“The Children’s Hour” has two Seattle productions this year. It’s still a fascinating study of deceit, homophobia and its author’s demons.
Sex and lies, lies and sex: two tall pillars in many a drama. But these recurrent themes can do much more than spice up a plot.
Consider Lillian Hellman’s groundbreaking play “The Children’s Hour.” It runs through Sunday, May 31, in a strong Arouet production at Ballard Underground. In September, Intiman Theatre presents its own version at Cornish Playhouse.
Mildew has settled on the more histrionic dialogue in Hellman’s 1934 script. In contrast to today’s explicit portrayal, the references to homosexuality seem cautiously tame.
‘The Children’s Hour’
By Lillian Hellman. Through Sunday, May 31, Arouet at Ballard Underground, 2220 N.W. Market St., Seattle; pay what you can (800-838-3006 or arouet.us). Intiman Theatre’s production runs Sept. 9-27 at Cornish Playhouse, Seattle. Info: intiman.org.
Yet “The Children’s Hour” is a moral melodrama that can still pack a wallop. It remains historically and thematically provocative — as a reflection of fear-based bigotry and the ugly ramifications of deceit, and as a precis of the art and life of Hellman, a writer lionized for her boldness and demonized for her deceptions.
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The play was Hellman’s first, inspired by an historical incident that her novelist paramour Dashiell Hammett passed on when she was a young writer struggling to find her voice and métier.
In 1809, in the Drumsheugh Gardens section of Edinburgh, a boarding school for privileged girls run by two women was quaked by scandal. A student told her grandmother the founder-teachers were showing “inordinate affection” for each other at night, in a bedroom shared with their young pupils.
Within days the school lost all its students, and shut down. The teachers denied and fought the sexual allegations in court, winning a libel case and monetary damages. But the 10-year legal battle shattered their lives.
Hellman reset the story in small-town America, fictionalized freely, but borrowed many aspects of the Edinburgh incident.
In the play, Karen and Martha are dedicated teachers ruined by a pathologically manipulative student, Mary. Angry at being disciplined, Mary patches together a lie from bits of rumor, hearsay and a spicy French novel, and convinces her horrified grandma that the teachers are lesbian lovers.
The lie is a fast-working, invasive toxin. The scandal closes the school, fractures Karen’s relationship with her fiancé, Joe, and overwhelms Martha with shame as she faces her long-repressed homosexuality. (If anyone needed an “It Gets Better” campaign, it’s poor Martha.)
Watching “The Children’s Hour” now, it’s shocking how the reflexive bigotry of early 19th-century Scotland seemed right in step with American prejudices in the 1930s.
When the play debuted in 1934, New York state still banned any mention of homosexuality onstage, a law ignored by Hellman’s gutsy producers. But the content was deemed too controversial for a Pulitzer Prize. (In response, reviewers formed the New York Drama Critics Circle to bestow future awards, unhindered.)
A Broadway hit, the play was banned in Chicago for 20 years, and in Boston for nearly 30. The first movie version, the 1936 release “These Three,” was reworked into a heterosexual love triangle to comply with Hollywood’s prudish Motion Picture Production Code.
The 1961 film “The Children’s Hour” was more faithful to the play, but doubled down on Martha’s suicidal lesbian guilt.
Though an ardent civil-rights supporter, Hellman maintained deceit was the play’s fulcrum, not prejudice. And elaborate lies also fuel tragedies in “The Little Foxes” and some of her other plays.
Given the dark manipulations of her own Southern Jewish clan, Hellman knew well the power of untruth. She acknowledged “reach[ing] back into my childhood,” to model Mary on her own petulant youth.
Framing her plots as battles between noble truth-tellers and venal dissemblers, was Hellman trying to investigate or absolve her own tendency to fabricate and falsify? In that light, “The Children’s Hour” works up a fascinatingly complex internal dialogue between what lies can do, and undo.
Hellman had a remarkably eventful life. In three best-selling memoirs she described her colorful literary career, leftist political activism, affair with Hammett.
But in later years (she died in 1984, at 79) Hellman was engulfed in scandal herself. She was accused of distorting or inventing incidents in her past, most sensationally in an account in her memoir “Pentimento” of how she bravely smuggled funds to an anti-Nazi resistance fighter in prewar Austria. (This probable falsehood was perpetuated in the film, “Julia.”)
In 1979, author Mary McCarthy told TV interviewer Dick Cavett “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” Ironically Hellman, like the Edinburgh teachers, slapped her accuser with a libel suit that dragged on for years.
Politically conservative biographers used Hellman’s fibs and support of Russian Communism to obliterate her genuine achievements. (Some recent biographies, by Deborah Martinson among others, take a more evenhanded view.)
One cannot help make a connection between “The Children’s Hour” and its author’s complex personal history. Fiction and truth collide in and around the play, and may well be its central concern. But “The Children’s Hour” also was one of the first dramas to capture how homophobia, like a lie, works its poison.