Hellman, Hammett & The Children's Hour

November 20: On this day in 1934, Lillian Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour, opened on Broadway. It was an enormous success, running for twenty-one months and beginning the string of hits—The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, Toys in the Attic—that made Hellman one of the most popular playwrights in mid-century American theater. Hellman took her story of a schoolgirl's malicious, anti-lesbian gossip from real life: in 1809, an Edinburgh court accepted the claims of a student and found two of her teachers guilty of "inordinate affection." The school was closed within forty-eight hours of the girl's allegations, and the teachers never got another job, although they won the court case on appeal eleven years later. In her play, Hellman does not spell out the relationship between the teachers, but their affection was inordinate enough to get the play banned in Chicago, Boston, and London, and to preclude a possible Pulitzer in that some on the committee refused to go see it.


It was Hellman's lifetime friend and sometime-partner, Dashiell Hammett, who suggested she develop the Edinburgh case into a play, and whom a drunken Hellman called in Hollywood on opening night to share her good news. Hammett's "secretary" answered her 3 a.m. phone call, whereupon Hellman flew to Hollywood, smashed the soda fountain in the house Hammett was renting, and flew back to New York.


But her stage success and her feelings for Hammett had her back in Hollywood early in 1935 as one of Sam Goldwyn's highest paid screenwriters. She and Hammett were soon heavily involved in organizing the Screen Writers Guild and in those other leftist activities which McCarthy would later find so Un-American. She did not go to prison like Hammett, nor was she as broken by her blacklisted years as he was, but her response to the HUAC ultimatums is as famous as his silence: "... to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." This was 1952; later that year, in order to spit in the eye of the gossip-listeners who now would not hire her, she directed a successful revival of The Children's Hour.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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