Notes on Lillian Hellman

Like many of my other posts on major American playwrights (most recently Tennessee Williams), this is adapted from my personal notebooks. I don’t deal much with biography here. It’s mostly critical ruminations inspired by Hellman’s writing. 

Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) is one of my (guilty) favorite American playwrights, combining intelligent dialogue with big, memorable characters and juicy, melodramatic villainy. Hellman always dares to go into scary, risky territory…it seems to be her principle delight, dragging us into the horror. She is the heir apparent of all those writers of 19th century melodramas…no expressionistic tricks with form and structure for this dame. And yet for her sheer theatricality and her straightforward storytelling she is yet another playwright I vastly prefer to the supposed lion Arthur Miller.

Hellman’s paramour Dashiell Hammett was her well-known editor and muse, but it seems pretty clear (to me) that he was more than just an influence. He must have contributed plot points, characters, dialogue etc. on occasion and I have seen in some of my relationships how two writers who are close can help each other in this way even when it goes uncredited. Knowing and loving Hammett as well as I do (I’ve read all of his works, I believe, or most of them) I believe I can see the portions of Hellman’s plays that had their origin in Hammett’s imagination.

By the same token, Hellman’s own voice is clearly dominant, enough so that we know it is far from “all him”. Her POV and her assumptions are different from Hammett’s. While every bit as politically radical as he, she herself comes from privilege. Thus nearly all her plays (also in the great melodrama tradition) center upon upper or upper middle class people in fine homes, with servants to wait on them. Now, Hammett writes about such people, too, but always with a sneer. There is something in his tone that intrinsically mocks their station and is uncomfortable with having others wait on him. Hellman, however, is the rich liberal, and completely comfortable with the notion of servants – in her plays they are just a fact of life. She seems unaware of any philosophical contradiction there…or perhaps in her mind, the good society means treating your servants kindly and liberally…which of course is aristocracy and not democracy.

Some thoughts on the major plays:

A scene-study class classic!

The Children’s Hour (1934)

Mary McCarthy’s famous claim that everything Hellman said was a lie (including “and” and “the”) becomes most interesting when we consider Hellman’s first play, which is all about the repercussions of a lie.

I think most folks little suspect the extent to which writers are the demented ventriloquists behind their most horrid characters. Writing is a wonderful release and an exorcism and it lets you have your cake and eat it too, allowing you to take your hell-hounds out for a walk, while doing so in such a way that also allows you to express and inflict judgment on the evil thoughts, thus publicly clearing yourself of real wrong-doing. Thus when the great satirists like Pope or Swift, or the best writer of villains ever, Shakespeare, express the unspeakable, they are secretly tapping into the darkness in their own hearts…then they extrapolate it to the general condition in order to condemn it, assuming its universality. This is my own approach and I feel my writing is most powerful when I take such unflinching stock of my own dark side. In the tradition of the satirists, I hold it up to ridicule, as if to say, “We all know I don’t REALLY feel that way.” But what I am really saying is, “Sometimes we ALL feel this way, and God help us because of it.” And it’s hard not to have a problem with those writers (increasingly numerous) who don’t tack on the second part of it. I’m thinking of people like Paul Schrader, David Mamet, Neil Labute, and (to a lesser extent Wallace Shawn, e.g. Aunt Dan and Lemon) or a film-maker like Martin Scorsese. There are two conclusions one could come to as regards their work. One: the gentlemen are simply evil, and express evil for its own sake, for the sheer enjoyment of it and nothing else. I’ve heard them all articulate their views however and that doesn’t appear to be the case. So, two: the writers assume a highly developed moral sense in their audience, such that the evil acts depicted are self-evident as such and the audience will form their own judgments with no prompting. I apparently have a much lower opinion of mankind. There is no atrocity men are incapable of enjoying; the truth is that they require all the moral instruction they can get. It’s always a balancing act, of course. One can’t WRITE the characters’ voices from the stand-point of a third person judgment, as politically correct hacks do. One must embody the evil, THEN write the natural and human forces that will act as the corrective.

This of course is what Hellman always does (to return to her). It’s astounding that this racy play The Children’ Hour made it to the boards in 1934 (considering the troubles Mae West and O’Neill and others had at various times a few years earlier) and not a bit surprising that the play was a hit for the very same reasons. (Nor is it surprising that it would take the script 30 years to make it to the screen). The idea for the play was suggested to Hellman by Hammett, taken from an actual slander case in Scotland. A little girl accuses two of her schoolmistresses of being lesbians (mostly to get herself out of trouble). Everyone is quick to believe the little girl. The two women lose everything. What makes the play especially compelling—and much deeper—is that the whole world is knocked out of whack by a lie that precedes the little girl’s lie: one of the two teachers IS in love with the other and has been lying to herself and others when she has denied it. In the tradition of great melodrama, she kills herself in the wake of the revelation (a gunshot in the play, a hanging in the film). I find Hellman’s treatment of the evil little girl especially fascinating. She has constructed the play so that the girl is unmistakably villainous. Hellman hates this girl, her sickly sweetness and the idiot grown-ups who fall for her obvious bullshit. And yet at the same time, Hellman knows all of the girl’s tricks so damn well. A little too well. One is tempted to suspect that the character is drawn partially from observation of others…and partly from observation (conscious or otherwise) of herself.

All good writers must be honest—at least with themselves. Hellman has written such a believable liar (and even better, shown us all of her motivations and machinations) that it is hard for me to believe that she wasn’t writing from first-hand, first-person knowledge. One other clue that Hellman is close to this little character, and characters like her: she manipulates US in just the same way, as a playwright. I often feel that her “good” characters are a little too virtuous, their halo a little too shiny, as if she were bending over backwards to make us think she is too. And likewise her grandstanding politics, but perhaps that’s cynical of me.

Days to Come (1936)

Hammett’s fingerprints are REALLY all over this one. Again, we know he had worked as a strikebreaker when he was a Pinkerton operative and that he had been solicited to assassinate a union rep. Hellman was a union woman all the way, which makes this tale of a labor dispute breaking up long-time friends in a small factory town a natural one for her to tell. The strikebreakers are essentially gangsters. Hammett’s voice seems strong here…whether he wrote it himself or it rubbed off on her, or he coached her some I guess can’t be known.

 

The Little Foxes (1939)

An ingenious stratagem for writing an old-fashioned melodrama in 1939—set it in 1900. The play is such a 19th century melodrama it is LITERALLY about stolen bonds! Here is one in which we see little to nothing of Hammett. It is set in a milieu closer to the one Hellman grew up in, and is indeed apparently semi-autobiographical. The film version by William Wyler is perfection and extremely faithful to the play, with the incomparable Bette Davis as the ruthless Regina (it had been Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway). The play has all the fun of a soap opera…three unprincipled siblings (and a doltish nephew), scheming to best each other in a money deal calculated to transform them from being rich to being very, very rich. The reconstruction backdrop is an interesting one, similar to the latter section of Gone With the Wind, a family with a female capitalist in the fold only too eager to yank the reigns out of the hands of the unhorsed male Southern aristocracy. Hellman’s thinly disguised high regard for the aristocracy (evident here and in nearly every other play) makes her seem the ultimate limousine liberal. Marxists are so peculiar in this regard…vehement against the bourgeoisie, (commoners who only had been powerful for a few decades and were constantly vulnerable to ruin), and yet conveniently forgetful of the centuries of abuse by the nobility that preceded it. 

Watch on the Rhine (1941)

Another great melodrama theme—espionage. And what is espionage but deceit by agents working for and against governments? The anti-Fascist subject matter is timely and this is a nice bit of patriotic propaganda. I am constantly surprised there wasn’t more like this on the stage at the time. Why it’s called Watch on the Rhine is mysterious. It’s set on the Potomac! Cynically, I guess I feel Hellman is fixing a halo on her head with this play, and it’s a bit too cut and dried in terms of good guys and bad guys. It would be a much more interesting endeavor if some of the characters had to struggle to choose sides. Here, there is the opportunistic Bulgarian ex-diplomat who is going to blow the whistle on the worker for the German underground. The real action happens quite late in the play, and all the characters are too quick to support the good guy and condemn the bad guy. It’s like the US Olympic basketball team. In such a rout, where’s the fun? I must admit I’m a sucker for all the patriotic speechifying about freedom, and I am always extremely moved when the German anti-Fascist says goodbye to his children for the last time. (In this context note that Hellman has some apparently unintentional irony in her play…an underclass of black servants serving the white Americans who are helping the German anti-Fascist. What are we to make of it? Does she not notice this situation? She certainly doesn’t deal with it).

Another Part of the Forest (1946)

This is a prequel to The Little Foxes, set in 1880. To me, it’s not nearly as enjoyable. Where the constant jockeying for advantage had been downright delicious in The Little Foxes, here it is merely unpleasant. It is as though, in trying to re-create the hit formula, she turned up the element everyone most enjoyed, the cold-blooded cruelty and conniving. However, to me, it feels not only unpleasant but unrealistic. The characters are two dimensional monsters with no feelings, just calculating urges. It reminds me of the father in Dombey & Son, and all of the characters in the Kentucky Cycle. I don’t doubt that there some soulless people out there, lacking any redeeming quality. But frankly I don’t believe I’ve ever met one. And I KNOW I don’t want to spend two hours in their company. Shakespeare’s Richard is a horrible villain…but he is nursing grievances (real and imagined) committed against him by Man and God, and he is artful in persuading us to join him. Furthermore, we have another 20 HUMAN characters to balance out the portrait of humanity. Here, we have a cruel, stingy father, who has produced three manipulative offspring. One can read her Marxist message: capitalism corrupts and breeds trickery. But at least, in The Little Foxes, there are almost as many good souls as wicked ones: the benevolent banker Horace, the daughter, the dotty aunt Birdie and all of the servants. In this play, there are two decent characters aside from the supernumerary servants, and both are slightly crazy and weak. Yet I think this play may give insight into Hellman’s personal character. The character of the dictatorial and capricious father. Did Hellman have such a father? The children of such parents become deceitful, indirect and manipulative after years of being trampled upon. And such children are natural recruits for the theater.

The Autumn Garden (1951)

Hate this play. I can see why plenty of people would like it. It is clearly built upon the Chekhov model. An ensemble of tragicomic people sit around a Gulf Coast resort having relationship problems. The old saw is “nothing happens yet everything happens”. From a theatrical perspective, I would add again, “…and yet nothing happens”. There is one moment borrowed from the old farce, where a man is a discovered in a girl’s room and this leads to upset. This is what fuels the third act, and many changes are wrought. Hellman is successful at creating a tapestry of characters and interlocking motivations. This may be enough for some people. It ain’t enough for me. However, the last line is telling: “Most of us lie to ourselves, darling, most of us.”

Candide  (1957)

Hellman collaborated on a musical based on Voltaire with Leonard Bernstein and others. Natural fodder for her in some ways but there were too many cooks here for it to be truly hers.

 

Toys in the Attic (1959)

Set in Hellman’s home town of New Orleans. Two old maid sisters scrimp and save to keep their shiftless, gambling brother afloat. The brother is married to a rich girl, 15 years his junior. Her mother clearly is having a relationship with her own black servant. The brother gets a mysterious windfall and gives everyone the presents they always dreamed of having (notably a trip to Europe for the sisters). No one wants the presents and are just disturbed. In the end, the man whom the brother extorted the money from has thugs beat him up and take the dough back. In addition to the money plot and the questions it asks, Hellman also has worked race and incest into the mix, which might add up to too much baggage for a single play…the whole thing feels a bit like her own riff on Tennessee Williams. Great parts for actors here! Jason Robards was in the original production.

“You look f-a-a-bulous, Comrade!”

Julia (1977)

A portion of Hellman’s 1973 memoir Pentimento was adapted into the film Julia. Three Oscars notwithstanding, I found the film completely boring, marred by the preposterous performance of Jane Fonda, who’s onscreen almost the entire film. Obviously the property’s left wing pedigree attracted her and Vanessa Redgrave, but that’s not enough to breathe life into this spy story that fails to intrigue. Perhaps the close friendship between Hellman and Julia would be of interest to some women. However, the fact that it has since emerged that Julia was either fictional or lifted by Hellman from someone else’s memoirs must certainly remove the charm from that element. Fonda is woefully miscast as Hellman, who was a feisty, homely, chain-smoking Jewish woman. Casting against type is fine when the actor is competent enough to reinvent the part. But Fonda is and always has been a bit of a cinematic mannequin. She doesn’t pull it off, to put it mildly.

 

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