That Lillian Hellman "came to…a bad end in popular imagination" cannot be denied. Alice Kessler-Harris believes she would not be judged so harshly if she were not a woman. William Wright speculates, "Perhaps her rare and enviable combination of commercial and artistic success made her a tempting target. Her politics, extreme and rigid, may have brought her further enmity. Or her own combativeness may have provoked a compensatory aggression."
To this day, Hellman remains maligned as an angry liar, communist, sexual deviant, characterized not unlike contemporary women who face similar criticisms regarding “manly” behavior. A Sarah Churchwell article in The Guardian states, “Her love affair with Dashiell Hammett was a scandal”; “her memoirs were notoriously unreliable”; she was “an outspoken apologist for Stalin, even after the scale of his crimes began to be revealed.”
The criticism that stung Hellman the most, however, was the repeated observation that Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams were the greatest American playwrights of the twentieth century. She argued she should be counted among them. Others insulted her by calling her "America's foremost woman playwright." She remained, as Christine Doudna mentions in the 1977 Rolling Stone interview she did with the author, "quick to point out the discrimination of the phrase."
While many instructors have buried Hellman in the lost illuminati literary graveyard for controversies such as those recounted above, I propose to exhume her as an important author for teaching political, intersectional issues pertaining to class, gender, and sexuality in literature, theater, film, English, Cultural Studies, and American Studies classrooms. Regardless of what each of us decide regarding Hellman's personal, political, artistic actions and words – written as well as spoken – we should not disregard the fact that her life and work provide fertile pedagogical soil to till.
Although Hellman herself can be used for examining many issues such as the ways in which gender affects the reputation of women writers in the twentieth century as aforementioned or her role in the HUAC investigation, in this article I will focus on the use of her revolutionary play, The Children's Hour, followed by the first and second Hollywood adaptions (1934, 1936, 1961) to teach issues related to class, gender, and sexual identity. While some instructors may work in areas of the world in which LGBTI+ people are supported and few problems remain, other educators seek tools to introduce sexual identity concepts in the classroom, engage students in active learning, and attain a positive outcome. This play and subsequent adaptations support these pedagogical goals.
The first Hollywood adaptation, retitled as These Three (1936), switches the lesbian plot out for one regarding infidelity, which provides a useful tool for teaching about American culture during the 1930s. Although Hellman adapted the screenplay herself, she was handcuffed by political forces, Joseph Breen and the Production Code Administration (PCA), as well as societal mores of the day.
The first Broadway production of The Children's Hour was so successful that many wish it could have been adapted in a more faithful manner. Even the oft-acerbic New York Times reviewer Brooks Atkinson praised the stage piece, "Whatever its minor imperfections may be, 'The Children’s Hour' is stinging tragedy. Although the title of Lilliam Hellman's taut drama may imply entertainment for the young, it is actually a mature study of calamity in the lives of two headmistresses of a girls' school, and it is written with a hard, clean economy of word and action." Another reviewer called it the "season's dramatic high-water mark." Gilbert W. Gabriel, writing for the New York American, commended it as "a genuine contribution to the American theatre. It is that wise, that interesting, that significant. It is that all-fired good."
The roaring twenties expanded the American mindset regarding sexuality only to see those views contract following the crash of the stock market and the Great Depression. In the 1930s, "family values" resurged, and homosexuals felt they had to hide their identities to escape ridicule, harm, employment discrimination, even imprisonment. In the context of this more conservative ideological climate, Hellman's longtime companion Dashiell Hammett suggested a true crime story from the Bad Companions anthology as the subject for Hellman's first play. In 1810 Scotland, two school teachers sued in court to defend themselves against a charge of lesbianism. While they won the case, it ruined their lives both personally and professionally. Just as Arthur Miller would write an allegory of McCarthyism cloaked in the Salem witch trials, so too did Hellman and Hammett see echoes of 1930s America in early nineteenth century Scotland.
Despite the alterations, These Three met with great acclaim as well. In the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives, the William Wyler papers include telegrams offering congratulations and praise to the director after the film's premiere. Producer Joseph Pasternak ranted: "Saw your picture can only say wow wow wow eleven stars and thank you." One came in German – the folder contains a translation: "You have made one of the most magnificent films in the world. STOP Me being a hard cool rogue, had tears in my eyes. STOP Congratulations from the bottom of my heart. With honest enthusiasm Billy Wilder." Producer Jesse Lasky wrote: "Nothing that has happened recently has thrilled me as much as preview of your picture last night your direction is human fine and distinguished and this picture will put you right at the top I wired Mister Goldwyn prophesying picture will be box office knockout hearty congratulations."
Critics were equally impressed. For the 22 February 1936 edition for The Hollywood Reporter, the reviewer wrote, "Sensitive, tasteful, and moving, 'These Three' is a beautiful production in the best Samuel Goldwyn tradition. It is a smashing directorial triumph for William Wyler, particularly in the magnificent performances of two child actresses." The writer went on to say, "It is an admirable piece of workmanship, deleting without possibility of argument, all inference of censorable situations." The Variety critic called the piece "a fine piece of dramatic writing" and a "skillfully contrived and beautifully stated script." The reviewer for the World Telegram believed Hellman "fashioned [the adaptation] with all the sincerity, super-fine writing, unflinching character observation and unerring feeling for showmanship that characterized the original." The Times writer gushed that "Miss Hellman's job of literary carpentry is little short of brilliant" and argues she had "constructed an absorbing, tautly written and dramatically vital screen play."
Useful for teaching the topic of sexual identity and the fact that so many ignored the shift in plot, the Time critic explained, "when Producer Samuel Goldwyn paid $40,000 for the screen rights to Lillian Hellman's famed play, The Children's Hour, the Hays organization had a mild attack of frenzy" because the story "relates the case of two young schoolteachers whose lives are wrecked when one of their pupils accuses them of Lesbianism. This seems to the guardians of the cinema industry's morals so appalling that they not only banned both the title of the play and its plot but refused to allow Producer Goldwyn to announce that he had bought such a thing." The transformation to a heterosexual love triangle, for this critic, "strengthens rather than weakens the story." Students can be encouraged through the use of primary sources as well an analysis of the bowdlerization of the plot to develop their own critical responses.
In regard to the name of the picture, working titles included Infamous, The Infamous, and The Loudest Whisper – the film was actually released under this last in the UK. A July 1935 letter from the PCA censor Breen to Goldwyn stated, "You may proceed if you change the title and make no reference to Lesbianism." Letters in October and November requested dialogue changes such as the removal of "still the mating season," "lousy," and "damn." After Breen viewed the film, he sent a letter to Will Hays at the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Administration (MPPDA) reporting, "These Three has turned out to be an outstanding picture. The questionable elements in the original stage play have been entirely eliminated." The picture easily earned its Production Code Certificate of Approval no. 2003.
The 1961 production encountered universal condemnation – even from the director himself. Hellman remarked that Wyler had been too faithful to her play and should have modernized it for a 1960s audience. Resigned to perceived public opinion, Wyler conceded, "Remaking that play turned out to be a mistake. I had been dissatisfied with 'These Three'; it was not the picture I had intended. The second time around audiences had become more adult and censorship had relaxed to a point where we could treat more adult themes. The first was a light picture; with the second I wanted to make the tragedy. But it was not successful."
Ironically, some reviewers were still shocked by the subject matter in the more faithful, later adaptation. One wrote, "Lesbianism is…condoned in the way Hepburn speaks the line, after she learns from one of the parents why all children have been withdrawn from the school, 'he said we were lovers.'" The reviewer continued, "She reads this line with no shock at the charge, but as though sexual relations between women were normal." The critic charged, "And later, when the two girls have been destroyed by the child's malice, there is an explicit line of dialogue which asserts that those who choose to practice lesbianism are not destroyed by it—a claim disproved by the number of lesbians who become insane and/or commit suicide." The writer illuminates the fact that the plot remained controversial in the 1960s. Students and educators will find much to discuss with primary sources such as these. Have things changed today? If not, why not? If so, in what ways?
A pivotal scene from These Three illustrates the pedagogical value of teaching the play and adaptations. In this version of the plot, Dr. Joseph Cardin (Joel McCrae) arrives at the boarding school to find Karen (Merle Oberon) absent. Martha (Miriam Hopkins) invites her up to her room to wait while she paints a table. Once there, he falls asleep on the couch only to startle awake some time later – making a noise that attracts Aunt Lily (Catherine Doucet) to the room where she finds Joe who makes his excuses and exits.
Some of the girls learn about this interaction, and one, Mary (Bonita Granville), claims in a whisper to her grandmother that something untoward had occurred between Joe and Martha even though Joe was engaged to Karen. Thus, to borrow the phrase from Lajos Egris in The Art of Dramatic Writing the "premise" of the film becomes 'malicious lies destroy lives." While this theme remains relevant and worthy, it is not quite the same as the message conveyed in the original play and later adaptation.
The "premise" in the second film adaptation, written by John Michael Hayes, adheres to the original plot and theme of the play. In these first and third versions, the premise shifts to "malicious gossip destroys lives." The difference may seem slight at first glance, but it is not insignificant. The whisper of the student to her grandmother may be based on supposition and innuendo, but it is not entirely untrue. A lesbian love does grow, but societal mores insist that it be kept secret. In this "closet" exists a lie of a different nature: Martha and Karen must present the public face of "we're just friends and work colleagues." In other words, in these versions, the student is not lying, but she is spreading gossip with malicious intent that will close the boarding school as the dowager believe that she cannot send her granddaughter to a place where "unnatural love" subsists. Another layer of meaning floats to the surface in these renditions. Yes, malicious lies or gossip can destroy, but we also live in a world where people cannot live an authentic existence and thus are forced to deceive only to be punished for such actions later – a valuable and thoughtful concept to discuss with our students.
Understanding this unfortunate state of affairs – also in existence in the 1930s – Hellman addressed it in her original play. In the first act, when Martha offers to send Aunt Lily to London, she balks and accuses Martha of jealousy concerning the forthcoming marriage of Karen and Joe. Aunt Lily remarks, "You're fonder of Karen, and I know that. And it's unnatural, just as unnatural as it can be. You don't like their being together. You were always like that even as a child. If you had a little girl friend, you always got mad when she liked anybody else." Upset with Aunt Lily, Martha yells, "The sooner you get out of here the better. You are making me sick and I won't stand for it any longer. I want you to leave." She hears a sound at the door and opens it to find Evelyn and Peggy have been eavesdropping. After Joe examines Mary following her feigned heart attack, he is alone with Martha and asks her why she seems upset about his marrying Karen. She pushes him away, curses him, and begins "I wish—" only to leave the sentence unfinished.
In these silences, in these absences, in these things she cannot say or admit to Aunt Lily or Joe lies the truth about Martha's feelings for Karen. The very fact that she cannot discuss them reveals the threat to her reputation, livelihood, even life itself as violence has been and continues to be a persistent reality for homosexuals – another useful lesson to share.
When Peggy and Evelyn disclose the "unnatural" comment they overheard, they express concern about one of their roommates finding the novel Mademoiselle de Maupin. Mary remarks that she had already finished it that morning cueing the audience to understand that this precocious little girl has already been exposed to Theophile Gautier's plot, which unveiled for the child, among other things, same sex love. After Mary runs away to her grandmother's house in act two, she tells Mrs. Tilford of the "unnatural" affinity Martha has for Karen and then whispers sordid details, no doubt garnered from Gautier's novel, into her benefactor's ear. Mrs. Tilford proceeds to tell Joe he can't marry Karen because there's "something wrong with" her, "something horrible." Martha and Karen arrive, and Karen tells Joe about the rumor "that Martha and I are – in love with each other."
In act three, after they've lost the libel case in court, Martha breaks down and confesses to Karen, "I have loved you the way they said." Martha continues, "It's funny. It's all mixed up. There's something in you and you don't do anything about it. Suddenly, a child gets bored and lies—and there you are, seeing it for the first time." Then Martha exits, and the audience hears a shot offstage. She's committed suicide. Here, Hellman exposes the destructive political power of a society that compels heteronormative conformity.
The second film version (1961) stars Audrey Hepburn as Karen and Shirley MacLaine as Martha who confesses to her feelings with lines even more "on the nose" than in the stageplay: "I've been telling myself that since the night I heard the child say it. I lie in bed night after night praying it isn't true. But I know about it now. It's there. I don't know how, I don't know why. But I did love you! I do love you! I resented your plans to marry. Maybe because I wanted you. Maybe I've wanted you all these years. I couldn't call it by name before, but maybe it's been there since I first knew you." Later, Martha asks, "But why this lie? She found the lie with the ounce of truth. Don't you see? I can't stand to have you touch me! I can't stand to have you look at me! Oh, it's all my fault. I have ruined your life and I have ruined my own. I swear I didn't know it! I didn't mean it! Oh, I feel so damn sick and dirty I can't stand it anymore!" Wyler wondered if he should have updated the play. Some students might argue the blatant nature of the revised dialogue accomplished that – at least to some extent.
Several other scenes support this assertion as well. In the kitchen, near the beginning of the second film, Martha snaps at Joe (James Garner) who accuses her of being "sharp" with him, which doubles their scenes of tension – this one in addition to the argument after the student's feigned heart attack. In addition, the 1961 version contains another new scene in which Aunt Lily – Miriam Hopkins now plays the older role – heads for the front door dropping her possessions as well as her suitcase as Mrs. Tilford (Karen Balkin) enters to confront Martha and Karen about the whispered rumor heard from her granddaughter in the back seat of her chauffeured Cadillac. No longer based on gossip or hearsay, in this version Aunt Lily herself tells Mrs. Tilford that Karen is jealous of Joe and has "unnatural" feelings for Karen. Indeed, Aunt Lily goes even further to relate the fact that Martha has never had any boyfriends and obsesses over summer vacations with Karen. Mrs. Tilford is so upset by the information she leaves and takes Mary back home.
Later, when Mrs. Tilford calls Joe to her home, Karen and Martha burst in and tell Joe that the girls have all been withdrawn from the school on the suspicion that they "have been lovers." The fear for their lives is underscored when they don't go for a walk after opening the front door and seeing four men pull over in a pickup truck, stare, elbow each other, laugh, and gesture at them. Karen and Martha retreat inside and agree to walk the next day. At the end of the film, Martha touches Karen's hand and a look of realization crosses her face. Joe does not quit the hospital, he is dismissed for guilt as a "matter of association."
The suicide is even more graphically portrayed. Martha does not shoot herself offstage, she hangs herself. Wyler reveals this shift through the shadow of a rope, the shadow of dangling feet, an overturned chair, Hepburn's eyeline as well as her emotional reaction, and the graveside prayer beside the coffin that follows. Wyler likewise shades the ending in a darker hue. Rather than the happy ending of These Three – which, as mentioned, Hellman had to do under political duress from the PCA as well as a directive from Breen to Goldwyn to stay away the theme of lesbian love and the consequences in the face of a hostile society – Karen doesn't run away to Vienna to reunite with Joe. Rather, after her prayer at Martha's grave, she strides away from Joe and others at the burial site with her head held high, along a dirt road, by herself. Karen rejects love or regret from any of the people in the community whose callous actions contributed to Martha's suicide. She will start over somewhere else with her integrity and Martha's dignity intact.
In other words, with the production code falling away in the 1960s, Wyler and Hayes were not bound by the same restrictions Hellman was in her earlier adaptation, but could work on deepening the theme she introduced in her original play – enhancing the contribution of the work to American literary, theater, film, political, and cultural history. Students and educators can discuss the way in which these issues remain relevent today.
As Hellman's longtime friend and biographer Peter Feibleman observed, "The final point of Lillian, I guess, is that she was larger than her own life – big enough to make mistakes and know it, and live to accept it, larger than her critics – a great boom of a woman – loud enough in time to drown her attackers as well. She was, is, a lasting voice, and when all the storms in all the tiny teacups are done, it will still be heard. She has a final place. She is a writer."
A writer whose work remains useful in the classroom – especially if the facts and figures from Amnesty International regarding LGBTI+ people around the globe are to be believed –
From Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Pepperdine University