumn Garden (1951). While her later plays received mixed reviews compared to her earlier successes, her influence on American drama remained substantial. Lillian Hellman received numerous awards during her career, including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for The Children's Hour and the Tony Award for Toys in the Attic. She passed away on June 30, 1984, leaving behind a legacy of provocative and socially conscious works that continue to be studied and performed today.

Six Plays

These six plays span nearly twenty years of theatre and display the range of Lillian Hellman's dramatic gifts. The Children's Hour (1934), her first play, was considered shocking at the time; it concerns the devastating effects of a child's malicious charge of lesbianism against two of her teachers. The Little Foxes (1939) and Another Part of the Forest (1946) together constitute a chilling study of the financial and psychological conflicts within the Hubbards, a wealthy and rapacious Southern family. Watch on the Rhine (1941), the story of how fascism affects an American family and the refugees they harbor, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The Autumn Garden (1951) is a poignant yet humorous drama set at a summer resort near New Orleans. Toys in the Attic (1959) presents an acting edition of the three act play featuring two sisters and their ne'er-do-well brother.

The Children's Hour

Cast 2 men, 12 women. One of the great successes of this distinguished writer. A serious and adult play about two women who run a school for girls. After a malicious youngster starts a rumor about the two women, the rumor soon turns to scandal. As the young girl comes to understand the power she wields, she sticks by her story, which precipitates tragedy for the women. It is later discovered that the gossip was pure invention, but it is too late. Irreparable damage has been done.

The Little Foxes

Picture a charming home in the South. Into this peaceful scene put the prosperous, despotic Hubbard family Ben, possessive and scheming; Oscar, cruel and arrogant; Ben's dupe, Leo, weak and unprincipled; Regina wickedly clever each trying to outwit the other. In this melodrama, only Regina wins.

Another Part of the Forest

The play takes place in the 1880s. Marcus Hubbard, rich, despotic and despised, made a fortune during the Civil War by running the blockade and worse. In his family life he is equally injurious: one son he bulldozes while the other he holds in contempt for his frailty. By Marcus's side stands his mentally deranged wife and, finally, Regina, the adored daughter amoral, conniving, and beautiful as an evil flower. Marcus, it would seem, has been on the top of the heap long enough and someone must depose him. Turning the tables on a tyrant has always made for high drama, and when Hellman puts her brilliant talents to work on such a theme the result is a play of great theatrical intensity.

Watch on the Rhine

A three-act play in which a German man flees Hitler's Germany to find peace and freedom in the United States with his wife's family.

The Autumn Garden

In the words of New York: "Miss Hellman is contemplating the meaning of middle age to an assorted group of people gathered together in a summer home. All of them are in one way or another frustrated and unhappy. Most of them are under the illusion that some day the things from which they suffer will be removed and they will be once more at peace. But when they come to see themselves, they realize that man is the sum of his past life, that they are incapable of any real revolt against their past, and that what they have made of themselves in earlier years is what they are when age approaches. Nor are they tragic figures. All of them are troubled average people, human, commonplace but they are studied with great understanding and a touch of intelligently unsentimental compassion."

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