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Lillian Hellman has been called one of the most influential female playwrights of the twentieth century, the voice of social consciousness in American letters, and the theater’s intellectual standard-bearer. Her work and her life were deeply steeped in politics, American history, and scandal, and at the time of her death in 1984, Hellman could claim more long-running Broadway dramas—five—than could any other American playwright, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Thornton Wilder.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Eccentric Childhood
Lillian Florence Hellman, the only child of German Jewish parents, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 20, 1905. Her childhood was spent moving back and forth between New York City, where her mother’s family had relocated, and New Orleans. The two worlds could not have been more different. When in New York, Hellman lived with her mother’s wealthy relatives on West 95th Street; when in New Orleans, she lived in a boardinghouse full of eccentric roomers and run by her beloved aunts, her father’s unmarried sisters. The rooming house would reappear in Hellman’s 1951 play The Autumn Garden, and the situation of two sisters devoted to their married brother appeared, albeit with violence and intrigue unknown to the Hellman sisters, in Toys in the Attic (1960). The one constant in her life was her black nurse, Sophronia Mason, whom Hellman describes in her memoirs as ”the first and most certain love of my life.” She is the only person from Hellman’s childhood who escaped criticism in her writings.
Into the Literary Life
After short tenures at two universities—New York University and Columbia University— Hellman left college at the age of nineteen. Her first job was as a manuscript reader for Horace Iiveright, owner of the prestigious publishing firm of Boni and Iiveright, which, during its heyday, published some of the great American authors of the twentieth century. In December 1925, Hellman married press agent, screenwriter, and playwright Arthur Kober, and in 1926, she moved with him to Paris so he could edit the Paris Comet, a new English-language literary periodical. In 1929, fouryears before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Hellman decided to go back to school and enrolled at the university in Bonn, Germany. She was recruited by a Nazi student group and briefly considered joining, mistakenly thinking it was a socialist organization. When the reality hit her, she promptly left Germany, recalling in her memoirs that ”for the first time in my life I thought about being a Jew.” This experience later influenced the writing of two plays: Watch on the Rhine (1941) and The Searching Wind (1944).
In 1930, Hellman and Kober moved to Hollywood, where Kober had been offered a scriptwriter position with Paramount. Through Kober’s connections, Hellman got a job writing synopses of potential material for MGM, a position she lost thanks to her militant support for the nascent Screen Writers’ Guild, a union formed to fight back against wage reductions instituted by studios. Her marriage also ended, on amicable terms, in 1932. By this time Hellman had begun a relationship with Dashiell Hammett, the former Pinkerton agent and best-selling writer of detective stories, that was to last until his death in 1961. Biographer William Wright wrote that Hammett’s ”collaboration” with Hellman was not as much in the development of her plays as it was in the development of Hellman herself.
In the early 1930s, Hellman returned to New York and made her first forays into playwriting. Hammett was finishing up work on his last novel, The Thin Man (1934), whose witty and madcap female heroine, Nora, was purportedly modeled on Hellman and suggested an idea for a play based on a British court case he had read about. The true story of two women who ran a boarding school for girls in Scotland and were ruined after a student falsely accused them of a lesbian relationship appealed to Hellman. Hammett supervised the writing and extensive rewriting of the resulting play, The Children’s Hour (1934). At 691 performances, it became Hellman’s longest-running production and one of her most popular plays.
On to Broadway
The success of The Children’s Hour helped land Hellman a job as a Hollywood screenwriter at MGM, earning a hefty salary. Her next play, Days To Come (1936), was a flop and prompted something of a hiatus from the theater. She traveled through Europe, met Ernest Hemingway, and returned to the United States ready to write her most successful play, Little Foxes (1939), which involved prodigious amounts of research filling several notebooks. An excoriating look at the rivalries and disloyalty among a turn-of-the-century Southern family, the play explores how the wealthy Hubbard clan of New Orleans schemes to keep itself rich and powerful, at the expense of both outsiders and each other.
In 1939, now an established playwright, Hellman bought Hardscrabble Farm, a 130-acre property in New York, which remained her primary residence until she was forced to sell it to pay legal bills and taxes thirteen years later. Hellman’s next play, Watch on the Rhine (1941), was a direct response to the political climate of the times. Set in 1940, when the United States had yet to get involved in World War II, the play entered the ongoing debate on American neutrality. By placing an antifascist message within a domestic situation, she implicated all Americans through the idea that those who chose to ignore the international crisis were helping to perpetuate it. The play ran for 378 performances, won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the movie version, for which Hammett wrote the screenplay, was cited as one of the best movies of 1943. The Searching Wind (1944), Hellman’s next play, continues in the same vein of political activism, with its plot ranging through the cradles of fascism, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany. Like Watch on the Rhine, The Searching Wind condemns inaction in the face of injustice.
The Pitfalls of Politics
By the late 1940s, Hellman’s political involvement began to cause her professional trouble. With the onset of the Cold War immediately after the end of World War II, paranoia about the spread of communism took hold on many levels of society; congressional hearings led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, intending to root out secret communists in a variety of industries, including the arts, caused the ruin of many a career. By 1949, at the height of McCarthyism, Hellman had learned that she was blacklisted in Hollywood for supposed communist involvement; she remained blacklisted, unofficially, until the early 1960s. But, Hellman did not abandon her political efforts. Instead, she seemed to become more publicly involved in political activities. She was active in Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1948, working on some of the Progressive Party committees and assisting in the formation of the party platform, all the while denying that communists controlled the party. That same year she accepted an assignment from the New York Star to travel to communist Yugoslavia to interview Marshal Tito; the trip resulted in a series of six articles praising his accomplishments.
In the midst of her political troubles, Hellman brought out The Autumn Garden (1950), a thematic and stylistic departure. Its subject matter has nothing to do with politics, and its style shows the influence of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, whom Hellman had been reading. Rather than cast her characters in situations they cannot escape, as she had always done, here Hellman’s characters are trapped in their own lives.
Her next project, The Lark (1955), about the life of Joan of Arc, saw the inauguration of her professional relationship with the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, whom she would go on to work with on a musical version of Voltaire’s 1759 novel Candide, produced in 1956. Hellman’s work on the play received generally bad reviews and brought on a case of writer’s block. When she finally returned to the theater, with 1960’s Toys in the Attic, she turned to her own childhood for inspiration. It was to be her last original play, and she won her second New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Revolving around the lives of two unmarried sisters and their married brother, Toys in the Attic develops themes of the consequences of self-deception, the folly of clinging to dreams, Southern depravity, and repressed sexuality.
Memoir and Scandal
After the failure of her next play, an adaptation, Hellman turned to the autobiographical An Unfinished Woman (1969), winner of the National Book Award, which takes the reader from Hellman’s childhood, through her trips to Europe and encounters with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and into her significant adult friendships and relationships. The second volume of her memoirs, Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, was published in 1973. One of its chapters, “Julia,” brought Hellman a lot of attention, not all of it good. It tells the story of Hellman’s involvement with anti-Nazi resistance, by helping a friend smuggle a large sum of cash across international borders. The story was made into a popular film starring Jane Fonda, but the truth of Hellman’s account—and even her involvement at all—were called sharply into question. Hellman’s last volume of memoirs, Scoundrel Time, was published in 1976, and it too was attacked for being a self-serving, inaccurate account of her experience as an unwilling witness before HUAC.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Hellman was much in demand as a visiting lecturer at some of the most prestigious universities in America and received a number of honorary degrees. Along with the adulation, however, came renewed attacks on Hellman’s word in her memoirs. Perhaps the most notorious was the writer Mary McCarthy’s pronouncement on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980 that ”every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.”’ Hellman immediately filed a libel suit for more than two million dollars against McCarthy, Cavett, and the television station. The suit was still in litigation at the time of Hellman’s death; it was later dismissed, but not before McCarthy had gone bankrupt in the process.
Hellman’s career wound down with the publication of a semi-autobiographical novel and a book about cooking. She died on Martha’s Vineyard on June 30, 1984, after many years of enduring emphysema and poor eyesight. At her death, her estate was valued at $4 million, making her one of the most successful writers of her generation.
Works in Literary Context
A child of the South, Hellman produced some of her best work when she turned her energies toward representing her roots. In doing so, she added to a rich stock of twentieth century American writing, including work by William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers, which explored the grotesqueness and pathos inherent in human nature through the themes of the American South. The best of the genre, loosely dubbed Southern Gothic, blends negative tropes, such as racism or ignorance, with positive ones, such as generosity or family loyalty to convey not just the essence of the South, but contemporary society as well. The traits of Southern Gothic are most obvious in Hellman’s The Little Foxes, with its tale of the scheming members of the Hubbard clan, and in Toys in the Attic, set in New Orleans.
The stage has long been a platform for political commentary, favored by the ancient Greek playwrights and William Shakespeare as well as the dramaturges of modern times. The German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) used the stage as a forum for his Marxist philosophy, and produced plays in response to the political climate of his day. While Hell-man’s political plays were neither as avant-garde as Brecht’s and the other proponents of twentieth-century political theater, nor as ideological, they were strongly worded commentaries on the responsibilities we all bear for world events. In Watch on the Rhine, for example, she offers an image of the dangers of Nazism to American audiences who were largely opposed to entering the war at the time.
Works in Critical Context
Pentimento: A Book of Portraits
Hellman’s second installment of her memoirs garnered much critical notice, most notably for its sophisticated writing style. New York critic Eliot Fremont-Smith praised Pentimento: A Book of Portraits for its ”extraordinary richness and candor and self-perception, and triumph considering the courage such a book requires, a courage that lies, [the author] shows by example, far deeper than one is usually inclined to accept.” Muriel Haynes, in a Ms. review, calls Pentimento ”a triumphant vindication of the stories the author threw away in her twenties because they were ‘no good.’ These complex, controlled narratives . . . have an emotional purity her plays have generally lacked.”
Less impressed was London Magazine reviewer Julian Symons, who states that the memoir ”is not, as American reviewers have unwisely said, a marvel and a masterpiece and a book full of perceptions about human character. It is, rather, a collection of sketches of a fairly familiar kind,” also noting that the characters ”may be real or partly fictionalized.” By far the best known section of the book is ”Julia,” the story of Hellman’s friendship during the 1930s with a rich young American woman working in the European underground against the Nazis. In Pentimento, as in her other books, Hellman was occasionally criticized by the press for presenting her facts unreliably, bending the truth to support her views. Paul Johnson, writing for the British journal Spectator, cited an article casting doubt whether “Julia” actually existed. ”What [Boston University’s Samuel McCracken] demonstrates, by dint of checking Thirties railway timetables, steamship passenger lists, and many other obscure sources, is that most of the facts Hellman provides about ‘Julia’s’ movement and actions, and indeed her own, are not true.” Johnson further suggested that what Hellman had been presenting all along is a left-wing apologia for World War II and the McCarthy era that followed.
- Dick, Bernard F. Hellman in Hollywood. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982.
- Estrin, Mark, ed. Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.
- Mellen, Joan. Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.
- Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
- Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
- Fremont-Smith, Eliot. Review of Pentimento: A Book of Portraits. New York (September 17, 1973).
- Haynes, Muriel. Review of Pentimento: A Book of Portraits. Ms. (January 1974).
- Johnson, Paul. ”Nil Nisi Bunkum.” Spectator (July 14, 1984).
- Norman, Marsha. ”Articles of Faith: A Conversation with Lillian Hellman.” American Theatre (May 1984).
- Symons, Julian. Review of Pentimento: A Book of Portraits. London Magazine (August/September 1974).
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