Lillian Hellman’s Children’s Hour on stage in England

This video from the USA is called Susie Bright on “The Children’s Hour”.

From British daily The Morning Star:

A storm at school

(Wednesday 12 March 2008)

The Children’s Hour
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

PAUL FOLEY says that the Manchester Royal Exchange has done a worthy act by reviving a daring play by US equality campaigner Lillian Hellman.

For over 30 years, Lillian Hellman was the lover of the great US novelist Dashiell Hammett. Like Hammett, she was a great fighter for equality and civil rights. Together, they strongly opposed Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunts of the 1950s.

Whereas Hammett went to jail rather than co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Comittee, Hellman answered her subpoena to attend the committee with a blistering attack on their work.

Her bravado display helped to shatter McCarthy’s apparent invincibility and brought about his eventual downfall. But Hellman’s hatred for fascism and nazism extended beyond the US. She travelled to Spain during the civil war to support the Republican cause. She also accompanied the Red Army as it marched through Poland on its way to liberating Berlin.

Hellman had a close circle of influential friends which included Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein.

If all this was not enough, Hellman was also a celebrated playwright.

Kenneth Tynan described her work as “a lasting document of touch-tender American realism.”

Her most famous works were The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine, an anti-nazi propaganda play written to encourage the US to join the offensive against Hitler.

Her first play was The Children’s Hour, written in 1934. Despite causing a storm with the authorities, the play won huge critical acclaim.

For its day, the subject of the play was extremely daring. It is set in a private school for well-to-do young girls established by two friends, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie.

The two women struggle for years to get the school on a sound financial footing and, just as things are beginning to ease, new girl Mary Tilford arrives. She is a spoilt rich kid who is a pathological liar. When she spins a tale to her grandmother that the two teachers are lesbian lovers, she ignites a chain reaction which causes the teachers’ world to collapse.

Hellman’s work has been shamefully neglected in recent years, so it is good to see an important theatre like Manchester’s Royal Exchange bringing her back into the spotlight.

This is by no means Hellman’s best work and it is uneven. It has a tendency to drag, especially in the first half. The static nature of the play creates difficulties for a director and it would probably work better on the radio. But Sarah Frankcom, who has deservedly been appointed artistic director at the Royal Exchange, manages to hold the work together.

Anti gay witchhunt against British actor John Gielgud in 1953: here. And here.

5 thoughts on “Lillian Hellman’s Children’s Hour on stage in England

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