by DEBORAH JORDAN, director of The Children’s Hour
Lillian Hellman was one of the most famous American women writers of the 20th century. She was also the first woman to be admitted into the previously all-male club of American “dramatic literature”, primarily on the basis of two enormously successful plays from the 1930’s : THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (1934) and THE LITTLE FOXES (1939). THE CHILDREN’S HOUR was Hellman’s first play, making her a celebrity at the age of 29. Although it was an instant success, this success was met with a great deal of scandal. It is the story of two women running a school for girls whose lives are ruined by a malicious student spreading the lie that they are lovers. THE CHILDREN’S HOUR was banned in Boston and London for its suggestion of homosexuality; a 1936 version eliminated hints of lesbianism from the plot entirely, while key scenes were excised from a 1961 film adaptation starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. The year it debuted, THE CHILDREN’S HOUR was considered too scandalous for the Pulitzer Prize, a decision that outraged the New York theatre critics into forming the Drama Critics’ Circle in protest. It was an immense hit, however, in the more sophisticated (and perhaps salacious) environs of New York and Paris, running on Broadway for almost two years.
Of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, Hellman says: “I believe it’s essentially about the power of a lie. And it’s why this play is so relevant so many years later, because no matter who you are—a teenager, a 45-year-old man, a child—you can identify with the concept of an injustice being done”. She went on to say that it was “not really a play about lesbianism, but about a lie. The bigger the lie, the better, as always.”
When Hellman revived (and directed) THE CHILDREN’S HOUR in 1952, it was amidst the communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. The pertinence of a story about the effects of lying, rumors, and community paranoia was unmistakable, and the play was a popular success once again. Just a month later, Arthur Miller would produce his own parable about McCarthyism, THE CRUCIBLE. His play was considerably less popular at the time (it also didn’t comment implicitly on the persecution of homosexuals the way that The Children’s Hour did).
Our production follows on the heels of a recent London revival of the play, starring Kiera Knightley as Karen and Elisabeth Moss as Martha. “The relevance in terms of the gay community is obvious,” says Moss of Martha, who is held up as a seminal figure in gay literary history. “But the play tells a very important story for all of us. How making things up about people is a very dangerous thing to do.” When asked if there are parallels, between Martha and Karen (scrutinized and whispered about by a dozen staring schoolgirls every day) and starlets like Moss and Knightley (under similar daily scrutiny), she replied, “Yeah, being in the public eye I have had experience with that”. “In this day and age people seem to be allowed to just make s**t up.” “… people get away with it. And people’s lives are hurt by that”. Instead of schoolgirls watching there’s the gaze of TMZ, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and E!
Lillian Hellman’s play, particularly the first half, is often gripping. The world of schoolgirl bitching is well sketched. The show is also timely. Too often these days we hear of teachers being accused by pupils and of the authorities swinging into action and finding them guilty until proven innocent. Playwright Hellman was on to something. Hellman wants us to see how the pupil’s falsehood planted the seeds of mistrust not just in the parents but within its victims as well.
The Theatre Program at Jacksonville University is delighted to be partnering with The Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre on this production of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR. We believe that this is an excellent opportunity to showcase the talents of our performing arts students to the local theatre community. A special thank you to the ABET Board of Directors and to Celia Frank, it’s Artistic Director for welcoming us with open arms. We look forward to a continuing partnership with your organization.